15 years of abuse: Triumph Speed Triple restoration

Published: 15 June 2016

Many restorations start with finding a wreck under a tarpaulin. With Jonathan Wilkie’s Speed Triple, however, he was the one who left it there in the first place...

any restortions in Practical Sportsbikes follow a similar path: man owns bike as a youth, sells it, gets on with life, then one day buys the same model again but as a wreck, and restores it. Quite right too. But self-confessed IT geek Jonathan Wilkie, 38, takes the yarn further. “Yes, it was my restoration project... but then,
I was the one who ran the bike into the ground in the first place.
After 15 years of riding abuse, I had to restore it.”

Jonathan is a profound chap, prone to dispensing quotable wisdom. Like when, as the co-founder of MK1STOC, the internet owners’ club for the original Speed Triple, he talks about online biking communities. “You know what I hate?” he asks. “I hate it when owners’ clubs build a business off the back of people getting together. The point of an owners’ club is to help everyone get the most from their bike. Bikers can smell people trying to make money out of them and when they do it’s like, ‘Well, you can do one.’”

Jonathan’s journey with his Speed Triple started in Portsmouth in 2001, when he took his Direct Access. This self-same Triumph was his first bike after passing his test at 21. 

“I wanted a naked sportsbike,” he chuckles with a trademark booming belly-laugh. “A mate said, ‘Have you seen the price of Speed Triples? They’re really cheap.’ He was right – nobody wanted them about 15 years ago, but I thought they looked the business. I’ve always had a thing for Triumphs. So I thought, ‘Mmmm, British, Triumph, big, naked, angry...
I want one.’ I found a bike in the free ads and picked it up for three grand – not bad for a
15,000-mile, seven-year-old bike in good nick.”

Jonathan rode the Speed Triple home, and didn’t stop riding it every day for the next six years come rain or shine. “I basically rode it into the ground, at which point things started to go wrong. The throttle cable snapped on the way to work and I had to push it. I was so annoyed I left it outside my terraced house, under a rain cover, for two years.”

By 2008 it was in a state. Someone had even smashed a milk bottle over it, but Jonathan refused to sell it. “It was my bike. Everyone you speak to regrets selling their first bike, no matter what it is.” He looks at his Triumph, leaning on its sidestand. “By today’s standards this bike is rubbish,” he says, “but it’s my bike. I’ve grown up on it. It’s a part of me.”

The idea of restoring the Speed Triple wasn’t the result of a moment of inspiration, but necessity. “A mate was going to the Isle of Man, and I needed a bike. It was the only one I had so I thought, ‘Let’s get it back on the road.’

“The exhaust was rotten. A replacement was the best part of a grand, so I found a no-name three-into-one on eBay for £80. I did the fluids, brakes, chain and sprockets... and then it was back – a bit ropey around the edges, but it got me to Mad Sunday.”

It was the start of a slippery slope, and with the exhaust came a Dynojet kit and K&N air filter. “It was day into night,” says Jonathan. “The bike was lairier, quicker, livelier. The throttle response was amazing, the noise was angry. The transformation was so good it made me want to get to the next step.”

Jonathan went deeper and deeper. He was no hardened garage hack, but the Triumph was his learning curve. He had to make his own way.

“By then people were noticing the Mk1 Speed Triple from a historical perspective, and I was getting excited talking to mates about what the next phase could be – there was the beginning of a small community of us on the internet. So, for example, the crank position sensor went, and left me at the side of the road in France. I didn’t know how to fix it, so I found out how. It turned out to be really easy.”

Jonathan’s ambitions grew. “I asked myself what else I could do – there’s a confidence thing about working on bikes. It’s daunting when you don’t know how any of it works, but when you get your hands dirty it’s great.” 

More inspiration came online. “I saw a bike belonging to an American called Mario. He had phenomenal taste and his Speed Triple had a Yoshimura exhaust and carbon huggers – it looked sensational. I thought, ‘Right, I want my bike to look like that.’”

From then on Jonathan scoured the web, setting up alerts when parts came up, but taking his time. “There’s nothing worse than accepting a part that isn’t perfect just because you think the right one will never come up. The chances are it will, and you’ll be left with the bit you bought but didn’t actually want. Always be patient.”

Like many patient men, Jonathan has a fastidious eye for detail. The exhaust is a clever combination of Yoshi headers, ram-rod straight pipework and a Sebring can (“it had the Triumph logo on it”) mated with a custom link-pipe, following the line of the swingarm and echoing the contoured gear linkage rod on the other side of the bike. It’s a great touch, which most people would never notice. 

Jonathan wanted an Öhlins shock but struggled to locate one, so he asked the Swedish factory to make a one-off. At first they agreed (for £1300), but then said they’d have to re-tool to make one component, which would be another £700. In the meantime, a chance internet search turned up an Öhlins on a Spanish dealer’s shelf; two weeks and £800 later, it was on the bike. Jonathan followed it with a Maxton fork job, revalved with stiffer, progressive springs. The red anodised compression adjusters bother him; they’re the wrong colour. “It’s the only anodising on the bike, too,” he complains. Can’t complain about the performance though – he says they’re superb.

