Retrospective: Kawasaki KE175: 1976-1982

(This Retrospective article was published in the March 2008 issue of Rider.)

STORY AND PHOTOS BY CLEMENT SALVADORI

This little woodser was a tribute to good engineering and an American passion for motoring through the semi-wilderness.

In the 1960s the Japanese were selling a heckuva lot of little bikes with lights and semi-knobby tires, intended for following the dirt roads and trails in the millions of acres of state and federally owned land in this huge nation of ours. Whether you were in Massachusetts’ Myles Standish State Forest or in the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada’s Great Basin, you could spend hours trickling along, enjoying the solitude, and rethinking your gas-consumption calculations to make sure you got back to a gas station in time.

There is something undeniably peaceful about puttering along an unused dirt road, following it through the woods, over the hills, into the dales. Come to an abandoned apple orchard, the thick grass dotted with white daisies, stop, take off the little backpack, pull out a sandwich and a bottle of water and have lunch…and a nap. For this you do not need a big 650, but something light and friendly, like the Kawasaki KE175.

This 1976 KE175 was a direct descendant of the old 175cc F series that Kawasaki had been producing since the F1 appeared in 1966. These F models were good trailies, street legal, the kind of $500 (MSRP) motorcycle that practically any college student could afford. The rotary-valve two-stroke single was slightly oversquare, having a bore and stroke of 61.5 x 58.8mm, with Superlube automatic oil injection squirting lubricant straight into the crankcase, mixing it with the fuel from the 26mm Mikuni carb. Ignition was by a flywheel magneto, and the engine easily fired after a couple of prods on the starter.

1976 Kawasaki KE175-B1.
1976 Kawasaki KE175-B1.

By 1970 Kawasaki was claiming, with a straight face, some 21 horsepower at 7,500 rpm from this little motor…though that figure was grossly exaggerated as dyno tests showed a verifiable 15 horses at the rear-wheel corral. Maybe at the piston dome….

The chassis used a conventional cradle frame with duplex downtubes, a Hatta fork at the front and a pair of shocks at the back. The front tire was a 3.00-19, the rear a 3.50-18, and the wheelbase ran a short 52.4 inches. With a gallon of gas in the tank, weight was a mere 250 pounds.

Variations on the theme were tried in the ’60s, notably bikes that might be a little rougher and tougher when involved in friendly altercations. As an antithesis to this, an electric-start F3 175 Bushwhacker appeared in 1968, but the curb weight on this model was a good 50 pounds more, which did not appeal to the trailster. Poor sales convinced the Kawi folk not to continue in this direction.

1976 Kawasaki KE175-B1.
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Eventually things would have to change in order to keep up with the competition, however, so in 1975 the folks at U.S. Kawasaki headquarters decided to split the F7 (numerically moved up from the F3) 175 into a dual-purpose KE (for Enduro) model, and a competition KD version, with a slightly peppier motor and no pretensions at being road-legal. This was a direct result of the feds imposing stronger emission standards and the manufacturers worrying about increased difficulties in getting trail bikes registered. The affluent, post-Vietnam American was quite happy to buy a pickup and truck his KD to the newly popular Off Highway Vehicle playgrounds.

But the KE was still the bike of choice for many lighthearted types, casual riders who were out for a good time rather than serious boony-bashing. The engine was essentially the same as on the F7, though a new casting covered the entire right side, concealing the carburetor and oil pump. An airbox under the saddle ran the oxygen through a very efficient oil-wet filter, keeping the dirt outside. The seat itself, long and flat, came off in seconds, giving access to the filler for the oil tank. This held 1.4 quarts and fed an improved Superlube injection system; a little window in the tank/side panel told the rider when to add a quart. The gas tank held 1.8 gallons, which only lasted for some 60 miles; this little two-stroke was a thirsty beast. The separate five-speed transmission required its own oil supply, a meager pint and a half, with a long bendy dipstick to check its level. In the spirit of honesty the specs in the owner’s manual rated the power at 16 horses.

