Katana – The Suzuki born in Bavaria

Bike Profile

OBA Issue 15
Bryan Thompson's 1981 Suzuki Katana – a wire-wheeled 1100 ‘Six Hour Special’.

The boom in big-capacity motorcycles that began in the late 1960s continued unabated a decade later, and the annual end-of-year shows, in Milan and Cologne (which rotated year about) and Tokyo always contained a few kite-flying exercises from the major manufacturers. One such was at the 1980 IFMA show in October, when Suzuki pulled the wraps off the most radically-styled machine yet to come out of Japan, a country with its motor industry built and based on conservative thinking and logical progression.

There was good reason for this, as the new Suzuki (announced in 1100 cc, 650 cc and 550 cc versions) was not Japanese-inspired at all, but the product of a collaboration between the German Suzuki importer, a fledgling design house based in Bavaria and staffed by three young tyros, and the tacit blessing of the parent company. The company was called Target Design, and what they created was the Katana, the name taken from the curved, singed-edged sword wielded by the Japanese warrior elite; the Samurai.

Target Design consisted of Hans Muth, Hans-Georg Kasten and Jan Felstrsm. Muth and Kasten had previous motorcycling experience, the former having been involved with the ungainly NSU car-engined Munch Mammoth and the R90S BMW, while Kasten had a hand in the design and development of the original K-series in-line four BMW. Prior to their appointment with the Suzuki ED project (ED = European Design), Target had a hand in an extremely radical design exercise applied to an MV Agusta 750, and several key elements, particularly the distinctive front end treatment, were carried over to the Suzuki.

OBA Issue 15
“Give them the sword.” A magazine advert for the Suzuki Katana GSX1100S.

The prototype, called ED-1 and using the 650cc Suzuki motor, was completed in just 12 weeks, and the exercise was warmly greeted by the Japanese brass (notably Group President Osamu Suzuki), who authorised immediate development with a view to production. With this consideration, practical thinking had to be combined with the desire to maintain the cutting-edge styling, along with the need to incorporate many existing components from the GSX750 and GSX1100. These included the complete engine unit and the frame, along with some electrical fittings. The deadline for the completion of the second, 1100 cc prototype (ED-2), was set for the IFMA Cologne Show, and there was not a moment to spare. But Target made the date, displaying both models together and absolutely stealing the show. Still, similar gob-smacking mock-ups had done the same thing before, and the sceptics wrote it off as another publicity stunt that, coming from a company that was currently selling the bland (if effective) GSX models, had no hope of ever seeing production.

Wrong. In record time, the Katana materialised from show bike to showroom. Antipodeans got their first view in the flesh at the Melbourne Motorcycle Show in early 1981 when a black, chain drive 1100 Katana and a silver (with shocking orange seat and brake callipers) shaft-drive 650 were displayed. The 1100 was fitted with standard Suzuki “five star” cast-alloy wheels; 19-inch front and 17-inch rear, and the front forks featured an anti-dive system very similar to that seen on Graeme Crosby’s works GSXR1000 in the recent Swann Insurance International Series. But it was the detail touches that were most intriguing, such as the flush-fitting switches set into the side panels, the left for the choke control and the right supposedly for extra lighting or heated hand grips if required. Then there were the clip-on handlebars, the sculptured, pseudo suede seat with its extra low ride height, black chrome four-into-two exhaust pipes, and the almost retro-styled instrument panel that combined the speedo, tacho and warning lights in a single fascia.

The 650, by contrast, seem to have an identity crisis, with a bulky 23 litre fuel tank supposedly and shaft drive designed for long-distance touring, but low seat, rear-set footrests and low handlebars more in keeping with a sports bike. Unlike the four-valve 1100, the smaller engine was all-new. The 2-valve DOHC 673 cc mill used a one-piece forged crankshaft with plain metal bearings, and four 32 mm Mikuni CV carburettors. The double front discs used single-piston callipers, with a single rear disc with a double-piston calliper. Power was quoted as 73 bhp at 9,500 rpm; competitive with the big-selling Yamaha XJ650, although at 215 kg, some 8 kg heavier than its sales rival. No prices or availability details were released at the time, leaving much speculations as to when, or even if, the Katanas would go on sale in Australia.

By mid-year, a further model with a 1000 cc engine (along with the 1100 and an all-new 750, the 650, a 550 and even a Katana-ish GSX400) was displayed at the British International Motorcycle Trade Show held in Birmingham. The reason was simple; British racing in the booming TT Formula One class had a one-litre top limit. OK, so the Katana was more than a gimmick, but when would we see it for real?

More pre-production machines trickled in throughout the year. In New Zealand, the 1100 Katana was put through comparison tests with a Honda CB1100R and shown to have a superior top speed, thanks to reworked camshafts over the standard GSX1100 and a reputed power output of 111 bhp. A price for the 1100 Katana was even floated – $4,250 plus on-road costs, the 750 was listed at $3,569, and the 650 at $2,999. At dealer launches in Sydney and Melbourne in July, the Katana models were shown draped with unclad young ladies, thanks to Suzuki’s local tie-up with Penthouse magazine, for which a large proportion of the model’s advertising budget had been allocated.

There was, theoretically, a line in the sand. September 1st was the cut-off date for homologated entries for the 1981 Castrol Six Hour Race at Amaroo Park on October 18. The rules called for 100 machines to be actually in the country to be eligible, but the date came and went with the initial shipment of 1100 Katanas stranded off Sydney heads because of a tugboat strike. These machines, were in effect, Six Hour specials, being fitted with wire-spoked 18-inch rear and 19-inch front wheels from the Canadian-catalogued model. At the time, 17-inch tyres were out of favour, being high-profile styles with a tendency to flex in the sidewall, the result being heat build-up and rapid tread wear. But it made no difference, as the consignment had still not docked within two weeks of the race, although when it finally did land, a model was rushed to Amaroo and displayed on race day. Suzuki teams were stuck with the established GSX1100 and GSX750, and as it turned out, revelled in the miserable conditions, winning both outright (Neville Hiscock/Dave Petersen) and 750 class (Neil Chivas/Dave Hiscock).

