If you were born in last fifty years, you grew up around Japanese motorcycles. Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Suzuki–they’ve all been part of the landscape.

That obviously wasn’t always the case. Before the 1960s, the Japanese weren’t a presence in the global moto market, and it took some bold entrepreneurs to bring those machines to the outside world. The Big Four are competitive in every category today, but that wasn’t the case in the ‘60s. The Japanese OEMs had to compete with a moto-culture that was already devoted to the British, Euro and American marques—and they had to do it with machines like this 1966 Kawasaki J1.

Humble beginnings

In 1966, Kawasaki set out to establish itself in the US. Other companies offered Kawi’s bikes for sale before ‘66, but now Kawasaki itself was establishing a distribution system and dealer network. The bigwigs saw opportunity, and started to take North American sales seriously.

An 85cc two-stroke was small even in 1966, but there were more machines on the market in that size category in those days. Photo: Mecum

The J1 model was one of the first motorcycles Kawasaki sold in the US; supposedly, the company only brought 1,000 of these bikes in for 1966. That’s a pretty small number, even for 1966, but the J1 was a pretty small bike. Maybe Kawasaki decided to play it safe, and didn’t want a bunch of unsold machines left over. Whatever the case, these machines are extremely rare, and this one for sale at an upcoming Mecum auction is an unusual find in this condition.

The J1 came in a few different configurations, but they were all the same basic bike: A lightweight, do-it-all motorcycle with an air-cooled rotary disc valve, two-stroke, single-cylinder engine, with four-speed gearbox. As you’d expect, it had pretty modest output, making a claimed eight horsepower at 7,000 rpm. Also as expected, the J1 had a kickstarter—no electric boot for value-priced Japanese machines in those days!

Unlike later Japanese two-strokes, the J1 ran pre-mix; no autolube system on this machine. You had to mix the fuel yourself, which no doubt contributed to a few engine failures.

These days, a street-legal two-smoker is an oddity; the mainstream motorcycle scene is pretty much all four-strokes, all the time, with the exception of some dirt bikes. Two-strokes kinda went the way of the dinosaur in the late 1980s, as emissions regulations tightened. Maybe the US federal bureaucrats had to find a new enemy, with the Soviet Union on the ropes?

Just the thing for chasing down smoke bombs in the desert? Photo: Mecum

Back in the ‘60s, you saw a lot more two-strokes on the street, as they were cheap to produce, and everybody was building toys out of radium or asbestos anyway. A few unburnt hydrocarbons were the least of your concerns, as you packed a picnic basket to haul off to the desert, so you could watch a nuclear bomb test from a (supposedly) safe distance …

Kawasaki did have the W1 in the lineup, a four-stroke 650 parallel twin with Euro engineering, and that’s the bike everyone remembers from that era (the current W800 does a fine job of honouring the original W1). However, the J1 and similar bikes from the competition were much more affordable, and that’s partly why you don’t see many survivors: With no real history of reliability to back up their brands, the Japanese OEMs had to compete on pricing. You got a deal on a Japanese bike, and you rode it into the ground.

Like the engine, the rest of the motorcycle is pretty basic. There’s a drum brake up front and in rear, and spoked 17-inch wheels. This J1 has a headlight and taillight, but no turn indicators–better brush up on your hand signals, if you buy it.

Available at upcoming Mecum auction, with no reserve. Photo: Mecum

Trail-worthy?

The Mecum ad says this J1 is a “Trail Bike,” and according to the paperwork included, it’s either a J1TR or a J1TRL sub-model (no doubt some helpful reader will illuminate us, picking up on some arcane visual detail). It doesn’t look much like a modern dirt bike, but it has a high-mounted exhaust, fork gaiters and knobby tires. In the 1960s, that was pretty much all you needed to qualify as an off-roader.

This was the era of the desert sled, where big-bore Brit bikes and nimble Euro enduros ruled the offroad scene. This J1 would have been more of a street scrambler, an important niche for the Japanese when they first arrived in North America.

Despite its possible use offroad, this J1 actually appears to be in very good nick, which makes you wonder: Is this a survivor, or a restoration? Whatever it is, it’s rare to find a Kawi from 1966, but even more rare to find one that’s in relatively clean condition. The odometer reads 2,157 miles, and it’s difficult to see any buyer adding significantly to that total.

Mecum is selling this bike at its October 15-17 auction in Dallas, with no reserve. What will it go for? Hard to say, as COVID-19 has no doubt disrupted pricing.

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