Tri­umph’s Icon: 21 years of the Speed Triple

It’s been the Bri­tish firm’s most suc­cess­ful and en­dur­ing mo­tor­cy­cle, but the true story of how the big naked came about re­veals that we very nearly didn’t get the popular road­ster at all.

Motorcycle Monthly - - First Ride - Words and pics: Roland Brown

It’s 21 years since Tri­umph dis­cov­ered, al­most by ac­ci­dent, the for­mat that has made ar­guably the big­gest con­tri­bu­tion to the firm’s cur­rent health and pros­per­ity. When the orig­i­nal Speed Triple was launched in 1994, there was lit­tle fuss.

The naked three-cylin­der road­ster shared al­most all of its com­po­nents with other mod­els, had low ‘ace’ bars and a sin­gle round head­light, and gen­er­ated nowhere near the ex­cite­ment that had greeted the in­tro­duc­tion of Du­cati’s Mon­ster a year ear­lier.

Two decades later the Speed Triple has proven to be Tri­umph’s equiv­a­lent of the Mon­ster. It is the Hinckley firm’s all-time top seller and the ma­chine that ar­guably de­fines the mod­ern Bri­tish man­u­fac­turer.

It has starred in Hol­ly­wood movies, spawned the smaller and also hugely suc­cess­ful Street Triple, done much to pop­u­larise the su­per-naked sec­tor, and pro­jected an im­age of in­di­vid­u­al­ity and raw at­ti­tude that has served Tri­umph bril­liantly over the years.

How dif­fer­ent things were when the orig­i­nal Street Triple was de­vel­oped back in 1993, just a cou­ple of years af­ter John Bloor’s Tri­umph had be­gun pro­duc­tion in its new Hinckley fac­tory. In ’92, Tri­umph had built barely 3000 bikes; even this fig­ure was al­most 50 per cent up on the pre­vi­ous year’s to­tal.

The young firm was still com­mit­ted to the mod­u­lar for­mat that re­duced costs by shar­ing most com­po­nents — even en­gine in­ter­nals — of its 750 and 900cc triples, and 1000 and 1200cc fours.

That first Speed Triple, dreamt up by sales chief Mike Locke, was es­sen­tially a “parts bin spe­cial”. Depend­ing on your view, it was ei­ther the Day­tona 900 sports bike with its fair­ing re­moved, or a re­vamped ver­sion of the Tri­dent 900, the naked triple that had been the most popular and ar­guably the best of the orig­i­nal six-model range.

The Tri­dent’s re­spon­sive, 885cc triple en­gine had been much praised, but the model was a rel­a­tively sim­ple road­ster, with con­ser­va­tive styling and ba­sic sus­pen­sion parts.

Locke had no­ticed the im­pact that the M900 Mon­ster had made by com­bin­ing a sim­ple, fairly softly tuned en­gine with ag­gres­sive naked styling and high-qual­ity chas­sis com­po­nents. The Speed Triple fol­lowed a sim­i­lar for­mat. Its liq­uid-cooled, 12-valve en­gine pro­duced 97bhp, and was es­sen­tially iden­ti­cal to the lump that pow­ered not only the Tri­dent and Day­tona, but also the Tro­phy tourer and half-faired Sprint, though the Speed Triple was given a five-speed in­stead of six-speed gear­box.

It also shared an iden­ti­cal steel spine frame with the other mod­els, gain­ing its main edge over the Tri­dent 900 via bet­ter cy­cle parts. It used multi-ad­justable 43mm Kayaba forks, an ad­justable shock from the same Ja­panese firm, and a front brake com­bi­na­tion of big 310mm discs and four-pis­ton Nissin calipers. Three­spoke cast wheels held sticky Miche­lin Hi-Sport rub­ber, the rear a fat, 180-sec­tion ra­dial.

Styling was lit­tle more than stripped-down Day­tona, with a sin­gle, round head­light. But the re­tained low han­dle­bars gave an ag­gres­sive look, in com­bi­na­tion with a black fin­ished en­gine and ei­ther black or yel­low paint­work. And the new bike’s Speed Triple name – in­spired by the 1937model Speed Twin that had been one of the old, Meri­den-based Tri­umph firm’s most suc­cess­ful mod­els – suited its café racer im­age well.

That first Speed Triple struck a chord, partly be­cause it was so much fun to ride. Its char­ac­ter shone through the mo­ment you opened it up, when its blend of zippy en­gine, re­spon­sive han­dling and wind­blown rid­ing po­si­tion com­bined to give an im­pres­sion of easy speed. With­out a fair­ing and with much of its rider’s body weight over the front wheel, the bike had less of the top-heavy feel of pre­vi­ous Tri­umphs.

De­spite its low and nar­row bars, con­ser­va­tive steer­ing ge­om­e­try, and 209kg of dry weight, the Triple steered with ap­peal­ing ur­gency. It was a hit in that first year, be­com­ing Tri­umph’s best sell­ing model— although in those early days that only meant a mod­est to­tal of 2683 Speed Triples were pro­duced (in­clud­ing a small num­ber of 750cc mod­els that were oth­er­wise iden­ti­cal) out of a to­tal that by now had gone past the 10,000 mark.

