Wednesday, September 19, 2007

1953 Triumph Thunderbird

Click to enlarge

What do black motorcycles, mandatory leathers for competitors making speed-record attempts, and Marlon Brando have in common?They all have a connection to this Triumph Thunderbird.

Light, agile British machines began to make significant inroads into the American market following World War II, and Triumph was among the most successful. In fact, after 1950, more Triumphs were sold in America than in any other country.

The big bike in the line was the Thunderbird, a 650cc vertical twin introduced in 1950. The next year, motorcycle speed-record attempts began taking place under the direction of the Southern California Timing Association on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and in a few years, a Triumph rider would change the sport forever.

At the time, it was common for riders to strip down to bathing suits in an attempt to lower aerodynamic resistance. Around 1953, 18-year-old Tommy Smith was wearing just a bathing suit and tennis shoes for a record run aboard a Triumph Thunderbird. He got into a wobble and bailed off at 130 mph, suffering extreme skin injuries that required several grafts and more than two years to heal.

After that gruesome incident, racers were required to wear leathers.

In spite of that crash, record runs helped establish Triumph’s reputation for building fast, lightweight motorcycles. But the Thunderbird also helped define Triumph’s image in two other ways. In 1953, the year this motorcycle was made, all Thunderbirds were blue. Americans wanted them in black, though, so the factory complied, creating a tougher-looking, U.S.-only version known as the Blackbird.

But the most famous element of the Triumph Thunderbird image came from Marlon Brando’s performance in a 1954 movie called “The Wild One.” Riding his own 1950 Thunderbird, Brando portrayed motorcycle-gang member Johnny in the film that started the biker-flick genre.

A still shot of a leather-jacketed Brando, astride the bike, with a stolen dirt-track trophy attached to the headlight, has become one of the most enduring images of motorcycling from the ’50s.
This particular Thunderbird, made in the midst of that historic time, is now owned by Dick Brown of Ashville, Ohio, and was previously on display in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio.

THE WILD ONE - Juvenile Delinquent -1953

Marlon Brando´s Triumph

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

1956 Triumph Bonneville

1956 Triumph Bonneville

1938 Triumph Speed Twin

1938 Triumph Speed Twin
  • Production - 1938-1940
  • Engine - 498cc, 180 degree parallel twin ohv four-stroke
  • Bore and Stroke - 63 x 80 mm
  • Compression Ratio - 7.2:1
  • Carburettor - 1in Amal
  • Power - 27 bhp @ 6300rpm
  • Wheelbase - 55in
  • Top Speed - 95mph

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Triumph motorcycles in 2005 Tokyo Motor show.

Triumph R Fast Roadster 1923


The company began in 1885 when Siegfried Bettmann emigrated to Coventry in England from Nuremberg, part of the German Empire. In 1884 aged 20, Bettmann founded his own company, the S. Bettmann & Co. Import Export Agency, in London. Bettmann's original products were bicycles, which the company bought and then sold under its own brand name. Bettmann also distributed sewing machines imported from Germany.
Triumph Thruxton 900, named after the racing circuit in Hampshire, England

In 1886, Bettmann sought a more universal name, and the company became known as the Triumph Cycle Company. A year later, the company registered as the New Triumph Co. Ltd., now with financial backing from the Dunlop Tyre Co. In that year, Bettmann was joined by another Nuremberg native, Moritz Schulte.

Schulte encouraged Bettmann to transform Triumph into a manufacturing company, and in 1888 Bettmann purchased a site in Coventry using money lent by his and Schulte's families. The company began producing the first Triumph-branded bicycles in 1889. In 1896, Triumph opened a subsidiary, Orial TWN (Triumph Werke Nuremberg) a German subsidiary for cycle production in his native city.

In 1898, Triumph decided to extend its own production to include motorcycles and by 1902, the company had produced its first motorcycle - a bicycle fitted with a Belgian-built engine. In 1903, as its motorcycle sales topped 500, Triumph opened motorcycle production at its unit in Germany. During its first few years producing motorcycles, the company based its designs on those of other manufacturers. In 1904, Triumph began building motorcycles based on its own designs and in 1905 produced its first completely in-house designed motorcycle. By the end of that year, the company had produced more than 250 of that design.

