Two cylinders good, four cylinders better, three cylinders best.
I have a well-known deep and abiding love for three-cylinder motorcycles. Give me something with two wheels and three cylinders and I'm the happiest gearhead in the garage. I love their uniqueness, their smoothness, their power, and in some cases like the weirdo Suzuki Water Buffalo, their quirkiness. While triples are relatively common now, especially from producers like Triumph and MV Agusta, that wasn't always the case. Once upon a time they were an anomaly, a bridge between old, busted parallel twins and hot new inline fours. So today, I'm going to introduce you to some bikes that I think are important in the development of the triple as a serious contender. Without further ado, lets look at some great triples in motorcycle history.
NOTE: Before you guys say anything, yes, I left out the Laverda 3C. As cool as it was, they made about eight of the damn things and nobody but hardcore Italian bike nerds remembers who or what Laverda was. Maybe I'll cover it in another story all by itself, but today it stays in the garage and the day is carried by the Brits and the Japanese.
BSA Rocket III
BSA's Rocket 3 helped Triumph and BSA fix the parallel twin's rattly nature.
The BSA Rocket 3 was the answer to an extremely thorny question that Triumph and BSA engineers had been asking themselves since the release of the unit constructed parallel twins in 1959—How do we get more power out of the 650 twin with less vibration? Turns out, you do that by making the 650 twin into a 750 triple. Throughout the 50s and 60s, the brainiacs in Triumph/BSA's engineering department had maxed out the potential of the parallel twin. After wringing every ounce of performance out of the venerable old engine, they turned elsewhere to compete in the ever-escalating horsepower wars. In 1968, after a long and painful development plagued by corporate mismanagement and questionable decision making, the new BSA Rocket 3 flew on to the scene.
The triple at the heart of the new bike was a 740cc, air-cooled, inline-three that put down a respectable 58 horsepower. It had a four-speed transmission, chain final drive, and bog standard drum brakes fore and aft scrounged from the company parts bin. It was an extremely well-balanced engine and produced smooth, low-vibration power throughout the rev range. It was fast too, and it handled pretty well thanks to its middling weight and decent suspension.
Reception of the big new Beezer was mixed at best when the first bikes hit the market. It was a, uh, unique looking bike with a squared-off tank, slab-sided side covers, and super sci-fi "raygun" silencers designed by an industrial design firm called Ogle Design rather than BSA/Triumph's in-house designers. It was decidedly un-Beezer looking, and a lot of riders—especially those in the United States—were put off by it. Despite its weird looks, the motoring press raved about the Rocket 3 and sales were brisk—for about four weeks until Honda unveiled the CB750.
The big new Honda hit the motorcycle industry like a nuke and nearly obliterated all of its competitors, including the Rocket 3. The CB750 was a revelation with its oil-tight engine, five-speed trans, overhead cam engine, disc brakes, and electric starter – features which the Rocket 3 sorely lacked. By 1970, CB750 sales had completely eclipsed those of the Beezer in the United States and it quickly became clear that the Rocket 3 needed something to make it more competitive. So BSA, in its wisdom, redesigned the sheet metal to give it a more traditional British look for 1971. It didn't work. Despite the cleaner, less gimmicky, more Beezer-like design of the '71s, Rocket 3 sales continued to plummet and it was discontinued to too long after. It soldiered on in spirit, in the form of the redesigned Triumph Trident, until 1975 when the company got out of the triple business for good.
Say what you want, I love the Rocket 3. I know Britbike grognards love to poo-poo the first gen bikes with their weirdo styling, but they were so striking even in their (arguable) ugliness that they have a real charm about them. My dream garage definitely has a Rocket 3 in it.
Kawasaki H1 Mach III
They didn't call these things Widowmakers for nothin'.
The Kawasaki H1 has a killer reputation among riders of a certain age – i.e., in the 70s, these bikes must have killed more men than Cecil B. Demille. Ask any old graybeard who knows bikes about the Mach III and watch his eyes get that far away look you usually see in combat vets. Then listen close as he mutters quietly, "I knew this fella once had a Mach III..."
Released in 1969, the H1 was powered by a 500cc, two-stroke triple that put down sixty horsepower. Sixty horsepower – six-zero – in a bike that weighed just over 400 pounds soaking wet. That's a, uh, pretty aggressive power-to-weight ratio. It was a great engine, if a little peaky due to being an oil burner, and was extremely efficient at turning gas into power. Both riders and the motorcycling press raved about the Mach III when it came out, but it didn't take long for a number of, shall we say, exciting flaws to become apparent in the bike's design.
