When Suzuki decided to have a go at the European
market for real men's bikes, it chose to do
so with a bike names after a sword, the Katana.
It was a riot to ride then and it still is today.
As the 1970s drew to a close, Suzuki's big
bike offering was the GSX1100, a machine so
ugly its owners constantly found themselves
on the defensive, forced to point to its blistering
performance and bulletproof reliability.
Taking the GSX1100 as its base, the Katana
was conceived as a Japanese riposte to more
handsome European real mens bikes like the Lavarda
Jota and Moto Guzzi Le Mans. Its makers wisely
enlisted the assistance of Anglo-German agency
Target Design to take the West on at its own
Although not 100% true to the agencys designs
(for example, Target didn't specify a flyscreen
and suggested a flip-up headlight and a more
rounded seat), the Katana 1100 was a sensation
when it appeared in 1980. Its futuristic lines
still grab the eye.
Your motives for owning a Katana will inform
your choice of which bike you buy. If your main
objective is to enjoy riding a big, fast classic
with the capacity to scare you witless occasionally,
the originality isn't such a big deal. You can
happily ignore non-original aftermarket exhaust
systems, repaired or recovered seats and the
odd cracked panel. These items are unique to
the Katana and new-old-stock replacements aren't
exactly crowding dealers shelves. And when good
originals do appear on online auction sites
such as eBay they tend to provoke a bidding
frenzy that suggests their like will never be
seen again which isn't far from the truth.
If, on the other hand, you want a Katana thats
pretty much as it left the factory, buy as complete
and original an example as you can afford. That
will save a lot of time, money and heartache
Given that it has become such an iconic Japanese
motorcycle, it's ironic to think that the prime
movers were two German and one British veteran
of the bike industry. Hans-Georg Kasten is the
owner of Target Design, the firm behind the
Katana's styling. He left BMW to set up Target
in 1979 at the behest of Hans Muth, who had
close business links with Suzuki. Jan Fellstrom
was the British draughtsman who penned the Katana's
Muth had been asked to restyle Suzuki's GS550
and 650 to make them better suited to the European
market and asked the other two if they wanted
to get involved. Suzuki was so impressed with
Target's efforts, presented late in 1979, that
it asked them to have a go at the GSX1100, and
so the Katana was born. The reworked smaller
bikes appeared in 1981, a year after the Katana
1100 was launched.
Kasten spent a fortnight in Hamamatsu in 1980
working with Suzuki's engineers and designers.
But the Katana that eventually appeared differed
in a number of details from the signed accord
Kasten had with Suzuki. Apart from the flyscreen,
headlight and seat being different there were
more serious differences. The wheelbase was
at least 50mm longer than Target had specified
and a four-into-one exhaust system had been
replaced with a four-into-two. To this day Kasten
suspects that Suzuki simply used the existing
swingarm and exhaust from the GSX1100.
Kasten remains proud of the Katana: It was
a completely new approach to motorcycle design
and there has never been anything like it since.
You will have seen Target's design in other
bikes too. It was behind the BMW R100GS and
the Sachs Beast.
5 Reasons to buy a Katana;
- Exclusivity. You won't see one in every
pub car park.
- You'll feel like a cross between Mad Max
and Dan Dare.
- It's a reminder that the 1980s weren't all
- Modern sports bikes won't expect a race.
- You'll gain respect from anyone following
you through tight bends.
5 Reasons why you don't;
- You'll worry about writing off your original
exhausts in a low-speed tumble.
- One day you'll forget and expect the handling
and brakes to match the engine performance.
- You'll find yourself hunting out a period
- You'll grow a mullet and start going to
Run Wot U Brungs at Santa Pod.
