Sunday, February 26, 2012

In conversation with Hans-Georg Kasten, creator of the Katana GSX1100S

Hans-Georg Kasten
Top: Hans Georg Kasten (left), the Katana's designer, with Prof. Ehn (right), Head of a motorcycle museum in Austria. Pic taken in 2006, the year of the Katana's 25th Anniversary. In the background, you can also see a prototype MV Agusta sportsbike which Target Design were working on, but the bike never made it to production
Below: Original design sketches and some early prototypes from the late-1970s, which ultimately led to the birth of the iconic Suzuki Katana GSX1100S

1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100

We’ve said this often in the past and we’ll say it again – we absolutely love the 1980-81 Suzuki Katana 1100. Based on the Suzuki GSX1100 of the late-1970s and first shown as a prototype at Intermot, Cologne, in 1980, the ED-2 Katana looked radically different from other sportsbikes of that era. At the behest of Suzuki Germany, the bike had been designed by German design house, Target Design, where Hans-Georg Kasten, Hans Muth and Jan Fellstrom were the three men who designed the Katana.

Production of the Suzuki Katana GSX1100S started in 1981 and continued till 1984, when the bike was replaced with the GSX1100EFE. However, Suzuki built another batch of 200 units of the 1981-spec Katana in 1990, as part of the 70th Anniversary celebrations, and then released another batch of 200 units in 1991. (As far as we are concerned, these are the only ‘real’ Katanas that Suzuki ever produced. The company also used the Katana moniker later on fully-faired 600s (more pics here and here) and 750s, but we’ll ignore those machines. Those bikes have nothing to do with the Katana we love…)

So, coming back to the 1980-81 Suzuki Katana 1100, we’ve always wanted to meet the people responsible for creating the bike. Now, while that hasn’t happened yet, we did write to Hans-Georg Kasten, who owns Target Design and who was one of the three men responsible for designing the original Katana 1100. We asked him a whole lot of questions about the bike and about motorcycle design in general, and he was kind enough to talk at length about these. Here is what Hans-Georg had to say:
The 1980s Suzuki Katana GSX1100S, which influenced motorcycle design in a big way
1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100 1980 Suzuki Katana 1100

On how he got started with designing motorcycles

After working for Porsche, at Style Porsche, I decided to join BMW’s motorcycle design department. My first work was the R100RT and the basic concept of the K series, including the RS and RT. After my boss, Hans Muth, left, I was in charge of the motorcycle design group at BMW, but only for 8 months. In this time, Jan Fellstrom and I did the BMW R80GS.

On the bikes he rode, and liked, back in the late-1970s/early-1980s

I had a Honda 250 Elsinore motocross bike and a BMW R100RS. I was impressed by the Moto Guzzi Le Mans MK I when I saw it the first time and I liked most of the Ducatis.

On the design brief provided by Suzuki, for the first Katana

The Suzuki thing started because of the personal contacts between Hans Muth and Manfred Becker, who was in charge of the marketing department of Suzuki Germany. Suzuki Japan was already working with Italdesign and expected nothing from this new connection. They only asked for a sporty layout for a 650cc four-cylinder bike, which later became the 650 / 550 Katana (ED1). After they had been very much impressed by the styling, Suzuki Japan gave us a short briefing for the 1100, the top-of-the-line model. ‘Create a Southern European type of sporty bike, based on the technology of the existing GS1100.’ That’s all they said!

There were no limits or restrictions from any side. Nobody tried to push us into any direction. There were just two designers, Jan and me, who only realized what they did not manage to do at BMW – realizing their dream of how a sporty motorcycle should look like. Sure, there was also a lot of functional thinking behind the shapes. The area around the knees had to be narrow but the fuel tank would have to have reasonable capacity. That’s how the Katana’s main feature was born – the fuel tank. Also, the bike had to be stable at high speeds, the reason why we fixed the headlight to the frame and added an aerodynamic cowl to it.

