I read George Orwell’s 1984 when I was 13, when getting my hands on a copy of Shaven Haven was a more important literary task, so my memories of Orwell’s famously pessimistic look into the future are scant. Perhaps younger students with fresher memories will be able to tell me whether George predicted the arrival of the watercooled four-stroke motorcycle engine or the 16-inch front wheel. I certainly hadn’t seen them coming because my first sight of a Kawasaki GPZ900R left me reeling.
One day while riding along the Thames embankment I stopped next to an unfamiliar red Kawasaki. Almost all bikes left my MZ of the time standing but this Kwacker seemed to disappear into thin air when the traffic lights changed. Shocked, I visited my local Kawasaki dealer and organised a test ride on the new GPZ900R. Everything about it was incredible: its power, its handling, its brakes. I knew that I had ridden the future and I couldn’t afford it.
The GPZ900R that we have here is absolutely stunning, despite having 43,000 miles on the clock. It’s still a good looking bike; solid, purposeful and subtly aggressive. And totally different to the Suzuki GSX1100 Katana that joins it in this battle of the eighties’ giants. But then the Katana is different to everything that came before or since. If you want to learn the development history of the Suzuki Katana, then first warm yourself up with a simpler task like mastering mandarin Chinese, because the Katana story is complicated with various different engine sizes and appearances of particular bikes.
The most excellent Katana Central website tells us that no motorcycle company had used an outside design house to pen one of its bikes and that Suzuki, in commissioning German crayon meisters target DESIGN, was the first. Not strictly true because Ducati asked car designers Bertone to design a bike in the early 1970s, the result of which was one of Ducati’s ugliest ever bikes, the 860 GTE. Suzuki launched the GS1100S Katana in the UK in 1980 when bikers tucked their trousers into their boots and still folded white socks over boot tops; the BMF rally was massive and Belstaff made kit for bikers rather than toffs with shotguns. The Katana came as a bit of a shock and left most people rather confused.
Numerous Katana-style models came and went during the 1980s, including 550s, 650s, 750s and including, in 1984, the GSX750 S3 Katana with a pop-up headlamp. Surprisingly the 1100 Kat we have here wears a W-registration which means that it was registered in 2000. I didn’t know they were made that recently but Katana experts will have already observed from the black engine that this bike is one of the 1100 Japan-only limited edition GSX-1100SYs built in late 2000. With less than 4,000 miles on the clock it is in as new condition.
Bike nostalgia takes several forms. First, there’s the bikes you dreamed about as a kid – like my Kwacker H2. Then there’s the bikes that you want because you owned one in your youth and you want to recapture those days long before grey pubes and having to stop for the loo before needing petrol while riding a Ducati. And lastly there’s the nostalgia for bikes from an era that you missed out on that was obviously a hoot. Which is why young Urry is mad about 350LCs even though he had yet to learn to pee standing up when the Elsie made its debut in 1980.
There is a lot about the GPZ900R that I have forgotten over the last 24 years. For example that if you press a button on the simple dashboard the rev-counter’s needle changes role to indicate battery voltage on an inner scale and that the clutch is hydraulically operated so that unlike ‘70s Laverda and Ducati clutches you don’t have the worrying question of which will snap first: the cable or the tendons in your left forearm. The brake pads on this bike are fresh and the more we ride the bike, the more effective they become until eventually we are able to properly test the 900R’s anti-drive front forks.
It was inevitable that in the pursuit of horsepower that Kawasaki would have to follow the other Japanese manufacturers and adopt four-valve combustion chambers and that water cooling would allow even more power. The layout of a single camchain running off the end of the crankshaft to twin cams and the alternator mounted behind the cylinders is common now but was radical for 1984. The engine produces 115bhp, which was serious power in 1984 and gave the bike a top speed of 155mph. No production bike was faster, which is why the GPZ bagged the top two steps of the podium in the 1984 production TT. And they meant production in those days. Headlights, indicators and just racing numbers to differentiate racers from spectators.
