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

By Mitch Boehm, Photography by Motorcyclist Archives

“Muth was quite well known at the time,” says Ted Cymbaly, president of the Classic Katana Owners of North America website (classickatanaownersna.com). “He had quite a bit of design history under his belt, and a good reputation, so he was a natural to present the project. He was out front on the Katana, so he naturally got the lion’s share of credit. But people sometimes forget that Kasten and Fellstrom did a lot of the actual design work; Fellstrom’s name is on all the sketches, remember.”

Fellstrom and Kasten had even more impact on the project, going to Japan for several weeks as the model transformed from hand-built mock-up to actual production motorcycle—as intricate a process as you’ll find in all of motorcycle production. Historically, some prototypes emerge on the production line vastly different than initially designed, sometimes with poor results. With help from Kasten and Fellstrom, the production-ready open-class Kat was very, very close to the model Target submitted to Suzuki, and that paid dividends down the road.

The production open-class Katana debuted in Europe in mid-1981, and by fall was available in the U.S. and Canada as a 1982 model. America’s 1025cc displacement limit in Superbike racing kept the U.S.-spec Katana to 998cc as opposed to the 1100cc version available everywhere else. Suzuki got its homologation special by reducing the GS1100 engine 2mm in bore and 1.2mm in stroke. To keep power on par with the 1100cc version, cam timing was tweaked slightly, the TSCC (Twin Swirl Combustion Chamber) chambers were modified, the airbox was revised and a smaller-diameter alternator rotor fitted. Beefier con-rods and tougher valve-seat material were employed with an eye toward the harder-core use a racer might encounter. The result was a bike just a touch slower than the stock GS1100, a fact the major magazines didn’t fail to notice.

The press’s reaction to the Katana was a mixed bag. Several books had the Big Kat on their December 1981 covers, including Motorcyclist and Cycle Guide, with futuristic layouts that stressed the starship, flashbike and quantum-leap aspects of the bike’s aesthetics. But styling was clearly a love-hate issue. “If visual impact is the Katana’s primary reason for being,” wrote Cycle Guide, “then it is a rousing, unqualified success. Because no matter where this motorcycle goes, it turns heads and draws stares like a flasher at a church social. But while there’s no doubt Muth’s creation is the most spellbinding motorcycle to come along in quite some time, there is some question as to why: Do people gawk at it because it is pleasing to the eye, or is it simply too bizarre for anyone to not look at it?”

Others loved the Kat’s rakish lines and racer-inspired riding position. “What a treat!,” wrote Jeff Karr in Motorcyclist. “To a hard-core roadracer like myself, the Katana is a dream come true. In a forest of tall, pull-back bars, the Katana sprouts clip-ons—real clip-ons! I admire Suzuki’s boldness,” added Karr, “and I’m impressed with the Katana—as long as I don’t have to tour on it.”

Functionally, there were complaints. Vibration through the bars and pegs was excessive. The riding position, reasonably mellow by today’s standards, was a bit masochistic, and the bike’s stiff, overdamped suspension (put in place to maximize cornering clearance

that was only so-so due to the wide engine and less-than-racy chassis) didn’t help the comfort factor, hammering butts and wrists, and making any sort of freeway or straight-road use tiresome at best. Those narrow clip-ons made the Katana slow steering, uncovering a chassis characteristic obscured by the GS1100E’s tiller-like handlebar.

Where the Katana really shined was at speed, on racer road or at the track itself. “Suzuki’s pure-sport design priorities pay off with excellent handling at racing speeds,” wrote Motorcyclist, “both on the street and the track. The Katana is one of the most enjoyable high-speed handlers you can buy, and would make the ideal basis for a production road racer.”

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