Thirty Years of the (Original) Suzuki Katana | Time Machine

By Mitch Boehm, Photography by Motorcyclist Archives

Spellbinding. Swoopy. Futuristic. Otherworldly. Bombshell. Radical. Quantum leap. Hellacious. And even Holy $&it! These aren’t descriptors usually heard about streetbikes from the late-’70s and early ’80s. But in 1982 the adjectives were colorful, and they were flying.

Japanese streetbikes of that era were descendants of the legendary CB750 and Z1, do-it-all machines that were almost all function and very little flash. With flat seats, large tanks, reasonable ergonomics and bulletproof engines, the KZs, GSs, CB-Fs and XSs of the day proved durable and capable. But a decade after the 750 Four’s debut, these Universal Japanese Motorcycles had grown stale and derivative, with sales trends proving the point. America yawned, Japan worried.

As the most conservative of the Big Four, Suzuki felt the biggest sting of staid styling and design. Its management knew the lineup needed something big, exciting, and flashy to inject a shot of adrenaline into enthusiasts’ attitudes as well as its own sales figures.

That something was the 1982 GS1000S Katana—the generator of each of those aforementioned adjectives, as well as plenty that weren’t so positive. But the Katana (a 1000 in the U.S, an 1100 elsewhere) did more than deliver on Suzuki’s flashbike/excitement needs. It altered the direction of sportbike styling forever, while morphing the perception of Suzuki from a conservative builder to a leading-edge, design-savvy company—an impression amplified three years later with the introduction of the GSX-R.

Today, 30 years after its debut in the U.S. and Canada, the original open-class Katana looks surprisingly current. Its shark-nosed, rapier-like quarter fairing and rounded/angular tank are modern and purposeful, and similar to many of today’s ultra-tech sportbikes. Its race-spec cockpit was way ahead of its time, with real clip-ons and a trick instrument panel. The old-tech twin shocks, a 19-inch front wheel, skinny fork tubes and a big, wide, anchor-like inline-four show its age—and help underline that the Kat was more a styling exercise than a technological breakthrough—but the Katana’s overall shape holds up.

Considering how bikes are traditionally developed within Japanese companies, the Katana was unique. Manfred Becker, Suzuki Germany marketing manager, commissioned the project in 1979 from newly formed Target Design, which was run by ex-BMW Styling Chief Hans Muth. Becker had instructions from Suzuki Japan to look into something new, exciting and bolder than what the company had done thus far, and he tapped Target for the job. Once employed, Muth recruited two previous BMW colleagues, Georg Kasten and Jan Fellstrom.

“The Suzuki thing started [through] the contact between Hans [Muth] and [Manfred] Becker, who was in charge of marketing [for] Suzuki Germany.” Kasten said recently, “Suzuki Japan was already working with Italdesign and expected nothing from [the Target] connection. They only asked for a sporty layout for a 650cc four, which later became the 650/550 Katana. Suzuki Japan was quite impressed with our design, and gave us a short briefing for a top-of-the-line model they wanted to build. ‘Create a Southern European sport bike,’ they said, ‘based on the existing GS1100.’ That’s all they said!

“There were no restrictions,” Kasten remembers. “Nobody pushed us in any direction. There was just Jan and me, and we quickly realized we’d be able to do what we could never do at BMW: realize our dream of how a sport motorcycle should look. There was a lot of functional thinking behind the

shapes. The knee area had to be narrow, but the tank needed reasonable capacity. That’s how its shape came to be. Also, the bike had to be stable at speed, which is why we fixed the headlight to the frame and added an aerodynamic cowl.”

Kasten and Fellstrom began with sketches, and eventually morphed the shapes they’d come up with into three-dimensional pieces that were fixed to a GS1100 rolling chassis Suzuki provided. The finished model, given the name ED2 (which stood for European Design 2), soon went to Japan. Suzuki management loved the bike’s aesthetic treatment, green-flagged it for the show circuit and, a year later, once they’d gauged interest from enthusiasts, journalists and distributors, okayed it for production.

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