1976 Kawasaki KE175-B1.
1976 Kawasaki KE175-B1.

A small battery was fitted under the seat to satisfy the Department of Trans­portation, which demanded head- and taillights even if the engine was not running. A spare 15-amp fuse was stuck in just behind the battery, a nice touch. Standard instruments, speedo and tach, were bolted to the steering head, with indicator lights for neutral, high beam and the turn signals; nothing complicated here.

The KE’s frame was a minor variation on the F7’s, putting the bike a very little lower to the ground, with a skid-plate protecting the vitals. However, while shorter-legged riders could appreciate this, the lowness put the footpegs in closer proximity to rocks along the way. The fork had double-action damping, and a recommendation to change the oil every 6,000 miles. The steering head provided a modest rake of 31 degrees …more for play than sport. The shock absorbers had air/oil dampers and dual springs—with five-way preload adjustment. A skinny little single-leading-shoe brake on the 21-inch front wheel was adequate in the dirt, a bit weak when in traffic. Wheelbase was at 53.9 inches, and a tight U-turn could be made in just a little more than 6 feet. Road clearance (unloaded) was officially 9.3 inches, but put a 200-pounder in the saddle and that suffered a serious reduction.

1976 Kawasaki KE175-B1.
1976 Kawasaki KE175-B1.

With the standard gearing Kawasaki claimed the KE175 could climb a 35-degree slope—no mean feat. But this was definitely a ride for the slow-pokers, those who were not in any hurry to get in any sort of trouble. More serious riders gravitated toward the various 250 models.

Until 1980, when Kawasaki sprang the new KDX175 enduro on the unsuspecting public with an entirely new chassis and engine. The biggest news was the Uni-Trak single-shock rear suspension, which offered almost 10 inches (!) of wheel movement, as did the fork. And the all-new engine put out a genuine 20 usable horsepower, though consuming gas at a rate of 25 miles to the gallon. But the two-stroke era was fast coming to an end and both the KE and KDX were axed after 1982.

1976 Kawasaki KE175-B1.
1976 Kawasaki KE175-B1.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Oh,the good old days. Simplicity,fun,common sense engineering. Analog gauges, a look and style that never will get old
    in my opinion. I have a ’78 KE250…..my favorite bike.

  2. I still have a Green Kawasaki KE175. I forget what year but i think 1980 or newer. I bought it at a Sheriff auction as it was stolen and recovered. Hasn’t been started since around 1985 so it probably needs a little TLC.

  3. Great article. I am in the middle of rebuilding a 1977-78 KE175. Got it running but it’s not pulling oil to mix in the crank case. Any ideas or resources. I can put premix and drive it but trying to go as original as possible. TIA.

  4. I picked up a 1977, 175KE at a yard sale. I got it running but it’s rough… narrowed it down to the needle and seat. Id prefer a whole new carb, as I had to jb weld the bulb (cheesey I know, but just wanted to get it running). Regardless, having a hard time finding a vm26-se carburetor.. if I cannot find a oem, does anyone know a cross reference I could use?

  5. I just finish my 1976 175KE; nice bike. I used https://www.cmsnl.com for the spare parts. Ebay prices are most of the time crazy, The 175 KD has the same base.
    Andy, you have a check valve in the oil circuit before the crankcase: coukd be block or bad purge of air before the pump…

  6. I am having the same problem with the oil pumping into the crank case as well. I have a 76 and just ordered a new clutch kit.

  7. I have a 1976 chestnut brown. Single owner. Very low miles. It runs but could use a bit of work. What might it be worth?

  8. I have an original 1977 ke175, it’s in good shape starts first kick, someone took the blinkers and the taillight off, but I have them it has 2 spark plugs, but oil needs to be mixed I’m pretty sure. Want to restore it someday..

  9. Found myself stuck in Colombia for the quaranteen. So many lonely gals. I’m the only tourist for miles. Yeah, I know.
    So to heal the hurt, I found a 1980 ke 175. D
    Paperwork says DE Camello lol
    Trying to figure out details by serial number.
    It does not have 17 digits.
    Trade my little black book for help.

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