In 1907, after the company opened a larger plant, production reached 1,000 bikes. Triumph had also launched a second, lower-end brand, Gloria, produced in the company's original plant.

World War I

The outbreak of World War I proved a boost for the company as production was switched to support the Allied war effort. More than 30,000 motorcycles - among them the Model H Roadster aka the "Trusty Triumph," often cited as the first modern motorcycle - were supplied to the Allies.

Bettmann and Schulte fell out after the war, with Schulte wishing to replace bicycle production with automobiles. Schulte left the company, but in the 1920's Triumph purchased the former Hillman car factory in Coventry and produced a saloon car in 1923 under the name of the Triumph Motor Company. Harry Ricardo produced an engine for their latest motorbike.

By the mid-1920s Triumph had grown into one of Britain's leading motorcycle and car makers, with a 500,000 square feet plant capable of producing up to 30,000 motorcycles and cars each year. Triumph also found its bikes in high demand overseas, and export sales became a primary source of the company's revenues, although for the United States, Triumph models were manufactured under license. The company found its first automotive success with the debut of the Super Seven car in 1928. Shortly after, the Super Eight was born.


When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Triumph spun off its German subsidiary as a separate, independently owned company, which became part of the Triumph-Adler Company. The Nuremberg firm continued to manufacture motorcycles under the Triumph brand until 1957. In 1932, Triumph sold off another part of the company, its bicycle manufacturing facility to Raleigh. By then, Triumph had been struggling financially, and Bettmann had been forced out of the chairman's spot. He retired completely in 1933
The 955 cc Triumph Sprint RS
The 955 cc Triumph Sprint RS

In 1936, the company's two components became separate companies. Triumph always struggled to make a profit from cars, and after going bankrupt in 1939 was acquired by the Standard Motor Company. The motorcycle operations fared better, having been acquired in 1936 by Jack Sangster, who also owned the rival Ariel motorcycle company. That same year, the company began its first exports to the United States, which quickly grew into the company's single most important market. Sangster's formed the Triumph Engineering Co Ltd largely led by ex-Ariel employees, including Edward Turner who designed the 500 cc 5T Speedtwin - released in September 1937, and the basis for all Triumph twins until the 1980s. In 1939 the 500 cc T100 Tiger, capable of 100 mph, was released, and then the war began.

World War II

Motorcycles were produced at Coventry until World War II. The town of Coventry was virtually destroyed in The Blitz (September 7, 1940 to May, 1941). Tooling and machinery was recovered from the site of the devastation and production restarted at the new plant at Meriden, West Midlands in 1942. One of Triumph's wartime products is of particular interest: portable generators for the RAF, using 500 cc Triumph engines with alloy barrels.

Post-war era

The Speed Twin designed by Edward Turner before the war was produced in large numbers after the war. Efforts to settle the lend-lease debts caused nearly 70% of Triumphs post war production to be shipped to the United States.

Post War, the Speed Twin and Tiger 100 were available with a sprung rear hub, Triumph's first attempt at a rear suspension.

Privateers put wartime surplus alloy barrels on their Tiger 100 racers, and won races, inspiring the Triumph GP model. By 1950 the supply of barrels was exhausted, and the GP model was dropped. The American market applied considerable pressure to reverse this backward step, and a die cast close finned alloy barrel was made available. The alloy head made the valve noise more obvious, so ramp type cams were introduced for alloy head models to reduce the noise.

Another motorcycle based on the wartime generator engine was the 499cc 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. The Triumph works team had finished unpenalised. One team member, Allan Jefferies, had been riding what amounted to a prototype version.

To satisfy the American appetite for motorcycles suited to long distance riding, Turner built a 650 cc version of the Speed Twin design. The new bike was named the Thunderbird (A name Triumph would later license to the Ford Motor Company for use on a car). Only one year after the Thunderbird was introduced a hot rodder in Southern California mated the 650 Thunderbird with a twin carb head originally intended for GP racing and named the new creation the Wonderbird. That 650 cc motor, designed in 1939, held the world's absolute speed record for motorcycles from 1955 until 1970.