The first and most obvious problem with the Mach III was the handling. While the engine was fantastic, the rest of the bike's components weren't up to the task of handling all those horses. The frame was a simple, lightweight, steel-tube affair with all the rigidity of a paper towel tube, the front end was extremely flexible, and the stopping power of the drum brakes was more a suggestion than anything else. Saying the Mach III was squirrely when ridden hard is an understatement – under load it handled like a puppy on freshly waxed linoleum. Riders, and the wags in the motoring press, quickly came up with a slew of less than charitable names for the new bike thanks to its whimsical handling characteristics – the grenade launcher, the flexible flyer, and most famously, the widowmaker.
To make matters worse, the rider sat well back over the rear wheel which made the front end float when a rider got on the throttle. With the two-stroke's almost instant power response and the light front end, the Mach III was a wheelie machine. While that sounds fun and all, the last thing you want is your bike bringing the front wheel up every time you pull away from a stop sign if you don't pay attention to the throttle.
In addition, they were also hilariously cheap. A new Mach III ran just $999 in 1969 – roughly $6,500 in today's dollars – which put it well within reach of many riders. An affordable, stylish, extremely powerful street bike seems like a good idea, but the poor handling and snappy power delivery caught more than one rider by surprise and a lot of Mach IIIs ended their careers at the bottom of ditches or wrapped around trees. Sound familiar? *coughGixxercough*
Despite all their flaws, Mach IIIs were super fun and very popular. So popular in fact, that a 750cc version was released just a few years after the 500's release. That bike was also called the widowmaker, but that's a story for another time.
Suzuki GT750 Le Mans
It may be slow, but it's expensive!
This is my second favorite bike in this list, right behind the XS750. Known colloquially as the Water Buffalo here in The States, the GT750 was kind of an odd duck. It was released in 1972 to compete—hilariously enough—with Honda's CB750, and featured a 750cc two-stroke triple that produced about 70 horsepower. It was a big, heavy, imposing, low-slung bike that Suzuki optimistically marketed as a "superbike". What really set the Water Buffalo apart from its competitors was the fact that it had a liquid-cooled engine. Wait, liquid-cooled? Yep, you read that right. The GT750 was the first Japanese production bike with a liquid-cooled engine, and the first liquid cooled-motorcycle since the old Scott two-strokes from the 20s and 30s.
How was it to ride though? Well, you know how I said that Suzuki called it a superbike and that that description was kind of optimistic? While they shot for superbike, the company hit pretty wide of the mark. What they hit was more power-cruiser or plush touring bike than screaming street machine. The engine was powerful, but it was decidedly well-mannered, even slow, and power delivery was pretty smooth and even. This was odd for a two-stroke, and very unlike the cataclysmic all-the-horses-all-the-time power delivery exhibited by Kawasaki's 500cc and 750cc two-stroke triples.
In addition to the extremely chill engine, the bike was also very, very large. The Water Buffalo tipped the scales at a bovine 550 pounds, roughly 50 pounds more than the CB750 it was supposedly competing against. It had a tall, 32-inch high seat and was surprisingly wide, which made riding a GT-750 like riding a beer keg. The suspension ate up the bumps and gave a comfortable ride, but the dual front disc brakes were adequate at best for hauling the big bike down from speed.
Despite a good, strong engine and some good engineering, the Water Buffalo was kind of less than the sum of its parts. It was a big, heavy, sort of weird-looking two-stroke that didn't fit into the niche that Suzuki planned for it. Throughout its short production life, Suzuki updated the bike constantly with improved systems – like the brakes – and more and more chrome. The Water Buffalo was finally put out to pasture in 1977 when it was replaced in the lineup by the legendary GS750.
Yes. One thousand times yes.
Look guys, I'm going to do my best here to keep my Yamaha fanboy stuff under control but I can't promise you anything. With that out of the way, let me tell you about the best three-cylinder motorcycle to ever grace the great green Earth.
By the mid-70s, Yamaha was on the outside looking in at the large-displacement bike market. The big 750cc, unreliable, unloved TX750 twin had bombed spectacularly and that left consumers understandably gun shy about large-displacement Yamahas. As a mea culpa for the TX750, and as a way to take another crack at the lucrative big bike market, engineers at Yamaha HQ came up with an all new bike. A bike that they were sure would get Team Blue back in the limelight and and compete well against all the GS750s and CB750s and other big bikes already on the streets. They were right.