OBA Issue 15
Kiwi Neville Hiscock shared an 1100 Katana with South African Rod Gray in the 1982 Six Hour to finish fifth in the final year for the 1100 production bikes.

In fact, the Katana made its world racing debut at an open meeting at Amaroo Park on August 30 – a 750 model ridden by Neville Hiscock taking fourth place outright in the Unlimited Production event and slicing 0.8 seconds from the 750 Production lap record. Three weeks later, the flying Kiwi debuted the wire-wheeled 1100 Katana at the Surfers Paradise Three Hour Production Race, and in a race of incredible attrition that saw only three Unlimited bikes classified as finishers, took home the gold. One month after the Amaroo Six Hour, the New Zealand version at Manfield saw the much fancied Neil Chivas/Robert Holden Katana 1100 defeated by the Honda CB1100R of Mick Cole and Malcolm Campbell.

Magazine testers queued up for a chance at the new models, which generally received rave reviews, although one journalist described the riding position as ‘ excruciatingly painful… this is a production racer’s bike, not one you can commute or tour on. No way.” Al agreed that the 1100 was fast, considerably quicker in acceleration than the GSX1100, partially due to the lower weight (232 kg instead of 244) and also from the increased power – up 13 bhp from the GSX’s 98 bhp, although there was no official explanation for this and little apparent difference inside the engine. There was also much better ground clearance, firmer suspension and precise steering. The big Katana’s spirited performance was not seen as a positive by all, however, one tester commenting, “The Katana is too fast…particularly on unpredictable Australian roads, being used by fellow human beings.” There was also criticism of the lack of storage space for anything other than the meagre tool kit under the seat. The anti-dive front forks also drew mixed response for their harsh action. The front fork problem led to a rash of after-market cures, including progressively wound springs and lighter grade oil.

Over the next twelve months, sales of the Katana in its various configurations were steady, if unspectacular, as the motorcycle industry continued its slow climb from the slump of the late 1970s. But the days of the 1100 mega-proddies were numbered; new regulations meant that the 1982 Castrol Six Hour would be the final fling before the capacity limit dropped to 1000 cc. Despite running first and second for much of the race, Katana 1100-mounted Mal Campbell/Roger Heyes and Neville Hiscock/Rod Gray had to give way to the Hondas at the finish, although Robert Holden/Bob Toomey led the 750 class from flag to flag.

It was the beginning of the end for the Katana concept, although the local-market 750 version continued to sell in big numbers in Japan. The Australian 1000 cc version was seen as a bit old hat compared to the new efforts like the Honda VF750, although Roger Heyes and Robert Holden managed to bring their Katana 1000 home third in the 1983 Castrol Six Hour, on the same lap as the winning Honda. Suzuki turned its attention away from Production Racing and to its new flagship, the GSX1100E, which admittedly, had Katana-esque styling up to a point.

There were further Katana-inspired models with engine sizes from 250 cc to 450 cc, but to the purists, the real Katanas were the 1100 and 750 versions produced from late 1981 to 1983. A few 750 Katanas were brought into Australia between 1985 and 1987, but by then Suzuki’s main sporting focus was on the air/oil-cooled GSX-R750. It is estimated that fewer than 10,000* 1100 Katanas were produced, making the model highly prized today. The model enjoys a cult following worldwide, particularly so, and not unsurprisingly, in Germany, where it all began.

One man’s Katana

If the Katana had one distinctive feature from a rider’s point of view, it was that you sat in the bike rather than on it. The seat height is a scant 775 mm. Clip on-style handlebars and footrests set to the rear indicate that the stylist’s brief was to create a machine that looked like it was going fast, even when standing still. And standing still is quite painful on the Katana. You’ll have a stiff neck in no time, and aching wrists even sooner.

The speedo and tacho, crammed into the single instrument casing to reduce overall bulk and to fit in behind the little windscreen, appear to fight each other as the needles move in opposite directions – it’s almost as though they should swap sides, but this would have complicated things as far as cables went.

Bryan Thompson has a pair of 1981 Katanas – a wire-wheeled 1100 ‘Six Hour Special’, and a 750 with cast alloy wheels. The bigger machine has just 3,600 km on the clock, while the 750 has done considerably more, and as a result, is currently suffering from cancer of the mufflers. No problem, Bryan has a new original set in the workshop, waiting to be fitted. The 750 usually wears a fairing, but this rather detracts from the model’s distinctive angular looks, so is currently not fitted, although the under-body bracket is still in place.

Apart from the wheels, the other visual difference in the two models is the seat – the 1100 has a two-toned suede job while the 750’s seat is finished in a blue-grey gloss vinyl. For some reason, the 750 looks smaller, perhaps because the rear 2.15 rim (the 1100 has a 2.50) is fitted with a 4.50 x 17 tyre while the large bike has a 4.10 x 18. The 750, at 228 kg, weighs 5 kg less. Whatever, they are still a striking couple that instantly achieved the desired result – to elevate the four-stroke Suzuki’s image from staid to savage.

*To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Suzuki, the company remanufactured a batch of 200 of Katana 1100s using the original tooling. The individually-number machines were snapped up immediately. This encouraged the factory to built another 200 one year later.

Story and pics: Jim Scaysbrook

OBA Issue 15
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.15