The recent news that Triumph has won planning permission for a new and larger factory near its present home has not pleased all the neighbours in Hinckley, but it is a big boost for the fast-expanding Leicestershire firm. Five years ago, Britain barely had a motorcycle industry. This year Triumph intends to build 8,500 motorcycles, three-quarters of them for export, with a 50 per cent increase planned for 1995.

Central to the firm's success, in both the home and export markets, has been its ability to produce modern, well made bikes with a distinct image and a sense of tradition. Its first two models were four-cylinder machines which, although very competent, were regarded by many as 'too Japanese'. The three-cylinder models that followed, with an engine layout echoing that of the famous 750cc Trident of the Seventies, were more distinctive and more popular.

Triumph has played the nostalgia card again with the Speed Triple, one of two newcomers that bring to eight the total of three-cylinder models in the range. The Speed Triple's name recalls a famous old Triumph, the 500cc Speed Twin of 1937. And the new bike is a lean, unfaired machine whose appearance and low 'Ace' handlebars bring to mind the days of rockers, black leather jackets, twin-cylinder Triumphs and the Ace Cafe, a famous old motorcyclists' meeting-place on London's North Circular Road.

Like all other modern Triumphs, the Speed Triple is built using the modular concept - by which numerous components are shared with other models. Its watercooled, 885cc twin-camshaft engine is the 97bhp unit that powers four other bikes, differing only in that it has five gears not six.

Triumph's trademark steel-spine frame is used for all its new bikes, and the Speed Triple also offers most of the top-specification components available in the company's modules. Front forks are multi-adjustable units from Kayaba, the Japanese firm that makes all Triumph's suspension parts. Other up-market components include the large front-brake discs (with sophisticated four-piston calipers) and 17in wheels fitted with low-profile radial tyres.

The Triple's low handlebars and exposed, black-finished engine combine with styling borrowed from the Daytona sportster to make an attractive machine. Bikes without weather protection are often not much fun in winter, but although the Triumph's low bars put too much weight on the rider's wrists in town, the wind-cheating riding position is well suited to cold days and higher speeds.

The Speed Triple certainly lives up to its name, thanks mainly to the supremely responsive motor. By superbike standards the machine's top speed of about 130mph is unremarkable, but the Triumph scores with outstanding smoothness and flexibility; the sixth gear is not missed at all.

Although (like other Triumphs) the Triple is tall and, at 460lb, rather heavy, the handling is very good. Its rigid frame combines with sophisticated suspension to give agile cornering without compromising high-speed stability. Its fat Michelin tyres are very grippy, and the brakes equally impressive. For everyday use the Triple is reasonably practical, its lack of luxuries and luggage capacity offset by a generous fuel range, comfortable seat and good standard of finish.

Its performance would have impressed the Triumph-riding regulars of the Ace Cafe back in the Sixties, when even the fastest bikes had half as much power. The Ace is now a car-tyre depot, barely recognisable from the nights when up to 1,000 motorcyclists would gather there. Then, a favourite trick was to put a record on the jukebox and to roar off in an attempt to complete a predetermined 3.5-mile 'lap' before the song had finished.

Heavy traffic, roadworks and a change in the North Circular route meant that my attempt to trace the old circuit took much longer, despite the new bike's extra speed and sophistication. Even so, the charismatic Triple evoked some of the spirit of those days. At pounds 7,499 it is among the less expensive Triumph models and its simplicity, looks and performance make an attractive combination.

(Photograph omitted)

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