Other details include knock-off Pazzo-style levers (which look pretty good to me), Galfer brake discs (which don’t, but this is Jonathan’s bike and he robustly reminds me it’s exactly the look he wanted to achieve), a grand’s worth of Triumph carbon huggers (“I think they were made by Cosworth from proper F1-style autoclave carbon”), a specially-lined tank to stop the factory lining coming away (“It’s called POR-15: you just pour it in, slosh it about and let it cure”), plus what feel like thousands of other tiny details that took time and help from people in the know to finish. 

This is what led to mk1speedtriple.co.uk. “Me and a good friend Mark, who also has a Speed Triple and helped me enormously with this bike, had the idea. It’s a place for people to share experiences and help each other out. Mark was phenomenal – he taught me loads and spent a lot of time helping me. It’s good having mates like that.”

And then there’s that monolithic engine block,
still with its factory finish. “There’s something special about what they did at Hinckley back then. Look at the finish on the engine cases – that’s original. It’s over 20 years old, has been sat outside and abused, and that’s still the original engine powdercoating, original frame finish and original swingarm coating. These early Triumphs are the perfect restoration projects because underneath all the grime and crap, just an oily rag will bring it back.”

“I took the motor to Triumph specialist Clive Wood. We used short-stroke 750cc Triumph pistons – same bore but higher compression. Standard power is about 95bhp; the carb kit and exhaust got it to 100 or so, then the pistons took it to 110bhp.”

And then there’s those 39mm Keihin FCR flatslide carbs. “Yes, they’re a bit special. It’s a lot of expense for a small gain – another 5bhp for a couple of grand. But the sound and feel? They’re worth it.” Fitting them wasn’t easy, mind. “I needed to adapt the throttle cabling. On the CVs you only have to pull them open – on these, you need push/pull. I was lucky enough to get a Venhill race throttle from Clive Wood, off his old race bike. But that’s how this works: if anyone else wants one, we can use this to get more made.”

Jonathan’s final bill for the project isn’t something he dwells on. “It owes me over 10 grand,” he says, thinking back. He starts to list the costs. “The paint was £800, the shock was £800, the rear hugger was £400, the front hugger was £300, the brakes were a couple of hundred quid... but you don’t think about it. You don’t mind. You just think of what’s best for the bike.”

Future plans include a bit more power from the engine. “I want to gasflow the head for another few horsepower – a little bit more. But only when it’s the right time, when the valves are shot. It’s coming up for a valve clearance check so I might think about it then...”
The Ride

Jonathan is nervous about PS riding his bike: no-one but him has ridden it before. “It needs 15 minutes to warm up,” he says. “I’ll ride to the garage and get some fuel, then you can take it from there.”

When I finally get on Jonathan’s pride and joy I’m careful to touch as little of the orange paintwork as possible, but the bike’s wide flanks bulge out to meet my boot ankles so
I ride with my feet and legs spread out. 

The riding position is classic early 1990s superbike: low seat, lower clip-ons, high ’pegs, and a long reach across the tank to the ’bars. It’s purposeful, puts you in the mood, and feels like it fits a fully-grown man rather than a compact pocket-rocket jockey. Clocks are serif-fonted twin dials that can’t help but make you think, ‘Oooooh, I remember them...’

But oh boy, what a glorious motor. The FCR flatties rattling at tickover is, basically, the most exciting engine noise this side of a racing two-stroke on pipe. And as you smoothly wind the throttle on, getting as good as you give, the chirping sound as air velocity in the stacks picks up is divine. Coupled with the deep, triple bark from the Yoshi/Sebring, it’s an accompaniment you’d never tire of. 

Short-shifting between 5000 and 6000rpm, feeling a warm, enveloping surge of torque across a mid-range as vast and bountiful as the heartland of the English countryside, is intoxicating. The rear Öhlins sucks into the road, helping the chassis roll from side to side with an easy grace on Michelin Pilot Road 3s.

Throttle connection is perfect, fuelling is glitch-free, brakes are strong; it could probably do with a bit more rebound damping at the front because it comes back off the brakes a bit suddenly as you tip in but, apart from that, I could ride this Speed Triple all day.

Maybe it’s the paint, but Jonathan’s bike sort of radiates a feeling of well-being. It’s deeply enjoyable to ride. When I hand the Triumph back Jonathan looks relieved, then examines the top of the tank and finds a tiny smear in the paint. I can’t even see it. “That wasn’t there before,” he says, then breaks into one of his trademark belly-laughs. 

Thanks:
Mark Gaylard for his help and advice
Clive Wood and Paul Messenger for not laughing at my stupid questions
Stuart Wright from Triumph
Andy and Keith at www.dynotech-performance.co.uk for the carb work
Madi, the missus, for putting up with me

Words Simon Hargreaves  Photos Jason Critchell