A Brief History of the KTM Super Duke

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The KTM Super Duke has earned a reputation for being one of the best factory streetfighters money can buy. This is its story.


The Austrian KTM Super Duke burst onto the sportbike scene in 2005 and quickly established itself as a bike that was just about in a class of its own in much the same way as another Austrian company, Glock, rapidly established itself as the preferred pistol for police departments all over the world. In both cases the phenomena were made possible because of two traits that Austrian manufacturers have been famous for for more than a century; practical innovative design, and manufacturing perfection.

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The early beginning of KTM was as “Kraftfahrzeug Trunkenpolz Mattighofen” back in 1934. Initially the company did smaller scale metal work and lock smithing but after the Second World War the company moved up into the world of motorcycle manufacture releasing their first model, the R100, in 1951. As a means of boosting publicity and gaining recognition KTM began participating in motor sport in the fifties and sixties and the company steadily grew and established a US subsidiary, KTM North America Inc., in 1988. With the passing of the two men who had founded and led the company, KTM was split up into four separate divisions one of which, KTM Sportmotorcycle GmbH, Motorcycles Division, continued the design and manufacture of motorcycles.

The KTM Super Duke was first created as a design concept by Gerald Kiska in September 2003 and that first design remained largely unchanged in the first production model that made its debut in 2005. The first Super Duke was possibly inspired by the streetfighter style of motorcycle pioneered by the Buell Lightning and Ducati Monster but created with a refined Austrian style with refined Austrian engineering to go with it. The KTM Super Duke brought into the streetfighter motorcycle a feeling of controlled exactness. This motorcycle combined V-twin power and torque that was smooth and consistent through the rev range with brakes and suspension that did what the rider wanted almost as if the bike and rider had merged into one.

The 990 Super Duke (2005-2013)

The Super Duke was KTM's venture into performance road motorcycles of the streetfighter style and was designed with meticulous attention to detail. The engine was a DOHC 999.8cc 75° V-twin with four valves per cylinder producing 120hp at 9000rpm and torque of 74lb/ft at 7000rpm. This liquid cooled engine with its 11.5:1 compression ratio was mounted low down in a chromium-molybdenum trellis frame with powder-coated aluminum sub-frame. The engine was mated to a six speed gearbox via a wet multi-plate clutch. The engine used dry sump lubrication with two rotor pumps. Final drive was by chain.

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Front forks were WP 48mm upside down units (Note: KTM took control of WP in 1995) with 24° rake whilst at the rear was a WP fully adjustable shock absorber with a 4”/103mm trail. Brakes were twin 320mm discs at the front with 4 piston calipers and at the rear a single 240mm disc with a single piston caliper. The bike's 56.6”/1,438mm wheelbase contributed to the stability and predictability the KTM Super Duke became known for. The Super Duke's fuel tank held 4 US gallons (15 liters) which was small enough that hard riding would require frequent visits to the gasoline station. Fuel consumption with gentle riding would provide about 34mpg or about 130miles but ridden hard the tank would need fuel in under 100 miles depending on just how hard the rider was pushing. The V-twin engine of the Super Duke produced some vibration but not intrusively nor in a way that induces fatigue; the vibration simply communicated information. The power was delivered lineally throughout the rev range and the same is true of the torque. Similarly the suspension provided predictable stability and the brakes similarly inspired confidence. Standing quarter mile time was around 11.5 seconds and top speed 147mph. In 2006 the Super Duke RR Titanium Limited Edition appeared and this bike was mechanically the same as the Super Duke except with the use of carbon fiber body parts and wheels, Akrapovic exhaust, and with re-mapping of the EFI to boost power to 122hp.

The seat height was increased by 15mm as a result of alteration of the suspension. The model was created by use of available parts from the KTM PowerParts catalog. In 2007 the Super Duke saw some alterations and minor improvements beginning with a slight reduction of the rake to 22.7° to make the motorcycle more immediately responsive and again some tweaking of the EFI to improve throttle response, smooth power delivery, and meet emissions standards. A side benefit of the EFI modifications was improved fuel economy and thus improved range. The power stayed largely the same at 118hp at 9000rpm with torque of 74lb/ft at 7000rpm. The fuel tank capacity was increased to 4.9 US gallons (18.5 liters) to give the bike a bit more range, this being especially needed for exuberant riders who found themselves needing to top up the fuel tank much more often than they would like. Ridden gently the range was now about 170 miles. Top speed was 140mph on this model. Also in 2007 the Super Duke R was introduced.

The Super Duke R sported engine power increased to 130hp at 10,000rpm with 75lb/ft torque at 8,000rpm. The front brake calipers were changed to radial types, a steering damper was added, and the steering head angle set at 66.1° to ensure precision handling combined with high speed stability. The bike's instrumentation was also upgraded.

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The R featured a monoposto single seat and was aimed at the rider who would want to go out on their bike all on their own and have some solo fun time. All the parts necessary to modify a standard Super Duke to the R specification were available in the KTM PowerParts catalog so the Super Duke R was in effect packaging of a PowerParts upgraded bike as a standard model and it was differentiated by having an orange “R” on the front fairing. What was it like to ride a KTM Super Duke? The handling was described by one reviewer as “Staggeringly responsive. You just need to glance at a corner on the KTM 990 Super Duke and BANG! you’re there. The WP suspension is spot-on, with plenty of feedback through the wide bars. The four-piston Brembo brakes are superb and never seem to lose their ferocious bite.” And as for the engine's power the same reviewer said “To call the KTM Super Duke's 999cc, DOHC V-twin a mere ‘motor’ is a bit like saying atomic warfare is bad for the flowers.

