Motorcycle design can be divided into two eras: before the Suzuki Katana, and after. Although a commercial failure, perhaps no single other motorcycle did more to change the philosophy of motorcycle styling and industrial design than this odd Japanese model, conceived in Germany 40 years ago.
In the 1980s the future was epic. Every day introduced things that made the status quo look medieval — and most of those things were Japanese. ‘Made in Japan’ meant manufacturing excellence and innovation. For western economists and product managers, Japanese brands represented an existential threat, while the mainstream consumer view was perhaps summarized best by the lead character in the iconic film Back to the Future when he said “What are you talking about, Doc? All the best stuff comes from Japan.”
The 1980s was a decade of prosperity and commercial optimism, something that was reflected in the industrial design of the era. Products were transformed from ornamentalized machines into status objects. The television went from being an electronic device pretending to be a wooden cabinet, to a futuristic black plastic monolith made by Hitachi. A low-cost portable radio blossomed into the brilliant yellow lozenge of a Sony Walkman.
As with many product categories at the time, Japan was acknowledged as the leader in motorcycle manufacturing, technology, and sales. And yet as overwhelmingly strong as the Japanese brands were, many enthusiasts found something lacking in Japanese motorcycle design. The Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM), as they were dismissively called, was considered generic and uninspired. The accusation had merit, as most UJMs shared the across-the-frame four-cylinder engine and few were visually innovative. Then came the Katana, and Japanese motorcycles would never be considered generic again.
In 1980, when the Katana was conceived, the motorcycle had already existed for over a century. Up until then milestone motorcycles (from the BSA Gold Star to Ducatiʼs 750 Sport and Hondaʼs CB750K) all looked pretty much the same to anyone unfamiliar with the technology of motorcycle engines or suspension. In other words, their key design attributes were mechanical, not aesthetic. But the Katana shocked onlookers with its outrageous appearance. It was a watershed moment in motorcycling: the modern era had begun.
In 1979, Hans-Georg Kasten, Hans Muth, and Jan Fellstrom formed Target Design, an industrial design consultancy nestled in a small village near Munich. All three were refugees from BMWʼs styling studio, but back then BMW was not the aggressive competitor that it is today, and the young designers were often frustrated by the limits placed on them by the companyʼs conservatism.
Hans Muth, a man described by Kasten as “a very good salesman,” convinced Suzukiʼs German importer to commission “European themed” styling concepts with the hope of spicing up its UJMs. The concept, which would be called ED-1 (for European Design 1), would eventually morph into the GSX 650.
Also that fateful year, German motorcycle magazine Motorrad hosted a competition to create the motorcycle of the future. Among the participants were Target, Porsche Design, and Ital Design (coincidentally the same design studio that designed the time-travel DeLorean in Back to the Future. They are also, less gloriously, responsible for the design of the Suzuki RE-5 rotary). Given this chance to flex their dormant design skills without restriction, the Target trio jumped in. Their concept formed the basis of the design language that would later become the Katana, and they won Motorradʼs competition. Suzuki was impressed, and ED-2, using the GSX 1100 as a base, was born.
Kasten, still an active designer and the principal of Target, talked to me at length about the process that gave the world the Katana 33 years ago. “There was no process really,” he says, laughing. “We were just three naive guys, not thinking much about sales, or marketing, just about design. We made the motorcycle we wanted. A motorcycle we wanted to see on the road.”
Such purity of purpose is evident from the early sketches and renderings to the immense job of making a full- scale presentation model in just two weeks. To put that into perspective, the 3D design process at an OEM usually takes six to eight weeks, the result of which is a raw clay or CAD model.
“We pretty much didnʼt sleep, just lived in the studio and ate and worked,” says Kasten. Often in design, constant meetings and long-winded exchanges with management and engineering about the direction of the project exacerbate the pressure of deadlines. But in the case of the Katana, there were no committees. Target created what they felt made sense based on experience and intuition. As a result the trio moved swiftly.
I asked Kasten — with what is now over 30 years of perspective — what he likes and dislikes about the Katana. He said it was impossible to say. “So much in my life is the way it is because of that design. I canʼt see the bike from a distance anymore.” But he speaks with pride about bringing motorcycle design into the 1980s.
For decades, motorcycles had an unbroken horizontal line, a peanut fuel tank, triangular side panels and the ubiquitous round headlight with chromed bezel. The Katana harmonized lighting, seating, instrumentation and graphics into one expression. Gone were references to the past, like pin-striping or cast steel fuel petcocks, replaced instead by smooth forms that incorporated technical parts with the body.
Before the Katana plastic was used only for parts playing a supporting role, parts like fenders and tailpieces. After the Katana plastic became the main element, the dominant material that shaped not only the bike’s main features but also viewersʼ opinions of it.
Before the Katana, motorcycles isolated components into stand-alone pieces styled to look like separate volumes, but the Katanaʼs round fuel switch, slotted vents, and grey and black color scheme put the machine in the same visual arena as a Commodore computer or a business jet.
The last analogy is not my own, but that of then-Suzuki president Osamu Suzuki, who upon seeing the final 3-D mock-up said that the Katana reminded him of the indisputable icon of that era: the Concorde.
The Katana appeared more at home alongside the imaginary vehicles of the Star Wars universe rather than among the antique worlds of Easy Rider or The Wild One. The radical-looking Suzuki transformed the perception of the motorcycle, placing it confidently in the fast-forward decade that it was destined to help shape.
Suzuki presented the Katana concept at the Cologne motor show in 1980, then stunned the world the next year when the production version, based on the GSX 1100, appeared for sale with only minor changes to the design.
But the Katana was not a huge seller. Motorcyclists revered or despised it, and the majority of big-bore Suzuki buyers opted for the standard GSX. Hardened enthusiasts at the time thought it a poseur motorcycle and scoffed at its ‘toy-like’ styling and fake switches on the right side cover.
Despite these reservations, Suzuki struck branding gold. Within a few years, the Katanaʼs influence could be seen in Suzukiʼs entire road-going motorcycle range. And perhaps most importantly of all, after the Katana the image of a naked motorcycle as the epitome of the sport was finished.
Among active professional motorcycle designers, the Katana is consistently named as one of the great designs. Most Japanese sport motorcycles of the 1980s featured the crisply folded lines and styling details introduced by Targetʼs Suzuki, from the original Honda Interceptor, to the Kawasaki GpZ (made famous by the film Top Gun), to the Yamaha FZ.
As for the men who made it, Hans Muth left Target soon after the Katana project to consult for Suzuki. Jan Fellstrom eventually left as well, leaving Kasten to continue as the head of Target. His studio has grown to embrace a wide spectrum of product design and he still occasionally dapples in the motorcycle industry. In 2001 the Sachs Beast concept caused a stir with its big V-twin, minimalist fairing, and a rather Katana-like flattened tank. Naturally.
I think that the whole industry owes the Katana a lot, including me, because it inspired so many. It helped me get my first job in the industry: the Katana turned out to be the favourite motorcycle of the Yamaha design studio boss, and he saw its influence in my work.
The Katana opened the door to thinking of the motorcycle as a complete object, and not an assemblage of bits. It made it safe for designers to explore the fantastical in motorcycles like the Gilera CX, Yamaha Morpho, and Honda NR750.
The motorcycle is a 140 year old invention, but it can be said that industrial design and motorcycles begins in 1980 with the Suzuki Katana. When the future arrived.