The Suzuki Katana
Front WheelEngineKatana BodylineEngine Casing
"The product must have 'Art', if it is to be successful"

Past Reviews: Classic & Motorcyle Mechanics - June 1994

Testers: John Nutting
Photography: Phil Masters

ContentsIt was like a motorcycling time warp. Here 1 was gliding through Sussex sweepers on a mint-condition Suzuki GSX1100S Katana made in 1982 that was barely run-in. Yet this was 1994, and the machine was no retro-rebuild. Were it not for the modern Metzeler tyres, this Katana could have been as factory-fresh as it had been when it left the Hamamatsu plant 12 years ago. So revered have Katanas become on the home market, that Suzuki itself recognised the fact four years ago and offered versions of the radically styled machine in 250ccand later 400cc versions to satisfy the desires of Japanese riders. These models incorporated a number of chassis changes to bring them more up-to date, just as many of the recent retro-styled introductions have been in Japan and in its export markets. But now the factory has offered a limited number of GSX1100S Katanas which are virtually identical to the one I was riding. Trouble is, none of the new batch would have anything like the uniqueness of this bike, which had for much of its life had been a static exhibit in Michelin's museum in Fulham, south west London. Sweeping into long curves and diving into roundabouts, I couldn't forget that the footrest rubbers had never kissed tarmac or that the slightest indiscretion would Cornering Katanaforever scar a prime example of a significant chapter in motorcycling history. Were it not for Darren Scott, a 27 year-old salesman who lives near Worthing in Sussex and has a liking for exotic bikes such as Ducati v-twins and ZZR1100 Kawasakis, this Katana might have suffered the fate of many big Suzuki's from the early 80s, whose bullet proof engines have long been used by drag racers. He found it at CAT Motorcycles a couple of years ago with a dented tank and scratched fairing, not to mention problems with the carburettors which had interfered with the performance. Darren took the Katana along to local wizard Alf Hubbard who, with Tracy Martin, runs Alfs Motorcycles in Worthing. After the carbs had been suitably soaked to rid them of the remains of old fuel and the main jets replaced with the correct sizes, the bike ran as good as new. After finding that repairs to the dent in the tank would have cost as much as a new one, Darren obtained a tank for 130, found a mint fairing for 110 and fitted a set of new Metzeler tyres to replace the flatted Bridgestones and bring the bike back to the as-new condition as I was riding it.

What they said in 1983

From Neil Webster's test in Motor Cycle News, November 2, 1983.
This is embarrassing, a bit like seeing one of those old pictures of yourself complete with flares and long hair. When Bob said we were featuring a Katana classic ride, I mentioned that I'd tested one in my MCN days over a decade ago. I didn't expect to have to reread it to find some bits worth quoting. Anyway here you are. Words from a (rather younger) oracle. "...Back up though Arras and over to Boulogne it was clear we were in a different ball game. What had been a boring stream of traffic a few hours earlier was now a high speed sequence of long straights, sweeping bends and tight turns through sleeping villages. With the rear suspension set hard, the Katana shook its head and bounced its backside over the second class roads, but stuck to its path like an arrow up and over the ton. Bends provoked no easing off of power - producing just a touch of wallowing - and hard braking was calm and collected. The brakes were as good as any I've come across and the anti-dive forks kept the rather disappointing headlight pointing ahead, nose down. The motor felt as if it wanted to be buzzed hard, but fifth gear would pull all the way from 1000 revs if the pilot felt lazy. The racer style riding position that caused all the problems in slow and motorway traffic became a boon and all the aches and pains vanished into adrenalin and exhilaration. What had earlier seemed like a poseur's plaything had become a useful tool. Not a bread and butter bike by any means, but a weekend burner's dream. When I make my million I'll probably have one parked between the Ferrari and the Land Rover." I never made that million and I'm not bothered about Ferraris and Land Rovers anymore, but I'd still love a Katana. NW
MCN Clipping