The Triumph brand received considerable publicity in the United States when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird 6T in the 1953 motion picture, The Wild One.

The Triumph Motorcycle concern was sold to their rivals BSA by Sangster in 1951. This sale included Sangster becoming a member of the BSA board. Sangster was to rise to the position of Chairman of the BSA Group in 1956.

The production 650 cc Thunderbird was a low compression tourer, and the 500 cc Tiger 100 was the performance bike. That changed in 1954, with the change to swing arm frames, and the release of the alloy head 650 cc Tiger 110, eclipsing the 500 cc Tiger 100 as the performance model.

In 1959, the T120, a tuned double carburettor version of the T110, came to be called the Bonneville. As Triumph and other marques gained market share, Harley became aware that their 1 litre-plus bikes were not as sporty as the modern rider would like, resulting in a shrinking share of the market. The Triumphs were models for a new, "small" Harley Davidson as a result: the now-fabled Sportster, which started out as Harley's version of a Triumph Bonneville. With its anachronistic V-twin, the Sportster was no match for the Bonneville, but it proved a solid competitor in US sales and eventually also in longevity.[citation needed]

In the 1960s, despite internal opposition from those who felt that it would dilute the macho image of the brand, Triumph produced two scooters; the Triumph Tina, a small and low performance 2 stroke scooter of around 100 cc with automatic clutch and a handlebar carry basket, and the Triumph Tigress, a more powerful scooter available with either a 175cc 2 stroke single or a 250cc 4 stroke twin engine for the enthusiast.

In 1962, the last year of the "pre-unit" models, Triumph used a frame with twin front downtubes , but returned to a traditional Triumph single front downtube for the unit construction models that followed. The twin down tube, or duplex frame, was used on the 650 twins, as a result of frame fractures on the Bonneville. Introduced in 1959, for the 1960 model year, it soon needed strengthening, and was dropped in 1962, with the advent of the unit engines for the 650 range. The 3TA (21) was the first unit construction twin, soon followed by the short-stroke, 490 cc "500" range.

From 1963 all Triumph engines were of unit construction.

In 1969 Malcolm Uphill, riding a Bonneville, won the Isle of Man Production TT with a race average of 99.99 mph (160.9 km/h) per lap, and recorded the first ever over 100 mph (160 km/h) lap by a production motorcycle 100.37 mph (161.52 km/h). For many Triumph fans, the 1969 Bonneville was the best Triumph ever.[citation needed]

American sales had already peaked, in 1967. In truth, the demand for motorcycles was rising, but Triumph could not keep up.

In the 1960s, 60% of all Triumph production was exported, which, along with the BSA's 80% exports, made the group susceptible to the Japanese expansion. By 1969 fully 50% of the US market for bikes over 500 cc belonged to Triumph, but technological advances at Triumph had failed to keep pace with the rest of the world. Triumphs lacked electric start mechanisms, relied on pushrods rather than overhead cams, vibrated noticeably, often leaked oil, and had antiquated electrical systems; while Japanese marques such as Honda were building more advanced features into attractive new bikes that sold for less than their British competitors. Triumph motorcycles as a result were nearly obsolete even when they were new; further, Triumph's manufacturing processes were highly labour-intensive and largely inefficient. Also disastrous, in the early 1970s the US government arbitrarily mandated that all motorcycle imports must have their shift and brake pedals in the Japanese configuration, which required expensive retooling of all the bikes for US sale.

The British marques were poorly equipped to compete against the massive financial resources of Japanese heavy industries that targeted competitors for elimination via long-term plans heavily subsidized by the Japanese government. Triumph and BSA were well aware of Honda's ability but while the Japanese were only making smaller engined models, the large engine market was considered safe. When the first Honda 750 cc four cylinder was released for sale to the public, Triumph and BSA were facing trouble. A 3 cylinder engined motorcycle was developed to compete against the Japanese fours: the BSA Rocket 3/Triumph Trident.

