Historic Motorcycle Brands
Triumph Engineering Co Ltd was originally a British manufacturing company, based originally in Coventry and then in Meriden. It was founded as a bicycle importer in 1886 by German immigrant, Siegfried Bettmann, who was joined in 1888 by another Nuremburg expat, Moritz Schulte. Motorcycle production began in 1902.
After producing the first Triumph-branded bicycles in 1889, Triumph opened a bicycle factory in Nuremberg. In 1898 Triumph decided to extend production at Coventry to include motorcycles.
The 1902 Triumph motorcycle was a bicycle fitted with a Belgian Minerva engine and the company sold more than 500 of them in the first year. Triumph then began motorcycle production at the Nuremberg factory.
During the first few years the company based its designs on those of other manufacturers, but in 1904 Triumph began building motorcycles to its own designs. In 1905, Triumph sold more than 250 of its in-house motorcycles.
In 1907, after the company opened a larger plant, it produced 1000 machines. Triumph also initiated a lower-end Gloria brand.
Nuremberg Triumphs were renamed ‘TWN’, standing for Triumph Werke Nürnberg.
The beginning of the First World War was a boost for the company as production switched to supply the Allied war effort. More than 30,000 Triumph motorcycles were supplied to the Allies.
1914 Triumph Model H – Arpingstone
The standout machine was the Model H Roadster that was dubbed the ‘Trusty Triumph’ and is said to be the first modern motorcycle.
After the War, Bettmann and Schulte disagreed, when Schulte wanted to replace bicycle production with cars and so he left the company. Ironically, in the 1920s, Triumph purchased the Hillman company car factory and produced a saloon car in 1923 under the name of the Triumph Motor Company.
1922 Triumph H1 – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
Harry Ricardo designed an OHV, four-valve single 500cc engine for the 1921 Triumph Model R
By the mid-1920s Triumph was one of Britain’s principal motorcycle and car makers, with a large plant that was capable of producing as many as 30,000 motorcycles and cars every year.
Triumph also found product demand overseas and export sales became a primary source of the company’s revenues. However, trade restrictions in the United States meant that Triumph models were manufactured under licence.
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Triumph sold its German subsidiary as a separate, independently owned company that later merged with the Adler company to become Triumph-Adler Company. The Nuremberg company continued to manufacture TWN motorcycles until 1957.
1936 Triumph T80 – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
In 1932, Triumph sold its bicycle manufacturing facility to Raleigh Bicycle Company. By then, Triumph was struggling financially and Bettmann had been forced out of the chairman’s job. He retired completely in 1933.
In 1936, Triumph’s car and motorcycle businesses were separated. Triumph had always struggled to make a profit from cars and, after the car business went bankrupt in 1939, it was acquired by the Standard Motor Company.
The motorcycle operations were acquired by Jack Sangster, who owned the rival Ariel motorcycle company. Sangster formed the Triumph Engineering Co Ltd that was largely directed by ex-Ariel employees.
Paramount among them was Edward Turner, who designed the 500cc 5T Triumph Speed Twin that was released in September 1937. This bike was the basis for all Triumph twins until the 1980s.
Triumph 6/1 – Simon Davis
Despite the market perception, Turner’s was not Triumph’s first parallel twin. The first was the Val Page-designed model 6/1, introduced in 1933, but without sales success.
After the Sangster takeover, the 6/1 was replaced by Turner’s design. The 6/1 engine was later reused, somewhat modified, as the BSA A10.
Triumph Tiger T100 – London Motorcycle Museum
In 1939, the 500 cc Tiger T100, capable of 100 miles per hour, was released, and then World War Two began.
Triumph engineers quickly adjusted to Wartime production by re-designing the Speed Twin’s 500cc power plant for military use as a portable generator.
Aluminium-alloy Speed Twin engine
To save weight, the cylinder heads and barrels were cast from aluminium and the generator’s operating temperature was kept in check by connecting an external fan to a hand-crafted cooling shroud.
The Triumph Speed Twin was produced in large numbers after the War and settling Britain’s Lend-Lease debts compelled nearly 70-percent of Triumph’s post-War production to be shipped to the United States.
Triumph Speed Twin – London Motorcycle Museum
Post War, the Speed Twin and Triumph Tiger 100 were available with a sprung rear hub, Triumph’s first attempt at rear suspension.
Privateers put wartime-surplus aluminium-alloy barrels and heads on their Tiger 100 racers, inspiring the Triumph GP model. By 1950 the supply of aluminium barrels was exhausted and the GP model run ended. However, American market demand forced Triumph to produce a die-cast, close-finned aluminium-alloy barrels and heads.
