Step TWO: Norton Dominator 961

The recent slew of new models from its much larger neighbour, Triumph, has perhaps overshadowed the consistent but less-touted success story that is Norton. Located just 20 miles away from John Bloor’s two-wheeled Hinckley HQ, Castle Donington-based Norton has now secured British government funding to underpin its ongoing growth, and to reflect that has now added a second model to its range which isn’t being built only as a limited-edition product, as was the Domiracer 961 it’s derived from.

Norton Dominator 961 (10)

It’s now getting on for eight years since since Norton proprietor Stuart Garner, 47, acquired the rights to the historic British marque in October 2008 from its previous American owner, Boston financier Olly Curme, obtaining with it the prototype Commando 961 streetbike which Curme had commissioned from the USA’s No.1 twin-cylinder Norton guru, Oregon-based Kenny Dreer. Since then, heaps of hard graft entailing long hours, a good bit of risk taking, and several major changes in strategy have put the born-again Norton Motorcycles firm back on the map, with what Garner says is ‘getting on for 2000 motorcycles’ so far built and delivered to owners around the world, including as far afield as Japan, the USA, Canada and Australia.

Norton Dominator 961 (15)Until now, these have predominantly consisted of the twin-shock Commando 961 retro roadster in Café Racer, SF or Sport guise, which is essentially Dreer’s prototype as subsequently productionised in the UK. But after the sold-out success of the first limited-edition variant on the firm’s existing air-cooled parallel-twin theme, the raucous, raw-edged Norton Domiracer with special monoshock frame which debuted in 2014 and whose production run of 50 bikes with open megaphone exhausts was spoken for within just one week at a price of GBP 24,000 (` 23 lakh), Garner and its creator Simon Skinner, 42, Norton’s head of design, decided to build something that was, well, NOT completely different.

Norton Dominator 961 (16)

That bike was the Dominator SS, an only nominally less extreme version of the Domiracer of which a total of 200 examples were built in 2015 — just 50 of them for Norton’s UK home market. This once again attracted orders at the same GBP 24 grand sticker price as the Domiracer, complete with the same shapely, costly, hand-made 20.5-litre aluminium fuel tank, but a silenced exhaust which could be replaced by the open meggas as a paid-for option. With this model — which revived one of the most significant names in Norton’s back catalogue — now also sold out, Norton has therefore commenced manufacture of the series production monoshock Dominator selling for GBP 19,950 (Rs 19.17 lakh) as step two in its model lineup, alongside the twin-shock Commando, and in doing so has essentially brought the Domiracer to its street range, examples of which are fetching upwards of GBP 44,000 (Rs 42.28 lakh) on eBay — for twice as much as its original list price. That’s a nice little earner!

The new Dominator represents a café racer for the modern era, that’s quite a bit more civilised than the Domiracer it’s derived from. It still has the same bulldog look that Skinner aimed for in designing its predecessor, with plenty of aggressive attitude by having the front pushed down and the rear lifted, to create a butch-looking stance. To create what, in spite of his insistence that it’s not a retro bike, is indubitably a modern-day version of the Dominators which flew the Norton flag in Swingin’ Sixties street dust-ups at the Ace Café, the Busy Bee and the like, Skinner has designed a revised version of the stock Commando’s chrome-moly tubular steel duplex cradle frame, still with a fabricated backbone doubling as the oil tank for the dry-sump OHV pushrod motor, but with strong overtones of the original Model 88 Dominator’s cutdown Manx Featherbed frame.

Norton Dominator 961 (2)While retaining the same steering geometry with the black-anodised Öhlins 43-mm fork, the Dominator’s front end sees the fork legs carried in good-looking aluminium triple clamps that are CNC-milled in house at Norton, then hand-finished. The wire wheels add to the period look, though a more modern contrast is provided by the bare carbon-fibre seat with monochrome Union Jack interwoven into it, the carbon airbox under the seat whose fluted sides recall a period oil tank, the Brembo radial brakes and the fully adjustable TTX36 Öhlins cantilever rear monoshock operated by an tubular steel swingarm giving a 1440-mm wheelbase that’s 20 mm longer than the stock Commando’s. This, plus the raised rear end obtained via the longer monoshock, throws more weight on to the front end for extra grip from the front Dunlop Qualifier when ridden hard. The Dominator which sat awaiting me outside Donington Hall in the spring sunshine was crying out for me to do just that. This is an angry-looking motorcycle that looks ready to pick a fight with all and sundry, and to be doing the tonne just standing still.

Norton Dominator 961 (4)

For Skinner’s styling indeed has the Dominator bursting with barely restrained aggression — an impression that’s amplified in every sense of the word when you thumb the starter motor and the undeniably butch-looking 961cc parallel-twin motor thunders into life, then settles to a throbbing 1300-rpm idle with a meaty burble when you blip the throttle that comes in spite of the silenced exhaust now fitted to the bike. My test ride in fact had the optional so-called ‘Short Noise’ exhaust fitted, costing an extra GBP 895 but not homologated for street use, though its decibel level is infinitely more sociable than the Domiracer’s was when I rode it two years ago on its debut and somehow avoided attracting the attention of the noise police.

Norton Dominator 961 (13)

However, thanks to its 270º crank the new Norton sounds more like a 90º V-twin Ducati, not a classic British parallel-twin — which doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound good, though, just not like your expectations tell you a trad-type Norton twin like this one really should. Though the engine is completely unmodified internally, it actually makes 4 bhp more power than in Commando guise, says Skinner, not only because of the open meggas, but also thanks to the 1.5-litre bigger airbox and the 35-mm throttle bodies’ 20-mm shorter velocity stacks. But it’s the meaty grunt peaking with 9.07 kgm available at 5200 rpm that really dictates how you ride this bike, short-shifting around 5000 rpm to surf the waves of torque delivered via a practically horizontal curve from barely off idle — yet it doesn’t run out of breath up high, just keeps on pulling almost to the redline if you really insist.

