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1982 Kawasaki Intercepto 550: It Was the Hottest Thing on Snow

How Kawasaki Intercepted the Market with a Big Bore Bang!
RELATED TOPICS: VINTAGE | KAWASAKI | SNOWMOBILE
1982 Kawasaki Interceptor 550
Kawasaki Heavy Industries had one of the most insane and wild rides in the snowmobile industry. They landed an engine supply contract for Arctic Cat in 1970 providing single, twin, triple and even four-cylinder power plants through 1975.

Kawi famously powered the 1971, four-cylinder, free-air 800cc King Kat, the dominant 72-73 EXT racers, plus a ton of Panthers, Cheetahs and El Tigres. Other consumer models followed suit before Kawi became the power behind Arctic’s 1974 “Sno-Pro” oval race sleds and all new liquid-cooled twins and triples.

Cat and Kawi split

Unfortunately, after Arctic Cat switched to Suzuki engines for 1976, Kawi was left with a lot of 2-stroke engine design and manufacturing capacity, but no snowmobile customer outside of service parts for Cat. They went shopping for one and in January of 1976, they got together with Sno*Jet. This purchase gave Kawasaki an existing lineup of machines to power with their own engines, access to additional snow-belt dealerships and a chance to hit the ground running for the 1977 season.
1982 Kawasaki Interceptor 550
The Kawasaki / Sno*Jet sleds were a unique mixture of old and new. Oddly enough the SST series were still powered by Yamaha motors while the updated Astro SSs had the expected namesake Kawasaki power plants. Cat “Hex Drive” clutches were utilized, and in an interesting turn of events, Kawasaki USA contracted with their former motor customer to assemble the machines. So, you ended up with a Kawasaki - Sno*Jet machine, powered by Yamaha or Kawasaki, clutched and assembled by Arctic Cat, sold at full line Kawasaki and former Sno*Jet dealers. And yet, it all came together and worked reasonably well. Hats off to whomever nailed that logistical nightmare!

As a preview of things to come, Kawasaki fielded a small team of oval race sleds piloted by Greg Channell and Jacques Villenvue. Affectionately referred to as “Sharks,” these 340 and 440cc twin-cylinder, liquid cooled racers were campaigned with leaf springs and IFS variants. While only having limited success on the race tracks, they showed some serious forward thinking.

Kawasaki came out with both guns blazing for the 1978 model year by launching a full lineup of Kawasaki brand machines, topped by the all new Invader. The aptly named Invader was a liquid-cooled performance machine in both 340 and 440cc engine sizes. The fan-cooled, dual carb 440 Intruder was also assembled on the same chassis. Gone was the Sno*Jet name and colors, Yamaha motors and any doubt about Kawasaki’s intentions in the snowmobile market. Marketed as “The hottest thing on snow” and often called the “quickest 440 available,” the sleek-looking Invaders were a fast sellout. They had an all new chassis with a 31-inch ski stance, a 121x 15-inch involute drive track, an all new oil injected twin-cylinder liquid-cooled motor, Kawasaki clutching, a two way cooling system utilizing both a radiator and an under-seat extruded heat exchanger. The sleek hood originally came with a crazy-low, but sharp looking windshield.
1982 Kawasaki Interceptor 550
Dressed in all black, the ’82 Interceptor 550 was a looker. Collector Tory Rau likes to exercise his muscle machines as often as possible. Few sleds of the era could match the top speed of the Interceptor, and none accelerated as hard.
Despite the performance image and marketing, the invaders were fitted with a large 2-up, stepped “king and queen” seat in an era where many performance sleds were moving to a single “race inspired” seat. To drive home the performance, a ’78 Invader 340 grabbed a second place finish in the Winnipeg to St. Paul I-500 behind Brian Nelson’s winning El Tigre. Reloading to their motor supplier roots a year later, Kawi began supplying John Deere 340 and 440cc fan-cooled single carb motors for their new 1979 Trailfire before powering the entire “New Breed” lineup through 1984.

Invading complete
In the years following the Invader’s 1978 debut, the improvements kept coming. For 1980 the Invader performance was boosted with its “four-into-six” porting, four spark plugs and factory dual pipes in a machine now called the LTD 4/6. This basically added two small booster ports to the cylinder, so the T-7 engine geometry of four transfer ports was maintained, but they updated the cylinder wall to a total of six scavenging ports. While the estimated six to seven additional horsepower was nice, a larger radiator was added to help keep the more powerful 440 running cool. This larger radiator was laid down horizontally, requiring a large bulge added to the top right of the hood to help with airflow. Unfortunately, this disturbed the otherwise clean lines of the Invader hood. For more performance however, something else was going to be required.