Triumph Square Barrel GP
The aluminium alloy head made the valve noise more obvious, so ramp-type cams were introduced for aluminium alloy head models, to reduce the noise.
Triumph Trophy TR5 with hub suspension – Ronald Saunders
Another motorcycle based on the wartime generator engine was the 498cc TR5 Trophy Twin, also introduced at the 1948 Motor Cycle Show. It used a single-carburettor, low-compression version of the Grand Prix engine. Britain won the prestigious 1948 International Six Days Trial.
To satisfy the American demand for motorcycles suited to long distance riding, Turner built a 650cc version of the Speed Twin design, named the Thunderbird.
Triumph 6T 650cc Thunderbird – Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles
A year after the Thunderbird was introduced, a twin-carb-head held the world speed record for motorcycles until 1970.
The Triumph brand received considerable publicity in the United States, when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird 6T in the 1953 film, The Wild One.
The Triumph Motorcycle business was sold to their rivals BSA by Sangster in 1951. This sale included Sangster becoming a member of the BSA board. Sangster became chairman of the BSA Group in 1956.
The production 650cc Thunderbird 6T was a low-compression tourer and the 500cc Tiger 100 was the performance motorcycle. That changed in 1954, with the change to swing-arm frames and the release of the aluminium-alloy-head 650cc Tiger 110, eclipsing the 500cc Tiger 100 as the performance model.
Triumph Bonneville – Joachim Kohler
In 1959, the T120, tuned double-carburettor version of the Triumph Tiger T110, was known as the Bonneville.
As Triumph and other marques gained US market share, Harley became aware that its one-litre-plus motorcycles were not as sporty as modern riders wanted, resulting in a decreasing share of the market.
The Triumphs inspired a new, ‘small’ Harley-Davidson: the Sportster.
During the 1960s, Triumph produced two scooters: the Tina and the Tigress.
1958 Triumph Twenty One – Mike Schinkel
During the 1960s, 60-percent of all Triumph production was exported, which, along with the BSA’s 80-percent exports, made the group a target for Japanese expansion.
In 1962, the last year of the ‘pre-unit’ models, Triumph used a frame with twin front down-tubes, but returned to the traditional Triumph single front down-tube for the unit-construction models that ensued. However, the twin down-tube, duplex frame was used for the 650 twins, following frame fractures on the Bonneville.
The 3TA was the first unit-construction twin, soon followed by the short-stroke, 490cc ‘500’ range. From 1963 all Triumph engines had unit construction.
By 1969, 50-percent of the US market for motorcycles above 500cc belonged to Triumph, but technological advances at Triumph had failed to match those of foreign companies. Triumphs lacked electric starters, relied on pushrods rather than overhead cams, vibrated noticeably, leaked oil and had antiquated electrical systems.
In contrast, Japanese marques were building more advanced features into attractive new motorcycles that sold for less than their British competitors.
1968 Triumph 650cc TR6C – Thepretendme
Late-1960s Triumph motorcycles, as a result, were nearly obsolete even when they were new.
Triumph and BSA were well aware of Honda’s ability but while the Japanese were making only smaller-engined models, the large engine market was considered safe.
The Honda CB750 arrived on the global scene in 1969 and sounded the death knell for the British motorcycle industry. With its 68hp, four-cylinder, 750cc, overhead-camshaft engine set across the frame, driving through a five-speed transmission, it could achieve 200km/h. It came with reliable electrics – no Lucas or Marelli – and an electric starter.
1965 Triumph Triple Prototype – London Motorcycle Museum
The BSA Rocket 3 / Triumph Trident three-cylinder, 750cc motorcycle had been released prior to the Japanese fours and the British triples outperformed the Honda in top speed, acceleration and handling, but the Japanese four required less maintenance and did not leak.
The CB750 was joined by the CB500 and CB350 smaller fours in 1971 and 1972, respectively. The motorcycle world would never be the same.
In comparison with the Japanese makers, Triumph’s manufacturing processes were very labour-intensive and largely inefficient. Also disastrous, during the early 1970s, the US Government mandated that all motorcycle imports must have their gearshifts and brake pedals in the Japanese configuration, which required expensive retooling of all the motorcycles for US sale.
1969 TT – MeridenTriumph
In 1969 Malcolm Uphill, riding a Bonneville, won the Isle of Man Production TT race with a race average of 99.99mph per lap and recorded the first 100+ mph lap by a production motorcycle at 100.37mph. For many Triumph fans, the 1969 Bonneville was the best Triumph model ever.