But because of that muscular acceleration, there’s really no point in revving the Dominator out to its 8000-rpm limiter, even if the single gear-driven counterbalancer installed in the motor means there are no vibes up high if you insist on doing so. Okay, so maybe Skinner was right — it’s not a totally retro racer-with-lights, so at least you’ll have a chance of surviving a ride with all your teeth fillings intact, which wasn’t always the case with some classic Norton parallel-twins of all our yesterdays that I’ve ridden.

Norton Dominator 961 (5)The born-again Dominator is indeed a satisfying blend of old and new, a mixture of period attitude combined with modern civility — like brakes that work brilliantly, tyres that warm up fast and grip well on a cool spring day, and suspension that while tautly set up as you’d expect a genuine sportbike’s like this to be, also irons out bumps and lays that hefty torque to the ground with a degree of compliance that makes this a very confidence-inspiring bike to ride hard. While completely uncompromising in its road manners, with that aggressive punch in the gears, low-down fuelling is good, as when you’re just crawling along in a line of traffic. But then spot a gap, gas it up hard and the Norton catapults you forward in a totally addictive way and the meaty torque means it’ll take almost any gear you throw at it.
It pulls hard from barely off idle, then strongly from 2000 rpm upwards — this is an ultra-usable motor, with 4000 revs the gateway to more serious urge; from there to where you can feel the engine peak out at 6500 rpm, is the happy zone. Its 5-speed transmission certainly doesn’t need a sixth ratio, because there’s such a wide spread of torque and power that you can change gear when you feel like it, not because you must. And the Norton’s shift action is now flawless — infinitely better than the early Commando’s that Garner’s guys turned out back in the born-again brand’s start-up days.

Norton Dominator 961 (8)

Handling has always been a strong point of any Norton, ever since the debut of the Featherbed frame back in 1950, and the new Dominator lives up to the expectations of the marque. It steers faultlessly, tipping easily and controllably into a turn on the radial brakes, as the Öhlins fork absorbs the weight transfer and settles the bike before you peel into the apex. Plus, the way the raised rear end has effectively tightened up the steering geometry makes it turn in really well, without being unstable on the brakes, and you can use a surprising amount of the considerable engine braking on offer without getting the rear wheel hopping. Weighing a claimed 15 kg less than its Commando cousin, means there’s less to stop, the 175-kg Norton feels light and agile, yet stable and forgiving, a confidence-inspiring motorcycle that you learn to trust completely over a variety of surfaces — hitting a bump cranked over in a 100-kph sweeper doesn’t unsettle it at all.

Norton Dominator 961 (3)The rear Öhlins monoshock may have taut damping settings dialled in, but with 140 mm of wheel travel available it just shrugs off bumps, even on the angle once committed to a turn. And the Brembo twin-disc brake package provides controllable, effective stopping power with just the right degree of sensitivity from the radially-mounted calipers. This is a proper café racer, but in a modern context — even the riding position is more accommodating than they used to be Back Then, with not too long a stretch over that shapely fuel tank to the twin, relatively high-set clipons. In fact, the Dominator doesn’t seem as rangy as you might expect with that longer wheelbase – it feels relatively small and compact to sit on, especially compared to the stock Commando 961, and that’s a key reason in what makes it seem so chuckable and agile. Truly the best of both worlds, old and new, classic and modern.
Norton’s progress was recognised last July, when the UK government’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (aka finance minister), George Osborne, visited Norton’s base at Donington Hall – the former British Midland airline base that Garner bought in 2013 to house the entire Norton operation, management and manufacturing combined – to announce £4m of UK Government support. This will help fund the BMMA/British Motorcycle Manufacturing Academy, based at the site, which has already begun training more than 90 apprentices in the Norton plant. Garner has also raised over £10m in capital investment funds, which is being used to develop a 1200cc V4 engine that will power a new-generation luxury superbike that’s due to be revealed at the NEC Show in Birmingham in November, and a related range of liquid-cooled 650cc twins, both supercharged and normally aspirated.

Norton Dominator 961 (7)It’s been a struggle for Stuart Garner to get Norton re-established in the global marketplace — but it’s a battle that he now shows every sign of winning. That’s very appropriately marked by the debut of the new Norton Dominator, making it indeed yesterday once more — in every sense.

Tech Specs:

POWERTRAIN
Displacement 961cc, parallel twin
Max power 83 bhp@6500 rpm
Max torque 9.07 kgm@5200 rpm
Transmission  5-speed


CHASSIS
Type  Tubular duplex cradle frame
BRAKES
Front 320 mm disc
Rear 220 mm disc
Tyres
Front 120/70 R17
Rear 180/55 R17
 Wheelbase  1440 mm
 Seat height 815 mm
 Dry weight  175 kg
 Fuel capacity:  20.5 litres

PRICE: Rs 19.17 lakh (excluding duties)

True Original

It’s highly unlikely that any other Classic era road racer has been replicated as frequently around the world as the twin-cylinder Drixton Honda. Created back in 1968 by Aussie Terry Dennehy and his mechanic mate Ralph Hannan to go 500GP racing affordably in the heyday of the Continental Circus, this privateer concoction entailed their tuning up a stretched twin-cylinder CB450 Honda K4 motor, and wrapping it in a frame made in Italy by Swiss man-of-many-parts, Othmar ‘Marly’ Drixl. A rider himself of no mean ability, Marly is best remembered for the small series of Drixton frames which he produced in the late 1960s for Aermacchi and Honda engines, originally under the aegis of the then British Aermacchi importer and former Norton works rider, the late Syd Lawton.

