THE UNEXPECTED INVITATION ON TRIUMPH-HEADED NOTEPAPER had been intriguing, but I was not expecting much when I arrived at an anonymous building in an industrial estate outside Hinckley in the English Midlands in June 1990. After all, Triumph had finally gone bust seven years earlier; a final nail in the coffin of a once-proud British motorcycle industry that had struggled through the 1980s in terminal decline. Strange as it now seems, back in those pre-internet days there had barely been a rumour that something was stirring at Triumph. We knew the failed firm had been bought from the liquidator by a builder. The site of its famous old factory at Meriden, 25 kilometres to the south-west, was a housing estate with roads called Bonneville Close and Daytona Drive. I had no suspicion that anything exciting was going on at Hinckley, despite having spent many days at a proving ground just down the road, speed-testing the latest, mostly Japanese bikes. There I had occasionally glimpsed a prototype rotary-engined Norton, but no Triumphs. A Triumph dealer had been using new spare parts to assemble small numbers of 750-cc Bonnevilles, antiques compared to modern GPZs and GSX-Rs. But that had ceased. Triumph was dead.
Then, on that June morning in 1990, a man in a grey uniform opened a door in that Hinckley industrial building to reveal a remarkable scene. Inside Triumph’s new factory were rows of huge, state-of-the-art manufacturing machines. There were also two motorcycles, prototypes of a new range of three- and four-cylinder superbikes with capacities ranging from 750 to 1,200 cc.
The set-up was mind-blowing and the bikes were hugely impressive. Their liquidcooled engines and steel-framed chassis were modern, inspired by Kawasaki’s GPZ900R, the top superbike of a few years earlier. The faired sports-tourer and naked triple looked almost production-ready, though the faired bike’s paintwork was split between red and white to show alternative colour choices.
This was clearly not some under-funded enterprise, inspired by a mix of patriotism and passion for motorcycling, like several previous revival attempts. It was a hugely serious operation that had been years in the making. Meeting John Bloor, the company’s 47-year-old owner and driving force, confirmed that view — although despite his obvious brains and track record I still struggled to understand his incentive for investing so much effort and money in an industry with such a disastrous record.
Three decades after that June day — still the most memorable of my career — it’s perhaps Bloor’s vision and belief that stand out most of all. Triumph is now a global concern that employs more than 2,000 people
and last year produced around 65,000 bikes. Perhaps, the man who made it all happen is the only one who might have predicted that level of success all those years ago.
In 1990 Bloor and his small team had already spent several years and tens of millions of pounds building and equipping the factory and developing a range of bikes. He’d been to Germany and Japan to invest in ultra-modern tooling, determined to prevent the quality control problems that had plagued the Triumphs produced at Meriden on ancient, worn-out machinery.
This had all been done in great secrecy, as related by Gary McDonnell, a former Meriden worker who was among Bloor’s first employees at Triumph. ‘After the old factory closed, a lot of us used to meet up and some ex-Meriden people were at the new Triumph factory,’ McDonnell recalled. ‘They were tight-lipped about it, but I was told there was a job for me there if I wanted one.
‘I started around Christmas 1987 and joined a very small, dedicated team of about 12 people. It was the most fantastic, memorable, and exciting part of my whole work career. It was a brand-new factory — well financed, clinically clean, and cavernous. With the designs I saw, I knew this was the start of the resurrection of the British motorcycle industry — something very, very special was about to unfold.’
That small team was hard at work. The purchase of Triumph had included an R&D department project, codenamed “Diana”. ‘But when we appraised it, we found it wasn’t viable, so we had to do something else,’Bloor said. ‘I was told that they’d spent x pounds on it but within two months of buying the firm, we’d arranged to go and have a look at how people who do it better operate. We came back, scrapped the lot and started again.’
Bloor’s early models were designed using a modular concept similar to one proposed by legendary BSA-Triumph engineer Bert Hopwood shortly before that firm went bust in 1973.This involved the majority of engine and chassis parts being shared among several models, substantially reducing development and production costs. The system allowed one basic engine and chassis layout to generate six first-year models, from naked 750-cc Trident triple to faired 1,200-cc Trophy sports-touring four.