A Brief History of Triumph Motorcycles
In 1884, Siegfried Bettmann emigrated to England from Nuremberg, Germany.
Siegfried was a well educated man who spoke several languages fluently enabling him to work as an import export agent in London.
By 1885, Siegfried had established his own import export company, S. Bettmann and Co. whose original products included English bicycles exported to Europe and sold under the Bettmann brand name.
He also distributed sewing machines imported from Germany.
In 1886, Bettmann decided to concentrate on the bicycle business and chose the more universal name of Triumph for his range of bicycles.
The company became known as the Triumph Cycle Company.
In 1887, Bettmann recruited another German native, Maurice Schulte to help him run the business.
A decision was taken to start producing their own bicycles rather than just using the Triumph brand name on bicycles manufactured by others.
With financial backing from their families, Bettmann and Schulte moved to new premises in Much Park Street, Coventry where they became a limited company after meeting businessmen Albert Friedlander and Alderman Thomson.
The New Triumph Co. Ltd. now had additional financial backing from the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company.
They began producing the first Triumph branded bicycles in 1889.
In 1896, Triumph opened a factory in Nuremberg for bicycle production in Bettman’s native city.
In 1898, Triumph decided to extend its own production to include motorcycles.
By 1902, the company had produced its first motorcycle. Like many machines of the era, this was a bicycle fitted with a Belgian Minerva engine driving the rear wheel by a rawhide belt.
In 1903, Triumph began motorcycle production at its unit in Germany, initially basing its designs on those of other manufacturers.
To distinguish between Triumph motorcycles produced at Coventry and at Nuremberg, the German motorcycles were named as ‘TWN’ (Triumph Werke Nürnberg).
The correct German spelling for Nuremberg is Nürnberg.
In 1904, Triumph began building motorcycles based on their own design, this time using a three horse power Fafnir engine from Germany.
Other models featured the British JAP engines.
In 1906, a prototype 450cc model was ridden at the Dashwood Hill Climb by Frank Hulbert where he broke the previously held record.
In 1907, Triumph opened a larger factory in Priory Street, keeping the Much Park Street factory as the service and competitions department.
Triumph had also formed a subsidiary company, Gloria Cycles where they produced Gloria cycles and sidecars at Much Park Street.
In the 1907 Isle of Man TT Races, Jack Marshall rode a 475cc single cylinder Triumph to second place in the Single Cylinder Class.
Frank Hulbert rode another Triumph into third place.
Two other Triumphs were entered but did not finish the race.
Jack Marshall returned to the Isle of Man TT Races in 1908 where he won the Single Cylinder Class, with other Triumphs achieving third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eight and tenth places in the same class.
In 1909, the capacity was increased to 499cc and Triumph motorcycles came in third, fifth,eleventh, fourteenth and fifteenth places at the TT Races.
Around 1910, Maurice Schulte had started to experiment with a French vertical twin cylinder engine and around three years later, Triumph had their own 600cc side valve twin cylinder engine in prototype form.
With the outbreak of World War I, production was switched to support the war effort.
Around 30,000 motorcycles were supplied to the allied forces.
Amongst them was the 550cc single cylinder three speed Model H Roadster that became known as the ‘Trusty Triumph’.
After the war, Bettmann and Schulte went their separate ways within the company as Schulte decided he wanted to concentrate on motorcar production whereas Bettmann had decided to stay with motorcycles.
In the 1920s, Triumph purchased the former Hillman car factory in Coventry and formed the Triumph Motor Company.
As most chain driven motorcycles of the day had fairly harsh transmission, a coiled spring shock absorber attached to the clutch was designed and featured on the 1920 Triumph Model SD (Spring Drive).
In 1921, Harry Ricardo produced Triumph’s first overhead valve engine that was fitted to a frame similar to that of the Model SD.
His machine was called the Model R and was often referred to as the ‘Riccy’.
At the same time, Triumph was also working on a 498cc side valve machine.
By the mid 1920s, Triumph was one of Britain’s largest motorcycle and car manufacturers.
In 1928, the company found its first motorcar success with the Super Seven.