‘Marly was one of those people who always made it his business to know what was going on,’ recalled Lawton in an interview we made together before he passed away in 1997. ‘But in spite of this, and the fact that he always seemed to have some deal or other on the go, he was also just about permanently broke! I first came across him in 1964, not long after I began importing Aermacchis. Marly was working on the production line at their factory, and living with his wife and young child in a van parked up by the nearby lake. He turned out to be the perfect intermediary for me in dealing with the people there, since I didn’t speak Italian and he did, as well as English and practically everything else – even though it soon became obvious he was mainly interested in getting me to sponsor him to go racing!’

Drixton Honda (11)

After their meeting, Drixl did indeed race quite a bit in Britain on an Aermacchi with some help from Lawton, and it was on one of his visits to the UK in the mid-1960s that the two discussed a problem which had recently arisen. The manufacturers of Avon tyres had pulled out of racing and the new triangular Dunlop tyres which were a Hobson’s choice replacement for them proved quite unsuited to the already fingertip handling of the standard Aermacchi frame. ‘Marly said he could make an Aermacchi chassis that would be much better suited to the Dunlops,’ says Lawton, ‘if only I would provide him with the necessary materials. Well, I knew that if I gave him the money to buy enough steel tube to make a dozen frames, he’d probably end up only making one! Marly wasn’t dishonest, but cash burnt a hole in his pocket, which was why he was usually broke. Anyway, I staked him enough to build the first three frames, which he did in the Baroni workshop in Milan, then he sold them through me as Drixtons – standing for Drixl and Lawton chassis.’

Drixton Honda (4)

Around 25 Drixton Aermacchi frames were built from 1965-69, some of which were snapped up by leading GP privateers such as John Hartle and Kel Carruthers, who finished third in the 1968 350cc World Championship on such a bike behind the MV Agusta and Benelli fours. Not bad for a pushrod single – but the assured handling of the Drixton frame was a key element in this success. Many of the Drixton Aermacchis built back then are still around today, thanks perhaps to their sturdy but somewhat agricultural construction.

Drixton Honda (14)

The chance to ride the genuine original ex-Terry Dennehy 500cc Drixton Honda now once again owned by Herman Timman, the man who won the 1972 Dutch 500cc Championship on the bike, came on the 2.5-km public-roads circuit laid out on the edge of Basse, a village just 100 km northeast of Amsterdam, which for the past 22 years has staged the annual Basse TT Historic racing event held annually in September.

Drixton Honda (8)

Being asked to open the course for the day’s events via a three-lap dash in solitary splendour aboard the Drixton Honda meant I had to combine course-learning with understanding how to ride the bike, all very much in public under the eyes of the hundreds of fans lining the track. I needn’t have worried, though – because the Drixton Honda proved uncannily similar to ride to one of its closest rivals to be best of the rest behind Ago’s MV in the 1969/70 GP seasons, the ex-Billie Nelson 500 Paton I owned and raced in the early days of IHRO’s Historic GPs more than a quarter of a century ago.

Drixton Honda (15)

Like the Paton, the Honda is a 180º parallel-twin (so, one-up/one-down) with a patch of megaphonitis from its twin exhausts between 5000-5500 rpm that you have to work the clutch to try and avoid. But it pulls pretty strongly from 3000 rpm upwards, so drove well down low out of the trio of hairpins on the Basse circuit. However, Herman Timman had the bike still geared for his previous outing on it at the annual Bikers Classic meeting on the big Spa-Francorchamps GP circuit, and while Basse has a pretty fast high-speed section past the finish line, followed by some swoopy but satisfying high-speed curves, it took me until the last of my three sessions on the bike to manage to pull a genuine top gear (fifth) there on the Spa gearing.

Drixton Honda (10)

Being overgeared meant using bottom gear three times per lap at the hairpins, exploiting the tuned Honda engine’s low down pull to drive hard out of each of them, short-shifting into second, then fingering the clutch lever to coax it through the five grand hurdle in the power delivery, before running it up to the 9000-rpm limit in the gears that Herman uses on the bike today; 10,500 rpm was the redline in the old days, 100 revs more than the Paton whose 73.5 x 57.5 mm dimensions were essentially the same as the 74 x 57.8 mm Honda, but whereas on the green Italian bike it was really critical to use the last 1000 revs because of the extra dollop of top-end power available there, the Drixton’s Honda engine is more torquey, with a stronger mid-range pull in its 7000-9000 rpm happy zone – and yes, I did rev it to ten grand once. Sorry, Herman!

Drixton Honda (3)

However, although there’s quite a big gap between bottom gear and second and another to third, neutral was extremely hard to find. After stalling the Drixton a couple of times, I realised you have to find it on the move – there’s no chance of doing so once you come to a stop, as Herman confirmed. But races began with a dead engine start back when he won his Dutch title with the Honda, so stalling it because I couldn’t find neutral meant I ended up getting a good grounding in the required push-start technique, which is just as tricky on the Drixton Honda as on the hard-to-start Paton.

Drixton Honda (13)

Even with the long Spa gearing fitted it’s better to use second gear, then catch the engine as the 180º crank fires on one cylinder and the other one joins in, leap aboard, hit bottom gear, and then go for it. You need lightning reflexes to catch the engine on the clutch as it fires, and then heaps of clutch to pull away in second on the long gearing, abuse of which Herman says leads to problems, so don’t be tempted. I wasn’t. Push-starting the bike in a crowded grid must have been pretty tricky, and the Kawasaki/Suzuki two-stroke opposition would have been shifting into third gear by the time you’d have got the Honda fired up, used the clutch to head for the promised land above 5500 rpm where the engine pulls hardest, and were then ready for action.

Drixton Honda (7)

When it catches fire the Honda engine sounds gloriously angry, as expressed via the loud roar emitted by its pair of open meggas. It has a superb exhaust note that you’re aware of all the time you’re aboard it – deep, meaty, powerful and fruity. But then I don’t think I’ve ever come across a racing Honda engine which didn’t sound great, so no wonder Herman Timman admits this was one of the things that turned him on to buying the bike when first offered it. The throttle action is very light, thanks to the car-type butterflies in the twin-choke Weber carb, which betrays its automotive origins by the way it doesn’t much like part-throttle openings. There’s a strong pickup out of a turn if you crack it wide open, but feed the throttle in gradually transiting a tighter bend and it hunts slightly, then splutters before clearing itself and coming on strong as you ease the throttles open. Using the Honda engine hard is an acquired skill compared to the Paton fitted with twin cylindrical-slide Dell’Ortos.