Un­for­tu­nately for Tri­umph, the im­pact didn’t last. Sales the fol­low­ing year al­most halved, and by 1996 were down again to just 553 units, rel­e­gat­ing the Speed Triple to sev­enth place in the firm’s nine-model line-up.

Some­thing needed to be done, and luck­ily in­spi­ra­tion was at hand. By this time Tri­umph’s en­gi­neers and de­sign team were well un­der way with devel­op­ment of the T595 Day­tona, the

955cc su­per-sports triple that aban­doned the mod­u­lar for­mat and would el­e­vate the Bri­tish brand to a new level of per­for­mance and sales on its launch in 1997.

In those days much of Tri­umph’s devel­op­ment was based at the Northamp­ton­shire work­shop of John Mock­ett, the designer who had shaped many of the firm’s early mod­els (and was also in­volved with Kenny Roberts’ 500cc grand prix race team). At one point, while work­ing on the Day­tona, Mock­ett re­alised that the triple, with its dis­tinc­tive tubu­lar alu­minium frame, looked good with­out its cur­va­ceous twin-head­lamp fair­ing.

“I said to Stu­art Wood [chief devel­op­ment en­gi­neer] that we should do this with­out the body­work,” re­calls Mock­ett, who ad­mired the ag­gres­sively styled street­fighter spe­cials built by his friends Steve and Lester Har­ris of Har­ris Per­for­mance. “Stu­art said, ‘No, we’ve got to get the 595 fin­ished in time for the [In­ter­mot] show,’ so I said, ‘Okay, we’ll work on it in the other shed and see what we can do.’ John [Bloor] was al­ways down there but we kept this thing se­cret from him.”

A few months later, Bloor ar­rived to in­spect the fin­ished Day­tona T595. “We’d painted it and added de­cals by then and he said it looked al­right — in fact he was very pleased. Then I said, ‘I’ve got this other one,’ and un­cov­ered the naked bike. He looked at it and said, ‘It looks like it’s been crashed!’”

Bloor’s in­stinc­tive re­ac­tion summed-up the naked triple’s ap­peal. The pre­vi­ous decade had seen the emer­gence of a bik­ing sub­cul­ture, es­pe­cially in Bri­tain, where a mag­a­zine named Street­fight­ers had be­come popular, high­light­ing the ur­ban look that had grown up, ini­tially around twin-head­light Suzuki GSX-R750s and 1100s whose fair­ings had been re­moved, of­ten fol­low­ing a crash.

“The street­fighter look was ram­pant in the spe­cials world but there was no ma­jor man­u­fac­turer do­ing any­thing like that,” re­calls Mock­ett. Bloor took some per­sua­sion, but agreed to put the naked triple into pro­duc­tion along­side the Day­tona.

“He was so pleased with the 595 that he ac­cepted the other one on the back of it. If it had been on its own he’d have turned it down, but the fact that it was on the coat-tails of the 595 ap­pealed to him be­cause it didn’t need many ex­tra bits.”

This new Speed Triple re­tained its pre­de­ces­sor’s 885cc ca­pac­ity but was up­graded with a T595-style bot­tomend, air­box, fuel-in­jec­tion sys­tem and a new ex­haust. The alu­minium frame was iden­ti­cal to the Day­tona’s ex­cept for be­ing painted in­stead of lac­quered, and held sim­i­larly high qual­ity cy­cle parts: multi-ad­justable 45mm Showas, four-pot Nissin front brake calipers and a sin­gle-sided swing-arm: the type of kit that most naked bikes did with­out.

The re­vamped bike was ini­tially called the T509 Speed Triple. (Like the sports model’s T595, the T509 was a fac­tory code, a Tri­umph tra­di­tion that was soon dropped due to con­fu­sion with its en­gine ca­pac­ity.) It pro­duced 106bhp, coin­ci­den­tally al­most iden­ti­cal to the cur­rent Street Triple’s out­put, with plenty of mid-range torque— enough for plenty of straight-line fun.

Han­dling, brak­ing and road­hold­ing were ex­cel­lent, as might be ex­pected of a bike so closely re­lated to the Day­tona. At 196kg dry the Triple was slightly lighter than the sports bike. Its Showa sus­pen­sion was firmwith­out be­ing harsh; its fat, 190-sec­tion rear tyre gave plenty of grip. The T509 Speed Triple looked great, its im­age was right, it was fun to ride and com­pet­i­tively priced.

It was an im­me­di­ate suc­cess, sell­ing al­most 2500 units to be­come Tri­umph’s sec­ond most popular model be­hind the Day­tona. And vi­tally, this time the pop­u­lar­ity proved much longer last­ing, helped by Tri­umph’s de­ci­sion to fit a higher, one-piece han­dle­bar in 1998 (US mar­ket mod­els had this all along) and en­large the en­gine to 955cc a year

later. Sales re­mained strong for the next few years, and by 2001 had in­creased to 4364, mak­ing the Triple the firm’s sec­ond most popular model once again, be­hind only the re­cently re­leased Bon­neville.

