Triumph - The biggest name in British motorcycles

Words: Scott Blackburn Composed to: Foo Fighters - Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace.

The 2019 Triumph Street Twin. Image courtesy of Triumph.

The 2019 Triumph Street Twin. Image courtesy of Triumph.

These days when you think British motorcycles chances are the first name you jump to is Triumph, then maybe you remember that Royal Enfield and BSA are kind of still kicking about. Triumph is the only British motorcycle manufacturer to just about stumble out of the '70s and still have its name mean something, even if it did lie dormant for a while. Today the Triumph name is global, and not just because they like to stick it on any flat surface going, they're still synonymous with being high-end machines.

The very first Triumph motorcycle, with its Minerva engine, making a whole 2hp.

The very first Triumph motorcycle, with its Minerva engine, making a whole 2hp.

It might come as a surprise then to learn that this most Britishy of British motorcycle manufacturers was actually founded by two Germans who made push bikes. Bettmann and Schulte began building push bikes at a site in Coventry in 1889, having the brilliant idea to replace pedals with cylinders came to them in 1898 and the first Triumph motorcycle rolled out of the plant in 1902. Though even then that was a essentially a bicycle with a Belgian Minerva engine. That being said they happened to sell pretty well, so in 1907 Triumph opened a lager plant and scaled up their production.

The ‘Trusty’ Triumph.

The ‘Trusty’ Triumph.

As with a whole host of British manufacturers, especially those making anything with an engine, the First World War brought new opportunities, as the government scrambled to buy up machines for the Army. Triumph provided over 30,000 motorcycles to Allied forces during the course of the war, among them the Model H Roadster, earning itself the nickname 'Trusty Triumph.' The end of the war brought with it discontent for the two German founders however, as they bickered over ideas for branching into car production.

The very regal 1920s Triumph logo.

The very regal 1920s Triumph logo.

This bickering ended with Schulte leaving and leaving Bettmann to work on his own ideas. Bettmann went ahead and bought the former Hillman company car factory in Coventry and by 1923 had made himself the first saloon car under the name of the Triumph Motor Company. Turns out Bettmann got it right and by the mid '20s Triumph was one the biggest British bike and car manufacturers and even began exporting the Triumph name abroad. The now overshadowed bicycle production was sold off to Raleigh.

Donald Trump’s America (the Great Depression)

Donald Trump’s America (the Great Depression)

In spite of this the '20s hit hard with the Depression and Triumph began to struggle, the Newbury plant was sold off and in 1933 Bettmann was forced out his position as chairman and resigned altogether. In 1939 the car production was sold off to the Standard Motor Company after declaring bankruptcy. The motorcycles however managed to hold their own, they were bought out by Jack Sangster of Ariel. This was when Triumphs began to be exported to the US, the beginning of a major source of income for the brand and one that continues to this day.

A die-cast model of the famous Speed Twin.

A die-cast model of the famous Speed Twin.

Mr. Sangster re-formed the Triumph engineering Co. Ltd. with a number of ex-Ariel and Triumph employees, including Edward Turner who was responsible for the 498cc Speed Twin, released in 1937, which would become the basis for all twins until the '80s. Heading into World War Two Triumph were on course to repeat the profitability of  the previous war, that was until the Blitz saw the destruction of their Coventry plant. They were quick to reboot though and by 1942 they were producing again at Meriden in Warwickshire, using machinery salvaged from the old plant.

British motorcycles grouped into fives and sold for scrap after the war.

British motorcycles grouped into fives and sold for scrap after the war.

After the war production held strong but Triumph found themselves ever-more leaning towards the highly profitable US market. 1951 saw Sangster sell his reformed company to BSA. Triumph under the BSA umbrella had two major models, the 500cc Tiger 100 was their performance model and the 650cc Thunderbird was their tourer. This was until 1954 when they switched to using swingarm frames and used aluminium alloy heads to make the 650cc Tiger 110.

Perhaps the most impressive T120, a magic one.

Perhaps the most impressive T120, a magic one.