Drixton Honda (16)

But the biggest asset of the Drixton Honda is the excellent handling bordering on the superb delivered by Marly Drixl’s duplex chassis, which I well remember from when I rode the ex-Brennigan bike 30 years ago was literally a revelation. I never expected it to handle as well as it did when I first tested it at Brands Hatch, then when Pete Johnson kindly allowed me to race it at Daytona in 1988 as a thank-you for sourcing him the bike, I was seriously impressed both by its stability on the banking and its infield agility as I raced it to fourth place in the Premier 500 event.

Drixton Honda (9)

The Drixton frame delivers literally the best of both worlds – it’s planted in the fast turns that predominate at big GP circuits like Monza or Spa, nimble in tighter tracks like Opatija or the Italian street races. On the Basse TT public roads course Herman Timman’s ex-Denehy motherlode motorcycle displayed these very characteristics. Its Ceriani suspension was the benchmark kit of the late 1960s, and the way the bike goes round corners as if on rails is extremely confidence-inspiring; it feels safe, steady and sure, with neutral steering and predictable handling. Another thing the Drixton frame shares with the not dissimilar-design Paton is the superb confidence-inspiring braking delivered by its pair of Fontana drums, the big 250 mm four leading-shoe version fitted up front hauling the Honda down hard for the Basse circuit’s trio of slow turns with lots of feedback and not the slightest instability, backed up by its 210 mm 2LS rear.

Drixton Honda (7)

The Drixton frame’s riding position is very ’60s, with high footrests and a fairly long stretch over the fuel tank to the steeply dropped clip-ons. It feels pretty short and relatively porky, though, which with a 1340-mm wheelbase it indeed is, plus the low seat back aids throwing a leg over it as you hop aboard after push-starting it, and the bulges in the lower fairing are good for tucking your toes behind. By the time Herman acquired it the Honda had been fitted with the Kröber electronic ignition it now carries, matched by the same company’s tacho with a red reminder strip at 9000 rpm, and a yellow one at 10500 revs standing for $$$$!

Drixton Honda (5)

Compared to the ex-Ray Brennigan Drixton Honda I rode 30 years ago before it headed Stateside to win AHRMA titles with Pete Johnson, this ex-Dennehy original is infinitely smoother-running, albeit with some low down vibration which smooths out the harder you rev the motor, exactly the same as on the Paton and typical of a bike running a 180º crank, whereas the two-up 360º variety tend to vibrate harder as revs rise. The Drixton Honda ran sweet as a nut down the Basse main straight, and I can imagine it must have been a good bike for the hour-long GP races that were commonplace back then.

Marly Drixl may have been a flamboyant character, but judging by my ride on Herman Timman’s ex-Terry Dennehy Drixton-Honda 500, he also knew a lot about building motorcycle frames. What a pity he didn’t stick at it – although many others around the world have done so for him. They chose a good bike to copy.

 

 

LEMONADE OUT OF THE LEMON – The Ducati 959 Panigale

Everything’s relative. Exactly 20 years ago in 1996, Troy Corser won the first of his two World Superbike championships (and the sixth of Ducati’s 17 riders’ titles) aboard the 996cc F96 factory race version of the iconic 916 introduced two years earlier. This delivered 157 bhp at 11,800 rpm en route to dominating that year’s series, with its riders Corser, John Kocinski and Frankie Chili winning 14 of the 24 races on a bike derived from the 114-bhp street version then considered the ne plus ultra of twin-cylinder superbikes.

Troy Corser Ducati
Fast forward 20 years, and for 2016 Ducati has launched what it terms the ‘supermid’ version of its current contender for superbike success in the form of the 959 Panigale producing — yes, 157 bhp at 10,500 rpm. This comes as the latest sequel in its saga of sportsbikes with accessible performance and a lower price tag compared to its full-on superbike models, but complete with an array of electronic rider aids that Corser & Co. could only dream of finding on their factory racers two decades ago. This time around, though, this latest version of the supermid family that kicked off with Ducati’s first ever Supersport contender, the 87-bhp 748 first sold in 1995, is more than ever a junior superbike, even if its creation has been forced on the company by the stringent new Euro 4 emissions and particularly noise regulations being implemented in 2016, which the good-selling 899 Panigale introduced just two years ago, was unable to meet.

Ducati 959 Panigale (19)
But Ducati has succeeded in making sweet-riding lemonade out of the bitter lemon of bureaucratic intervention, as the chance to ride the 959 Panigale at the Valencia GP circuit barely one week after its debut at the 2015 EICMA Milan Show, amply proved. For rather than rejig the 899 to make it compliant with the imminent new Euro-rules, and so inevitably lose both performance and thus sales appeal with the resultant inevitable compromise, it has effectively produced an all-new motorcycle that goes some way beyond that.

Ducati 959 Panigale (5)
Inevitably, there are some downsides to doing this, but the worst is aesthetic rather than performance related, in the shape of the distinctly unlovely and much longer Euro 4 exhaust consisting of twin stacked cannon-type silencers. In some countries like the USA, Australia, Russia and so on where noise is not such an issue as in Euroland, the 959 will continue to be sold with the Panigale’s trademark underslung exhaust exiting beneath the engine. But because Euro-noise levels are measured from the centre of the bike, and thus inevitably include sound emanating from the motor, meeting these rules has required quieter-running engine internals, as well as a different exhaust package. Even with the less lovely looks, some minor handling issues caused by a revised weight distribution, and a deader-sounding drumbeat, Ducati’s engineers have addressed the compliance issues by creating a bike that’s even more fun to ride than its 899 predecessor, which in 2014 was only very narrowly outsold by the Honda Fireblade for the mantle of best-selling sportsbike in the UK, Europe’s sportsbike central.

