Those of a certain vintage will remember it well; 1980 and the world was modernising dramatically. On the social front Jake and Elwood Blues were leading the old bill straight into a car wreck, Kenny Rogers told the story of the counties coward and in the UK the Police didn’t want anyone standing close by. My teenage years were coming to an end so I dyed part of my fringe ‘green’ but winning the ‘biggest shock of the year award’ was Suzuki’s ceremonial sword. The GSX 1100S Katana landed from the planet Krypton and overnight everyone chose a side…love it or hate it; Suzuki presented a real Marmite moment on two wheels.
The idea was as masterful as the swordsman who welded the sacred blade, a perfect title for a machine that cut a new path, but it wasn’t conceived in Japan…no the Anglo-German company Target Design located in Bavaria were to blame. The project didn’t even start with a Japanese bike; in 1979 the base was actually supplied by MV, an Augusta that was modified by Target when producing their ‘motorcycle of the future’ for a feature in Motorrad Magazine. A competition that put the newly formed Target against both Ital and Porsche Design houses and when their MV took victory it must have stirred the juices of someone in Hamamatsu. Evidentially, Suzuki put a simple request to Target Design which was ‘give us a European type design’ and within months the 650 and 1100cc version were offered and accepted. The clay model enjoyed the wind tunnel before a prototype was constructed, this was shoved around Europe from show to show in 1980. At the end of that year the first production versions appeared and although similar there were several alterations made from the display version, one correspondent referred to the differences as ‘real world changes’ the consequence of production realities. 1981 saw the arrival of the 650 version and towards the back end of that year American’s got the GSX1000S, homologated for AMA and available in limited numbers…more on that later.
It wasn’t all about the striking appearance, far from it and Suzuki enjoyed the ideal base for the Katana by utilising their 1075cc motor from the GSX1100 with its 16 valves and impressive performance through the range. They then upped the ante with some clever tuning with a modified airbox and carbs, plus camshaft work plus lightened alternator. This allowed a further 11 bhp to be extracted from the engine that already hit the 100bhp milestone. The twin cradle steel frame remained quite conventional but with the stiffen
ed suspension and shallower steering angle the machine inherited more purpose although some riders complained the ride as too harsh. Suzuki acknowledged it was a heavy bike (241kg-530lbs) but that extra poundage also increased stability which would surely be appreciated as riders approached the terminal velocity of 140mph. They knew the bar had been moved ever higher with their Katana but to secure the models place in history it would have to be seen on track. The ‘Stateside’ AMA series was the target and to gain entry the 1075cc was reworked for the sub 1 litre series with slide carbs and production models named GS1000S Katana. The 1000S didn’t frequent the UK market and maybe that was a good thing being more aggressively set up. One American journo complained this race derived spec meant the bike was only good at one thing and went on ‘the stiff springs are great at racing speed but the bike becomes unresponsive to small bumps and ripples in the pavement. The vibrations between 3500-4000 rpm are agonizing and are exactly where you will be cruising at highway speeds. Your wrists take a beating, shoulders tire quickly, and some riders complain of wind blast so bad that it causes headaches. The range at highway speed is directly proportional to the rider’s ability to stand physical discomfort’. Highway comfort is mentioned by the author since it was felt that every rider will have to endure some interstate to “find the local curvery”. In Europe the GSX1100S first stunned the 1980 Cologne show but didn’t arrive on the showroom floor until late 1981 when Suzuki announced with much pride their Space Invader has ‘sharp contours that almost resemble a lightening flash…whilst both design and functions are born out of a dedicated search for super performance’. Yes, everything was ‘razor sharp’ or ‘warrior idden’ whilst the majority of riders finally accepted the radical appearance, once ridden most took the model to their hearts.
Road Testers View
Classic Bike summed up the Katana both then and now with their statement. ‘A machine that polarised opinion with space aged styling. Those in favour turned the GSX into a cult bike, a truly Global effort from Suzuki producing a big in-line four that still rocks the classic world today’. Bike Magazine headed their road test in 1982 ‘Much Too Fast Enough’ and the tester Brecon Quaddy went on to explain he rated the Katana as a truly sporting mega-bike on the lines of all those Jotas and Mirages the Italians have been serving up for years. How did they do it for the sticker price of £2850.00 in 1982? Simply, all those mopeds and thousands of smaller machines subsidised this masterpiece; and quite right too. He collected his mount from Suzuki head office, located in Croydon and was immediately advised that the worst part of the bike were its Bridgestone tyres, these could be lethal in the wet…and it was raining. The test report is still an excellent read 36 years later with some classic quotes including controlling the Katana’s over enthusiastic throttle response in heavy traffic ‘as a martial art’. The rear suspension ‘Bike’ decided was as forgiving as a hardtail whilst Suzuki’s claim their screen protected against buffeting at speed was only true for those under six foot tall. Their conclusion; this is a man’s bike and you can’t ride it half-heartedly or in other words if you didn’t grab it by the collar it could take you for the roughest ride. MCN got hold of their test bike in 1983 and they pointed out several interesting characteristics that many road riders may not even notice. At 135mph their Katana began to shake its head, not dangerously but ‘food for thought’ whilst strong side winds affected the design dramatically at such speeds. Whilst they praised the frontal suspension set-up the standard rear shocks were described as a ‘problem’ especially on long fast corners where the rear tended to wallow. The brakes were considered the finest of all in-period ‘mega-bikes’ and the package offered as much power as most enthusiastic bikers could require. They concluded with their prediction the Katana was ‘the future, shape of things to come’.