From 1971 until 1980, Kawasaki had two families of piston-ported twin-cylinder snowmobile engines. The T-1 based motors were used in most of the ’71-’75 Cats. The slightly newer T-7 family of motors that debuted in the 1973 EXTs and El Tigres had a wider cylinder spacing, enabling larger transfer ports and more cooling fin area, giving the T-7 motors more performance potential over the T-1 design. For example, the ’71-’75 Panthers and ’79-’84 Trailfires were T-1 based. But the ’74 Sno Pro motors, Invader and Liquifire liquids along with the Intruder and Sportfire fans were T-7 based architecture.

To stay well-armed in the escalating horsepower wars for 1981, Kawasaki released an all new 440cc twin, called the “Square Block” featuring eight scavenging ports, a large rectangular one-piece head, four spark plugs, oil injection and significantly increased horsepower over the mid-70’s numbers of the 4/6. This new engine also had a significantly reduced part count over the T-7 based LC 440s.

The new eight-port 440 was only offered in the 1981 LTD, again with factory dual pipes and the larger cooling system. It had the bulging hood of the previous years 4/6 too. Electric start was an option, and the king / queen 2-up seat was standard. Kawi seemed to be marking the sled as the top of the line performance / 2-up / good as it gets machine. However, between the shrinking market and confusing positioning, it didn’t hit hard with consumers like the original Invader did. The original 440 Invader was still offered in ’81, along with the fan-cooled Intruder and budget-minded, deep-snow marketed Drifters, but there was room at the top for more. Starting in the late 70s, top of line performance sleds were starting to turn past 440cc LC twins. Polaris raised the bar with the big triple 500cc Centurion liquid in ’79. Then Cat hit back released the 500cc El Tigre in 1980, and gained the title of the “World’s Fastest” in ’81. While Kawi’s new eight-port 440 was a solid response to the escalating size and horsepower war in 1981, they had one more trick up their sleeve for 1982.
1977 Kawasaki racing snowmobile
Leaf or IFS. According to Shark researcher Larry Preston, most started out with leaf spring front ends at the beginning of the 1977 race season, but both leaf spring and IFS options were available. This re-creation is owned by Brad Warning.
The Interceptor 550
For 1982 Kawasaki released their best, and unfortunately, final attempt at a performance machine. It seemed to capture the magic of the original Invader. Performance came with a 530cc eight-port twin engine with dual plugs, dual carbs and dual pipes. While sharing the external appearance of the ’81 LTD 440 motor and having a common 65mm stroke, increasing the bore from 65mm to 72mm made all the difference. Power was 86 hp at 8,200 rpm, breathing through Keihin butterfly accelerator carbs fed by dual fuel pumps into piston porting, then out to tuned pipes. Good handling came with a ski stance stretched to 34-inches and a “Vari-Ride” rear suspension that was marketed as “acceleration prioritized.”

The track was actually shortened from the Invader’s 121 inches to 116 inches like the El Tigre, Blizzards and Liquifire of the era. The aggressive styling was nailed with a gloss black paint job and removal of the awkward bulge from the LTD hood. The windshield even had a cool boarder pinstripe around the edge and it finally got a nice pleated single seat.

In addition to the two-page spread advertising campaigns that Kawi took out on the Interceptor, the sled earned some free press by appearing on several snowmobile magazine front covers. The machine was strong enough to win a popular competition shootout back in the day by having the second fastest acceleration and second best handing in field testing. The sled was well received by consumers, but Kawasaki only built 601 of them, making them a scarce commodity once the snow hit.

With Kawi also unloading the Drifters and surprisingly the original Invader for ’82, that only left Interceptors, 440cc LTDs and 440 FC Intruders on the showroom floors as new iron that season. Disappointing to many owners and dealers at the time, Kawi surrendered to the crushing market of the early ’80s and called it quits after the ’82 model year. They were done building machines, but did continue to supply Deere motors until they threw in the towel after their small run of 1984 models.
Over the 15 model years Kawasaki was involved in the snowmobile market, they powered two major brands, purchased another in between and made a splash on the way in and out with their own unique ground-up models. Their demise in the snow biz wasn’t for lack of effort.

What would the future have held for Kawasaki snowmobiles if snow would have been different? Well, the ’83 Interceptor prototype competed in the next model year shootout, but failed to repeat its previous victory. The Interceptor would have come in second overall…except for the fact that Kawasaki pulled the plug on snowmobile operations right after the contest, disqualifying the sled and the results. The prototype featured factory installed slide rail lubricators, and improved air box and a few other detail changes.

Kawi was also testing strut IFS sleds with long-travel rear suspensions in the early 80s, so who knows what updated chassis the 530cc twin could have eventually found itself in. Interesting to note that while the “square block” 440 and 530 motors have a large one-piece head, they used separate jugs in production. But, this author has personally seen a 530 with a one-piece mono-block “bathtub” jug, similar in style to the little 340 LC Sprintfire motor KHI provided Deere from ’82-84. Seems that Kawasaki was keeping an eye down the road right until the good times rolled on.
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