Ducati 959 Panigale (17)
For what we have here is a bike delivering the same outright performance needed to defeat the V4 Honda RC45s of renegade ducatista Carl Fogarty and team-mate Aaron Slight to win the World Superbike title two decades ago, but which while lacking the explosive grunt and massive top-end power of the 205-bhp 1299 Panigale, is a better balanced all-round package.

Ducati 959 Panigale (20)
The 959 is a genuine best-of-both-worlds bike, because in cubing up the smallest member of the Panigale family’s Superquadro engine from 898cc to 955cc, Ducati has created a faster, more powerful, well-balanced motorcycle that’s also easier to ride hard on a track day, which at the same time I’m sure will be completely at home in real-world use on the street. With no road mileage on offer at the press launch, I used the slowdown laps on each of my four sessions at Valencia to simulate street use using the Sport riding mode, and the way that Ducati has filled in the mid-range of the 959 is really noticeable.

Ducati 959 Panigale (10)
This improved engine package comes not only via the 57cc increase in capacity, but also thanks to the extra refinement of Ducati’s electronics package as it’s been further improved over the last two years. I started my time aboard the 959 using the Sport (really, Street) map as I dialled myself in, with TC on level 5 (out of 8) and ABS working on both wheels, but by the end of that first session I had the TC light on the dash flashing as I downshifted from sixth to third at the end of the pit straight, running over the car-induced bumps entering this crucial turn. Same thing again at the other end of the lap, with the TC light flashing as I exited the last turn onto the pit straight, even if I didn’t feel any instability here — so it was just impacting on acceleration. I switched to Race mode for my second session, with TC level 3 and ABS only operational on the front wheel and rear-lift mitigation turned off. This let the rear wheel walk gently but super controllably as I applied the power to exit the last turn, but without any trace of movement from the front, as the Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SC2 stayed glued to the tarmac. Race mode had a sharper pickup from a closed throttle than Sport, but not sufficient to unsettle the bike unduly.

Ducati 959 Panigale (2)
Using a gear higher in several turns at Valencia was made possible by the great balance — that word again — of the 959 Panigale’s chassis, which has been subtly improved versus the 899. You can put a lot of confidence in the front tyre to keep up turn speed, in pursuit of a higher top speed down the following straight — well, there’s really only one at Valencia, down which I eventually saw 257 kph on the monochrome dash, before braking hard and late for the third gear Turn One, with the slipper clutch now fitted here for the first time on a midsized Ducati helping deliver great stability as well as some degree of engine braking.

Ducati 959 Panigale (12)
This was assisted big time by Ducati’s EBC/Engine Brake Control after I’d switched from Level 1, with such strong intervention that it practically stopped the bike dead when I backed off the throttle for tighter turns! Level 3 (of 3) proved ideal — even Level 2 made it hard to let the Ducati flow through turns on the overrun, thus maximising the great turn speed the new 959 package was born to offer. I’ve always preferred previously to keep the EBC turned off each time I’ve ridden other Panigale versions. This system is designed to reduce the amount the rear-wheel chatter on the overrun by opening the throttle to reduce rear wheel lock-up, but I’ve been riding big twins hard all my racing life, and on other Panigales this has had me missing the entry apexes of turns as the engine pushed me on past them. But Ducati has obviously invested serious time in developing this programme — presumably via its World Superbike and MotoGP race programmes — and it’s now sufficiently improved in aiding you getting stopped that I’m a believer. Better with it than without it.

Ducati 959 Panigale (13)
That degree of assistance with controlled engine braking helped compensate for the slightly less ferocious response of the M4.32 Brembos Monoblock calipers Ducati has fitted here, which offer good feel but don’t have such a strong initial bite compared to the 1299’s M50 items. But really, it’s better this way as being more controllable over the greater variety of road surfaces that a real world sportsbike like this is likely to face. Having got the plot stopped, the 959 cornered on rails, with the narrower 180/60 rear tyre helping it change direction quicker and easier than the 1299 with its massive 200/55-17 rear cover. But the 959 steers easily into turns with minimal rider input, with the only slight downside to the steering the slightly sticky feel to the non-adjustable Sachs steering damper — fitting an adjustable one would head my list of options were I to buy a 959 Panigale. The 43-mm Showa BPF/Big Piston Fork fitted compensates for that slightly by being lighter than a conventional upside down fork, and it did a good job of ironing out the few ripples on this MotoGP racetrack, especially under braking.

Ducati 959 Panigale (8)
But it’s that lovely motor which makes the 959 Panigale stand out as the best of both worlds — torquey and forgiving when needed, as well as fast and furious when you want it to be. The 955cc engine’s reserves of torque allow you to hold a gear for long stretches of tarmac, running it to the 10,750-rpm soft-action rev limiter in intermediate ratios, which in fifth or sixth gear is raised to 11,500 revs, according to project leader Stefano Strappazon. Irrespective of the number of cylinders it has, the 959 Panigale is a unique real-world package that acts as a crossover between 200+ bhp maxisports megabikes and the increasingly endangered 600cc supersport category. The Suzuki GSX-R750 used to perform such a role, until it got left behind by modern-day superbike performance numbers.

Ducati 959 Panigale (11)
Ducati’s latest all-new model — 
for that is indeed just what it is — represents all things to all sportsbike enthusiasts in a way that arguably just one other bike in the present-day marketplace is able to rival, combining good performance with accessibility and character, top-end power with satisfying torque, resulting in a truly versatile motorcycle that will bring serious satisfaction to anyone who owns it. Ducati’s 969 Panigale V-twin joins MV Agusta’s F3 800 triple in pointing the way ahead for sporting road bikes, by offering a level of accessible yet plentiful real-world performance that makes it in some ways better value for money than its 1299 superbike sister, but also just plain more fun to ride. 959 Panigale owners will rejoice in having to work harder in taking such a bike closer to the limits of the performance envelope than he or she is able to do on a bigger-engined, more daunting maxibike like the 1299 Panigale or any of its four-cylinder rivals.

