The Best Motorcycle Ever Built

Do you like apples? Do you like oranges?

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Technical Editor Kevin Cameron shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more.Cycle World

What I'd hoped was a light-hearted treatment of Kawasaki's first big move into super performance – the 500-cc 3-cylinder two-stroke H1 – has sparked some crabby comparisons between that Triple and Honda's CB750 four-stroke four, which hit the market in the same year.

In many cases, what is being compared is not actual qualities of these motorcycles, but how people felt about them.

I learned something about this one day in 1972 when I happened to be on the sales floor of our little dealership, Arlington Motor Sports.

“You work here?”

“Yup, I do.”

“I’d like to buy one of these Kawasakis.”

“OK, great. What kind of riding would you like to do?”

“Well, you know – ride to work, maybe me and the girlfriend’d ride down to the Cape, weekends. I want something real reliable.”

“Mm, sounds like what you want is a Honda. Here, I’ll give you Honda of Boston’s address and phone number…”

“No, no!” he stopped me cold. “ Hondas are…kind of… ordinary, you know? Not high performance. I want a Kawasaki.”

Without intending to, I had stumbled upon one of the salesman's best tools; let the customer sell you the bike he wants. This man wanted to do the kind of calm riding that Hondas were then ideal for, but he wanted to do it in Kawasaki style.

He would then ignore the vibration, just as a generation of British twin riders had ignored it. If hundreds of hard, full-throttle first-to-second upshifts rounded the transmission engaging dogs a bit on second gear, causing some rejected shifts, our customers tended to accept it as part of a “hi-po lifestyle”. How many times have I heard a customer say, with detectable pride, “I blew up my bike, man.” To them, this was proof they were pushing the envelope. Bad boys doing naughty stuff.

I knew from my 50,000-mile Maine Turnpike customer that an H1 triple could do high mileage if that’s what its owner wanted. As long as there was injector oil in the tank, you could wear your back tire flat in the middle with the best of them, but mostly the odometer-watchers didn’t buy Kawasakis back then.

So I think the discussion of the H1 (may it rest in peace) is not a comparison of vibration levels or other measurable physical qualities. It is a discussion of the many motivations which bring people to motorcycling.

I would compare this with the eternal argument as to which WW II Allied fighter plane was the greatest. Greatest? Greatest in which respect? Please define ‘great’.

The fabled North American P-51 Mustang was an escort fighter, whose long range enabled it to accompany bombers to distant targets, defend the bombers against fighter attack, and return to base with them. This was made possible by the combination of its low-drag ‘laminar flow’ wing, drop tanks, and the substitution of the high-altitude-capable British Merlin V-12 for its original engine.

The Supermarine Spitfire was a defensive fighter, specifically designed to oppose bomber attacks on English airfields and cities, but lacking the range needed for escort duty.

The much more powerful engine of Republic’s P-47 Thunderbolt (and Hawker’s Typhoon) found best application in carrying heavy loads of under-wing stores – bombs and rockets. This made them deadly against trains, tank columns, and road transport.

The Grumman F8F ‘Bearcat’ (which entered service just too late for WW II) was a fleet defense fighter, intended to launch from carriers, able to decisively outclimb any existing type thanks to light weight and a high-lift wing to intercept incoming dive bombers and torpedo planes as far away as possible.

Which was the greatest? (Is a pair of pliers greater than a screwdriver?)