Renaissance Stories: Triumph

<< Back to Robb Report, March 2006
  • Ray Thursby

The Bonneville stands as a symbol of the greatness that would have been lost if Triumph Motorcycles had succumbed forever to the debacle it suffered in the 1970s. A brand-new “Bonnie” is a sleek machine that is modern in every respect except appearance. The bike still bears a resemblance to the original Bonneville of 1959. It is also evidence that a good design can withstand the vagaries of fads and economics.

The Bonneville is part of an impressive package of 14 models that covers the entire riding spectrum, from touring to sports, and includes a healthy dose of classic. These state-of-the-art machines are the worthy legatees to a heritage extending from 1889, when Siegfried Bettmann, an immigrant from Germany, began building Triumph bicycles in a small factory in Coventry, England.

Over the years, Bettmann and his successors expanded into motorized bicycles, proper motorcycles, and even, for a time, automobiles; the latter division was sold in 1939, and became Standard-Triumph. The primary focus was on motorcycles, which became increasingly sophisticated as the years passed. Early examples had single-cylinder powerplants, but then in 1933, engineer Val Page produced a 2-cylinder engine, which, in addition to being more powerful than its predecessor, also ran more smoothly. The classic Triumph twin debuted in 1937, powering the first of Edward Turner’s Speed Twins. This machine led to the T100 and the Thunderbird, which, when ridden by Marlon Brando’s character Johnny in 1953’s The Wild One, fixed the Triumph name in the consciousness of mainstream America. As easily as they won hearts on the highway, Triumphs took prizes in many forms of motorcycle racing. The marque had secured a place on the honor roll of great motorcycles, and longevity seemed assured.

And then everything went sour. During the economic meltdown of the 1970s, the British government began merging similar companies in hopes of strengthening them. Triumph became part of Norton-Villiers-Triumph. Production continued in fits and starts, but bankruptcy was unavoidable, and the company went out of business in 1983.

Entrepreneur John Bloor purchased the rights to the remains of Triumph, and began rebuilding it until the company was able to resume production in 1991. The first model to roll out of the modern factory was the 4-cylinder Trophy. Others followed, including, in 2000, the reborn Bonneville.

Triumph, 678.854.2010, www.triumph.co.uk

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