When Suzuki dropped the Katana on the world in 1979, everything changed.
The 1970s saw the rise of the universal Japanese motorcycle (UJM), however, by the end of the decade, manufacturers and consumers were growing tired of this conservative design language. Suzuki, the creator of the fantastic GSX series of motorcycles and superbikes, decided to try a design experiment that would take the creation of their new motorcycle to an outside design firm.
For traditionally Japanese companies, this was highly unusual and highly risky. As they say, there is no reward with no risk and the public reception to the wildly styled Suzuki Katana was instant and powerful. The design of the Katana would go on to influence not only motorcycles of the era, but for the next 30+ years.
We’ve got lots to unpack with this legendary sports bike, so, let's go into it!
Design and Development
Suzuki had enjoyed success throughout the world due to their fantastic line of powerful and reliable motorcycles. Management brass at Suzuki became concerned that the UJM style of motorcycles was becoming stagnant in the eyes of consumers the world over. They wanted a motorcycle that would not only perform but would look stunning and completely shake up the industry.
To achieve this lofty goal, Suzuki's European marketing Manager, Manfred Becker, tapped the newly formed design firm Target Design. The team at Target design was composed of founder Hans-Georg Kasten, John Fellstrom, and Hans Muth. This crack team of designers had worked for some of the biggest European automobile manufacturers of the day, most notably BMW, and had plenty of ideas to make the ultimate European / Japanese hybrid.
This was the first Japanese motorcycle to be designed by an outside design firm, and it was effectively the end of the UJM era. What the design team achieved was nothing less than absolute raging success. The look was hyper European, with a short stubby seat, and a molded fuel tank that allowed the rider to sit in the bike instead of on top of it. It had a futuristic look that stayed away from being a caricature of itself. It was angular, aggressive, and most importantly, it was awesome.
The first Katana bike was shown in Cologne, Germany in 1979, and it generated an incredible amount of buzz and attention from patrons and press. The world had never seen a European-designed motorcycle that had a Japanese edge, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Two different models were shown, the ED1 and the ED2.
ED1 machines incorporated an unfaired design that featured a tall, heavily sculpted fuel tank that merged with a concave style seat that was flanked by angular side panels. While revolutionary for the time, it was nothing quite like the other design the Target team was working on. The ED1 would essentially become a series of lower displacement Katana motorcycles.
ED2 motorcycles were much more heavily styled, and included aerodynamic elements that were functional and looked incredible. This design was tested in the wind tunnel to achieve ultimate high-speed stability. This would be the ultimate Katana.
In a rare move for a major manufacturer, production for the hotly anticipated Katana began almost immediately and became available in 1981. For Suzuki, it was go big or go home.
Chassis and Powertrain
The team took engineering inspiration from the very successful GSX-S1000, which they would eventually use as the mechanical basis for the Katana. This was no bad place to start since the GSX was one hell of a runner!
Powering the katana was a transverse-mounted, dual overhead cam 4 cylinder engine with a heavy breathing 16 valve head that was a lightly massaged version of what could be found in the GSX series. This engine was fairly conventional except for its extremely unique head design. Known as a Twin Swirl Combustion Chamber or TSCC, Suzuki ditch their classic hemispherical combustion chamber design, for a design that incorporated a flat top piston for better overall performance at high RPM’s.
The 1100 cc engine in the katana was further tweaked with a reworked airbox and tuned carburetors, as well as an aggressive outlet camshaft and a lighter alternator. Power was an incredibly impressive 111 horsepower at a sky-high 8500 RPM. All this power allowed the katana to earn the title of fastest production motorcycle on Earth, with the top speed of nearly 150 mph. This was frankly insane for the day and is still seen as one of the great accomplishments of the era.
Balanced yet aggressive ride and handling was also a central part of the Suzuki Katana experience. Designers from Target made certain that weight distribution and riding ergonomics were focused on going fast and not on comfort. Magazines of the day complained about the ergonomics of the bike and the semi-awkward, hands-forward feet back riding position, but this was done on purpose.
We take this orientation for granted today but at the time, this was simply not being done. The dividends for this design were paid for riders who are willing to push the bike through corners, where the Suzuki really shined. Sure was a handful in traffic, but no one cared when they blasted to 9500 RPM and could take corners like nothing else on the road.
While the big 1100 cc bike got all the attention, the European-designed Katana was eventually built in three variants: 550cc, 650cc, and 750cc. This allowed the Katana DNA trickle down into bikes that were much less expensive yet still had the attitude of the Katana.
Legacy and Impact
Take one look at any modern sport bike or superbike and you can see the impact of the Suzuki Katana is still alive today.
The daring design direction, and positively stonking performance saw many Suzuki Katanas end up on the walls of young people who wanted a slice of that attitude and energy of the Katana experience. Suzuki produced nearly endless varieties of the Katana up until 2006 and recently decided to revive the line in 2019.
There's just no two ways about it, the Suzuki Katana completely changed motorcycle design for the next three decades. It took the Japanese manufacturers out of the UJM era and provided a baseline a passion for motorcycle enthusiasts to come.
Fast, stylish, and reliable; what else could a motorcycle rider want?