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‘76 Kawasaki KH500 – ‘Kermit’

Posted on November 19, 2013 by Andrew in Café Racer, Classic. 40 comments

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]

  • arnold

    So, Whistling Death makes another appearance. She is lovely though.

  • Fantastic to see a PCR bike on Pipeburn. Good stuff Craig.

    • Craig Johnston

      Cheers Rex, all thanks to you mate. There are plenty of PCR bikes worthy of the attention!

  • Lewn

    WOW. Usable, fun, beautiful, nice photography too.

  • revdub

    That’s one mean frog.

  • KrookStreetRacing

    Lovely. There’s a lot to be said for one strong colour while keeping the rest monochrome.

  • bill smith

    This is what all builds should aspire to be, well planned, Clean, detailed, with proper paint and most of all rideable.

    • blackbird.

      Yes yes, proper. Where would this world be without proper. All must be proper. It’s a funny word. Proper. Say it a few times, feels like there should be an “ah” in there somewhere ya know. “Prahpa”. “Hey then, that bike is prahpa, the only way to be!”

      • gman

        Sympathize with the sentiment, but you do run-on too much. It’s a great bike, I think I need to steal it, but I can’t imagine the airfare, let alone afford it.

        • blackbird

          Not if I get there first!!!!! I’ll give it a proper theftin!

    • Graham Brook

      Rideable?! The damn things were barely rideable in standard trim. God alone knows what it must be like with these performance upgrades. Peaky isn’t the word. It does look proper sexy though!

      • Craig Johnston

        with the years of development, and tuning work these things have had
        they can be quite civilized, the key is in the midrange fuel metering,
        this now gets off the line comfortably at little more than 2000rpm, and
        is smooth, progressive, and totally ridable through to 6 at which point
        it really comes alive, Lots of fun, lots of lovely noise 😉

        • istvan

          what about the smoke ?

          • Craig Johnston

            Hey it’s a stroker 😉 not too bad, but will still smoke up pretty well when you get up it. Running Motul 710 and the stock oil injection. When they stop smoking its time to start worrying!

  • Very tidy indeed.

    • blackbird

      One might even say proper!

  • valvolux

    awesome bike craig. So good to see it in the flesh too

    • blackbird

      Proper fleshy even!

  • Shed-X

    i learned to ride on Kawasaki triples….or more honestly i hung on and survived my youth. I love these bikes and would give this one room in the shed in a heartbeat……great job … this one is a keeper.

  • bsa

    Saw this one in person at the bike show 🙂 Sounds amazing too.

  • That’s a beaut Craig – one of the best ‘Saki triples I’ve seen in a long time. The fairing looks like it was made for it. Oh, to be 18 again and fearless.

    • I have the feeling Manxman that if you ride it, after a few hours you may be 18 again. You know…it may work as an elixir of youth… 😉

  • bartsky

    beautiful bike….I would buy a new one in an instant. just wish it had a regular Bonneville type seat.

  • Nullarbor63

    I have one in my shed. Pity you didn’t include one picture of the twin pipe side. Nice job.

    • Craig Johnston

      The middle chamber runs underneath between the outers, it exits on the RHS as per the photos, it is pretty crowed underneath.

    • I think every picture shown is of the twin pipe side.

  • Nullarbor63

    Who did your engine work mate?

    • Craig Johnston

      I had Ray Eason do the bottom end, and Les Dean did the machining for the squish/compression issues mate. Both of them are based in Perth.

  • Dudeman

    Keep coming back to look at this, love it!

  • Vincent

    wonderful bike! who’s the photographer?

  • RHC

    My second bike was a Mach III 500 which I purchased with my ETS money from the Army in 1970. Great fun and much better than most reports would have you believe. At one time you could buy these and the later 750 triples for walking around money. I had two or three. All the triples were stone reliable and never once let me down. It made me a true believer in Mean Green to this day.

  • Septic the Sceptic

    The front mudguard seems to be on back to front.

  • Michael Milstead

    These bike builders have really got me going. I have a scooter shop for 10 years but rode both motorcycles and scooters and sold some small bikes. Now I am buying old small bikes and building.

  • bartys78

    Just would like to say again how much I like this bike., it’s beautiful, …if lony you could buy a new one from the dealer instead of their modern ugliness.

  • jimbo

    nice ,,I had four h2s they were awsum the 500 and the750

  • Duke Fan

    Looks factory but on another level!