Do you still rememeber the Kawasaki Mach III 500?
In 1969, Kawasaki packed 50 odd horsepower and 12-second quarter-mile times into a $999 package of Dunlop Gold Seal-shredding power that changed many enthusiasts’ perception of acceleration and gravity. The Triumphs and BSAs that ruled the boulevard back in 1969 were forced to make room for the Mach III, a machine that sounded like a chain saw on crack and had a white-and-blue paint scheme that looked a lot like a Shelby Mustang of the era. Prior to the Mach III, Japanese-bike fans rode Yamaha YR2s and were happy, or if you were extra sporty, you rode a black Kawasaki A-7 Avenger 350 and tried not to grimace when your Dad’s big-block, four-door Impala handed you your ass in a dragrace. Those days were shown the exit with the Mach III. Give the tiny “Blue Streak” (the white-and-blue ’69 model) a handful of stick in any of the first three gears and suddenly the front wheel was in the air and things were happening fast. Fast, until you grabbed the brakes, because as impressive as the acceleration was, its stopping ability was dreadful. A cable-driven, double leading-shoe front binder (with a cool little airscoop that actually did nothing for the braking performance) was almost laughable in its lack of strength. The rear was just as appalling in its inability to stop the machine in anything less than the length of a football field. Any rider who rode a ’69 500 thought about wearing deep-soled boots for increased stopping ability.
Photo Courtesy of Kawasaki
The 1969 Kawasaki Mach III 500 was known as the “Blue Streak” for its powerful acceleration wrapped in a tiny package.
The Mach III’s three-cylinder, two-stroke engine had a very short temper and a light-switch-like powerband, an electronic ignition and probably the worst-handling chassis in the annals of all Japanese motorcycles. In typical Kawasaki fashion, the internals of the engine were as hearty as the company could construct them. A multiple-piece crankshaft held the rods and pistons together and a tough-as-nails clutch pulsated the power to the chain.
Easily the strangest mechanical feature of the machine was its ignition system. Kawasaki fitted the 1969 500 with a not-so-subtle humming electronic ignition, but later went to a points ignition, and a year or two later went to a well-mannered magneto system. On the first model, Kawasaki made a huge deal out of the electronic ignition, slapping a yellow lightning bolt on the metal side-cover with “Electronic Ignition” in bold type. Flat spark plugs that looked more like drain plugs screwed into the engine—NGK BUHXs that Kawasaki referred to as Surface Gap Plugs.
The original 500 had some neat features for the period. The front and rear fenders were made from stainless steel. More than one owner sat down with a soft cloth and some chrome polish and by afternoon’s end couldn’t figure out why the chrome fenders wouldn’t bring much more luster than a dull shine.
Kawasaki followed up the original Mach III in the 250, 350, 400 and 750 classes in later years, and both the 750 and the 500 were de-tuned as the years went by; the first season’s models were wicked and too much for the ceramic tire construction of the day. To slow the machine down and make it a bit less wheelie-prone, Kawasaki added more baffle to the exhaust and lengthened the swingarm, but most enterprising owners cut the baffles in two and, while they had the bandsaw warmed up, shortened the swingarm as well. Chassis modification only made things worse—even with the twist-knob steering damper atop the steering head clinched down tight, the bike wobbled and lurched like a drunken sailor.
Besides the ignition system, most of the problems of the ’69 500 originated from the three-cylinder engine being for the most part unbalanced. Shaking like the worst Sportster ever, nuts and bolts loosened and fell off, the speedometer read 10 miles per hour at a standstill and riding the bike was a near constant regimen of tightening things and adding Loctite. I can distinctly remember sitting at a stoplight next to a 1969 Mach III and looking over at the bike as it sat there somewhat calmly idling. Suddenly the left rearview mirror shattered into a million pieces and the right one soon after.
Finding a Mach III in original shape is nearly as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. They’re out there, left languishing in garages and sheds, behind the items that didn’t sell at the yard sale a few years ago. Finding a decent original 1969 500, for cheap money, is not a task for the easily discouraged.
Kawasaki’s 1969 500 isn’t what one could consider a great bike. It doesn’t work well, and in today’s world any machine with such inarguably poor brakes is patently dangerous for street use. But before the Mach III, Kawasaki had somewhat of a middle-of-the-road image; not a performance company, not a technically strong firm like Honda. Kawasaki made cheap knockoffs like the W-2 or little 90cc machines sold in hardware stores. With the 1969 Mach III 500 Blue Streak, Kawasaki Heavy Industries became the performance motorcycle company. And the bikes that followed the Mach III—the 1972 H-2 500, the Z-1, the KZ650SR, Z1R and the KZ1000ELR—were produced with performance as the motivating factor. Just like the Mach III.