Smokin’

Against all odds and logic, the 1970s Japanese two-strokes endure—along with their fans

Against all odds and logic, the 1970s Japanese two-strokes endure.

Against all odds and logic, the 1970s Japanese two-strokes endure.

John Aylor lives in Rio Rancho, N.M. He’s headed to the Smokies for the 10th annual gathering of two-stroke fanatics that regularly descends on the Deals Gap Resort each spring. (This year, from May 4 through May 10.) He describes in great detail the 1975 Kawasaki H1 500 he’ll be bringing, along with particulars about mishaps and modifications made over the 14 years he’s been riding it. The usual multiple motors, crashes, cracked frames.

“I used to road race,” he says. “So handling is the most important thing to me.”

Aylor mastered valve conversion and fiberglass bodywork on his own two-strokes, and now owns a business that specializes in bodywork. So he seems a likely candidate to explain the allure of these loud, smoky, dangerous, barely-guided two-wheeled missiles which for years have been illegal to sell new in the United States. A reporter with an appreciation for things mechanical asks him for examples of engineering high-water marks on these bikes. In what ways did they excel as machines?

“Actually,” he says, laughing, “the opposite is probably more true. It’s amazing they ever ran at all.”

“I kind of relate it to the car industry—the first Mustangs and Camaros,” says Aylor. “They were the first hot rods. These bikes were noisy, they shook, they rattled, they sounded like they were going to blow up and didn’t handle worth a crap. But they hauled ass. Motorcycling for teenagers back then was about making all the noise and smoke you could and getting all the attention you could. Now you’ve got us old guys going on our third or fourth mid-life crisis.”

You always pay for broad generalizations, but these screamers were basically the result of cut-throat competition for the American motorcycle market. Japanese engineers—some say aircraft engineers left under-employed after World War II—were tasked with making the fastest motorcycles they could for the least money possible. Longevity was supposedly not a factor. So, in 1972 for $1,500, some Tennessee paperboy could ride off the Kawasaki lot on a three-cylinder H2-750. He would probably not be aware that once he got it on the highway, coming up on 70 mph, it would just be hitting its stride—around 6,000 rpm—and would still be trying to wheelie on him. Supposedly one of the most common greetings for modern-day two-stroke aficionados, maybe filling up or wrenching in a gas station parking lot, is along the lines of, “Had a buddy who died on one of those.”

Rick Van Hooser, of Madison, Ala., has attended every Deals Gap gathering since 1999, and is voluntarily in charge of coordinating accommodations. The group—which has no name, no rules, no membership criteria, no schedule or agenda for the seven day event—rents all of Deals Gap Resort’s space and spills over into numerous other area facilities. Van Hooser says about 20 riders attended the first gathering, in 1999. He expects around 100 this year, many of whom, like him, will be bringing multiple bikes.

“We just met to have some fun,” says Van Hooser, of the 1999 gathering. “Then afterwards we got on the message boards and talked about how much fun it was, so more and more people decided they wanted to do it. Every year it’s grown. The last few years we’ve ended up with around 90 people.”

Like most people asked about the mysterious attraction to owning and riding a motorcycle which is considered to be in primo condition when your hours of maintenance to hours of riding ratio approaches 1:1, Van Hooser mixes pride with a tone that suggests he wishes he knew himself.

“These are the kinds of bikes that guys who like to turn wrenches like,” he says. “Number one, you don’t have a valve train on top to fool with. Number two, these are berserk instruments that are just a hoot to drive. They can be downright dangerous. And one of the things we like about them is that they smoke and are obnoxious. I had a girlfriend once who wouldn’t ride on the back because it made her stink.”

Among other bikes, Van Hooser will be bringing one of the infamous Kaw H2s, a 1974.

“It was also known as a Kawasaki Mach IV,” he says. “It is a 750 three-cylinder. Kawasaki triples back in the ’70s really had a big following. They were just big, nasty, mean, brutish motorcycles. They were kind of the super-bike of their day.”

It appears that in the right hands, once a super-bike, always a super-bike. Aylor says that he rides primarily on tracks, and enjoys nothing more than seeing the proud young owner of a ZX-10 or what have you encounter his or her first two-stroke 500.

“They’re like, ‘What is this 30-year-old, rattling, smoking thing with the old guy on it?’” he says. “‘And why can’t I pass it?’”

Jeff Gootblatt is bringing four bikes with him from Northeast Pennsylvania.

“First motorcycle I ever sat on was a two-stroke Suzuki 550,” says Gootblatt. “That was more than 25 years ago. I’ve ridden a few hundred thousand miles, and almost all of it on two-strokes. It’s not just the speed. I like any motorcycle, to be honest with you. They are quick. And they can be extremely reliable. Of course if you constantly thrash them, they’ll break just like anything else. They’re probably a little more sensitive to tuning than a four-stroke.

“I do mechanical restoration. To be honest with you, I don’t care what they look like. My ’72 750 is pretty rough looking. By most people’s standards it’s really rough looking. But I wouldn’t hesitate to get on it and go to California.”

Gootblatt is trailering this trip. But smaller numbers of this same ad hoc group get together each fall at Deals Gap. He says that when he comes to the fall shindigs, he rides.

If some biker gatherings strike you as being too clubby or competitive or poorly disguised commercial endeavors, this week in the Smokies may appeal to you. There is pride and bragging and perhaps even covetousness, but there is no official judging. There is no exclusivity, and all are welcome to visit and gawk—even if they arrive by car. There is swapping and selling and dealing, but it’s far from the main event. Because there is so much maintenance involved on these motorcycles, there are no scheduled rides. Aylor says there’s usually one long group ride and one evening ride to dinner. But since no one knows when the majority of the bikes will be functional, they call them on the spot.

Everyone agrees that for this type of bike, this is pretty much the premier gathering in North America. Based on travel plans made through Van Hooser, the fellow traveling the farthest is coming from New Zealand.

“You won’t see this many triples and two-strokes in one place anywhere else,” says Aylor.

And if you happen to attend and get the bug, Gootblatt offers some words of wisdom: “You better be up on your maintenance and know how to work on them. Any motorcycle will break. And these are 35 year-old bikes. Internal motor parts are hard to find. And most garages will not work on them. Most dealers won’t touch them beyond tires or chain.”

© 2009 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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