It has been a meteoric rise for Austrian manufacturer KTM in recent years.
Founded by engineer Hans Trunkenpolz, the company made its first prototype motorcycle in 1951, with series production starting in small numbers two years later.
Officially registered as Kronreif and Trunkenpolz Mattighofen (Ernst Kronreif being Trunkenpolz’ business partner and Mattighofen being the town where the bikes were (and continue to be) made, KTM initially made small capacity machines, making some successful appearances in racing in its formative years. The company grew through the middle part of the century, also making bicycles and car radiators, but fell into decline when sales of mopeds and small capacity machines dropped off in the 1980s. Production stopped in 1989 but, in 1991, it re-emerged under new ownership.
Enter Stefan Pierer and the Dukes
Following its bankruptcy, KTM was broken up into smaller divisions and sold off. The new KTM Sportmotorcycle company was formed and, under the guidance of CEO Stefan Pierer, would quickly go on to become Europe’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer.
The brand would continue to develop the motocross machines with which the KTM name would become synonymous and, in 1994, the reborn company would launch its new range of road bikes.
Called the 620 Duke, officially written as DUKE by KTM, it was a hardcore hooligan machine powered by a 50bhp, 609cc, single-cylinder engine. The first year’s production introduced the orange colour for which the company would become famous and had a raw edginess which remains KTM’s calling card. It had all the hallmarks of a supermoto racer, with a tall seat, light weight and a torquey one pot motor, although in reality it was a touch more refined and versatile than the pure supermotos on the market at the time.
A larger 625cc engine was soon introduced, while a second generation came along in 1999. Called the 640 Duke, this 55bhp model replaced the more rounded lines of the original machines with a more aggressive and angular style which would become a trademark of Dukes even today. The Duke II remained in the KTM range until 2006.
In 2005, the Super Duke nameplate was also introduced. A naked version of KTM’s V-twin RC8 superbike, the 990 Super Duke did absolutely nothing to counter KTM’s reputation for building some of the most focussed and extreme street bikes you could buy.
A new single-cylinder Duke was also introduced around this time, in the form of the 654cc 690 Duke. A natural successor to the original 620/640 series, it marked a subtle evolution from a supermoto styled machine to more of a naked streetfighter. The Duke III remained one of the lightest and most extreme production motorcycles on sale, with the old carburettors being replaced by fuel injection and selectable rider modes, still a novelty back in 2008, added. This machine still had the same basic ingredients, with the 865mm seat height making for a tall and agile motorbike, with less than 149kg for the 65bhp motor to haul around.
The Duke brand expanded with the introduction of the learner legal 125cc Duke in 2011, with a 390 version built on the same platform coming the year after. A 200 version was also introduced in some markets. These smaller Dukes were built in India by Bajaj, who have acquired a significant shareholding in the company.
KTM brought out its craziest Duke yet in 2014, with the 1301cc 1290 Super Duke R. With an all-new 180bhp V-twin engine it was dubbed ‘The Beast’ by the manufacturer, although it did spawn a more docile ‘touring’ variant in 2016, the Super Duke GT. The 1290 Super Duke got a 2017 update, bringing the latest generation of electronics and suspension to the flagship road bike.
A turning point in the Duke family came in 2018, when KTM launched the 790 Duke. With a brand new parallel twin engine, the latest strand in the Duke family was a bit more mainstream than previous Dukes, going for the popular middleweight market sector occupied by bikes like Triumph’s Street Triple and the Yamaha MT-09. The 790 evolved into the 890 and now the latest 990, while the 1290 Super Duke was recently replaced by a 1390 version, powered by an updated 1350cc 75-degree V-twin engine delivering 190bhp.
Ready to Race
The Duke range has mirrored KTM’s rise over the past 30 years. Under Stefan Pierer’s direction, the company has dominated the off-road market, winning countless motocross, supercross, enduro and rally titles and selling enough dirt bikes to become Europe’s biggest selling motorcycle manufacturer. In 2022, KTM reported a record 375,612 units sold in all sectors.
The company is also a serious player in MotoGP. Having run, with some success, in the 125 and 250cc two-stroke classes during the early 2000s, KTM unveiled its RC16 MotoGP machine at the end of 2016 and has been an ever present on the grid ever since, winning a total of seven races (up to end of 2023 championship) and providing a regular threat to the dominance of Ducati. It’s brand slogan ‘Ready to Race’ embodies its entire range, which tend to be sportier and more extreme than its competitors.
Back in 1994, who would have thought that the first Duke from this quirky revived company would be the catalyst to one of the biggest success stories in the history of motorcycling?
Happy 30th birthday, KTM Duke. Here’s to many more happy returns!