By this time the Speed Triple had be­come some­thing of a cult model, its bullish style and per­for­mance in some ways en­cap­su­lat­ing the way that Tri­umph was forc­ing it­self to be­come a se­ri­ous player in the global mo­tor­cy­cle scene.

It stood out even more due to some vi­brant paint schemes in­clud­ing an acidic Roulette green and even more cor­ro­sive Nu­clear Red— in re­al­ity a bold pink, as rid­den by Natalie Im­bruglia in the movie Johnny English. Ap­pear­ances in The Ma­trix (rid­den by Car­rie-Ann Moss) and Mission Im­pos­si­ble 2 (Tom Cruise) also boosted Tri­umph’s pro­file.

Since the turn of the Mil­len­nium, Tri­umph have done a good job of keep­ing the Triple’s es­sen­tial look and char­ac­ter in­tact, while updating it ev­ery so of­ten. One sig­nif­i­cant step came in 2002, when it gained the larger, 955cc en­gine whose 118bhp out­put gave a use­ful 10bhp in­crease, and also had its chas­sis tweaked to steepen steer­ing, shorten the wheel­base and re­duced dry weight to 189kg.

Per­haps the big­gest up­date came in 2005, when the Speed Triple fol­lowed the Sprint ST sports-tourer by be­ing fit­ted with a new en­gine whose longer-stroke, 1050cc ca­pac­ity it has kept ever since. Al­most ev­ery­thing in the mo­tor was new, from cylin­der head and pis­tons to the re­designed gear­box and light­ened clutch. New­cams and in­jec­tion mods com­bined to give a peak out­put of 128bhp, an­other 10-horse in­crease.

Most of the chas­sis was new, too, start­ing with a dou­ble-tube alu­minium frame that looked familiar but was a kilo lighter due to more­mod­ern cast­ing tech­niques. Over­all weight re­mained 189kg. New­cy­cle parts in­cluded multi-ad­justable Showa sus­pen­sion at both ends, and Nissin ra­dial four-pis­ton calipers for the first time. The re­sult was a quicker, more ag­ile, more en­ter­tain­ing bike that topped Tri­umph’s sales charts that year with 8796 sales out of a to­tal of al­most 35,000.

Since then there have been two ma­jor up­dates, the first in 2008 when Speed Triple own­ers’ replies to ques­tion­naires in­spired Tri­umph to up­grade the front brake with a ra­dial four-pis­ton sys­tem from Brembo, and to im­prove com­fort with a new seat.

Other changes in­cluded a ta­pered Magura han­dle­bar but the rid­ing po­si­tion was un­changed, and so was the trade­mark style. “It’s our most im­por­tant model, not just for its sales over the years but as a sig­na­ture for the Tri­umph brand,” said Trevor Bar­ton, Tri­umph’s Prod­uct Co­or­di­na­tor, on that bike’s launch.

The stan­dard Triple’s most re­cent re­vi­sion came in 2011, when the faith­ful 1050cc mo­tor got a re­vised air­box and bot­tom end, and was bolted into a sharper-steer­ing chas­sis that also in­cor­po­rated non-round head­lights— a con­tro­ver­sial move with some tra­di­tion­al­ists.

A year later that bike was tweaked to cre­ate the Speed Triple R, which bolted an un­changed, 133bhp en­gine into a chas­sis fea­tur­ing Öh­lins sus­pen­sion, Brembo Monobloc front calipers, forged PVMwheels and a sprin­kling of car­bon-fi­bre com­po­nents.

It was the best Speed Triple yet, and Simon War­bur­ton, Tri­umph’s Prod­uct Manager, was in no doubt about the fam­ily’s sig­nif­i­cance. “We couldn’t af­ford to get the R wrong,” he said. “The Speed Triple is the most im­por­tant bike in our range. It’s a pre­mium model, and we sell a lot of them. It’s a glam­orous, em­blem­atic ma­chine that has been very good to us and is very com­pet­i­tive in its class.”

That re­mains true, but War­bur­ton and his team have faced some dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions of late as the Speed Triple has been left be­hind by the lat­est batch of 160bhp-plus su­per-nakeds. With Tri­umph’s 1050cc en­gine dat­ing back a decade, it surely can’t be long be­fore we see a new-gen­er­a­tion Speed Triple with ride-by-wire fu­elling, a more pow­er­ful and com­pact mo­tor, low-level ex­haust and more so­phis­ti­cated chas­sis.

The style, char­ac­ter and name are sure to re­main in­tact, how­ever. Noth­ing sums up the mod­ern Tri­umph quite like the Speed Triple.

1994

1997

2002

2005

2012

Trevor Bar­ton, Prod­uct co­or­di­na­tor

Simon War­bur­ton, Prod­uct Manager

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