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.
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.
Trevor Barton, Product coordinator
Simon Warburton, Product Manager