Ducati 959 Panigale (1)
So, hey: let’s give thanks to the bureaucrats in Brussels who dreamt up the Euro 4 regulations, for without those the 959 Panigalina might not have been created. This is a motorcycle for riders who aren’t simply intent on having the fastest, the biggest or the most powerful in their garage, but instead want a versatile, real-world bike that’ll be both practical and exciting to own, two concepts which the smallest-capacity Ducati sportsbike has now proved are by no means mutually exclusive. Kudos are due to Ducati for developing this motorcycle, because it’s very, very satisfying to ride indeed.

 

DUCATI 959 PANIGALE
POWERTRAIN
Displacement:955cc, V-twin
Max power: 157 bhp@10500 rpm
Max torque: 10.95 kgm@9000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed
CHASSIS
Type: Monocoque aluminium
SUSPENSION
(F/R): Fully adjustable inverted fork / fully adjustable monoshock
BRAKES
(F/R): 320 mm twin discs / 245 mm disc
TYRES
(F/R): 120/70 ZR17 / 180/60 ZR17
DIMENSIONS
L/W/H (mm): 2056/NA/1115
Wheelbase: 1431 mm
Kerb weight: 200 kg
Fuel tank: 17 litres
PRICE
Rs 11.88 lakh (Excluding duties)

Serious Speedfighter – 2016 Triumph Speed Triple review

A hooligan that’s learnt to behave itself. Yes, as it comes of age in celebrating its 21st birthday, the motorcycle which for the past couple of decades has been the marketplace reference for hooligan-bike hot-rodding has actually grown somewhat warm and cuddly – respectable, even. For indeed, that’s what the Triumph Speed Triple has become by comparison with the brash copycat kids from KTM, BMW, Ducati and Aprilia which have come along of late to try to knock the British bike which invented the streetfighter sector off its best-selling pedestal via more cubes, more power and more grunt, plus racetrack-worthy electronics and chassis hardware. Oh, and even more attitude, an attribute which the best of British trendsetter adopted big time in breaking all the rules upon its creation back in the mists of time. Well, 1994, actually…

Triumph Speed Triple (6)

So now as part of the huge ongoing makeover of its entire range, Triumph has turned its attention to revamping the Speed Triple that’s made such a key contribution to the profitability of John Bloor’s company over the past two decades. However, while they’d much rather you didn’t call the result evolutionary, Triumph management has resisted both spending lots of money by completely binning everything that’s gone before and starting over again – as they’ve essentially done with the Bonneville, albeit retaining the same overall architecture – and at the other end of the scale just splashing a few pounds sterling on merely making a few minor touch-ups to the existing model to try to wreak a little more revenue from it in the face of its recently launched rivals.

Triumph Speed Triple (4)

In completely redesigning the Speed Triple’s satin-black-painted 1050cc engine, Triumph has retained the same dimensions – but with no less than 104 different component changes, it’s effectively an all-new motor. So while the crankcases are unchanged, the 2016 model’s engine has a new crankshaft, pistons, rings, counterbalancer gears, camshafts, throttle bodies, gearbox ratios, selector mechanism and airbox. There’s also a smaller radiator with a narrower frontal area, a new cylinder head with revised porting and a new combustion chamber design and a Keihin ECU incorporating an RBW throttle for the first time on this model, with a choice of five different riding modes that are easily selected on the go – Track, Sport, Road, Rain, plus one rider-configurable mode. Each of these offers the full engine performance in terms of peak power and torque, but each delivered differently via a distinctly different throttle response, ABS setting and traction control level. Both the latter are switchable and each is also included for the first time on the Speed Triple, so that this new 2016 version represents a significant step up in terms of electronic sophistication and rider assistance – but not at the cost of a substantial increase in cost.

Triumph Speed Triple (5)

So while unlike the various members of the Bonneville family which are all now being built in Thailand, the Speed Triple is still assembled at Triumph’s Hinckley plant in the UK, it costs a remarkably competitive Rs 10.08 lakh for the Speed Triple S base model, rising to Rs 11.36 lakh for the Öhlins-equipped R model. Compare that to the Rs 13.39 lakh list price for the cheapest version of the new Ducati Monster 1200 or the Rs 13.83 lakh ticket price of the KTM, and that comes over as good value from the British manufacturer. There’s also a new fuel delivery system that Stuart Wood says ensures a superior fuel mix to increase combustion performance, while the new exhaust header design allows for a larger, denser, Euro 4-compliant catalyst while still retaining a 70.2 per cent more free-flowing exhaust format. The result of all this is a 5 per cent increase in power to a claimed 140 bhp at 9500 rpm, with what on paper seems just a small lift in peak torque to 11.42 kgm at 7850 rpm, compared to the outgoing model’s 133 bhp at comparable revs.

Triumph Speed Triple (12)

Okay, this sounds relatively wimpish compared to the 160 bhp/13.46 kgm output delivered by the new Ducati Monster 1200, let alone the 177 bhp/14.68 kgm proffered by the KTM 1290 Superduke, and as with the Street Twin, this relatively small increase in performance numbers doubtless explains why Triumph declined to reveal the new Speed Triple engine’s figures at its EICMA Show debut. However, it’s not till you ride the two different generations of the model back to back that you fully realise what a significant difference in real world rideability and responsiveness this redevelopment has achieved – and furthermore, how much more accessible and engaging a real-world ride the new Triumph is even compared to KTM’s supreme streetrod or its Ducati rival for naked-bike supremacy.