On how motorcycle design has evolved over the last three decades

I think I can say, in the 1980s, nothing had such an influence on the design of motorcycles like the Katana. With a few exceptions, motorcycle design was quite conservative at that time. After the Cologne show where the Katana was introduced, motorcycle companies started paying much more attention to the styling of their bikes. But there have been other items too. Aerodynamics became more important and advances in frame and engine technologies also had a major influence. The body of a car is simple – a over the technology. A bike is quite different, every body part has to be in a harmony with the technique. I always likes bikes with an individual character – no copies. I think the Ducati 916 was an important step, having a major influence on the scene.

Sachs B805
Above: The Sachs B805, which Hans-Georg currently rides and (below) various Kreidler, Sachs and BMW bikes which Target Design worked on. They also did some work for Zündapp in the 1980s

On the other bikes that he and Target Design have worked on

As you may know, we had an internal problem with Hans Muth, and Jan and I had no business contacts at that time. So we did the Egli CBX for the Swiss company for free. After that Jan went back to England and we had some mutual projects over the coming years. I did the Egli 600 a year later on my own and starting to develop my team. In the following years we did small bikes for German companies like Kreidler and Zündapp, which could not survive because of the pressure from Japan. In the late 1980s we did the BMW R100GS Paris Dakar, which – to be honest – is quite ugly. But ‘uglyness’ is the philosophy! It was the best sold BMW in the early 1990s and it is the mother of the big enduros of today. Normally, BMW does not give work outside for a complete motorcycle but we worked on smaller projects for this company. For Sachs, we did various bikes, including the Sachs Beast 1000 show bike.

On the bike he currently rides

I am riding a Sachs B805. Quite exotic. Only 150 have been built.

On what kind of a bike he’d like to design today, if there was an opportunity to do so

I love motorcycles and I would take any opportunity to design a new bike. However, I have grey hair now and a hell of a lot of experience, knowing there will never be the same situation again – the freedom to work which we had when we created the Katana. Today, I have learnt to listen to the client and try to understand what their aim is. It’s about adjustments.

If I have the chance to create my personal dream bike? As I said, I got older and I discovered the fantastic roads of the Alps. I would love to create a supermoto!

On Japanese vs European motorcycle design

Difficult to answer. In general, I would say that for the Japanese, it is important to work with mutual understanding, while Europeans allow more individualism. This makes life easier for the designer, it is easier for him to look for new ways, go where nobody has gone before.

On the design ethos followed by various motorcycle manufacturers and the bikes that impress him most

Honda is always very professional, especially with their new crossovers, but the bike which impressed me most in recent times is the Husqvarna Nuda 900. This bike has a new and fresh image with interesting design features. I also like the 1199 Panigale, knowing this bike is a logical evolution, following the image of the 916 from 20 years ago. BMW, on the contrary, has left its origin completely. We will see what shows up next. Without any doubt, designing motorcycles is a more professional job today compared to 30 years ago. You do not have as much freedom anymore, the designer has to work with the needs of sales and marketing. A designer must now be able to sell the result of his work inside the company.

On how he thinks motorcycle design will evolve over the next decade

Difficult question. Design as I see it, means communication, function and fashion. Communication means the design shall tell a story. The story is what the bike is made for, visualizing the quality, the kind of innovation and the character. Function takes care of things like ergonomics, aerodynamics and technical requirements. And fashion, where I see a clear trend towards more simplicity. This means not too many ‘notes,’ no intake, no spoiler where it is not necessary, but nice proportions. There is a also a strong move towards more individualism. For every little niche you may think of, there will be space for a special bike!

We thank Hans-Georg Kasten for speaking to Faster and Faster. We have admired the 1980s Katana 1100 for a long, long time – right since the day we were school kids, putting up posters of this super-cool motorcycle on the walls of our bedroom. For us, this little conversation with Hans-Georg has been a privilege and an honour. We wish him, and Target Design, all the best for the future and hope that someday, they will design a successor to the first, original Katana!

Target Design team Kevin Schwantz
Above, from left: The Target Design team, and Kevin Schwantz astride a Katana 1100!
Below: Various Katana 1100s, including some very nicely modified ones

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