Streetfighters: A History

How we got naked

Triumph's new Speed Triple is the latest and best example of the mass-produced, factory-built streetfighter. It shows how far this genre has come since the rise of the naked sportbike more than a decade ago.

The streetfighter scene was born, appropriately enough, on the streets of Europe, not on some designer's drawing board. In the late 1980s, sportbikes wore fairings. The air-cooled dinosaurs of the decade's earlier years--Suzuki's GS1100, Kawasaki's GPz1100 and Honda's CB-Fs--had died out, replaced by smaller, lighter race-replica bikes with full fairings.

Suzuki's GSX-R was king, of course. The GSX-R750 hit Europe like a whirlwind in '85. By the time it reached the States a year later joined by the GSX-R1100, the Gixxer cult was firmly established. Both sold in huge numbers worldwide. Never had such performance been unleashed on the street, let alone so relatively inexpensively.

Unfortunately (as I discovered all too often myself), the twin-headlamp fairing that helped make the GSX-Rs so fast and cutting-edge also made them expensive to repair after a crash--and these bikes got crashed an awful lot. Racers had no choice but to buy new fairings, but many road riders simply removed the damaged plastic and kept on going. The result was an even lighter sportbike whose jutting headlights helped give the bikes an urban style all their own.

Before long, such stripped-down "streetfighters," as they became known, were a common sight on the streets of London and many other European cities, especially in Germany and France. Many riders replaced the Suzuki's clip-ons with flatter bars. Some went further, customizing their bikes with trick paint, highly tuned engines, loud 4-into-1 pipes, lightweight chassis bits and sometimes even custom frames.

In the early '90s the movement gained a mouthpiece with the launch of the U.K. magazine Streetfighters. This began as a one-off special and expanded to become a successful monthly dedicated to extreme performance specials. A German magazine, Fighters, covered similar territory.

Other bikes, including Yamaha's FZR1000R, were also converted into naked bikes, but the oil-cooled GSX-R's performance and ubiquity ensured it remained the streetfighter staple. The naked Gixxer's image was enhanced by its popularity in the growing stunting scene, where riders such as Gary Rothwell and Dave Coates found the bikes unbeatable for wheelies, stoppies and other sorts of two-wheeled wildness.

As the streetfighter subculture grew, manufacturers began to take interest. Ducati spotted the trend and cashed in after the firm's Argentinian designer Miguel Galluzzi sketched a naked V-twin and persuaded his Bolognese bosses to put it into production. The M900 Monster, launched in '93, was an instant hit, sparking the naked streetbike revolution we see today.

Suzuki joined in two years later with its Bandit 1200, a single-shock naked-style bruiser that was notably shorter, lighter and more modern in appearance than twin-shock retro bikes such as Honda's CB1000 and Kawasaki's Zephyrs. "We didn't want the Bandit to be big and heavy to manage," said Mr. Nishimoto of Suzuki's product-planning department. "The main theme of development was high performance."

Even so, Suzuki figured U.S. and European riders preferred their superbikes to have fairings. So the big Bandit was initially sold only in Japan, where such machines were already popular and had their own race series. After a rush for unofficially imported Bandits, the model was quickly released in other markets.

Triumph upped the streetfighter ante in '97 with its T509 Speed Triple, adding twin headlights, extra power and a tubular aluminum frame to the original Speed Triple's format. The model quickly became Hinckley's best seller in many countries.

The success of the Monster, Bandit and Speed Triple has inspired almost every manufacturer to produce a naked model of its own. Some are detuned and somewhat bland in comparison to the others, but they offer decent performance and loads of all-around ability.

Naked bike fans are now spoiled when it comes to choice, though inevitably some of the genre's original nasty-boy image has been lost. "The new Speed Triple is an out-of-the-crate streetfighter, and I love it to bits," says Will Jobbins, an editor at Streetfighters magazine. "For owners who like specials, the problem is deciding how to improve it." MC

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