Retrospective: 1967-1969 Kawasaki C2TR 120 Road Runner

1967 Kawasaki C2TR 120 Road Runner. Owner: Cliff Schoening, Bremerton, Washington.

This was a little cutie, and inexpensive, too. Just $430 ($3,200 today) would get you this minimalist high-piped single in 1967. Not that the bike was set up for quarter-mile times, but a real lightweight rider with a strong wind at his back might break 20 seconds. What do you expect from a 120?

Kawasaki was the last of the Japanese Big Four to get into the American market, when an American-owned subsidiary appeared in Chicago in 1963 offering a few two-stroke singles. Early ads promoted its connection with the Kawasaki Aircraft Co. Ltd., which was shut down following WWII but started building planes again in 1954. The big K soon saw the error of its ways and set up a Kawasaki-owned operation in Los Angeles in 1965, sensibly giving the Americans involved a good deal of say in what should be built for the U.S. market. 

Two-stroke singles were the rage, cheap and simple, the essential engine having just three moving parts. In the home market Kawasaki knew that winning on Sunday meant selling on Monday, so it worked hard to score points in the racing world of Japan, using rotary valves instead of the old-fashioned piston-port design and applying the same sophistication to its street bikes.

In 1964 Kawasaki showed the C2SS (Street Scrambler) to the home market, an attractive little single intended for the pavement, with a stylish upswept exhaust pipe. It also offered the “trail kit,” an optional bundle of pieces that would turn this into a proper trail bike…of sorts. The kit had an adapter for raising the front fender, a luggage rack and a second rear sprocket mounted next to the stock one. The stock sprocket had 37 teeth and a first-gear ratio of 25:1. In a few minutes time the rider could loosen a few bolts and slide the new 59-tooth sprocket over the old one, giving a ratio of 40:1. Good for going up Mount Fuji!

In 1967 two very similar C2 120 models came to the U.S., the TR (Trail Rider) and the SS, both with street-scrambler styling. Obviously the word was that Americans thought that an upswept exhaust system was cool, and that occasionally leaving the pavement was great fun. The bikes were also given the Road Runner name. Most of us can remember the Road Runner cartoon character, a bird that was always being chased across the desert by Wile E. Coyote. The owner’s manual had an illustration of the bird. Obviously the California fellows thought this would be a great name for the bike, but there is no mention of whether the KMC execs ever asked “Looney Tunes” for permission.

The TR was slightly more off-road oriented, having knobbier tires, a smaller front fender mounted well above the wheel, slightly shortened saddle, bash plate and a big luggage rack — for carrying all that camping gear for the trip into the wilderness. Although the engine was a bit on the small side for anyone wanting to tackle rough, steep terrain.

The cylinder was aluminum with a cast iron liner and was almost square, with a 53mm bore, 52.5mm stroke for an actual 115cc and a compression ratio of 6.7:1. The factory was claiming 11.5 horses at 7,000 rpm, which was a small herd from a small paddock, with one pony for every 10cc; very neat. The advertised torque curve — what there was of it — was pleasantly flat, with 6.5 lb-ft at 2,000 rpm, maxing out at 9.1 lb-ft at 5,000 and dropping off to 7 lb-ft at an over-revved 8,000.

An 18mm Mikuni carburetor was coupled with an automatic lubrication system, called Superlube. The oil tank, easily accessible under the seat, delivered the lubricant (the amount being dependent on the throttle opening) to the front of the rotary valve, where it would mix with the gas. Fouling plugs was a thing pretty much of the past.
Oil-level viewing was on the left side panel.

The engine cases, made of aluminum alloy, held the cylinder up front, gearbox behind. Power ran back to a four-speed transmission of the rotary style, which meant the rider could go all the way around from fourth directly to neutral to first gear, or shift backwards through third and second. The shift lever was heel and toe so downshifting could be done without besmirching the rider’s white bucks. Remember those? 

The chassis did have some off-road pretensions, the photo model having a curious optional brace bolted to the lower legs of the fork and looping over the wheel in front of the fender. It may also have fended off the brush that an enthusiastic rider might get into. The full double-cradle frame was made of mild steel and very strong by the swingarm pivot. The double-cradle aspect extended to a pair of tubes forming the backbone under the tank and then going farther back from the main cradle to support the saddle and the tops of the two shock absorbers. Even with the aforementioned bash plate, there was more than six inches of ground clearance. Suspension was, well, not competitive, but quite adequate for the college-aged fellow who liked having a coed pressed against his back as they cruised the city streets.

Wheels were 18 inches at both ends, with small drum brakes that worked OK considering the speeds the Road Runner went. Forty-five inches between the axles made for a short machine. With 1.7 gallons of gas in the tank, weight was a modest 186 pounds.

The C2 Road Runners went away late in 1969; did “Looney Tunes” have anything to do with that?