In 1976, Yamaha unveiled the all-new XS750. Powering the new bike was Yamaha's new 750cc, air-cooled, dual overhead cam, 64-horse, four-stroke triple that inhaled through Mikuni carbs and exhaled through a three-into-two exhaust system. It had a five-speed transmission that, despite some infamous issues with second gear, got all those horses reliably to the ground via a robust shaft final drive. It wasn't a barn burner by any stretch of the imagination – performance of the first generation C model was, shall we say, leisurely – but it was a smooth, comfortable, good handling, and most importantly reliable bike that got Yamaha back in the game.
Along with its unique three-cylinder mill, the XS750 turned heads with an impressive suite of high-end features such as self-cancelling turn signals, disc brakes fore and aft, vacuum-operated petcocks, and stylish black and silver cast aluminum wheels. While it was a heavy bike, it weighed in at a portly 511 pounds dry, it was well balanced and felt much lighter than it actually was.
Motorcycle publications of the time had a lot of glowing praise for the new Yamaha. Our esteemed colleagues at Cycle World said that the XS750 was, "Certainly new and different, and most certainly bound for success." They compared it favorably to more expensive offerings from big names like BMW, and even named it as one of the world's 10 best motorcycles, a bold statement but one that I'm not inclined to argue with. Despite the gushing reviews, the XS750 wasn't without its problems. The transmission was a known problem, and it had a nasty tendency to drop out of second gear into neutral under load. In addition, the petcocks could fail without warning which would then allow all fuel to drain out of the tank, through the carbs, and into the crankcase which could dilute the oil so much that the engine would seize up. (the ones on my 37-year-old XS850 still work fine though, a fact I'm pretty smug about).
Yamaha continued to upgrade the XS750 throughout its four-year production life. It got more power, better carbs (Mikuni Mk. IIs for life my friends), a factory custom edition with a teardrop tank and stepped seat, and more. In 1980, the XS750 was replaced by the XS850, a bike with its own raft of special editions and fancy features. Yamaha triple production finally came to an end around 1981 and it was replaced by big fours like the XS1100, which had debuted in 1978, and the brand new XJ750 Maxims.
The Yamaha triple is a seriously great bike, you guys. It's the bike that made me a confirmed Yamaha Man. I've had my XS850 for almost twenty years now, and it's never let me down. In my experience, while the XS-series bikes aren't perfect they do a bit of everything really well. Mine has done all kinds of duty from short-hop errand running to long-distance, interstate touring. You can eat up the miles just cruising on the freeway or throw it around on a curvy back road and it'll do just about anything you ask of it. They're easy to work on, fun to ride, and they sound fantastic with a free-breathing airbox and a three-into-one exhaust.
I'm just now starting to experience the dreaded second gear failure, and I'm always keeping an eye on my oil level glass for signs of gasoil, but after 37 years on the road and at least two fires – one an electrical fire somewhere in the distant past before I owned it, and a backfire through the carb a couple years ago that set my air filter on fire – my triple is still going strong. That's more than I can say for a lot of machines I've owned in my life.
Honorable Mention - Triumph X75 Hurricane
Everybody loves the Hurricane, right?
Oh man, the Hurricane. More a design exercise than a unique model, the Hurricane is essentially a Rocket 3 gussied up by visionary bike designer Craig Vetter. The Hurricane actually started life as a Vetter-penned alternative to the controversial Rocket 3 design penned by Ogle, and was unveiled to the public in 1969. Riders and the motoring press loved it, but BSA's uptight chief designer hated it. Eventually, due to a ton of praise heaped on the design after it was on the cover of Cycleworld, BSA relented and decided to put the bike into production. As was the case with just about everything at BSA in those days though, a whole bunch of dithering and bad decisions delayed any work on the Hurricane until it was almost too late.
With its dying breath, BSA greenlit a limited run of 1,200 bikes badged as Triumph X75 Hurricanes in 1972. Under all that swoopy fiberglass bodywork, the Hurricane was just a Rocket 3 with the same 750cc triple engine and much of the same running gear. Production ended in 1973, and today these things are eye-wateringly expensive when you can even find them for sale.