The 70s was a decade of stark contrasts; heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath and hard rock gods Led Zeppelin pitted their thunderous rock against a sweeping new fad called disco, which involved simplistic beats, lots of sparkly stuff and indecently tight pants. The hippy movement, which had come of age in the Summer of Love (’67) started to come apart at the denim and tie-dye seams, with the generation who had dropped acid, partied at Woodstock and followed the Pied Piper call to “tune in, turn on and drop out”, eventually hacking off their unruly locks, shaving their beards and grudgingly putting on suits (usually in drab shades of brown) and ties to work for The Man. America lost the war in Vietnam and President Nixon, facing impeachment, resigned after the Watergate scandal. A global energy crisis hit most of the world, leaving tens of thousands of gas stations dry. It was an era of uncertainty for many … with one notable exception, one universal constant that resisted upheaval and violent change: the universal Japanese motorcycle (UJM).
Why were they referred to as UJMs anyway, though? Easy – ‘coz they all looked the same, and they all did pretty much the same thing. While the Honda CB750 had completely revolutionized the way motorcycles were designed, produced, and sold back when man first set foot on the moon in 1969, the cultural turbulence of the decade hadn’t really affected the motorcycling world that much. Strange things were abrew and exciting plans were underfoot, as they always are, but not at the breakneck pace that would come in the ’80s. In the wake of the groundbreaking success of the CB750, Mr Honda’s winning formula became a tried and tested one, and the dominant mantra in the design labs of Japanese motorcycle manufacturers would likely have been, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Big, relatively rectangular tank, spoked wheels (or cast if the designer was feeling particularly adventurous) flat seat, small plastic sidepanels, unobtrusive tailpiece, comfy handlebars for a nice upright seating position, a few dabs of chrome here and there, and Bob’s your uncle, you’re all set. Rinse and repeat.
Never mind the fact that BMW had shaken things up on the design side with their R90S in ’73 and Ducati’s 900 SuperSport had wowed motorcycle aficionados the world over in ’75 … for most of the decade, the Big Japanese Four had found their formula and they seemed flat-out determined to stick with it. Of the four, Suzuki had a reputation for being the most conservative … and by the end of the decade, this perception was starting to worry some of the higher-ups at the Suzuki Motorcycle Corporation. Realizing that they were digging themselves into a rut with the same old designs being churned out over and over, they looked to the West for a fresh injection of style.
When you think of nationalities typically associated with avant-garde design and cutting-edge trend-setting, Germans aren’t typically the first people who spring to mind. Efficient, polite, punctual to a tee … but not really a nation of fashionistas, are they? It was, however, to a German designer that Suzuki turned in 1979 to craft their new flagship, a bike they hoped would jolt the sleepwalking motorcycle world to life in the same way that Honda’s CB750 had done a decade earlier. As to why they chose this German dude, Hans Muth, to design their new machine, it was simple: he had designed the BMW R90S.
Muth’s brain was brimming with ideas about how the motorcycles of the next decade – the 1980s – should look, but at BMW he hadn’t quite been able to take any of his very fresh concepts to their conclusion. With this new Suzuki project, however, he was free to do just that. He and his team not only sketched out futuristic designs, they also tested bikes in wind tunnels to maximize aerodynamics – something that’s pretty standard today, but was almost unheard of then. What the team eventually came up with looked unlike anything that had been produced thus far in the motorcycling world – a bike that looked like 1/3rd racer, 1/3rd shark, and 1/3rd spaceship. The bars were low clip-ons, like a real racing motorcycle, while the fuel tank was sculpted and featured cutaway sections by the knees. There was a pointy nose fairing that looked like no other that had come before, which added an undeniably aggressive edge to the beast, and a funky set of opposing dials. This new machine, guaranteed to turn heads wherever it went and destined to be either loved or hated for its styling, was dubbed the Katana.
What the heck is a katana anyway? Yeah, you at the back, the nerdy kid who watches way too much anime and has a “virtual” girlfriend (how is that even a thing?!), I see you flapping your arms frantically in the air. So, what’s the answer? That’s right young grasshopper, that’s right: it’s a type of sword. Not just any sword though. Y’all will have seen a katana if you’ve watched any of the Highlander films or the TV show, or that movie in which Tom Cruise becomes a white-boy samurai. A beautiful sword, yes, the steel hammered in white-hot forges and folded over a thousand times by a master swordsmith, the blade blessed by holy hermits and christened with the blood of an enemy warrior, and able to hack a tank’s gunbarrel in half with one stroke … Alright, I made half of that up, but you’d be surprised how many people actually believe this.
The Suzuki Katana was quite aptly named, actually. Just like the katana sword, it was gorgeous to look at (if you were in the “love it” camp, ignore that if you were in the “hate it” gang), and with its top speed of around 240 km/h (150mph) it could certainly slice through the air like a thousand-times-folded-blade whipping through an enemy’s neck … but just like any experienced swordsman will tell you, even though it might look pretty, a katana is no rapier. It’s not even a saber. It’s heavy and unwieldy – just like the 1100 was (1000cc in the US market, though). At a porky 232kg (511lbs) dry, this wasn’t a bike that you could flick through the twisties. The 19 inch front wheel didn’t help much in the agility department either. And like the design of the katana sword changed very little over the centuries, the Katana 1100, while looking like it had just rolled off of a Star Wars set, was decidedly conservative beneath all those funky lines.
It did sport the most powerful motorcycle motor of any of the Japanese bikes released in ’81, boasting 111 horsepower at 8500rpm stock, and was touted as being the world’s fastest production bike – but both of those titles were earned only by a hair’s breadth, really. The air cooled in-line four cylinder motor was standard ’70s UJM tech, and the spindly forks and dual rear shocks, while being decently stiff, were nothing revolutionary. The frame was bog-standard steel tubing, and just as prone to flexing as any other UJM of the decade, which featured motors too powerful for their primitive frames, limited suspension and weak brakes. If you stripped off all of the futuristic bodywork, there was little to distinguish it from its more conservative looking peers.
The Suzuki Katana 1100 debuted at the Cologne Show in 1980, and the first production models were rolled onto motorcycle showroom floors across the world in ’81. It was an instant hit with some – but many others hated it. It was, for many, just a little too ahead of its time; many motorcycling markets just weren’t ready for such abruptly different styling. Just three years later, production of the flagship 1100 Katana ceased, with the next incarnation of the GSX1100 model reverting to more traditional, conservative looks. The styling was, however, continued in smaller capacity models; Katana 400s were produced, looking identical to the ’81 1100, well into the early 90s in Japan.
Those who breathed a sigh of relief when the last of the Katana 1100s were rolled off showroom floors in ’84, though, were in for an even bigger shock that was just over the horizon. Suzuki had yet another model in their design labs that, when released the following year, would permanently kill off the 70s-style dinosaurs, turn the motorcycling world upside down and, like the ’69 CB750, completely rewrite the rule book on how a production motorcycle should be designed, produced and marketed… but more on that in another post.
As for the Katana 1100 … it went on to become a collector’s favorite, and an icon of the early 80s. In fact, this year, 39 years after the first Katana 1100 debuted at the Cologne Show, Suzuki is releasing the GSX1000S Katana 3.0, an homage to the iconic machine that almost redefined motorcycle in that long-past decade.