What is it about Katanas?

The Suzuki Katana changed the way we viewed mo­tor­cy­cles and it still in­flu­ences the look of bikes to­day. We find out why...

Motorcycle News (UK) - - Feature - By Phil West MCN CON­TRIB­U­TOR

There’s no doubt one of the most sig­nif­i­cant names in Ja­panese mo­tor­cy­cle model his­tory is that of the Suzuki Katana.

Like the Kawasaki Ninja or Honda Fire­blade which both fol­lowed, the Katana was not just one model but a whole fam­ily of bikes. Like those, the Katana was not just a cat­e­gory of ma­chine but a whole de­sign ethos. And yet un­like those, the Katana was also very spe­cific to an era: the early 80s.

From 1980-1985, if you fan­cied a Suzuki ca­pa­ble of send­ing shiv­ers down your spine – you wanted a Katana.

That sig­nif­i­cance is down to a num­ber of things: first, and most ob­vi­ously, the 1980 GSX1100S Katana, to give the orig­i­nal its full name, looked, with its sharp an­gles, blended-in body­work and space-age sil­ver liv­ery, like noth­ing else.

Sec­ond, with the orig­i­nal 1100 flagged by Suzuki as the ‘world’s fastest pro­duc­tion mo­tor­cy­cle’, the first Katana also had the per­for­mance cred­i­bil­ity to back up its pe­cu­liar cos­met­ics.

While last, but by no means least, the whole fam­ily of Katanas which fol­lowed, rang­ing from more ac­ces­si­ble mid­dleweights like the GS650G shaftie and af­ford­able 550, to the ho­molo­ga­tion spe­cial GSX1000S (com­plete with Mikuni smooth­bore carbs) to the last true orig­i­nal Katana, 1984’s GSX750S3 with dis­tinc­tive, pop-up head­lamp, gave the Katana fam­ily a breadth, a per­for­mance pedi­gree and a tech­no­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance that, over­all, was mas­sively in­flu­en­tial.

And yet the Katana nearly didn’t hap­pen at all. Com­mis­sioned ini­tially as a one-off de­sign ex­er­cise, a con­cept bike was first dis­played in 1979 and pub­lic re­ac­tion was so great that the Katana ended up be­ing much, much more. Con­cept bikes don’t usu­ally make it into pro­duc­tion, af­ter all – they’re too wild for that. And even when they do, as with Yamaha’s MT-01 or Suzuki’s own B-king, they usu­ally end up be­ing sales flops.

But the Katana was dif­fer­ent from the off – in be­ing the first Ja­panese mo­tor­cy­cle styled by an ex­ter­nal de­sign house. In the late 1970s, Suzuki had be­come con­cerned about the stag­nat­ing de­sign of the ‘Universal Ja­panese Mo­tor­cy­cles’ of the era and wanted to make its bikes stand out. And, with

‘With its sharp an­gles and spaceage sil­ver liv­ery, it looked like noth­ing else’

its Euro­pean HQ be­ing in Ger­many, Suzuki Ger­many mar­ket­ing man­ager Man­fred Becker turned to new­ly­formed Ger­man stylists, Tar­get De­sign.

Tar­get, com­pris­ing founder Han­sGe­org Kas­ten, Jan Fell­strom and Hans Muth, had sprung to promi­nence with a restyled MV Agusta. But this Suzuki com­mis­sion en­abled Tar­get, and par­tic­u­larly Fell­strom (who was the main cre­ative force be­hind the Katana) to take those ideas fur­ther still.

Suzuki’s first com­mis­sion was for a sportier ver­sion of its 650cc four­cylin­der shaftie. Tar­get’s re­sult was the ED-1 650 (ED stand­ing for Euro­pean De­sign), which later be­came the GS650G and GS550 Katanas. Suzuki Ja­pan, mean­while, was suf­fi­ciently im­pressed to quickly fol­low this up with a sec­ond com­mis­sion for a topof-the-line sports model based on the then GSX1100. The half-faired ED-2 1100 (which be­came the GSX1100S) was what Tar­get came up with next.

And it’s this bike, first shown at the Cologne Show in the Au­tumn of 1979, which was the start of the whole Katana sen­sa­tion. With its rad­i­cal, an­gu­lar pu­rity rang­ing from its wedge-shaped, frame-mounted fair­ing (con­ceived to en­sure the sta­bil­ity at speed Suzuki re­quested); faired-in side pan­els and stumpy short seat, the new pro­to­type, although based on an un­changed GSX1100 frame, en­gine and cy­cle parts, was sim­ply show­stop­pingly dif­fer­ent.

In fact, Suzuki was so em­bold­ened by the re­ac­tion that it de­cided to put both into pro­duc­tion and the rest, as they say, is his­tory. In truth, the 1100 in par­tic­u­lar, ac­tu­ally wasn’t a huge sales suc­cess as many were put off by those ex­treme looks and its high price – but nor was it a dis­as­ter. And while the 1100 had al­ready been deleted by 1983, its brief, shining ex­is­tence, the pop­u­lar­ity of the more sub­tle 650 and

‘They are still tempt­ing, strik­ing and sig­nif­i­cant bikes’

550 ver­sions and Suzuki’s per­sis­tence in ap­ply­ing wa­tered-down el­e­ments of Katana de­sign across its whole range in the early 80s (ev­ery­thing from the GS125 to the GSX550 to the GSX1100 re­tained shades of Katana), meant the Katana re­mained hugely sig­nif­i­cant.

The Katana fam­ily had been con­ceived to give Suzuki’s air-cooled GSX sport­sters added style. With the GSX made re­dun­dant by the first oil-cooled, racer-replica GSX-R in 1985 the Katana’s job, you might have thought, was done. Ex­cept… it didn’t quite work out that way.

First, Suzuki re­tained the Katana name ap­ply­ing it to all man­ner of ar­guably less-deserving machines in the US.

Sec­ond, Suzuki re­vived the orig­i­nal 1100 Katana when, in 1990, to cel­e­brate the com­pany’s 70th an­niver­sary, it re­man­u­fac­tured 200 Katana 1100s in to­tally orig­i­nal 1980 spec­i­fi­ca­tion.

Third, Suzuki the same year (1991) pre-empted the cur­rent retro fash­ion by pro­duc­ing for the do­mes­tic Ja­panese market a 250cc, four-cylin­der Katana replica based on the then Ban­dit 250. This was fol­lowed up with a 400cc ver­sion.

And you can pick up a 400 or a 550 to­day for peanuts. The orig­i­nal big bore bikes may fetch up to £10k but they’re all still tempt­ing, strik­ing and sig­nif­i­cant bikes. Af­ter all, with­out the Katana, the first Ja­panese bike to take bold de­sign se­ri­ously, we might still be rid­ing UJMS…

Ho­molo­ga­tion spe­cial GSX1000S were used to race

It was a time of Star Wars and the Space Shut­tle and the Katana-in­spired XN 8 5 Tur bo

The Katana’s built-in side­pan­els started a se­ri­ous trend

The word Katana is a sin­gle-bladed Samu­rai sword

The clocks were bor­rowed from the Mil­len­nium Fal­con

Anti-dive forks were high tech at the time

The 750 came with a pop-up head­light MCN re­cently raced a re­built Katana in a clas­sic en­durance event The Katana is still a strik­ing ma­chine, nearly 40 years af­ter it first ap­peared FAIR ENOUGH The fu­tur­is­tic fair­ing made ev­ery­one sit up and take no­tice. It was Suzuki’s at­tempt to em­brace Euro­pean style.

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