Modern classic Monday Suzuki GSX1100S Katana

Steve Rose
By Steve Rose

BikeSocial Publisher. Has been riding since before Frankie said ‘Relax’, owned more than 100 bikes and has written for, edited or published most of the UK’s best known bike magazines. Strangely attracted to riding high miles in all weathers, finds track days ‘confusing’ and describes the secret to better riding as ‘being invincible’. 

 

Before 1979 motorcycle design was simple. You put a wheel at each end and an engine between the two. There was a light at the front, another at the back, a seat, handlebars, some suspension, brakes and a petrol tank. All the above components looked essentially the same as they had since the 1940s – the only room for innovation was choosing the number of exhaust pipes your bike was to have. 

And then Suzuki launched the Katana and everything changed. It’s impossible to overstate the impact this bike had at the time, even if it was more about the conversations than the sales figures (which, with hindsight were disappointing for such an innovative machine). The first Japanese bike with an aerodynamic, frame-mounted fairing, first with proper racing clip-on bars and the first one to break the traditional look of a motorcycle. Journalists at the time were convinced it was too futuristic for the public to understand it, but Suzuki countered that by also playing the oldest trick in motorcycling’s book – making it the most powerful and fastest bike you could buy.

 

Modern Classic Katana

Look at that engine – 111bhp of ancient air-cooled muscle

The inspiration came from a company called Target Design, run by Hans Muth, previously of BMW. Target had been hired by Suzuki to give them a distinct identity and the Katana was the first result of the collaboration. The thinking was to make the rider more of a part of the bike and to try and make as many components as small and tucked-in as possible for improved aerodynamics. 

The first Katana, launched in late 1980, designated the GSX1100S was based heavily on the existing GSX1100ET launched only a few months earlier. Where the ET model was conventionally styled and continued the trend of bikes getting bigger, heavier and faster, the Katana looked like something from Tron. The engine was the same basic 1074cc, 16v, four-cylinder powerhouse from the ET with a few tweaks to cam timing and carb settings that brought an (improbable) extra 11bhp. That figure was a long way ahead of the Yamaha and Kawasaki opposition and even Honda’s six-cylinder CBX1000 was less powerful and much more expensive.

Modern Classic Katana

Unfinished look was part of the design

The Katana’s frame was also essentially the same as the GSX1100ET but the new model had a slightly lazier steering head angle for increased stability at speed and a completely different riding position thanks to the low-set clip-on handlebars and rearset footrests. It also had new suspension with a hydraulic anti-dive system (an early version of compression damping control) on the front forks and rear shocks with built-in levers to adjust the preload.

The quirkiness continued with a beautiful set of compact clocks – possibly the best-looking instruments ever on a modern motorcycle, a choke control the size of a beer mat, suede pillion seat and a couple of unexplained, dummy switches on the lhs side panel. With a reasonably competitive price tag just under £3000 in a booming motorcycle market, the Katana should have been a sensation. But it wasn’t. Partly because most of that boom was in smaller bikes, bought by commuters in the midst of the worst recession for a generation. Partly because the riding position was so unlike anything else this side of a Laverda or Guzzi Le Mans, but mostly because British motorcyclists have always been a conservative bunch and the Katana was just too radical for most of the older riders who could afford it.

Modern Classic Katana

Gizmo in front of the forks is the hydraulic anti-dive unit

On the road it felt long, stable and stunningly fast. But it was also cripplingly uncomfortable with a long stretch over the fuel tank to the low-set bars and feet scrunched up because the high footpegs and low seat made an odd combination. 

Like many forward-thinking machines the sales were slow, but over the years a cult following emerged and the early, radical Katanas have become very sought after. They have also become a popular donor bike for custom builders too with almost as many now sporting modern suspension, fatter wheels and engines from a GSX-R1100 or Bandit 1200. If you remember Andy Sparrow’s brilliant Bloodrunners cartoon from BIKE magazine in the mid-1980s, then chances are there’s a fat-tyred Katana special in your biking fantasies somewhere.

Like all classics the golden rule when buying is take your time, stick to your budget and remember that there’s always another one that’ll be up for sale next month. The basics of a Suzuki Katana are strong, but most of them are 35 years old now. Despite only being on sale in the UK and Europe for less than five years, Suzuki kept producing the 1100 Katana in Japan till the mid-1990s and you occasionally see these bikes for sale in the specialist importers.

 

Modern Classic Katana

Low clip-on bars, simple switchgear, funky clocks

Prices are reasonable for such a rare and radical classic bike. £10k and a bit of patience will get you an absolute minter, but you can get a decent Katana for half that if you’re smart because, although rare and still able to draw a crowd, they don’t have that mass-appeal or nostalgia that drives classic prices because 

• They weren’t around for that long

• Not that many people owned one first time around

• Motorcycle development was so rapid back then that they were outdated in three years

Most have been through at least one restoration and so the hard-to-find parts have often already been found, which means a tidy Katana can be a very good buy. With a new model coming for 2019 interest will be high, meaning this could be the right moment to buy one.    

Bikes in photos on sale (at time of writing) at

Saltire Motorcycles Ltd Edinburgh on 0131 478 6661

EB Specialist cars, Harrogate on 01423 222476

Potteries Motorcycles on 01782 969730

Price

£3000-£10,000

Engine

1074ccair-cooled 16v inline-four

Power (claimed)

111bhp @9500rpm

Torque (claimed)

71lb-ft @6500rpm

Transmission

Five-speed, chain final drive

Frame

Steelcradleframe

Suspension

(F)38mm forks with preload adjustmentand anti-dive

(R)

Twinshock adjustable for preload and rebound damping

Brakes

(F) Twin275mm discs,two-pistoncalipers; (R)275mm disc, twin-pistoncaliper

Tyres

(F)3.5-V19; (R)4.5-V17

Wheelbase

1520mm

Seat height

775mm

dry weight

232kg

Fuel capacity

22 litres(4.8gallons)

Top speed

135mph

Fuel consumption

30mpg

 

Bennetts

 

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