Triumph Speed Triple (7)

‘We weren’t interested in getting into a horsepower race,’ says Stuart Wood, Triumph’s chief engineer. ‘Our focus was to refine the engine while delivering a little more all-round performance. The enhanced response you feel is down to improved combustion and the ride-by-wire throttle. This is a real enabler for us, since it lets us control the throttle body butterfly exactly how we want it to behave. This allows you to have quite a well-tuned engine, but also to keep it refined with a really smooth torque delivery. Historically, in the past you’d have refined an engine by softening it, but we now have so much control we don’t have to throw a load of fuel down the ports to get the required response like you used to have to do.’

Triumph Speed Triple (10)

It’s therefore mission accomplished for Wood and his men, for aside from an even more linear power delivery on a bike which to be fair didn’t exactly have any steps in the power curve before, the big difference on the new Speed Triple is the substantially meatier torque now on tap all the way through the rev range, and especially in the mid-range where there’s a better than 5 per cent increase between 4000 rpm and 7500 rpm. That’s where you find yourself operating most of the time in everyday use aboard a bike which is notably more involving to be on than its predecessor.

Once you’ve lit up the glorious-sounding three-cylinder engine with even 120-degree crank throws via the clever combined kill switch and starter button, it’s evident how much more low-end torque there is on the new model, compared to the not exactly reticent outgoing one. Its noticeably greater mid-range muscle from 4000 rpm upwards is matched by an extra kick of grunt at 7000 revs en route to the 10,000-rpm limiter. This provides more zestful acceleration low down, but not at the expense of a snatchy or unduly fierce pickup from a closed throttle in any ratio, in any riding mode – though Track obviously has a stronger pickup than Road, it’s nevertheless controllably so.

Triumph Speed Triple (9)

This extra torque also enables you to use one gear higher in plenty of places, thus riding the curve as you might do on a twin, while cutting down on gear-changing. Not that you need to, exactly, for the all-new gearbox Triumph has fitted to the bike derived from the 675R Daytona transmission is absolutely flawless – the disappointing gearshift was my major source of complaint on the outgoing model. Triumph have fixed this big time on the new one, resulting in a shift action fully up to Japanese standards that’s so good, you barely need to use the clutch at all even downshifting through the gears.

Triumph Speed Triple (3)

However, while inexplicably failing to transfer the 675R’s powershifter to the new Speed Triple along with its gearbox technology, Triumph has now adopted what it calls a ‘slip-assist’ clutch on the new bike. This a ramp-style slipper clutch by any other name, complete with the trademark subdued click when you backshift down through the gears under heavy braking, with switchable ABS in reserve in case you exaggerate exactly how heavy. The slipper clutch setup retains enough engine braking still dialled in to help the twin radial Brembo callipers fitted to both versions of the Speed Triple stop you hard and late when you squeeze the adjustable lever, while ensuring good stability.

Triumph Speed Triple (1)

This new version of Triumph’s streetfighter holds a line very well on the brakes, which means you can trailbrake into the apex of a turn with impunity – it won’t sit up on you so that you miss the apex and head for the hedges, and the pickup when you get back on the throttle again is measured and controlled. Nice. It also holds a line well round fast 120-kph sweepers, but the main difference with the outgoing model is the way the revised riding stance makes the new one seem more responsive in the way it steers in slower, tighter turns, where it makes it easy changing direction via the good leverage from the flatter handlebar.

But at the end of the day it’s the significant step up in engine rideability that makes the new Speed Triple so much fun to ride – especially in the absence of any vibration whatsoever from the three-cylinder motor, which is even smoother than before thanks to the revised gear drive to the single counter-rotating primary balancer at the front of the engine. To the evocative background soundtrack of its trademark intake roar and exhaust note, the triple motor’s dynamic character inspires you to ride it hard, holding second gear for mile after mile along winding country roads, flicking from side to side effortlessly through the curves without a need to shift gear to tackle anything between a slow 40-kph hairpin and a 120-kph sweeper.

Triumph Speed Triple (11)

The carryover Öhlins rear suspension apparently has a softer setup on the new Speed Triple R I was riding than the old, thus supplying not only improved ride quality, but also greater compliance over rough surfaces, without detracting from its ability to lay the power down when you accelerate hard out of a turn leaned over. Triumph has a revised version of its multi-functional LCD instrument pack on the bike, which incorporates an analogue tacho coupled with a digital speedometer, fuel gauge, trip computer, lap timer, programmable shifter lights, and setting displays for gear selected, riding modes, ABS etc. It works well and is quite easy to read – but I can’t help thinking it looks a little old-fashioned against the TFT colour displays on its KTM and Ducati rivals.

Triumph Speed Triple (8)

The Triumph Speed Triple isn’t a bike for criss-crossing continents and certainly not for riding very far or long two-up, even with the improved passenger accommodation on this new version. Instead, it’s for boulevarding to the beach via the twisty coast road, for heading into the hills via the odd mountain pass or two, or for simply getting from A to B via the scenic route as fast as possible, taking no prisoners with any other two-wheelers you find along the way. The latest, unquestionably more refined Triumph Speed Triple is a bike you’ll be looking for excuses to go out and ride, and for the kind of roads which demand to be hustled along, using its great grunt and poised handling to best advantage. This is indeed a bike with attitude, backed up with the performance to punch its weight – a bike that’s once again set to out-Monster anything else in the musclesports marketplace. At considerably less cost, too!

 

 

RIDDEN: BROUGH SUPERIOR SS100

There’s a fierce clatter of valve gear, as two large volumes of air and fuel get compressed and then ignited barely a foot away from my ear. As John wrings the throttle, the barrage of explosions increases and my heartbeat rises rapidly. The loud blat of the dual chromed silencers ricochets off the passing stone walls and resonates within my skull. I have gone through this moment a trillion times over in my head – I later realise that we had done in excess of 100 kph. This is not quite how I expected a 75-year old machine would be ridden!
Brough Superiors, however, were built to be ridden that way – hard, fast and like every day was the last day of their lives – even hours after they rolled off the production line. Every SS100 would be flogged up to 160 kph (or 100 mph) before being sold to the lucky few who could afford the hefty price tag. If the bikes couldn’t make the mark, they went back into the factory and started over from scratch. And the man behind the marque, George Brough, would certify every single one that made it through their test of fire. Yes, this was performance guaranteed; there was no place for second best in this Nottingham factory.