A ride on the Suzuki Katana gives you an intense
example of what superbikes were all about in
The Katana is very much a product of its time,
and nowhere is that more apparent than in its
aggressive power delivery. With an engine from
the days when power was all and the only way
to get it was more cylinders or more capacity
and often both, the Katana makes every straight
Departing the motorway to put the big Kat through
its paces on twisty B-roads the bike becomes
an engaging and entertaining prospect. Engaging
because as it bucks past the apex and through
the exit of every bend your senses are focused
on what the bike will do next. It's entertaining
, because for all it constantly demands your
attention, the Katana never really threatens
to get properly out of shape.
You’re delivered to corner entries at
almost rude velocities. Braking is efficient
enough, but it leaves it late and requires a
Herculean squeeze that rules our any notion
of feel. A 5ft wheelbase and all that mass means
you have to boss the bike through tight turns,
but it excels in fat sweepers.
Clip-on bars and rearsets stretch out the riding
position and that flyscreen might look like
a triumph of design over function, but it's
There's a perverse sense of achievement at
the end of every ride on a big old bike from
the 1970s or 1980s, spiced with the odd burst
of terror. Why else would the Katana have such
a strong following.
1980 - GSX1100S Katana launched.
1982 - 1100 Katana dropped in many markets
1983 - Mk2 launched with different wheels, paint
1984 - GSX1100EFE takes over as Suzuki's big
1990 - Suzuki marks its 70th anniversary with
a batch of 200 Katanas built to exact 1980s
1991 - Suzuki releases another batch of 200
1994 - Full production of the 1100 resumes
2001 - Katana production ends and is marked
with a special edition
- Top Speed - 143mph
- Power -111bhp
- Torque - 70.9ftlb
- Standing ¼ mile - 11.63s @ 121.1mph
- Weight (wet) - 246kg
- Fuel Consumption - 38mpg
- Price new - £2650
- Wheelbase - 1520mm
- Seat height - 775mm
- Fuel capacity - 22 litres
- Engine/transmission - air-cooled, dohc,
72 x 66mm bore x stroke. 9.5:1 compression
ratio, 4 x 34mm Mikuni (standard bike), five-speed,
chain final drive
- Chassis - tubular steel duplex frame, front
suspension four way adjustable preload forks
with antidrive; rear suspension twin Kayaba
- Brakes - 2 x 74mm discs (front); 274mm
- Wheels - cast tyres 3.50x19in (front);
Watch out for;
Suzukis from this period had a reputation for
burning out alternators, although this was usually
the result of rectifier trouble. Early Katanas
had one of the alternator leads connected to
the headlights so if the bike was run with the
headlight off it cooked its attendant alternator
coils. The best fix is to reroute this to the
rectifier. Honda Superdream regulator/rectifiers
are better than Suzuki originals.
Original systems command silly money these
days, even ropey ones. The most popular replacements
are Marshall Deeptone, Lazer and Harris systems.
Have the carbs set to match.
As the cogs wear they start to whine. Fifth
gear (top) is the one to listen to for early
warning signs of impending gearbox woes. With
the bike at idle, pull the clutch lever in and
out and listen for excessive rattle. Too much
noise here could mean a worn clutch basket and/or
centre and plates.
Target Desig originally wanted a flip-up headlight
but Suzuki decided against it, not fitting one
until the 1984 750 S3. Finish is typical of
1980s Japanese bikes (not great). It's not easy
to find a good colour match, but Nissan silver
comes close. Unless it's so scruffy can can't
live with it, best get used to the patina of
Forks, Yokes, Wheels
Suzuki fitted all its anti-drive system to
the forks. Brake fluid pressure closes a valve
in the forks to make them dive less; in practice,
the oil froths and it doesn't work. The Katana's
yokes give 29° of rake, 1° more than
the GSX1100. Unlike the GSX100 there's no leading
axle, so the wheelbase is 0.75in shorter. Cast
wheels are old so check for cracks and rim damage.
Engine and Frame Numbers
Don't panic if frame and engine numbers don't
match they never did. A GSX1100S will however
have GS110X on both frame and engine. The rare
GSX1100S has GS10X for frame and engine. If
considering a 750 Katana, look for European
GR7A1 prefixes more powerful than Jananese market