The first Suzuki Katana had the looks and the goods
Suzuki Katana GS1000SZ
Years produced: 1982
Claimed power: 90hp @ 8,500rpm
Top speed: 140mph
Engine type: Air-cooled, in-line four-cylinder
Weight (wet): 252.4kg (556.5lb)
Price then: $4,499
Price now: $3,500-$5,500
If you grew up in the Eighties, chances are when you think of a time machine, you think of a stainless-steel DeLorean complete with a flux capacitor. It's not likely that the 1982 Suzuki Katana GS1000SZ comes to mind.
In 1985, executive producer Steven Spielberg introduced thousands of teenagers to what would become their first object of moto lust: the gullwing-doored DeLorean that Michael J. Fox drove across the silver screen in the movie Back to the Future. Although Spielberg originally thought about using a refrigerator as a time machine, he turned instead to the DeLorean for something a bit sexier. With just a bit of plutonium for power, the DeLorean sent its driver and passengers traveling through time.
For people like Richard Bruner, the 1982 Suzuki Katana GS1000SZ is a time machine of a different sort. It mentally takes him back to his senior year of high school. “I spent more than one lunch period in the school library reading about it in all of the motorcycle magazines of the day,” he admits. Now he can spend his lunch hour aboard one of his two GS1000SZs or a host of other fine bikes in his garage.
Though the first Suzuki Katana was not an entirely new motorcycle when it debuted in 1982, it was radically different in design and idea than its predecessors in Suzuki’s GS line of bikes. “What struck me the most,” Richard says, “was the appearance, the way the back of the tank came to a point, and how the seat was ‘scooped out’ to allow the rider to feel like they were a part of the bike, rather than sitting on top of the bike.”
The unusual design was wild on purpose. Though Suzukis of the day were known to be some of the fastest, best-handling machines in their respective classes, the word on the street was their lineup was also a bit boring when it came to looks. Then as now, appearance was key when it came to motorcycle sales, so Suzuki decided it was time to make a bold change.
To update their image, the company hired Hans Muth, a German designer and ex-chief of styling for BMW motorcycles. Basically, they told him to come up with something so outrageous that no one would be able to ignore it, hoping that somehow just one wild design would draw attention to their whole line.
While not everyone was fond of the design when it debuted, to this day it is still an icon. This fact is proven by its inclusion in the Guggenheim museum’s “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit in New York in 1998 — an exhibit that is still traveling the country in one iteration or another.
Appearances can be deceiving
Underneath its wild appearance lives a more-or-less standard issue GS. The bike’s engine, though a fine dual-overhead-cam 16-valve power plant, is essentially an earlier GS1100 mill with a 2mm-smaller bore and a 1.2mm-shorter stroke. The frame, swingarm and wheels were also basically taken from the GS1100.
Ergonomics are a different story altogether. Clip-on bars and rear-set pegs and controls made the Katana feel like a much more focused beast than its GS1100 brother. Named after a samurai sword, the Katana was meant to be a purposeful tool. Suzuki originally sleeved down the Kat’s engine so that it could qualify for AMA Superbike racing (which had a 1,000cc upper limit), though they figured that consumers were going to expect 1,100cc performance.
To try and make up for the lack of displacement, they added a few tricks, including the Twin Swirl Combustion Chambers (TSCC) that were reshaped for better high-rpm fuel atomization.
Though the performance numbers came close to replicating the larger engine, period tests noted that the 1,000cc engine really had to be wrung out to perform like its big brother, and the GS1000SZ still lacked an obvious amount of torque in comparison. For 1983, they bumped displacement back up to 1,100cc.
Richard first rode this Katana in 1992 when it belonged to a friend. When his buddy decided to part with it, Richard jumped at the chance and bought it. Though it had gone through at least three owners, the bike was in excellent mechanical shape. “The tank had a few dents, the back half of the seat was baked — like all that have spent any time in the sun are — and the cowling had the turn signals impaled through it. All it takes is one small bump to knock them through,” he says.
Wanting it to look as nice as possible, Richard repainted the bodywork and recovered the back half of the seat. A few years later he found another 1982 with all original bodywork and paint. “In order to keep this one as original as possible, I swapped the original-paint bodywork over to this one.
“Any missing or incorrect parts, nuts, bolts, etc., were replaced with OEM Suzuki parts. I bought a new seat from Suzuki, but the gray isn’t totally correct, as it appears to be a superceded part off of the Final Edition Katana available in Japan through 2002,” he adds.
Richard also notes that though the United States models supposedly didn’t come with the “shark fins” on the underside of the cowling. He added them because they add to the sinister appearance of the bike.
Riding a Katana today
Though the ergonomics were unusual for the time, today the big Katana can — dare we say it — be quite a comfortable mount for the right person.
“When the bikes first came out, the magazines all criticized the ‘radical’ riding position, but it really is quite mild when compared to today’s sportbikes. At 6ft 3in tall, I find the riding position and the reach to the bars is perfectly suited to me,” Richard says.
Considering its age, Richard reports the mount to still be a great all-around bike. “It’s good for road trips to bike gatherings, and for carving corners on rural highways. The windscreen provides more wind protection than you would imagine. Even today the styling draws looks and comments whenever it’s parked. Everyone has an opinion about it, and they’re not always favorable,” he adds.
Richard’s plans for the bike are simple, as aside from replacing the chain and someday hopefully finding a nice, correct original seat, he just plans to ride and enjoy the bike. And despite what an iconic motorcycle the GS1000SZ Katana has become, they were still built with just that purpose in mind: to be ridden, and to be ridden hard.
After all, this is a machine that can send its rider back in time with just a twist of the wrist — with no plutonium required.
“The Katana is sharp, slicing through traffic or carving up a twisty stretch of tarmac. It is fast. It screams to be used every time it is pulled out of the garage. It is nothing to be trifled with.”
— Cycle World, November 1981
“The Suzuki GS1000SZ would be easy to explain if it were Italian. All the buzzwords that apply to European flashbikes — stylish, daring, individualistic, peculiar, race-bred — can be reapplied in full to the Katana.”
— Cycle, December 1981
“With the arrival of the new Katana, other motorcycles suddenly seem stuck with earthbound styling. The sharply-angled fairing with its mini-shield looks like it can propel the Katana to light-speed velocities all on its own.”
— Cycle Guide, December 1981
“Displacement means power so the Katana gives away a handful of [horsepower] and fractions of a second to the class rivals. And the suspension is simply too stiff. So the Katana isn’t perfect. Instead it’s wonderful fun.”
— Cycle World, November 1982