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.

“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.”

The truly groundbreaking styling sent performance expectations through the roof. But the Katana really was largely just a restyled GS1100 UJM—it was not the huge performance jump the GSX-R would be. Still, the Katana has earned a spot on many enthusiasts’ I-gotta-have-one lists, proving that time tends to wash away most functional shortcomings.

“I was a BMW guy,” says Cymbaly, “and I still own some. But I always loved the Katana’s look. After my divorce, I had to find one, and finally did. Now I have 25 of the things, parked all over my house! The Katana really did bring Suzuki out of the dark ages stylistically. Our website celebrates the bike and its legacy, with tech stuff, news and rally information from all over the world.”

Suzuki’s first-generation open-class Katana was heralded as a look into the future, positing in metal what all sportbikes would surely look like in the years to come. Most times the headlights of bikes like the Katana illuminate only stylistic dead ends, but there’s no denying the influence it has had on motorcycle design in the three decades since it shocked the world.




Collector’s Edition

One Man’s Katana Obsession Exposed

Most prototypes and styling models end up being crushed, or put into a manufacturer’s museum. Not so the ED2, which today sits in the collection of Cleveland’s Ken Edgar, a Katana collector extraordinaire whose bikes we photographed for this story. Ken owns amazing collection of Katanas, more than a dozen in all. The three biggies are the ED2 model, the 0-mile ’82 Katana pictured on this story’s lead spread, and the Wes Cooley Yoshimura racer, which Cooley rode during 1982, the final season of 1025cc Superbike competition.

“Someone in the Katana community gave me a heads-up about the ED2 model going to auction with Bonham’s,” Edgar told us. “I registered as a phone bidder, and surprisingly, I got the thing for under $10,000, which I think is a steal. It’s not rideable, and all of the body parts are fragile and hand-made. But that’s what makes is special to me; it’s where the production Katana, which I love, came from. It had been in a museum in Austria, and it went back to the Target guys to be semi-restored before it went to auction; I guess it was pretty beat up beforehand.”

“I was blown away the very first time I saw a Katana,” says Edgar. “I was 15 at the time, watching Battlestar Gallactica and Star Wars, and the styling hit me square in the chest. I couldn’t afford one, and didn’t even have my driver’s license. But I knew I’d have one someday… and now I have a dozen!”

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