Have you spotted the odd little liquid-filled bulb next to the carbs? This is part of one of the most complicated recalls in bike history. The GPZ’s carbs had a habit of icing and Kawasaki’s fix was a complicated carb heating system that flowed engine coolant around the carbs using a complicated system of pipes. It works, but Kawasaki’s engineers must have wished they’d got it right in the first place.
What the GPZ900R really is, although we’d never have thought of it in 1984, is the first of the sports tourers. The riding position is very comfortable, the fairing keeps the wind off your torso and the power delivery is smooth yet there’s a further burst of power as you hit 7,000rpm. Best of all, with fuel consumption as low as 50mpg and a fuel tank with 22 litres the GPZ has a range of 200 miles. If you’ve ridden a first year Fireblade you’ll know how edgy a 16in front wheel can feel, especially at low speeds. The Kawasaki has none of that feeling and it’s easy to turn the bike around in a road’s width without even putting a foot down. Perhaps it’s the high mileage that has smoothed the edges of the gears but I never remember Kawasakis having gearboxes this slick.
Amazingly, the Katana is comfortable, too. Even today the styling is striking, and interesting. If you look down at the tank it is thin and long, a bit like a ‘60s Triton café racer, yet the angles and downward rake of the styling predicted current nose-down sports bike styling 20 years early. For years the Suzuki GSX1100 air-cooled engine was the motor of choice for drag racers because it’s easy to tune and incredibly strong, and at this mild level of tune (110bhp) it will last forever. It’s quietly rapid without being crazily fast, power building right off the bat but it’s obvious the chassis is capable of dealing with a lot more. The exhaust note is deep and wuffling, building to a solid roar as the Katana hits the juicy part of its power. Keep it smooth, don’t bother grabbing big handfuls of throttle and the Katana blasts along at a reasonable lick. When you’re done and the engine’s off, the air-cooled engine sits there ticking loudly, all four cylinders cooling down in unison. A wonderful noise.
Suzuki didn’t just hit the green button on the production line when it built this Final Edition Katana and its 1,099 brothers (they only built 1100 of them), it had a look in the parts bin to see if anything could be improved and in doing so stuck a pair of four piston Tokico calipers on the Suzuki’s front forks and a pair of similarly modern floating discs (a hefty old-style caliper does the work at the back). There’s a little perspex screen that deflects a small amount of air out your way but then unlike the Kawasaki this isn’t a bike that you’d tour Europe on.
Like the GPZ the Katana has a very light clutch. Not because it is hydraulically operated but because the cable runs to an electric servo that lives under the tank. You can both feel it working and hear its odd buzz. There’s a lot to talk about on the Katana, or argue about. Like whether the two-tone seat with soft-touch fabric is cool or tacky or whether the moulded plastic seat tail is naff. It’s these interesting features that take your mind off the fact that this Katana is a bit slow. If it was a modern ‘retro’ like a Bandit 1200 and had only 95bhp nobody would buy one but the Katana’s uniqueness makes its performance a side issue.
Its appeal is that it’s unlikely you’ll pull up at a bikers’ pub and find another one parked up. These bikes are seriously sought-after now and a good one will set you back around £8,000, so people tend to ride them sparingly on the road. Where the GPZ uses a tiny 16-inch front wheel, the Katana runs a skinny 19-inch item. Despite the Suzuki’s sportier stance (and it feels wonderfully long and stretched out to sit on, like a drag bike) it turns far, far slower than the Kawasaki. The Kat’s handling is very much old school, you can feel all the weight of the bike pushing it forwards and you have to plan turns accordingly. Katanas were born on the drag-strip and you can feel this on the road even today.
In summing up, it becomes obvious that these two are both very special. The GPZ900R is one of two things: first, still a very competent sports tourer that has rock solid reliability and enough grunt to be very fast but not so much to terrify and second, a key link in the timeline of the modern high performance motorcycle. You either buy a tatty one as cheap and brisk transport or a minter like this one as a running reminder of Kawasaki’s knack of building bikes just that bit more exciting and raw than anyone else.