Twisting the throttle unleashes such incredible accelerative forces on the KTM 990 Super Duke it’s possible to give yourself wrinkles over your body. The fuel economy is laughable, often 80 miles to reserve, but frankly you’ll be enjoying yourself too much to care.” (Source: Motor Cycle News). In the years from 2008 onwards the KTM 990 Super Duke and the Super Duke R remained technically much the same but were made available in various color schemes other than the trade-mark KTM black and bright orange. In 2012 the base model 990 Super Duke was phased out leaving the Super Duke R as the only model. That being said, the previously monoposto R was changed to having a dual seat to accommodate a pillion passenger as it was the only model. The engine power of the R was also reduced from 130hp to 123hp bringing it down to being only marginally more powerful than the standard model. This modification had the benefit of smoothing the torque output across the rev range and it's unlikely a rider would notice the power reduction given the smooth and progressive torque delivery.

The 1290 Super Duke (2013 - Present)

At the Milan Motorcycle Show in 2012 KTM showed concept pictures of a new Super Duke. This bike made its metal and plastic debut in 2013 as the 1290 Super Duke R. The old 998cc V-twin engine was not just upgraded but it was superseded by a new V-twin based on the 1195cc engine from the KTM RC8R but bored out to increase capacity to 1301cc/79.3 cu. in.. The initial marketing for the 1290 Super Duke called the new bike “The Beast” and its expected performance was enough to make the motorcycle riding public expect that this new bike would be a “widow-maker” of the first magnitude.

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The power from the new 75° V-twin DOHC double valve engine was 180hp at 8,870rpm with torque of 106lb/ft and it pushed that elegant sufficiency through a fairly low geared transmission that would run out of revs at 58mph/85km/hr in first. All this in a motorcycle with a dry weight of 417lb/189 kg. Roughly translated that means more than enough power to drive a medium size car in ways that would be exciting, in a machine of about a fifth of the car's weight. One would be forgiven for considering the KTM 1290 Super Duke as being something of a “Lemming bike”. Reviewers however were relieved to find that the 1290 Super Duke was in fact smooth, predictable, and easily controllable, despite its being entirely able to do wheelies in any of the first three gears with traction control off and despite its being able to pass most things “at the speed of thought”. The new engine features a dry sump with triple Eaton oil pumps, a compression ratio of 13.2:1.

The engine control EMS by Keihin with Ride by Wire and double ignition. The Ride by Wire engine management system intelligently translates the rider's twist grip command by taking account of the current riding situation for the best power and torque delivery. The twin ignition system uses two differently sized spark plugs which are managed by the EMS for peak efficiency. This engine drives through a hydraulically actuated PASC slipper clutch (and with some clutch slip the bike will happily start from standing in third gear). Gearbox is a six speed. The bike's frame is a powder coated Chromium-Molybdenum steel trellis frame with WP upside down 48mm front forks and a single arm WP monoshock at the rear. Front wheel travel is 4.7”/125mm whilst the rear 6.1”/156mm. Steering head angle is 65.1° with rake of 24.9°. Trail is 4.2”/102mm. Brakes are by Brembo with twin 320mm discs at the front with floating four piston calipers, and a single disc with twin piston calipers at the rear. The brake system being fitted with Bosch 9ME Combined-ABS. Wheels are cast aluminum alloy 17”x3.5” front and 17”x6” rear. Dunlop Sportsmax Sportsmart2 tires are fitted as standard, front being 120/70ZR-17, and 190/55ZR-17 rear. Wheelbase is 58.3”/1482mm. Seat height 32.9”/835mm.

Fuel tank capacity remains at 4.75 US gallons/18 liters but improved fuel efficiency keeps usable range to around 170 miles/280km with typical fuel consumption being 36.2mpg (US). The specifications are not enough to really describe the KTM 1290 Super Duke however. Those who ride it report the same things; it's controllable (despite being able to put down a 10.32second quarter mile finishing at a “wind in the hair” 134.5mph), comfortable, and truckloads of fun. The braking system is superb and the fuel range and seat comfort even qualify this as a nice bike for some touring when it's not being used for adrenaline inducing excitement. It's even got cruise control. There have been a couple of special models of the 1290 Super Duke R; the 2014 1290 Super Duke R Patriot Edition featured an American patriot color scheme, and the 2016 1290 Super Duke Special Edition with a white, orange and black color scheme.

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The KTM Super Duke has been made in two distinct generations, the 990 series and the 1290 series. Both versions have received rave reviews and the criticisms are few. The first generation 990 series have been criticized for the gear change being less slick than its Japanese contemporaries and its fuel consumption and lack of range were of concern. That being said it was and is an immensely predictable and controllable fun motorcycle that was guaranteed to put a smile on the rider's face. The second generation 1290 series exhibits Austrian seriousness and attention to detail in having fixed both of those criticisms. About the only criticism that seems to recur is the need to stop the bike to go through the menu system to change its mode.

Given that one would not want to inadvertently change the riding mode of the bike from computer controlled safety to wheel-stand heaven that may be a good thing. Just as one needs to stop the bike and get one's hands dirty making manual setting changes to the suspension. The KTM 1290 Super Duke is probably the most sophisticated streetfighter motorcycle on the road. There may be prettier streetfighter style motorcycles out there but we suspect that this bike is the top dog when it comes to rider experience and also with regards to providing an optimum degree of forgiving controllability and all the life insurance that affords.