Suzuki Katana 3.0 – History Repeats Itself

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In the realm of transportation design, the influence of the motoring journalist is often underestimated. By simply endorsing or condemning a vehicle a magazine can greatly affect sales of existing machines, but less well known is the way in which publications often initiate new product development. Such was the case for the Suzuki Katana 3.0 project.

Some of the most iconic motorcycle designs in modern times were the result, at least partially, of freelance projects created by and with the motorcycle press. The original 1980 Suzuki Katana was of course the most famous.  In that case, Motorrad, Germany’s largest motorcycle magazine collaborated with independent design studio Target to imagine a futuristic sport motorcycle for the 1980s.  That one-off exploration so impressed the public and Suzuki that the Japanese manufacturer purchased the design and developed it onto a mass-production model.

In 2018, the story repeated itself, which Italy’s largest motorcycle publication Motociclismo collaborated with motorcycle R&D specialist Engines Engineering, and designer Rodolfo Frascoli to create Katana 3.0, a modern re-imagining of the classic for the 21st century. 


The project was initialized during a dinner conversation between Federico Aliverti, director of Motociclismo, and engineer Alberto Strazzari, the founder of Engines Engineering.  The two men mused about how Suzuki, despite producing excellent products and strong performances in racing, had lost some of the rebellious spirit it used to be known for.  The company needed to make a visual and visceral statement that could match their technical skill to reanimate enthusiasm for the brand.

By the end of the week, Aliverti and Strazzari had a project outline.  Engines Engineering (known throughout the motorcycle industry as E&E) would take an existing motorcycle and develop a Katana 3.0 design.  The show model would not be just a reskin, but a completely engineered for mass-production design, made to international homologation standards with realistic tolerances, including all plastic body, lighting and other new parts.  In other words, a concept model that could become a turnkey product solution, should Suzuki chose to accept it.

Design

The Katana 3.0 was born (so-named because there was a 2nd generation Katana in the 1990’s that flopped).  The brief was simple and followed the same philosophy of the original: take an existing Suzuki sport model as a foundation and create the new design on its foundation.  While the original was based on the then class-leading GSX1100, the new one would be built off the latest GSX1000F sport-touring platform.  The goal was to keep the existing model’s exceptional real-world performance but reintroduce the personality of the Katana.

The design process began when the magazine and E&E hired Frascoli to pen the new bike.  A well known freelancer in the two wheel world, Frascoli is best known for work like the Moto Guzzi Griso, and Triumph Tiger.  A few weeks of sketching coincided with the physical teardown and digital scan of a 2018 GSX1000F for benchmarking.  An original Katana was located and admired, it’s lines and details studied.

The Frascoli design follows similar retro-modern methodologies used in the car industry. Like a modern Mini or 911, the Katana 3.0 hits all the classic’s notes.  The form shares the long, lean and pointed profile of the original.  It keeps the three black switches on the body side. Linear slots and ribs abound.  These treatments, when finished in ash grey and matte black and accented with the red Katana logographic, the ’80s feeling is strong. 

It is in the detail design that Katana 3.0 sets itself apart.  Unlike car design, which is primarily a linear exercise over a single closed volume, motorcycle design is in principle about a volumetric study.  The original Katana was actually spectacularly basic in that regard, treated as a single ‘L’ shaped volume that was simply draped over a mechanical foundation.  Katana 3.0 is a series of separate volumes, one each for the tank, the seat, and front fairing that stand alone as mature elements, but use careful intersections to integrate as a whole with the underlying motorcycle.

This is particularly evident in the waistline as it narrows underneath the seat.  The frame of the donor GSX1000F, although designed separately for another project, blends seamlessly into the surfaces of the tank above it.  Care was given to use the same curvature and tension in the frame casting across the plastic surfaces.  The descending skirt underneath the front fairing appears like an offset of the frame surface, hiding the radiator and adding aerodynamic efficiency without the crudity of the original. 

The sketches were developed into a full sized clay model at E&E in Bologna.  With a team 110 strong, including designers, modelers, mechanical and electrical engineers, and facilities that allow for testing and simulation for the entire R&D process, Engines broke down the new design and developed it for mass production. 

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Founded in 1979 to help Italian motorcycle brand Malagutti, E&E quickly grew into an industry-leading supplier of design and engineering services akin to Pininfarina or Bertone on four wheels, working with most global motorcycle brands including Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Piaggio.  E&E treated the Katana 3.0 like any other mainstream project, creating class A surfaces, engineering body parts for injection molding and stamping.  The bespoke LED lighting, front and rear, were developed by an in-house team specialized in the area, so that they would function correctly within international legal requirements.

A New Weapon for a Familiar Fight

The result carries the retro theme without being a straight remake.  When it came out, the original Katana was received with a mix of love and hate, because at it’s heart the motorcycle community is extremely conservative.  The Katana 3.0 met similar bifurcation of reactions when it was debuted to the public on the Motociclismo stand at the 2018 EICMA international motorcycle show in Milan.  The motorcycle press and enthusiast community praised the design.  Some hard-core journalists criticized it as superficial pandering.

But the fact was that the Katana 3.0 was a social media viral hit.  Suzuki was being discussed and shared in a way that the brand hadn’t been in a decade, which led to a meeting between E&E and Suzuki CEO in Tokyo.  Thanks to detailed technical study and the project being treated as a real world development, Katana 3.0 was accepted and acquired by the Japanese manufacturer.  Within nine months of it’s debut in Milan, a production Katana 3.0 was available to the public.

Japanese brands are sometimes maligned for being makers of high quality motorcycles that lack soul.  The original Katana was a response to this.  Led by a magazine full of motorcycle enthusiasts who appreciated the merit of Suzuki products but wanted to add something more, a talented designer was able to create an icon that changed motorcycling for a decade. 

The Katana 3.0 is an example of what happens sometimes in the two wheeled world, when the passion of a few key players get a chance to influence a mainstream manufacturer.  Unlike cars where production lead times are long, due to the sheer size and cost of tooling, a motorcycle redesign can be relatively economical.  The entire Katana 3.0 program reignited a brand that needed a quick injection of enthusiasm, and like it’s original ignited a thousand discussions about motorcycle design.


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