Suzuki GSX1100 Katana | A flawed cult classic

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana

With Ian Falloon

Until the mid-1970s, styling was not considered a priority in motorcycle design. Street motorcycles gradually evolved as form followed function, and with the exception of a few factory cafe racers, all motorcycles followed a fairly generic path.

The radical style of the Katana was by Hans A. Muth

This involved an upright riding position and a double saddle, much like many naked bikes today. BMW changed that with its 1973 R 90 S, but although BMW was the first to officially hire a stylist, the R 90 S was actually created in-house.

Exterior designers weren’t really considered until Suzuki launched their Katana in 1979 and it’s no coincidence that Suzuki chose German company Target Design to design their Katana. Heading Target Design was none other than Hans A. Muth, also responsible for the BMW R 90 S and the future R 100 RS.

Muth and fellow Target Design directors Hans Georg Kasten and Jan Olof Fellström presented Suzuki with a radical design created through wind tunnel testing. The rider and motorcycle were incorporated as a complete aerodynamic package, with the fairing and fuel tank flowing air over and around the rider.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana
The Katana combined some basic features like the dashboard, with more impressive inclusions…

The first prototype appeared in April 1980, with an official unveiling a few months later at the Cologne Motor Show. To everyone’s surprise, Suzuki announced that the Katana (named after a samurai sword) would go into production in 1981, and it did for the 1982 model year.

Compared to any other motorcycle available in 1982, the Katana’s styling was radical and opinion was polarized. There was no halfway house with the Katana; either you loved it or you hated it. And while it looked space-age, the swoopy underbody tech was far from revolutionary.

At a time when other manufacturers were incorporating liquid-cooled, rising-speed, single-shock rear suspension and experimenting with 16-inch front wheels, the 1100 Katana was a thing of the past.

Suzuki GSX1100 Katana
The 1074cc four-cylinder engine was old school but still produced 111 bhp.

The 1074cc four-cylinder engine may have had dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and Suzuki’s TSCC (Twin Swirl Combustion Chamber), but that air-cooled donk was largely an evolution of a earlier design.

That didn’t stop it from producing a peak horsepower of 111 at 8,500 rpm, making the Katana the most powerful production motorcycle available.

Unfortunately the chassis lagged behind the engine as under the styling was a stock Suzuki GSX 1100, with a twin shock rear end, skinny front forks (albeit with hydraulic anti-dive a la mode) and a 19-inch front wheel.

The wheelbase stretched 1,520 mm and the weight was a considerable 232 kg. As the alternator and ignition were suspended outside the crank, the engine was extremely wide and had to be placed high within the frame of the tubular steel cradle. Long, wide, heavy and with a high center of gravity, the 1100 Katana was not a flexible road scraper.

A heavy weight of 232 kg, held high in the frame, did not help the handling of the Katana
A heavy weight of 232 kg, held high in the frame, did not help the handling of the Katana

The 1100 Katana was one of the last Japanese motorcycles built on the old formula of one engine massively overpowering the chassis. It may have been quick, but my thrilling experience of testing the top speed of a new 1982 metal-wheeled Katana 1100 on a deserted Victorian country road was horrifying.

Here is a motorcycle certainly capable of more than 230 km/h but at 200 km/h it seemed out of control, weaving terrifyingly on two lanes. Although the Katana has now gained cult status, even when it was released it was an imperfect dinosaur.

The skinny forks were part of a chassis package that struggled to match the performance on offer
The skinny forks were part of a chassis package that struggled to match the performance on offer

Style may have trumped function, but that hasn’t diminished its appeal. Thirty years on the Katana remains a tribute to a time when motorcycle manufacturers were willing to push the envelope, unleashing outlandish machines on unsuspecting audiences with no guarantee of commercial success. The Katana did not sell in large quantities, but it is now considered one of the most memorable Suzukis of the 1980s.

Five facts about the Suzuki Katana

  • The GSX 1100S Katana was offered with a wireframe model option in Australia, primarily for production racing as the wheels were somewhat lighter and the rear was an 18in with a greater range of tires available.
  • In 1983 the upper limit for racing in all Australian classes was set at 1000cc, so Suzuki Australia imported Canadian spec bikes that would comply. The only Katanas with smoothbore carburettors as standard, they were fitted in the Arai 500 by Neil Chivas, Rod Cox and Rob Toomey but all retired.
  • Due to its long association with the Suzuki Rod Coleman factory, the New Zealand importer was able to obtain a higher spec Katana than Australia (with E-27 cams and black exhausts)
  • Although the GSX1100S Katana was not sold in Australia after 1984, it was popular in Japan for many years. A 1982 spec 1100 Katana was available there until 1987, with a special anniversary version released in 1990 to celebrate Suzuki’s 70th anniversary.
  • The last Katanas were the GSX250S, available only in 1991 and 1992, and the GSX400S from 1992 and 1993. These were faithful copies of the original but with modern liquid-cooled four-cylinder engines.

About Harold Hartman

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