The 1970 Tiger/Bonneville re-design, incorporating a taller, twin-front-down-tube, oil-tank frame had a mixed reception from Triumph enthusiasts.
On top of that, the Honda 750 Four had been joined by the Kawasaki 500 Mach 3.
The Triumph 350cc Bandit received pre-publicity, but its development was quietly brought to an end. Triumph was still making motorcycles, but they no longer looked like the motorcycles Triumph fans expected. The Trident attracted its own market, but the Japanese motorcycles were improving more rapidly.
The parent BSA Group had losses of Stg£8.5 million in 1971, of which Stg£3 million was from BSA motorcycles alone. The British government became involved and the Group was sold to Manganese Bronze Holdings, which also owned Norton, AJS, Matchless, Francis-Barnett, James-Velocette and Villiers.
Norton and BSA/Triumph were merged under Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) umbrella in 1972. Plans for the Triumph Meriden factory to close in February 1974, with 3000 employees out of 4500 being made redundant, were met with a sit-in for two years.
With political aid from the newly elected Labour Government, the Meriden worker’s co-operative was formed, supplying Triumph 750cc motorcycles to its sole customer, NVT.
Triumph T140V TSS – TR001
After the collapse of NVT in 1977, the co-operative became Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Limited. The venture produced the Bonneville and Tiger 750cc models, plus the 1977 Silver Jubilee Bonneville T140J and by 1978 was the best selling European motorcycle in the US market.
They were joined by the faired Triumph Bonneville Executive T140EX, with luggage capacity; the dual-purpose TR7T Tiger Trail and budget 650cc Triumph TR65 Thunderbird.
1983 Triumph TR65 Thunderbird – Meriden Triumph
In 1981, a 750cc TR7T Tiger Trail won the Rallye des Pyrénées on/off-road rally. Large orders for police motorcycles from Nigeria and Ghana helped with turnover during 1981 and 1982.
For 1982, the custom-styled Triumph T140 TSX and eight-valve Triumph T140W TSS model were launched, but porous cylinder heads and insufficient development quickly ended the latter’s market acceptance.
In 1983, Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Ltd became bankrupt, but John Bloor bought the name and manufacturing rights. A licensing agreement granted to pattern spares manufacturer, Les Harris, kept the Triumph Bonneville in production until Triumph could initiated a new range.
In 1985, Triumph purchased equipment, to begin working in secrecy, on its new models. By 1987, the company had completed its first engine and in 1988, came a new factory at a 10-acre site in Hinckley, Leicestershire.
1991 Hinckley Triumph Trophy 1200cc
The first Hinckley Triumphs were produced for the 1991 model year, complemented by a new network of export distributors.
New 750cc and 900cc triple-cylinder bikes and 1000cc and 1200cc four-cylinder bikes were launched at the September 1990 Cologne Motorcycle Show.
All new Triumphs used a modular, liquid-cooled, DOHC engine design and a large-diameter steel backbone frame. These ‘T300s’ all used a common piston diameter in a common wet cylinder liner with variations in stroke and cylinder multiples.
Each three-cylinder model had a contra-rotating balance shaft, mounted at the front of the engine. The four-cylinder models had twin balance shafts mounted beneath the crankshaft.
The range was largely revised in 1997, with the release of the T500 range, followed by a lightweight, four-cylinder, 600cc sports TT600.
As sales built, the big fours were phased out of the lineup, in favour of parallel twins and triples. Triumph also exploited the demand for retro motorcycles with modern engineering.
Triumph Thunderbird 900 – TR001
The Triumph Thunderbird 900 exploited the styling cues of the ‘old’ Triumphs, while incorporating the modern engine. The 790cc and 865cc versions of the Triumph Bonneville and Thruxton look and sound original, but have modern valve gear and counterbalance shafts.
Triumph Rocket III Touring – TR001
The large-capacity, 2294cc-triple Rocket III cruiser was introduced in 2004 and subsequently enlarged to 2500cc!
Triumph’s best selling bike has been the 675 cc Street Triple. Also, race-tuned, 140hp Triumph triples power all the Moto2 Grand Prix bikes.
In 2010 came the Triumph Tiger 800 and Tiger 800 XC, dual-sport motorcycles, powered by an 800cc engine, derived from the Street Triple. In 2012, the Tiger 800 was joined by the shaft-driven Triumph Tiger Explorer.
The post-1991 Triumph range has been a global success story, so it’ll be interesting to see which of these become ‘modern classics’.
Triumph Tiger Explorer – Thesupermat