Even now the Katana is a real head turner, the angular lines of its shark-like nose and exposed engine setting it apart from modern fully enclosed machines. No wonder then that back in 1980 when Suzuki showed the prototype Katana the motorcycling world was shocked, if not a little cynical about Suzuki's sudden change in style. The original design idea had come from a project launched by the German magazine Motorrad, which had invited three design houses to provide concepts for motorcycles of the 80s. Porsche Design, Ital Design and Target Design all offered ideas. But it was the one from Target based on an MV Agusta four that appeared, as I recall, at the Cologne Show in 1979. Motorcycle styling at the end of the 70s hadn't really moved beyond what we now regard as the conventional `retro' bike and fairings were still only rudimentary handlebar mounted devices. Only BMW, with its superbly effective touring R100RS introduced in 1976 had made any progress. It was no surprise to find that the R100RS's designer, Hans Muth, also had a hand, along with Jan Felstrom, in the concept MV. Suzuki, which had introduced its new 16 valve 750cc and 1100cc GSX-series fours for 1979, immediately jumped at the opportunity to place its bikes at the forefront of style. With the image of its new fours being fast but flabby, the Katana range, named after Japanese ceremonial dueling swords, was aimed at riders looking for more sporting machines; the style was a new statement bonus. Launched at the end of 1981, three Katana models were offered with 750cc, 999cc and 1074cc engines, all having up rated power delivery compared to the previous year's standard bikes due to revised valve timing and smaller and lighter crank-mounted generators. Visually identical, all three were distinguished by their stretched-out riding position resulting from the clip-on handlebars, footrests set eight-inches further back and a matt-hide seat which firmly positioned the rider in a semi-racing crouch - a far cry from almost all other bikes from Japan at the time. Suzuki's designers had done a good job of translating the Target design to their needs, even to using the neat fork-mounted instrument pod containing the speedo and rev counter. Below the seat nose, panels swept back and the lines were continued into exposed electrical and brake components. On the left, a large-diameter choke bezel was easily accessible (though it would have been better used for the fuel tap), along with optional switches for accessories. Overall, the matt silver paintwork provided a backdrop for the immense engine. The only bright chrome was used for the ends of the cam covers and bolts heads: the exhaust system was black polished chrome. For some obscure reason the 750S came with a blue polished seat rather than the matt one used on the bigger models. Few changes were made to the tubular steel frame and alloy swing arm for the Katana's, but the suspension was stiffened up and, along with the revised riding position, the handling was as good as you'd ever get with cross ply tyres on the usual 19in front and 17in wheel sizes. At the time, the anti-dive devices on the front fork legs were regarded as little more than decoration, but history has shown their worth. Operated by brake fluid pressure, the volume added to the system only made the action more spongy than necessary. The GSX1000S was fitted with four conventional 32mm slide carburettors to enable it to be more easily homologated for the popular Formula One racing class of the time, which had a 1000cc limit. The drop in peak power to 108bhp from the 111bhp at 8500rpm didn't have much of an effect on the road. In fact, throttle response was better on the smaller engine, although the action of the 34mm CV carbs used on the 1100 was lighter at the grip.

My ride on Darren Scott's 1100 Katana really rolled back the years. Like most bikes with narrow bars, its 510 pound weight is awkward for manhandling, but once on the move the bike feels both taut and nimble. True, with such relatively a flimsy frame, 37mm diameter fork legs, twin rear shocks (with novel ratchet-type spring preload adjusters) and narrow wheel rims, it lacks the precision of modern machines, but the Katana was a step ahead of its contemporaries such as the CB900 Honda, Z1100 Kawasaki and XS1100 Yamaha. The nearest competition came from the big Laverda triples of the time. What really sets machines from the early 80s such as the Katana apart is that their performance had reached an optimum balance between top end and flexibility. With enough to give speeds of 145mph, you could get there quickly in top gear from as low as 40mph and not have to dabble with the five speed box. Okay, so a modern 600 has better top speed and through-the-gears acceleration, but there is still no real substitute for cubes. The down side was that the handling had yet to catch up, and Darren's Katana behaved just the same as the one I rode back in 1982. Push it hard into 80mph bends and you couldn't escape a nagging feeling that the bike wasn't quite as predictable as almost any machine today. Above 90mph a weave could be precipitated by bumps or ripples. At lower speeds the lack of good shock absorption for the drive chain prevented a smooth transition onto the power. No doubt Suzuki could produce a modern version of the Katana with a chassis from the 90s. But it's more than likely the tooling costs would make anything but a long production run uneconomic - that's why the factory has opted simply to reproduce the original model unchanged in its reincarnated `limited edition' version. Darren's bike is a different proposition altogether. Virtually unique, it's the sort of bike you'd try to maintain in its original condition as a mobile museum piece. Rarity value and suggestions that the Katana 1100 could cost as much as 8000 if brought from Japan makes Darren's bike a bargain at 5500, even if it's for the mantelpiece.

GSX1100SZ Seat GSX1100SZ Clocks GSX1100SZ Fairng
The deep scooped seat and narrow clip-on handlebars force the rider into a racing crouch. Everything about the Katana yells "I'm Special", from the two-tone seat to the fork mounted instruments and shark nose fairing.

 

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