Kawasaki H2: PH2 Heroes

Today, there's nothing overly special about a streetbike that can top 200mph in (relative) safety and comfort.

In the early 1970s, however, there was a price to be paid for ultimate performance. Not just in money, either, but in raw fear. One motorcycle in particular gained such an intimidating reputation that it still commands respect not just among those old enough to remember it, but also among later generations of riders who have heard the stories and read the road tests.

The spine-tingling power of the 47-year-old name lives on. That's why Kawasaki has revived it for a modern-day supercharged machine that, in standard spec, pushes out over 200hp and in race-trim R form around 300hp. Anything less barmy would have been a misuse of the name.

We're talking about the Kawasaki H2.

How did the original two-stroke, three-cylinder, 750cc H2 get such a scary rep as a widowmaker supreme? If you look at the stats now - 76hp, 57ft lb, and a claimed 124mph top speed that turned out to be somewhat less in practice - they don't look so scary. But in 1971 they were, given that chassis technology was still in the 'wrap some tubes around the engine, stick some spindly suspension on it and hope for the best' stage.

The first Kawasaki H2 was released in December 1971. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best time of year to be unleashing something combining a peaky, powerful, giant two-stroke engine and a downright vicious chassis.

In practice, though, it wouldn't really have mattered when they launched it. The first H2 was a rowdy, rasping, Rasputin of a bike, little more than a powerpack loosely tied together by thin lengths of metal tubing. If you wanted something that would smoke any and all opposition from one traffic light to the next, it was the only choice. If you wanted to go round corners as well, you definitely needed something else.

It's entirely possible to kill yourself at speeds considerably lower than 124mph. If that's what you wanted to do, the first H2 willingly offered this service over a wide range of velocities.

The stage for the H2 had been set two years earlier in 1969 when Kawasaki revealed the H1, a 500cc triple stroker with an evocative 'Mach III' subtitle. Cycle World drily described it as Kawasaki's modern new way to commit harakiri. With 60hp, a top speed of 115mph and a standing quarter mile time in the high 12s, it destroyed every contemporary production streetbike irrespective of capacity. You knew a Mach III was coming down the street if your TV screen snowed over. That was down to its less than perfect electronic ignition system, one of the motorcycling world's first.

Rumours of a Godzilla 750 triple were confirmed when the H2 Mach IV appeared. Like the 500 and the 350 versions, the 750 was a piston-port design but with Mikuni 30mm carbs in place of the 500's 28s. Journos invited to the preview ride noted that it seemed stable in a straight line but maybe a bit reluctant to hold a line in turns. They also noticed that it had decidedly average damping, but these normally important features were somewhat lost in the thrilling cloud of rubber and exhaust smoke.

Honda's CB750 four-stroke four had just amazed the world with its power to weight ratio of 1hp for every 9.7lb. The Kawa had just 8.1lb to shift with the same amount of power. It was wonderfully bonkers, and guzzled fluids at a predictably shocking rate. The mpg was in the low 20s if you were riding circumspectly, and the Injectolube oiling system gave you 200 miles per pint in touring mode (some of that being diverted onto the non-O-ring chain that routinely stretched in hard use). But nobody rode an H2 circumspectly or in touring mode. Ridden correctly, you could at least save money on front tyres by spending most of your time on the back wheel in first, second or indeed third gears.

Once the word got round about what a beast the H2 was, two things happened. Insurance companies refused to quote for them, and biker interest went through the roof. If you were half a man or a full-on loony, you had to have an H2. The legend was born.

Subsequent models of a car or a motorcycle tend to be more powerful than the ones they replace. It's a measure of just how wrong (ie right) the first H2 was when you hear that later models were actually less powerful, dropping from a claimed 76hp to 74hp and then 72hp in the final H2C iteration - which we're about to ride - as Kawasaki tried to find the sweet spot between manic performance and non-lethal handling.

So what was it about the first H2 that made it so uniquely "evil, wicked, mean and nasty", as one American bike mag described it? As hinted at earlier, the chassis wasn't the best. Dangerously lacking in bracing and compromised by a too-short swinging arm, it gave the H2 an awkward tendency to swap ends in testing corners. You could get away with that sort of thing in cars, but recovering a powerslide on a big road bike was not so easy. Plus, the porting on those first H2s was like an on-off switch. That was a pretty fair description of the rider's status too when the power came in with an unexpected bang.

Hopefully, we're about to confirm that the later H2s with longer swingarms and friendlier porting were a lot less terrifying as we throw a quaking leg over Steve Burgess's immaculate and totally original 1975 H2C.

You sit very much 'on' rather than 'in' the bike, but you soon learn to appreciate the alert riding position assisted by the US-spec buckhorn bars and the just-so seat padding. There's no electric start here, as there was on the contemporary and more civilised Suzuki GT750 'kettle' triple. Fortunately, not much effort is required on the Kawa's kick start. Its light action is a handy two-stroke characteristic even at this exalted swept volume, but you do need to have some compression at the top of the stroke: a hopeful prod when the lever is somewhere down near the footpeg won't cut it. You need to bandy out your right leg a bit too if you don't want the meaty kickstart lever digging into your shin.

Eventually you get the kick right and that unmistakable three-pot stroker buzzsaw fizzes into your ears. Not to an unbearable extent through standard pipes, though. These ones were built for Steve by a chap called John Bartholemew of H2EX at around Β£1,200 the set. That company no longer exists, which is a shame as the pipes are beautifully made. Delkevic does do replacements, but not in this original format.

