The Spa Katana.
In the beginning, there was simply an amazing Classic Motorcycle race in Belgium, and a bloke that really wanted to be in it….
True that, and I’m the bloke. But before we even start talking about building a Katana, I need to get this off my chest; it wasn’t so long ago I didn’t even like them.
My motorcycling started in 1985 and, not uncommonly for the time, I was a race replica obsessed 16-year old MB50 pilot. The “cool” big bikes that I lusted after all had water in the engines, came plastic wrapped and had at least one Z or R in their model name.
In 1985, the Kat, (in my book at least) was already old hat.
I’ve always enjoyed performance in my bikes, so the notion of what makes a Katana that has lived in my head since 1985 never turned me on; I thought it would be heavy, slow, limited by air-cooling, with absolutely no ground clearance and wobbly handling. Add the Marmite looks into the mix (and I’d never been a lover of them) and that’s pretty much twice as many reasons as I needed to not give it a place on my list of “must-haves”.
Fan or not, the one thing it’s easy to concede (and perhaps the root of where Katana appeal begins) is simply this; whether you find it’s looks gorgeous or gross, a Katana only ever looks like a Katana. It’s late 70’s “Star Wars meets the Sex Pistols” styling remain thoroughly unique.
Warming up towards the Kat took 25 years and split into 2-stages.
Firstly – a ride on Steve Adams’ cleverly modified Lucky7 Katana, seen on the pages of CMM 3 years back.
Steve had lived a life that took an opposing view of the Katana’s virtue to my own. All of the love, none of the “meh!” By 2010 he had used his incredible eye for modifying to make his bike into something that made me look afresh at the whole Katana thing.
His bike takes the all the unique DNA of a Katana and concentrates it by making it simpler. That sounds easy, but it isn’t. The lack of clutter and enhanced poise of his bike made me look at one for the first time and go “Oooh!”
Even better than the feast of gorgeousness it offers the eyes, was how well it rode – I expected heavy, slow and dated. I got nimble, quick and sharp. I liked it; actually, scrub that – I loved it!
Secondly, I had my eyes prised wide open at last July’s (2013) Spa Biker’s classic event.
The Biker’s Classic event is just heaven on earth for those of us of a certain age who are happiest looking backwards for our biking kicks. The Jewel in the Crown of that event is a highly competitive day/night 4-hour endurance race for air-cooled pre-85 machines.
This grid is packed with quality; 85 bikes qualify for 70 spaces and some seriously good teams take part – Phase 1 and Bolliger are 2 World Endurance stalwarts that now run white-hot classic endurance teams.
I’m a bit of a racer, only club stuff, but nonetheless I have raced in about half of the seasons since 1990 and I have done quite a few endurance events as well. I instruct at the Ron Haslam Race school too, so I’m no stranger to enjoying myself on racetracks.
As I get older I’ve become a BIG fan of the longer distance challenge of the endurance format. Although mellower than short sprints on track, it still offers an immense (and different) challenge to face up to and also relies on the efforts of a good support team; this of course makes the post-event beer sharing more enjoyable by a factor of many!
Bikes in the Spa race can run in any of 4 classes, but the biggest and most popular class is the “Maxi Classic” it has a 1982 cut off, unlimited cc, exclusively air-cooled and 2 piston brakes – that’s perfect Katana territory!
The race bikes at Spa, which surprisingly included just a single Katana, were (mostly) a beautiful alliance of everything cool about race bikes; innovative engineering, stunning build quality and genuinely remarkable speed. Although classic based, this isn’t a hiding place for washed up riders and old smokers (although some of both do smoke more than would be ideal) it’s fast paced and competitive. For the first time in 2013 it was open to National race licence holders only – you’ll find no mugs on this grid!
On Day 1 of the event I was already thinking about getting a bike together to race in 2014, by night practice on day 2 where the excitement in the pitlane was making me hold my bladder in a knot, the project was bouncing around inside my head like a chimp on amphetamines.
Throw a bit of night-time into any form of racing and it gets seriously interesting – it’s such an un-natural thing to do!; but do that at Spa, with a grid full of stunningly prepped classic machines, and a pitlane that fizzed with the hard-edged atmosphere that only night-time endurance competition can bring, and it’s not hard to arrive at the notion that this was the best place on the planet to be racing a classic bike. I wanted in.
The fastest bikes on the grid weren’t lightly modified versions of fare from a production line, they were proper race bikes or special framed machines from the day – Bakker and P&M framed Kawasakis, GSX engined Harris Magnums and Honda RSC1000s were all represented in numbers.
Whilst openly musing on competing in next year’s race with the rapid riding Mick Godfrey of Alf’s Motorcycles (2nd place finisher at this event) I was offered a ready to roll P&M Kawasaki for £15,000 – £5,000 less than the build cost. It was the moment it became clear my budget needed to be refocused off something “special” and onto something more ”available” (and likely to be rolled out for about a third of the price of the P&M!)
It didn’t take long to arrive at the big, strong, widely available GSX1100 powerplant as a suitable heart for the project, and once you’ve thought that, it isn’t hard to think “Katana” – and thanks to the brief but enjoyable flirtation I had with the Lucky7 Katana a couple of years back, that’s exactly where my thinking stopped.
So, I became inspired. That ride on Steve’s big Kat, a mellowing of petty schoolboy dislikes and being gripped by the need to be part of the coolest race I have ever been to, all crystallised into the idea for a spiced up big Katana hitting the grid in 2014.
Next up – I panic buy the wrong bike to get the project going.