The fire-breathing dragon that was the Kawasaki KH500
Editor note: We recently connected with the good folks at Janus Motorcycles in Goshen, Indiana, a small outfit that hand builds early 1900s vintage looking, simple motorcycles. Mark Zweig, co-owner and partner in the company, is also a published author, having penned the Goody-award winner, “Confessions of an Entrepreneur” and has owned over 300 motorcycles across the past 53 years. We thought a few of his “Ride Life” tales would be fun to share.
In my last year of college and first year of grad school, 1978-80, my buddy Frank Galanti and I opened a small used motorcycle shop with an Indian Moped franchise on the gritty north side of Carbondale, Illinois.
Our shop, “Southern Cycles” as we called it, was located in an old two-bay Veach Oil station. It had no sign other than the one Indian gave us when we bought three of their horrible Taiwanese mopeds, one of which came out of the crate with a broken crankcase.
While Frank and I were both into Kawasaki triples at that time—he had the ultimate mint blue 1972 750 H2 I always wanted—we made our money from buying up the “skid row” trade-ins that the new motorcycle dealerships in our area didn’t think were good enough to sell. That meant we had plenty of tired Yamaha Enduros, flogged Honda 750-4s with mini-apehangers and “king and queen” seats, thrashed Honda Elsinores, and rusty Japanese twins to sell. But one time, we bought a pair of really nice 1976 Kawasaki KH500s from a local Honda dealer who didn’t want to deal with them. They were orange and identical other than one of them had a sissy bar on the back.
Frank and his 1972 Kawasaki 750 H2 outside the shop. Photo by Mark Zweig.
During that time, my own daily ride was a ‘76 Kawasaki KH500 just like the two we bought to resell. I got mine slightly used at the Kawasaki dealership in Murphysboro, Illinois in 1977. It was like new, and had almost no miles on it. I gave $895 for it, and it was the first thing I ever financed, paying $55 a month for 24 months to the Southern Illinois University credit union. I had a bunch of bikes, including other Kawasaki triples and everything else, but that one I used to take drag racing at the I-57 drag strip in Benton, Illinois. The point is, I was very familiar with these bikes, and anyone who has ever owned one can tell you that you HAVE to run the piss out of them, or they will load up quickly and foul their plugs!
In any case, we didn’t have one of the pair more than a couple days before an older guy came in and bought it. While he knew how to ride a motorcycle, it was clear when he test rode the bike that he was not your typical three cylinder two-stroke rider. On his test ride, when he pulled out onto Highway 51 North, he upshifted way too soon and lugged the bike, and it crawled up the highway. And even though Kawasaki had detuned the 500 triple—largely taming it by 1976—they were still a scary, peaky, three cylinder two-stroke street bike that had to be ridden hard.
A 1976 Kawasaki KH500 like the pair we had in the shop. Photo by Mecum.
But the fellow, who told us he had always wanted one of these bikes, went ahead and bought it. And of course, a couple days later, he called the shop to tell us it wasn’t running right and wanted to bring it in. As one would expect, he pulled into our parking lot with the bike running on two of its three cylinders, and he told Frank and me that he had no idea what could be wrong with it.
I asked him if it would be ok if I rode it to check it out. He let me take the bike, and I revved it up on two of its three cylinders and slipped the clutch to get it going on the highway- a two-lane road that was straight as an arrow for the six miles between Carbondale and DeSoto, Illinois. I pegged the throttle and wound it as far as it would go in first gear, then did the same in second, and again in third. I could feel it starting to fire on the third cylinder and it began to really clear out. Again, I went as far as it would go in 4th. I’m sure I got the thing up to at least 90 mph or more, when I backed off and turned around, heading back to the shop. Once again I ran it to redline in every gear.
Now it was back to full power on all three of its ring-a-dingy, piston-slapping cylinders.
A 1974 magazine ad for the H1 Mach III “fire breathing dragon” version, before they detuned them for more street manners by 1976.
When I pulled back in the parking lot and stopped in front of Frank and the bike’s owner, we were all overtaken by a huge cloud of blue oil-filled smoke that was pouring out of the exhaust. That thing was so loaded up from a couple days of being dogged, it was ridiculous! Frank was laughing hysterically. The owner seemed confused but was glad it was nothing serious. I told him to rev it—and to carry three spare plugs on the bike.
Frank brought that story up more than once in the years that followed. Sadly, my friend Frank was killed in a tragic snowmobile accident about 20 years ago. Fortunately, I still have fond memories of all the good times we shared together- many of them on two wheels!
Mark on his Janus Motorcycles Halcyon 250.
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