The release of the T120 in 1959 put Triumph in direct competition with Harley Davidson over the pond and was the beginning of a phase of trans-Atlantic competition between the two big names that still dominates much of motorcycle culture today. During the '60s the majority of Triumph's produce was exported, predominantly to the US, making them susceptible to the impending competition from America's neighbour, Japan.

A taste of the Japanese competition, courtesy of Honda.

A taste of the Japanese competition, courtesy of Honda.

The new influx of Japanese bikes came with electric starts, overhead cams and up-to-date wiring that handily didn't break all the time, all for less money than a Triumph. Just to be a pain, in the 1970s the US government mandated that all imported motorcycles had to come with the Japanese gear configuration, meaning some expensive retooling for Triumph. For a little while Triumph and BSA were safe in the big engine market, as the Japanese made smaller machines. This didn't last however, Honda were quick to release a 750cc model, marking the beginning of the end for the first phase of Triumph's life.    

Dennis Poore races an Alfa Romeo in his racing days - 1952

Dennis Poore races an Alfa Romeo in his racing days - 1952

British machines outperformed the Japanese competition but required a lot more maintenance and leaked constantly. Eventually things became so bad for British motorcycles that the government had to step in and the BSA parent group was sold to Manganese Bronze Holdings. Come 1972 and the BSA group went completely bankrupt, and the government encouraged Dennis Poore, chairman of Norton-Villiers - a subsidiary of MBH - to take control of Triumph. Poore did as he was asked and formed Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT).

Meriden workers striking in style.

Meriden workers striking in style.

Poore knew that something had to change if Britain was to compete with the Japanese so he held consultations with his new factory personnel. However this didn't end well for the workers, Poore decided he needed to trim some fat and wanted to close the Meriden plant, killing off 3,000 out 4,500 jobs. Funnily enough that didn't go down too well. This is when the '70s struck and the workers went on strike, and in spectacular style, staging a two year sit in.

The man himself, Tony Benn, visits workers at the Meriden plant.

The man himself, Tony Benn, visits workers at the Meriden plant.

The workers received backing from the newly elected Labour government, particularly the new Minister for Trade and Industry, Tony Benn. The workers formed the Meriden Worker's Cooperative, they struck a deal with NVT to supply 750cc motorcycles. In 1977 NVT collapsed and the Meriden Worker's Cooperative bought the marketing rights for Triumph with government loans, this became Triumph Motorcycles Ltd. The Cooperative sold the Bonneville and the Tiger 750cc and did pretty well in the process, even coming out with their own variant, the 1977 Silver Jubilee Bonneville T140J.

The Triumph name up in lights at the new visitor center.

The Triumph name up in lights at the new visitor center.

By 1978 this had become the best selling European motorcycle in the US, having made US emissions-compliant variants too. However the strong pound made Triumph's expensive in the US. Eventually by 1983, mounting debts and slowing sales crippled Triumph Motorcycles Ltd., and they unfortunately went into receivership. This is where the now successful John Bloor came into the picture.

The Trophy 1200 - The face of Triumph in 1991, possibly one of the most ‘90s pictures going.

The Trophy 1200 - The face of Triumph in 1991, possibly one of the most ‘90s pictures going.

Bloor bought up the Cooperative's company and reinvested in it, hiring a number of the groups former designers and doing the smart thing and embracing a little of the Japanese technology that had killed the previous generation. By 1987 Bloor's Triumph re-boot had completed the design of their own engine and in 1988 he funded a new 10 acre factory at Hinckley to build it. The first Hinckley Triumphs were released for the 1991 model year.

The 2019 Triumph Ace and Diamond editions. Image courtesy of Triumph.

The 2019 Triumph Ace and Diamond editions. Image courtesy of Triumph.

As a testament to the success of the re-boot Bloor managed to break even on his £70-100 investment as soon as 2000. However 2002 bought a fire that destroyed the Hinckley plant in March, but Bloor turned it around again and production resumed in September. From 2002 onwards Triumph has earned its name back from its troubled past, with Triumphs being built, sold and ridden all over the world. The company is now run by John's son, Nick and last year turned over £498.5 million, with the Hinckley plant still going strong.

Scott Blackburn