First Ride: 2002 Triumph Speed Four Prototype

A naked little hauler from Hinckley.

story by Yossef Schvetz, Photograph by Tal Rozenfeld, Created Jan. 20, 2002
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Italy, January 7, 2002 -- Don't even go looking for the "Baby Speed" in Triumph's 2002 catalog or on their web site, because you won't find it. So then, what exactly is this small-bore Triumph with a front-end that mimics the nose of the 955 Speed Triple?

It's a small Speed triple of sorts, though this one is powered by a 600cc in-line four in place of the bigger brother's in-line triple. Given that, the "Baby Speed" moniker seems to fit, even if Triumph disagrees with the designer's chosen moniker. And to those scratching their collective scalps, wondering if there is any connection between the newly announced "Speed Four" and this "Baby Speed," the answer is yes -- and here's the story.

Numero Tre are the importers of Triumph motorcycles to the Italian market. The CEO of Numero Tre is none other than Carlo Talamo, an energetic marketing genius that has made Harley-Davidson and Buell sales in Italy grow like no other has done before. After being relieved from selling big twins by the Motor Company, Talamo's next mission was to give Triumph the same big shove forward in Europe. A big stumbling block in his mission was the lack of a proper contender in the 600cc class. Triumph's audacious but flawed first try, the TT600, has sold in pathetic numbers outside of England and has become CEO John Bloor's first serious miscalculation since Triumph's re-birth.

Talamo found that he easily could double Triumphs 600cc offerings in Italy by making the TT600 do a little striptease number while enriching the spare department's inventory with some untouched fairing panels. Enter the "Baby Speed". After undressing the TT600, a complete instrument pod unit complete with twin headlights taken from the Speed Triple was mounted to the Baby's front. Made-to-measure carbon covers were recruited to cover up some exposed and less photogenic parts of the bike such as the radiator and cooling liquid reservoir. Strange carbon trunks jut out and front from the Baby's aluminum twin-spar frame and substitute the previous Ram-Air intakes located in the fairing. A set of flat Tomasselli bars mounted on a one-off triple clamp round out the transformation of the TT600 into a naked street-fighter.

Strip off what little plastic adorns the new Speed Four and this is what you'll see. The antennae-looking bits make up the front bit of the bike's ram-air system.

"Think what you may about the final result. The reception of the initial run of 50 pieces was good enough to convince Triumph's management to pick up the gauntlet and offer the Baby Speed as an official Triumph model, the recently announced "Speed Four."

Nevertheless, it's hard to deny that the TT600's transformation has its share of visual problems. The undressing act that has worked so well in the 955 Speed Triple's case, essentially a naked 955 Daytona, becomes much less of a miracle with the TT600's massive twin spar frame out there in plain view. Some might say that the Speed Triple's magic is indeed that "ugly" and "unfinished" look that stands out in this world of smooth and shiny faired cycles.

Somehow, in the Baby Speed's case, that brutish appeal doesn't work as well. Looks aside, the ride on the Speed Four prototype showed that, indeed, life can be full of surprises. Theoretically, there shouldn't have been too many dynamic differences between the small "Speed" and the less-than-perfect TT600, but that was not to be the case.

The Speed Four's motor is housed in the same twin-spar aluminum frame as the TT600. The naked bike's motor gets a few tweaks to "re-tune" it for mid-range performance, however.

Climbing aboard the Baby Speed after a long day of track testing other Triumphs, I was suddenly grinning from ear to ear and getting pumped full of new energy with every lap. As it turned out, the Baby Speed was the perfect bike for this track. During the day I had spotted other journos dismounting the bike smiling, and now I could see why: This must be the most flickable four-cylinder bike I've ever experienced. And as one Italian colleague put it: E una figa! (Ask your Italian neighbor for the translation).

The wide and flat bars enable your arms to have a power-steering effect on what is already a light bike that was designed with a Supersport crouch in mind. Just as well, as soon as the Baby is cranked well over, that stiff twin-spar thing keeps the action in total check. On the track, the Baby's concoction turns out to be lethal -- but in a good way. On it, I suddenly found myself going for it like I hadn't all day, passing riders that showed me a clean set of pipes before. The tall handlebar gives so much control over matters that I keep braking extra late and tossing the bike from full lean to opposite full lean with abandon. The superb tracking of the chassis enables me also to crack the throttle sooner and harder than other riders on the more intimidating 955-based Speed Triples.