The 1970 Tiger/Bonneville re-design and taller twin front downtube oil tank frame met a mixed reception from Triumph enthusiasts at the time, and was insufficient to win back those already riding the Japanese bikes that had hit the markets in 1969; the Honda 750 Four, and the Kawasaki 500 Mach 3. The Triumph 350 cc Bandit received pre-publicity, before being quietly shelved. Triumph was still making motorcycles, but they no longer looked like the bikes Triumph fans expected. The Trident attracted its own market, but the Japanese bikes were improving more rapidly.

Harley Davidson had responded to Triumph's earlier marketing success by producing sportier models that retained the engine design traditional Harley owners identified with, and had managed to survive. Triumph did not manage to do as well with its redesign. Problems were compounded in 1970 by difficulties with parts supply and the labour force.

In 1971 a five speed gearbox was introduced.

The parent BSA group made losses of 8.5 million pounds in 1971, 3 million for BSA motorcycles alone. The British government became involved. The company was sold to Manganese Bronze Holdings, which also owned Norton, AJS, Matchless, Francis-Barnett, James-Velocette and Villiers. A new company called Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT), managed by Dennis Poore, emerged.

NVT collapse
A slightly customized 1967 Triumph Tr6C 650 twin
A slightly customized 1967 Triumph Tr6C 650 twin

When the BSA group collapsed under its debts, government help led to a merger with the Manganese Bronze subsidiary Norton-Villiers. The three remaining brands to be produced by the company were combined to create the new group name of Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT). However, this restructuring would result in a number of closures and redundancies. Without warning, in September 1973 NVT Group chairman Denis Poore announced the closure of Meriden works effective February, 1974. Of 4,500 employees, 3,000 were made redundant. Faced with unemployment and having their products handed over to a rival firm, the workers at the Meriden factory demonstrated against a move to Small Heath, Birmingham, the BSA site and staged a sit in for two years.

The Bonneville engine size was increased to 724 cc in 1973, and called a 750.

Edward Turner died at home in his sleep on August 15, 1973.[2]


As scheduled, Trident production moved to the BSA factory in Small Heath in 1974, but as BSA used non-craft labour in manufacturing, quality fell dramatically. In October 1974 the Labour Government announced the formation of the Meriden Cooperative under Tony Benn, with a loan of £5million pounds - on the condition that NVT retained ownership of the name, and continued the sales and marketing of the machines. The cooperative resumed production in March 1975, but dropped production of the lightweight T120, to concentrate on the 750 cc twin machines, the Bonneville and the Tiger, primarily for the USA market. The cooperative needed additional cash, and agreed a deal with Lord Weinstock's GEC company to sell 2,000 Bonnevilles for £1,000,000 together with consultation on setting up a sales force.

Meanwhile, NVT stopped production of the Trident in 1975, and also killed off the development of the 1000 cc Quadrent (often and mistakenly called the "Quadrant") due to cash flow difficulties. A number of key engineers left the company, including Henry Vale, Jack Wickes, Les Williams, Ivor Davies, Arthur Jakeman and Norman Hyde

In 1977, after fighting over who had rights to sell Triumph motorcycles for many years, NVT went bankrupt and the rights were sold to the Meriden Cooperative. The limited edition Silver Jubilee T140V was made to commemorate Queen Elizabeth's 25 years on the throne, a T140 Bonnie with hand-striped wheel rim, chromed engine cases and special sidecover badges. Nominally 1,000 were scheduled for the UK, 1,000 for the US, and about 400 more made for export later. The model sold well, and production increased slowly to 350 machines a week, 60% going to the USA. After this it was all downhill, with no investment in new machines, merely makeovers of the 750 cc twin.

However, the Bonneville T140D won the "Machine of the Year" award in Motor Cycle News - a questionable honour this late in the bike's life, owing more to the bike's reputation than its competency against the (mostly Japanese) competition. The T140D had Lester cast alloy wheels, a new cylinder head with parallel intake tracts, Amal MKII carbs, Lucas Rita electronic ignition system, and a lower 7.9:1 compression to reduce vibration.

In 1980, debt reached £2 million pounds - additionally above the earlier £5 million loan. In October, the British government wrote off £8.4 million pounds owed by Triumph, but still left the company owing £2 million to Britain's Export Credit Guarantee Dept. Triumph experimented with several designs in its last years, none able to stop the decline.

