‘76 Kawasaki KH500 – ‘Kermit’
In a world of sterile, bubble-wrapped motorcycle design that puts government regulations and usability above all else it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, motorcycle design was an entirely different beast. Take, for the sake of argument, the rather ‘charismatic’ Kawasaki 500cc triples from the 1970s. Put simply, they were an air-cooled three cylinder sportsbike with two exhausts on one side and one on the other, barely-there brakes, a penchant for death wobbles at high speed and the ability to flip itself rubber-side-up with any decent twist of their throttles. They were also bloody quick. So quick, in fact, that journalists of the day refused to believe Kawasaki’s quarter mile claims until they themselves managed to replicate them, thus proving that the bike was actually the quickest production motorcycle of its day. Even the legendary Plymouth Hemi Cudas would eat their dust. Cue this immaculate and very green rocket from the crypt, Craig Johnston’s Kawasaki KH500 – aka ‘Kermit’.
“Kermit is a 76 KH500 has quite a long history as a café racer,” says Craig. “The bike was first built up 20 years ago by a good mate of mine, but due to the whole family/life thing taking over, he decided to offload the bike. So for the last 18 years, Kermit has been my play thing. I rode the bike as it was for several years until things started to break. In the pre-eBay days, sourcing Kwaka triple parts was nigh on impossible locally, so the bike was parked in my fathers damp shed and pretty much forgotten about while I riding my other bikes.
12 months ago, while giving my father a hand to clear some junk out of his shed, I rediscovered the KH and brought it home with the idea of restoring it. 10 plus years in a damp shed being used as a saw horse hadn’t done the bike any favours; the engine was locked up, tank rusted out, fairing cracked, and polished alloy and chrome parts were in a very bad state. I spent a good six months walking around the bike, planning what was needed and what I wanted to create. In its original guise it had been very highly strung, and was barely street-able – pretty much needing 5000rpm to even get off the line with some nasty detonation issues. This time around I wanted something that was a lot more civilized and practical. This bike would be getting a lot of use, so it had to be able to be run hard on pump fuel.”
“I removed the engine in January and dropped it off for a full rebuild. This included the crank, which received slotted Vesrah rods and Wossner pistons. While the cases were split we also rebuilt the gearbox. Meanwhile, I finished stripping the bike. The frame went out for sandblasting and powdercoating, but this time in the more traditional black as against the green that my mate had painted it previously. Then the new SS Ducati fairing and screen arrived, and they along with the tank were sent off for painting.
The bike was finally ready for the road in June but it was soon evident that detonation was going to be an issue when it was pushed, there was not enough squish and too much compression. We decked the barrels and reshaped the combustion chambers, dropping the compression down to 145psi. These changes made a huge difference and now the bike can be ridden as they were intended.”
“Kermit is no show bike and has racked up nearly 2000km in the last 4 months. It’s a barrel of fun to ride and as a member of Perth Cafe Racers we live by the motto “take the long road home”. So do we, Craig. So do we.
Photos by Ryan at RSK Photography Perth
[Special thanks to Rex from Garage Project Motorcycles]