Any serious bike museum has to have a Suzuki Katana in its collection. It was born after a decade of fuel crisis, war in the Middle East and pessimism. Suzuki took a punt and came up with a unique style of bike that has influenced designers ever since. I virtually ignored the Katana when it was launched, thinking it was a daft styling excercise and nothing else. Today, though, I see it for the beautiful thing it truly is. What a fantastic pair of bikes.
1984 and all that
Michael Jackson’s rug goes up in flames during filming for a Pepsi ad, but it’s worse for Tommy Cooper who suffers a fatal heart attack live on TV. Ronald Reagan drops a clanger during a sound check for a radio broadcast announcing that bombing of Russia will start in five minutes. The Apple Mac is launched and Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic airline flies for the first time.McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc goes to the big takeaway in the sky and Mrs Thatcher and her cabinet are almost wiped out by an IRA bomb in Brighton.The years ends with the release of the infamous ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ Band Aid single. Oh, and best of all crack cocaine is invented in Los Angeles.
living with a legend - GPZ900
Hamish Forward owns the cleanest GPZ900 in the country...
“I bought this bike 18 months ago with no tax or MoT. I stripped it down, painted a few bits and then put it back together They’re extremely tough bikes. I’ve been all over Europe on them and never broken down. Last year I did 4,500 miles on the bike. Mine is worth around £3,000 but you’ll find tatty D or F reg bikes for mere hundreds. There’s a great owners’ club run by a bloke called Craig Davis who also supplies spares. The starter clutch wears but you can replace it with one from a ZZR1100. The other thing to watch for is overheating. The cooling system needs to be kept in good nick. I always fancied a GPZ900R when they were new but didn’t have the cash. So I went through several Kawasakis including a Z500, air-cooled GPZ750 and then a watercooled GPZ750R before finally getting the dream bike. Now I’m after an early frame number A1. People love the GPZ when I pull up at pubs and bike meets.”
living with a legend - Katana
Nick Martin’s final edition Katana is the only one in the UK!
“I first saw a Katana at the 1982 TT and was blown away by its looks. I bought a nearly new 1000 Katana soon after and have pretty much had at least one ever since, including a few racers. I’ve had this one about a year but knew about it and had been gagging to buy it for ages. Katanas in this condition are very rare and even finding one that’s totally original is hard. Mine is probably worth somewhere between five and six grand. A dog will cost you £2,000 and something good that’s pretty original around £3,000. The engines are extremely tough and the bikes are reliable. Parts are available although Katana-specific bodyparts are a problem.”
you £1,000. Katanas are easy to work on – they’re a classic simple big Jap air-cooled four. I intend to use this one but it’s a double edged sword when you buy a bike this original with so few miles. It’s great to have a bike that rides like a new bike but you do worry about it more.’
KAWASAKI GPZ900R A1
Price now: £3,000 - £4,000
Engine: 908cc, water-cooled 16-valve in-line four
Power: 115bhp @ 9,500rpm
Torque: 63 ft/lb @ 8,500rm
Front Suspension: Air assisted, Kawasaki AVDS anti-dive
Rear Suspension: Uni-trak monoshock, with air and adjustable rebound damping
Front Brake: twin discs
Rear Brake: single disc
Dry weight: 228kg
Fuel capacity: 22 litres
Top speed: 155mph
SUZUKI KATANA 1100
Price now: £5,000 - £8,000
Engine: 1074cc, air-cooled 16-valve in-line four
Power: 110bhp @ 8,500rpm
Torque: 67 ft/lb @ 6,500rm
Front Suspension: Air assisted, anti-dive with 4-way preload
Rear Suspension: twin shock, 4-way rebound, 5-way preload
Front Brake: twin 280mm discs
Rear Brake: single disc
Dry weight: 232kg
Fuel capacity: 22 litres
Top speed: 141mph