Shortly after, the Super Eight was introduced.
By 1929, the links between the Coventry Triumph motorcycles and TWN were severed.
TWN continued to produce small two stroke motorcycles until 1957.
In 1932, Val Page joined Triumph where he designed a 650cc parallel twin.
He had previously worked at JAP and Ariel.
Siegfried Bettmann retired in 1933.
In 1936, the company’s motorcyle and motorcar divisions became separate companies.
The motorcycle division was acquired by Jack Sangster, who also owned the Ariel motorcycle company.
Sangster formed the Triumph Engineering Co Ltd.
That same year, the company began its first exports to the United States.
Overseas demand for Triumph motorcycles was high and export sales became a primary source of revenue.
Edward Turner was an ex-Ariel employee who had designed the Ariel Square Four engine.
He joined Triumph where he designed the famous 490cc 5T Speed Twin engine which was released in 1937.
This parallel twin cylinder engine became the basis for all Triumph twins until the 1980s.
However, this was not Triumph’s first parallel twin. Val Page had previously designed one in 1932.
Page’s engine later resurfaced, somewhat modified, as the BSA A10.
In 1939, the 498cc Tiger T100, capable of 100mph, was released.
The motorcar side of the business went bankrupt in 1939 and was acquired by the Standard Motor Company.
During World War II, much of Coventry was destroyed during air raids. The Triumph factories were no exception.
In order to fulfil an order for 350cc single cylinder Model 3HW motorcycles for military use, the machine tooling was recovered from the destroyed factories and production began at a new factory at Meriden in 1942.
During the war, a version of the 500cc twin engine had been used as a generator to charge aircraft batteries in flight.
To reduce weight, the cylinder barrel and cylinder head were made in alloy.
After the war, privateer racers put wartime surplus alloy barrels on their Tiger 100 racers.
Their success led to Triumph producing the GP model.
Also after the war, production of the Edward Turner designed Triumph Speed Twin was carried out in large numbers.
The Speed Twin and Tiger 100 both became available with sprung hub rear suspension.
The 498cc TR5 Trophy Twin, introduced at the 1948 Motor Cycle Show, used a single carburettor, low compression version of the Grand Prix engine.
Allan Jefferies won the 1948 International Six Days Trial on a prototype version.
To satisfy the American market, Turner built a 649cc version of the Speed Twin design known as the Thunderbird 6T, a low compression machine suited to long distances.
The Thunderbird was introduced in late 1949.
The 498cc Tiger 100 was still considered the performance machine.
By 1950, the supply of alloy barrels was exhausted, and the GP model was dropped.
In 1951, Jack Sangster sold the Triumph Motorcycle concern to rivals BSA and became a member on the BSA board.
Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird 6T in the 1953 movie, ‘The Wild One’.
This was good publicity for Triumph, particularly in the United States.
In 1953, Triumph directors, Edward Turner, Bob Fearon and Alex Masters rode 149cc OHV Triumph Terriers from Land’s End to John O’Groats in a publicity stunt known as the Gaffers’ Gallop.
A 199cc version of the OHV single, the Tiger Cub was introduced in 1954, the same year that Triumph sold its bicycle manufacturing facility to Raleigh.
Also in 1954, the 649cc Tiger 110 was introduced. The machine featured Triumph’s new swing arm frame and now featured an alloy cylinder head.
Jack Sangster became Chairman of the BSA Group in 1956.
The 348cc 3TA Triumph ‘Twenty One’ was the first unit construction twin (meaning the engine and gearbox were constructed as one unit), soon followed by the 490cc and 649cc machines.
After various speed runs at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, using streamlined motorcycles with T110 engines, Triumph introduced a twin carburettor version of the T110 in 1959.
This machine was known as the T120 Bonneville.
The Bonneville went on to become Triumph’s most famous motorcycle.
In the 1960s, Triumph produced two scooters, the Tina and the Tigress.
1962 was the last year of the ‘pre-unit’ models, all future models having the engine and gearbox together in a ‘unit construction’.
In 1969, Malcolm Uphill won the Isle of Man Production TT riding a Bonneville.
