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...
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.