Looking Back Riders View
70s tearaway Gary James, bike shop worker in-period, either owned, borrowed or blagged most of the era’s two wheelers…He always shares an opinion, whether we like it or not! He thinks … we wanted something different in 1980 but not that different. The styling works better nearly 40 years later than it did at the time, for many in-period it was an expensive concept that went on to obtain legendary status for being unusual.
It surprised me to learn that as early as 1982 the ‘Big Kat’ was fast disappearing from many international markets, the model had barely got into its stride whilst smaller 550 and 650 options came onto the stage. The Americans had received limited numbers of the 1000S for road use and then replaced all options with the GSX1100E. Certainly, far less attractive whilst presenting a humbler appearance, it was considered in keeping with the sensitive ‘Stateside’ marketplace. Meanwhile, the original remained the ‘main course’ for those in Europe and to prevent re-imports heading for their home market Suzuki offered the Katana in a 750cc format which proved a huge success. Minor detail changes affected the Mark 2 ‘Big Kat’ for 1983 but already the 750 option had enjoyed an upgrade and with the 650/500 versions the 1100 was losing sales to its own family in many markets. The faithful had already purchased and those unsure had another choice by 1984 when the GSX1100EFE inherited the role of ‘flagship’ further increasing the range; the original Katana was still available in many European showrooms but were most likely the ‘finale’ and no longer window display. Things couldn’t be more different within Suzuki’s home market as the 750 Katana was updated to the S3 model with it flip up headlight; still selling in good numbers it would survive until 86; even against the all new GSXR. By 1988 the old stocks had been sold and if anything, the mystery of the original Katana had become enhanced; cult status was being rumoured even then. The American importers did their best to ruin the good name of the model by plastering Katana stickers across the GSX600/750F range of machines; luckily in Europe this wasn’t considered good form.
By 1990 demise and legacy combine, when Suzuki chose to celebrate their 70th anniversary by releasing 200 original Katana’s. All reproduced to the spec seen exactly a decade before, individually numbered in any colour you preferred as long as it was silver… they all sold on the day of release. They repeated the process exactly a year later and were greeted with equal buyer enthusiasm. The Katana brand had now achieved cult status which no doubt contributed to the arrival in 1991 of the ‘replica’ options. With 250 and the brilliant 400 Katanas selling like ‘hot noodles’ in Japan it was 1993 before the production line slowed and new options took control. A decade had passed since your average Brit could grab one of the final official ‘Big Kats’ but the grey import scene began to rejoice when once again the Katana model GSX1100SR exited the factory in 1994; an unlimited run that only concluded with the closing of the production line just prior to the new millennium. And yes, to end it all a final (no honestly this was the last model) limited edition ‘SY’ which took the now iconic Katana brand from 1980 to 2001. The popularity of the Katana had just increased over those two decades and with nearly two more since it’s the bike that pleases many of us more than any other. It may not seem as radical in 2018 as it did in 1980; we are used to being surprised when it comes to two-wheel transport. Nevertheless, any UK show goer will flock to admire one of Japan’s finest exports, we would all love to open our garage doors and see the razor-sharp styling parked within. A small group of young designers sat round a table near Munich and enjoyed an epiphany in the late 1970s…one we are still talking about today and maybe tomorrow with concepts and rumours abound bearing the Katana name.
Grant Ford for classic-motorbikes.net
Suzuki Katana GSX1100S Technical Specification
Wheel Base: 59.8in
Seat Height: 30.5in
Ground Clearance: 6.9in
Weight: 530lbs wet
Brakes Front: 2 x 275mm disc
Rear Brakes: 1 x 275 mm disc
Fuel Capacity: 4.8 Imperial gallons
Type: Air cooled DOHC
Cylinders: In line 4 – 16 valve
Compression Ratio: 9.5 – 1
Carbs: 4 x 34mm Mikuni BS34SS
Max Power: 111bhp @ 8500rpm
Torque: 70.9 lbs @ 6500rpm
Top Speed: 140mph
Standing ¼ mile 11.6 @ 121mph
Front: Four-way adjustable preload coil spring with anti-dive
Rear: 2 x Kayaba Shocks with 4 damper/5 spring positions
Clutch: Wet multi-plate type
Transmission: 5 speed constant mesh
Final Drive: Chain
Starting System: Electric motor
Battery: 12 Volt
Fuel consumption: 44mpg