History of Katana: The Cool Kitty

History of Katana: The Cool Kitty

Did you know that the Katana actually started as a design exercise? Find out what went into the making of this neo retro

The name ‘Katana’ brings to mind a sharp, curved blade, used by the Samurai of feudal Japan.

Fitting then, that the name would be used on the winner of a cutting-edge design exercise that German motorcycle magazine Motorrad started back in 1979. They invited three famous design houses to provide ideas for how motorcycles should look in the forthcoming ‘space-age’ 1980s.

Porsche Design, Ital Design and Target Design took part and it was one based on a 750cc MV Agusta shaft-drive four from Target that won and was displayed at the IFMA Cologne show at the end of 1979.

Target had been founded that very year by Hans-Georg Kasten, Jan Fellstrom and Hans Muth. Kasten had started his design career at Porsche in the 1970s and later worked at BMW on motorcycles such as the GS80. Muth had already established a reputation by designing the first properly aerodynamic motorcycle, the BMW R100 R S sports tourer.

The response to their design was huge – so much so that Suzuki asked Target to produce something similar. By March 1980 Fellstrom’s sketches of the new bike were being released. This was the prototype ED-2 (ED stood for ‘European Design’) version of the then-new GSX1100. It had many features of the original MV Agusta design, including that shark-esque bikini nose fairing and sculptured tank and seat, as well as low-set clip-on handlebars.

With the bike suddenly looking so sharp, curved and slim it was inevitable that this new machine would be named after the sharp, slim samurai blade – the Katana.

By September 1980, the refined production version was shown at the Cologne motorcycle show and for some this looked a little watered down. Suzuki had put standard indicators on the bike, while the pipe had been replaced with a black chrome four-into-two one. A small fly screen topped the snout and off-the-shelf Suzook mirrors added some visual bulk.

At the GSX1100S’ heart was the solid, 111bhp tuner-friendly four-cylinder air-cooled 1075cc motor, featuring the TSCC (Twin Swirl Combustion Chambers) which helped with cleaner, more efficient combustion. This motor helped the machine become one of the fastest bikes on the road in 1981, capable of around 225kmph.

It was inevitable that this rolling piece of art would spawn a few different family members. These would include the race-homologation GSX1000S (999cc to keep within the capacity for racing, especially in the TT Formula 1 class) the shaft-drive GS650G Katana (1981) and a similar looking GS550 chain-drive version (1982), although both these lacked the ‘shark’ nose fairing.

The year 1982 would also see small-capacity versions launched for the Japanese home market, including the 250cc and 400cc Katanas and a GS125S four-stroke single-cylinder ‘Kat’. 1984 would see the controversial ‘pop-up’ headlight Katana – the GSX750S3 arrive and it wouldn’t be the end of the controversy surrounding the name.

Over the years the name has been used on 50cc scooters and (heaven forbid) in the USA the GSX-600F and 750F was even called ‘Katana’: in the UK, we called the original versions the ‘Teapot’! There was even a 400cc version of this machine in the Japanese market.

Purists feel the Katana name should stick with those original machines and those modelled on the originals themselves, which had a long life. For example, in 1990 – for Suzuki’s 70th anniversary – a batch of 200 GSX1100S Katanas was made, almost identical to the 1981 machines and all were sold to collectors.

As we headed into the 1990s, the Katana brand was still strong, with GSX250S and GSX400S models being launched, some coming into the UK via the strong ‘grey import’ market of the time. This helped the resurrection of the original 1100 Katana once more, which came back into the Suzuki range (in Japan) and again UK owners would chase them through the grey import marketplace before production ceased in 2001 – some 20 years after the original Katana was launched.

The final machines – the GSX1100SR – featured many updates, including a strengthened frame, four-piston Nissin brake calipers with 300mm floating discs, a gold-finished drive chain, bolt-on footrests, an electrically-power-assisted clutch lever and a special top yoke with an engraved serial number. Maximum power was limited to 96bhp by a smaller air intake and exhaust pipes, while the top speed capped at 180kph by the ignition system.

And what of that original Suzuki Katana prototype? Well, in 2006 it was restored by Target Design – and donated by Hans-Georg Kasten to the Motorradmuseum Eggenburg in Austria.

With such a strong family tree and a big following, there is little wonder that Suzuki felt the time was right to bring back the Katana name on a performance motorcycle. And while some purists may howl that the 2020 Katana (confusingly coming out in 2019) is merely a new set of clothes draped over an existing model, that’s just what the original Katana was back in 1981…

Suzuki Katana timeline:

1979 - The prototype Katana – Target Design’s ED-2 – debuts at the Cologne Show to much rejoicing. Suzuki decide to put it (and the smaller ED-1) into production

1980 - Production GSX1100SZ is unveiled at Cologne Show

1981 - The Suzuki GSX1100S-Z Katana goes on sale along with new GS650G shaftie and GS550M. Homologation- special GSX1000S Katana qualifies for production racing, most importantly TT-F1

1982 - Japan-only GSX750S Katana goes on sale. Essentially it’s a GSX1100S, but with a GSX750E motor and a larger back wheel. Some made it to the UK as grey imports. The tiddler GS125E, with Katana-shaped tank, is also launched this year

1983 - Last year of GSX1100S in

slightly modified form, with revised wheels, colours and other details. Japan-only GSX750S updated to GSX750S2 now with 16-inch front wheel

1984 - The new Japan-only GSX750S3 launched. This is based heavily on the GSX750EFE with revised styling including the infamous ‘pop-up’ headlamp. This was very briefly officially available in the UK, although most that are around today are grey imports

1985 - Suzuki GSX-R750F launched: all Katana models officially dropped in Europe

1990 - A batch of 200 Katana GSX1100s are produced for Japan market, all individually numbered and sold to collectors

1991 - A second batch of 200 GSX1100 Katanas are made. The replica GSX250S and GSX400S Katanas also debut in Japan. A number make it to UK as grey imports

1994 - The popular 250cc and 400cc Katanas are deleted, but a further evolved 1100 goes back into production for the Japanese market only with changes such as more modern brakes and a 95bhp power restriction

2001 - The last 1100 Katana is built

2018 - The ‘new’ 2020 Katana is launched. Based heavily on the existing Suzuki GSX-S1000F model, it uses the GSX-R1000K5 motor in the S1000F frame, but with design elements very reminiscent of the original Katana

2019 - The Yoshimura Katana is set to be revealed at EICMA 2020, the bike will get a lot of new body panels all over with a full Yoshimura exhaust system.

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