There’s something at once menacing and laughable about the sound of a small-displacement two-stroke street bike at full roar — a sound that had probably been absent from my hometown for at least a couple of decades until somebody acquired a Kawasaki KE100 dual-purpose motorcycle a few weeks ago.
No, that somebody is not me — unfortunately.
The KE100 was one of the last traditional motorcycles — that is to say, not a scooter — to feature a two-stroke powerplant here in America. It was available at Kawasaki dealerships for an impressive 25-year run from 1976 to 2001.
By the time it was dropped from the Kawa lineup, EPA and CARB emissions mandates had nixed the idea of putting two-stroke engines in most anything that could be legally piloted on our roads. Kawasaki reportedly fitted the KE100 with an oil-injection system it called “Superlube” that helped it get through ever-tightening emissions testing in the ‘90s by precisely mixing oil into the fuel supplied to the engine. The bonus was it also kept owners from needing to mix fuel themselves.
The tiny 99-cubic centimeter engine rattles and pops charmingly at idle and will, I am told, scream out a breathtaking 11 horsepower if your right wrist really really wants it to. That’s just a hair more than a third of the horsepower of my first bike’s 29 horses. The mighty KE100 would even give you 8.9 ft-lbs of torque at 3,500 RPM and featured a relatively flat torque curve, as it were, with only a slight drop to 8.0 ft-lbs at the 9,000-RPM mark.
That all might sound like I’m poking fun at the poor little KE100 buzzing around my 3,000-person hometown or its rider, (who I do not know and have not been able to talk to yet, by the way,) but trust me, I’m not. The KE100 is one of the first bikes I can remember eyeballing as a young teenager of maybe 12 or 13 years and thinking, “I could actually ride this thing ON THE ROAD.”
My parents would never hear of that — probably for the best. It would be another half-decade before I would be taking Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse and using every penny I could scrape together to buy a Suzuki LS650P Savage on which I would spend many happy days commuting to college.
But to be fair, the Savage, though much tamer than its name implied, was a beast compared to the KE100. With a mild carb rejet and a rusted-out pea-shooter muffler can sourced from a Honda CB500T — more about that little number some other time — the Savage would peg its tiny tank-mounted speedometer on The Ton if I tucked in as tight as I could. According to the Wiki, a stock Kawasaki KE100 in top tune would max out at 62.5 MPH — “The Ton” in kilometers per hour, I guess.
There was a time that two-stroke Japanese street bikes ruled the roads. Everything from tiny 100-cc machines like the KE 100 and the Yamaha TwinJet to monsters like the 750-cc Kawasaki H2 Mach IV and the water-cooled Suzuki GT750 “Water Buffalo” made our streets a noisier, sometimes smokier, and perhaps a more interesting place. But by the time the KE100 neared the end of its production run at the turn of the Millennium, two-stroke powerplants were mostly relegated to off-road bikes and certain tiny-engined lawn equipment.
That’s what makes the KE100 so awesome to me. When I was growing up, two-stroke street bikes were dead and buried — not yet old enough to be resurrected by those who had fond memories of riding them in their heyday, and not new enough to still be plying the streets in any measurable number. When I heard the tiny cylinder of the KE100 buzzing like a mad hornet through traffic a few days ago on my commute, it was awesome.
I say that not because the KE100 is some kind of particularly desirable motorcycle, in the traditional sense. Its performance envelope probably isn’t so awesome by anyone’s standards. But I’m drawn to the weirder transportation contraptions out there. Uniqueness breeds character in both cars and motorcycles, I’ve found. That is what is awesome about the little KE100. It’s got character by the pannier-load. It looks every bit the part of a tamed ‘70s dirtbike, steel gas tank, bicycle-width tires, and teensy-tiny drum brake on the front wheel.
One other area where I’d bet the little KE100 is awesome: I’m gonna say it’s probably returning awesome fuel economy for the kid who’s been banging it around my hometown this summer.
Long may he and his little KE ride!