George Brough was a remarkable man, who had a sense of theatre with everything he did. For example, his dad manufactured motorcycles, apart from other things, but George wanted his machine to be better than anything else around. As with many good ideas, young George got a good one in a pub – one night out with the boys, someone suggested to him that he ought to call his motorcycle the Brough Superior. George loved it. On hearing the name his son had chosen for his motorcycles, the old man reportedly remarked, ‘I suppose that makes mine the Brough Inferior’. One can only imagine what it must have been like around the dinner table that night!
We chug into town and pull up to a stop light. It’s a nice and sunny Saturday morning. I’ve been told that the sun has come out after a long, long time and people are out to take in all that Vitamin D in T-shirts and shorts. The only encounter I’ve had with the motorcycle marque of my dreams was in a museum somewhere in Germany. There it stood, with a dented fuel tank, looking forlorn, as if it missed being on the road.

I closed my eyes and could almost hear the roar of those exhausts even in the hushed silence of the room. My nose almost smelled the burnt oil and unburned hydrocarbons from the exhaust, the wind rustled through my hair as I flew down the metalled road, hands gripping tight onto the bars. A sign told people to refrain from getting physical with the motorcycles on display. I couldn’t resist, I just had to have a photograph of me touching the machine that has dominated my thoughts so very often – call it an obsession, even. Yes, and I cherish that picture of me prodding the mudguard with my stubby index finger.
The light turns green and John engages first and gently lets out the clutch. We surge forward and he keeps on going through the gears, till we’re in the top cog but doing a mere 30-odd kph. I half expect the bike to jerk and stall, but the SS100’s V-twin JAP motor will have none of that. I look at John with disbelief and he taps the tank with a smile and says just one word – torque. When one hears the name Brough Superior, many grand and chromed motorcycles come to mind, all of them solo machines. But here I am, encapsulated by some very old wood and steel, being pulled along with a very alive and well SS100. A sidecar, you presume? Well yes, that and so much more.

You see, Mr Brough would settle for the best and not much else. So when it came to finally persuading the wives of his customers to ride along with them, a sidecar made sense. It kept the muck off the hems of their dresses and was effective protection from the elements. But this is no ordinary side car – it’s the Alpine Grand Sport (AGS) Cruiser outfit built by Watsonians.
If you look closely at the tubular frame that supports the passenger enclosure, you will notice a valve at the top, just behind the ‘BS’ crest. And at the rear right bottom is another valve, with an arrangement to attach a pipe. When you were touring back in the day, you didn’t have the convenience of restaurants and fuel stations dotted along the way. While you could stock up on some grub and store it away in the compartment at the back of the sidecar, where would you keep the spare fuel? Why, in the sidecar, of course!
You basically screwed open the BS crest (which also functions as a filler cap), poured the fuel into the pipe frame and screwed the cap back on. When the occasion arose, you simply pumped in some air using the tube-inflating hand pump, so that the fuel inside would get compressed, and then you attached a pipe from the rear bottom spout into your fuel tank. Voila!

How do you build the ultimate motorcycle? Well, for one, you use the best possible components and then some. George did just that. He was paving the way for the rest to follow, and was hell-bent on simply making the best motorcycle money could possibly buy. So he picked up the best of everything. Various iterations of the SS100 were built, predominantly because this motorcycle was exclusive enough to warrant every one of them to be kitted out for individual customers. Also, the earlier ones were powered by the long-stroke, big bore JAP (not ‘Japanese’, but an abbreviation for the popular engine manufacturer ‘John Alfred Prestwich’ Industries) engines, while the later bikes ran with Matchless V-twin motors.
As it is, Brough Superiors are as rare to come by as hen’s teeth, and it’s even harder to find an unmolested specimen that is on sale, irrespective of how deep your pockets might be. But John Wallis’s SS100 is a whole lot more special. His Brough is the one that sat in between a major transition in the Superior’s history. His is but one of the bikes that left the Brough Superior factory with a JTOR series 50 bhp JAP motor, cradled in a frame that was intended to be slung onto by a Matchless engine. Another departure from the norm (but factory fitted nonetheless) with John’s SS100 is the placement of the silencers – the ones fitted onto the JAP motors generally were stacked upon each other on the right hand side of the bike and not on either side of the motorcycle.

Wait… did I just see perfect circles of smoke emerge out of the silencers? Oh, there they are again. I ask John whether I’m seeing things, but he says that it’s part of the charm of running the Brough with ‘carb-jector’ silencers. What they consist of is a strip of metal that runs in a corkscrew spiral all through the length of the pipes. Apart from the wonderful smoke trick, they also silence the engine’s exhaust gases on their way out of the pipe.
This was a motorcycle bred for performance and you wouldn’t want one to suffer from oil starvation – a potential hazard that could have disastrous consequences. When John had picked up the bike from its previous owner, the SS100 had been modified to run a Sunbeam oil pump that was connected to a catch tank mounted onto the bottom crankcase. However, he has since fitted the original ‘Pilgrim’ type of pump that handles the oiling demands of the engine. However, when you are actually riding like the devils are on your tail, a lever on the handlebar pumps an additional squirt of oil into the engine, just in case.
It’s like I’ve finally met my mythical beast – a live and fire-breathing one. I have waited many years for this moment and now, it has come to an end. What will live on, however, are memories of my brief acquaintance with the mighty Brough Superior SS100. And I shall carry on forever the fact that one man can make a difference. One man’s perseverence can lead to a goal that is so highly cherished today, even after all these years. The power of one is indeed power enough.