He averaged 99.99mph and recorded the first ever lap over 100mph on a production motorcycle at 100.37mph.
By 1969, over half the US market for motorcycles over 500cc belonged to Triumph, however, the Japanese were arriving on the scene.
With their smooth running, oil tight overhead camshaft engines often featuring electric starters with reliable electrics, the Japanese had the edge over Triumph and other British motorcycles.
The Japanese machines were also cheaper to buy.
In the 1970s, the US government insisted that all motorcycle imports had to have their gearshift on the left and brake pedal on the right.
This required expensive modifications to Triumphs built for export to the USA.
Initially, the Japanese were only producing small engined motorcycles.
Triumph and BSA felt safe.
When the four cylinder Honda CB750 was shown at the Tokyo Motorcycle show in 1968 and released for sale to the public in 1969, Triumph and BSA were heading for trouble.
The Triumph Trident and the BSA Rocket 3 were developed to compete against the Japanese four cylinder machines.
These both featured 741cc three cylinder engines. The engines were similar in specification although not identical.
The BSA had an inclined cylinder block while the Triumph block was vertical.
The 1970 Tiger and Bonneville models were re-designed, however this was not enough.
The Japanese motorcycles to arrive in 1969 were different and exciting…
…machines such as the four cylinder overhead camshaft Honda CB750 Four and the two stroke triple cylinder Kawasaki 500 Mach 3.
In 1971, BSA recorded huge losses and it was proposed to close the Small Heath factory and transfer all production to the Triumph factory at Meriden.
However, this did not happen, and in 1973 the BSA group was sold to Norton Villiers to form Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT).
In September 1973, the chairman of NVT, Dennis Poore announced that the Triumph factory at Meriden would close in February 1974 and production would remain at the BSA Small Heath factory.
He had not expected the determined reaction of the Meriden workforce. The workers held a sit in.
The Labour government had just come into power and with backing from Tony Benn, the minister for trade and industry, the Meriden Motorcycle Co-Operative was formed to manufacture Triumph 750cc motorcycles.
NVT still owned the rights to Triumph when the Meriden Motorcycle Co-Operative was formed.
The co-operative was merely a manufacturing group who built the machines that were then sold by NVT.
The co-operative was assisted by the General Electric Company who agreed to purchase two thousand Bonnevilles from them.
This gave the co-operative some valuable cash flow and, along with further government loans, finally helped them to achieve their dream of purchasing the Triumph rights from NVT in 1977 to form Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Limited.
They continued to build and sell the 750cc Bonneville and 750cc Tiger.
The Queen’s Silver Jubilee was in 1977 and the limited edition Silver Jubilee Bonneville was introduced to commemorate this.
By 1978, this was the top selling European motorcycle in the US market.
Over the next few years came improvements such as an electric starter motor, alloy wheels and twin front disc brake option, however none of this was sufficient to compete with the Japanese motorcycles that were becoming more popular.
In 1980, the new Conservative Government wrote off huge debts that were owed by the company.
Meriden introduced several new models such as the dual purpose TR7T Tiger Trail and the 650cc Triumph TR65 Thunderbird.
In 1981, the Triumph Royal Wedding T140LE Bonneville was introduced to celebrate the wedding of HRH the Prince of Wales. This sold well.
1982 was the last year of production.
The Triumph T140 TSX and 8-valve Triumph T140W TSS models were launched, but again, these were last ditch attempts at keeping an old design competitive.
Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Ltd. finally went bankrupt on 23 August 1983.
John Bloor, a wealthy property developer and builder from the Midlands bought the Triumph name and manufacturing rights from the Official Receiver in 1983.
John Bloor agreed that Triumph enthusiast, Les Harris could continue to produce the Triumph Bonneville under licence until 1988.
Triumph has produced motorcycles continuously since 1902 and is the manufacturer with the longest continuous production of motorcycles in the world.
Triumph now makes a range of motorcycles, some reviving the names of the past, such as the newly designed Bonneville twin.
Triumph Motorcycles (Hinckley) Ltd. is the longest surviving British motorcycle manufacturer.