In 1981 the T140D Bonneville Royal Wedding to celebrate marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana reached the sales rooms, with 250 each for the UK and America. It had electric start, chrome fuel tank and wheels, and a certificate - and after the original SpeedTwin, the launch Bonneville of 1959 and late 1960s derivatives, is one of the most prized models for a collector.

1982 was the last year of "full" production, with the 8-valve TSS model launched - although a porous cylinder head made by external contractors was its death knell. The company with no money briefly looked at buying the bankrupt Hesketh Motorcycles, and even badged one as a marketing trial - but went bankrupt itself in late 1983


John Bloor

In 1983 Triumph went into receivership (a process where an outside organization takes over the finances of a failing company). John Bloor, a 53-year-old plasterer turned wealthy English property developer and builder, who had little interest in motorcycles, had for some time wanted to start up a manufacturing business. Bloor became interested in Triumph, and particularly its still highly regarded brand name. Bloor bought the name and manufacturing rights from the Official Receiver. Enfield India lost, bidding £55,000 pounds to the Official Receiver.

A new company "Triumph Motorcycles Ltd" (initially Bonneville Coventry Ltd), was formed.

The Harris Triumphs

Because the company's manufacturing plant and its designs were not able to compete against the now-dominant Japanese makers, Bloor decided against relaunching Triumph immediately. Initially, production of the old Bonneville was continued under licence by Les Harris of Racing Spares, in Newton Abbot, Devon, to bridge the gap between the end of the old company, and the birth of the new company. For five years from 1983, about 14 were built a week in peak production - excluding the USA, where due to problems with liability insurance, the Harris Bonnevilles were never imported.

The Hinckley Triumphs

Bloor set to work assembling the new Triumph, hiring several of the group's former designers to begin work on new models. Bloor took his team to Japan on a tour of its competitors' facilities and became determined to adopt Japanese manufacturing techniques and especially new-generation computer controlled machinery. In 1985, Triumph purchased a first set of equipment to begin working, in secret, on its new prototype models. By 1987, the company had completed its first engine.

In 1988 Bloor funded the building of a new factory in Hinckley, Leicestershire. Bloor put between £70million and £100million into the company between purchase of the brand and break even in 2000.

A range of thoroughly modern machines using famous model names from the past arrived in 1991. Brand new 750 cc and 900 cc triples and 1000 cc and 1200 cc fours all using a modular design to keep production costs low - an idea originally put forward, in air-cooled form, in the early 1970s by Bert Hopwood but not implemented by the then BSA-Triumph company - were built and proved successful. As sales built, big fours were phased out of the lineup - Triumph's heritage is tied to parallel twins and triples, and these are the marketing and development focus of Triumph's marketing strategy today. Four-cylinder models found themselves competing head-on against Japanese machines, especially in the sportsbike market, and although competent could not generate sufficient profit for a relatively low-volume manufacturer like Triumph. In addition to modern machines, Triumph is now also carving out a niche in the motorcycle market based on nostalgic looking engine technologies and design. The 865 cc iterations of the Bonneville and Thruxton look like slightly revised versions of their 1960s counterparts - so although looking and sounding original, internally they include modern valves and counter balance shafts. For their contemporary range of motorcycles, the distinctive triple is Hinckley Triumph's trademark, filling a niche between European and American twins and four cylinder Japanese machinery. The 2294cc triple Rocket III cruiser was introduced in 2004 and proved highly successful.

In February 2002, as the company was preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary as a motorcycle maker, its main factory was hit by fire, destroying most of its manufacturing capacity. Nevertheless, the company, which by then numbered more than 300 employees, quickly rebuilt the facility and returned to production by September of that year. Furthermore, in 2003, Triumph opened a new, cutting-edge manufacturing facility in Thailand. Also, assembly and painting facility in Thailand was opened this year (2006) by Prince Andrew. Triumph is building another facility in Thailand supposedly to be engine manufacturing site.

The Triumph Group announced sales of 37,400 units in the financial year ending 30 June 2006. This represented a growth of 18% over the 31,600 units produced in 2005. Company turnover rose 13% to £200 million ($370 million), but net profit remained static at around £10.3 million due to recent investment in production facilities.