Open up the lightweight throttle and the fin ringing from the undamped aluminium cylinders will be your constant reminder of the bike's aircooled 1970s heritage. Otherwise, though, it's all remarkably sanitary thanks to standardised bar controls and super-clear instrumentation. The most alien thing is the gearbox shift pattern, with neutral at the bottom rather than in the usual spot between 1st and 2nd. I could easily become a 'neutral at the bottom' convert. It makes sense in many ways, not least in terms of the reassurance it provides about never being left fishing for neutral in hot urban traffic. On Steve's bike, the wet multiplate clutch has had a few well-considered mods carried out to improve feel and grip.

I spent a while cruising around Surrey on this bike and was frankly amazed at how easy it was to ride. Admittedly, I wasn't straying into the high-speed bend danger zone where the steep 26.5 degree fork angle would have done it no favours, but with the benefit of modern rubber and brake pads, this updated Mach IV is more than just useable. That fast steering gives it sweet controllability both in town and around slow to medium speed corners. And in those conditions at least it's not at all scary. Sorry. In fact it's positively pleasant.

Engine vibration does start to step in at around 4,500rpm, but it's far from intolerable. Luckily, and this might come as a surprise to diehard stroker fans, it's absolutely no hardship to cog-swap around the box and drive the H2 around purely on low-end torque. Give it the beans and the exhaust note takes on a harder edge, but you still have perfect control. These H2s pull hard from 4,500 to 6,000rpm, and on to nearly 7,000rpm if you want, but you'll rarely feel the need for these revs in normal riding. When you do want it, though, it's there, and it's modern power too in terms of how it translates into mph. Owner Steve was smiling after the cornering photoshoot. He'd never heard his H2C rolling through a corner from anywhere other than the driving seat. I was smiling too.

New, the standard H2C with a single front disc was Β£855. You could tick the double-disc box, as the original owner of Steve's bike did, but at getting on for Β£100 a pop it was a costly option that wasn't often taken up. There's a lot of knowledge out there on these bikes, and plenty of neat ways to bring the riding experience even further into the 21st century. Mark Hutton at A&H Performance Cycles in Bordon, Hants comes highly recommended by Steve as an H2 fettler.

This H2C from 1975 was the last of the 750 dinosaur triples. 5,000 of them were made, compared to 23,671 of the properly edgy 1971 H2s (in blue or gold, but only blue for the 113 UK bikes), 8,500 1973 H2As (gold or purple, but only gold for the 30 UK bikes), and 10,350 1974 H2Bs in brown or green and with better oil scavenging and emissions. 120 of those came to the UK.

So the latest H2, the C, is also the rarest H2 overall. Just 300 of them came to the UK, in either purple or red. Purple was always deemed to be 'the' colour for a killer Kawa triple, so over the years quite a few of the red ones have been repainted. As a result, original red ones are now extra-rare and sought after. Steve reckons his one might be worth Β£14-Β£15,000 now - and he admits that it's certainly not the best H2C in the UK.

It's all kind of academic as far as he's concerned as he has no intention of selling. Having ridden it, I can see why. I wouldn't sell it either.


Engine: 748cc transverse aircooled triple
Transmission: 5-speed gearbox, wet multiplate clutch
Power (hp): 72@6,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 57@6,500rpm
0-60mph: 4.3sec
Top speed: 110mph
Frame: Double loop tubular
Seat height: 33.0in
Wheels: 18-inch front, 19-inch rear
Brakes: (front) 295mm disc (double available as an option); 200mm drum rear

Images: John Goodman


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Comments (27) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Digger 29 Sep 2018

    I am by no means a motorbicyclist, but that was very enjoyable to read! Thank You.

  • macdeb 29 Sep 2018

    Good read on an absolute classic bike. I remember them being launched and Birmingham Motorcycles had on in the front window and I'd just stand and stare at it after school, beautiful.

  • GranCab 29 Sep 2018

    I had an S3 400 triple in maroon/red back in '76 and used to hang out at Russell's Kawasaki in Loughborough.

    One Saturday, a blue H2 came tear-arsing by, on its back wheel, from the lights and on enquiring who the owner was all I learned that he was a local and he could drain the fuel tank in 20 miles riding like that, which equated to about 6mpg .....

    Not mine but identical to it.

    Edited by GranCab on Saturday 29th September 15:03

  • rigga 29 Sep 2018

    macdeb said:
    Good read on an absolute classic bike. I remember them being launched and Birmingham Motorcycles had on in the front window and I'd just stand and stare at it after school, beautiful.
    As a kid, mate and I used to cycle round to look at the bikes in Birmingham motorcycles, Hailwood and Gould and various others, great memories.

  • texaxile 29 Sep 2018

    Never seen one of these in the flesh, and now I know why. There can't be many left from the original numbers now.

    Whatever happened to the 2 stroke screamers of yesteryear, stuff like RG500's and RD500's?.

    I can recall a GT380 being in my mates garage (his brother was a motorcycle mechanic for a local dealer), and seeing a GT750 at the Copdock M/C show a few years back.

    There's nothing like the sound of a big 2 stroke in the power band and the smell of !"Castrol R" wafting over 2 seconds later after it has passed.

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