However, it must be said that keeping the Baby's engine on its sweet spot involves some fast and furious cog swapping. The original TT600's main culprit was a non-existent low- to mid-range pull and, although this 2001 version is better, the final Speed Fours that will go on sale will carry an engine that has been "re-tuned-for-mid-range." According to Triumph, this "re-tuning" results in 11 fewer horsepower than the TT600 produces, though torque remains the same.

The Speed Four gets the same fully-adjustable suspension as its fully faired brother.Another difference is that the naked bike's horsepower and torque peaks will occur 1,000 and 500 RPM lower, respectively. As we are waved in, this was the one bike for which I eagerly awaited my next turn back on the track. While lying in wait, I pondered what makes the naked TT600 so much more fun than, say, a Suzuki Bandit 600 or the Europe-only Honda Hornet 600.

The only reasonable answer seems to be the extra-stiff twin spar aluminum frame that gives the Baby Speed so much more composure compared to its steel-framed peers and opens up new horizons for naked bike performance. After all, why ride a fun, but not so great-handling naked middleweight when you could be riding an excellent-handling one? For my next turn on the track, my level of enthusiasm remained high. 

At first, glance, it looks just like a TT600 with the Speed Triple's front end grafted on. Upon closer inspection, you'll find your first assumption affirmed.With a seat that is much lower than on the 955 Speed Triple, there is much more of an "in the bike" feeling that affords the bike's pilot much better control. Repeated late-braking does not hamper the good power and feel of the front binders as there were never any signs of brake fade. Also, cornering clearance is more plentiful than on, say, a CBR600, and the Bridgestone BT010s seemed unfazed by anything the bike could dish out.

The suspension's set-up might come under some criticism if one were forced to nit-pick. Firmer damping rates and possibly stiffer springs may be in order at the track. But for spirited street rides, the bike's suspension should be just fine. You'll recall that suspension performance on the TT600 routinely receives high praise. Thankfully, the naked bike gets the same fully-adjustable suspension as its fully faired brother.

"The Speed Four adds to the initial attractions of a do-it-all naked middleweight with the bonus of serious fun when the going gets serious."

Also, as with the TT600, there is precious little in the engine department under 6,000 RPM and you need to milk the engine above 9K to really fly. This isn't really a problem on the track, though the same could be said, to a lesser degree, about most current supersports. So then, are we witnessing the birth of a new segment in Naked Middleweights with a super-sporty attitude? In Europe, sales statistics show that naked model's sales are on the rise. Honda's CBR600-powered Hornet 600 has headed this year's sales in Italy and, in other markets, Yamaha's Fazer 600 has been at or near the top. It's a small wonder, then, that Triumph took Talamo's Baby Speed project so seriously and jumped on the bandwagon so fast.

The Speed Four adds to the initial attractions of a do-it-all naked middleweight with the bonus of serious fun when the going gets serious. No less important, since the successful Honda Hornet 600 and Yamaha Fazer 600 models are not sold state-side, the new Speed Four could turn out to be the first naked middleweight with cojones to give the old Bandit 600 a run for the money.

Introduced little more than a week ago, this is what the production version of Triumph's Speed Four will look like.

Specifications:

Engine: liquid-cooled, four-stroke, inline-four
Bore x Stroke: 68.0 x 41.3mm
Displacement: 599cc
Compression ratio: 12.5:1
Fuel system: fuel-injection
Claimed Dry Weight:: 374 lbs.
Fuel capacity: 4.7 gal.
Wheelbase: 54.9 in.
Rake/trail: 24.6 degrees/3.5 in.
Seat height: 31.4 in.
Front suspension:  43mm conventional forks
Rear suspension: single shock
Front tire: 120/70 ZR17 Bridgestone BT010
Rear tire: 180/55 ZR17 Bridgestone BT010

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