62 A Tri­umph of Bri­tish her­itage

Fa­mously rid­den by Steve Mcqueen in The Great Es­cape, the Tri­umph has long been many film stars’ mo­tor­cy­cle of choice, says Hugh Fran­cis An­der­son, as he talks to devo­tees of these iconic Bri­tish-made mo­tor­bikes

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The Tri­umph has long been the film stars’ mo­tor­cy­cle of choice, says Hugh Fran­cis An­der­son

I’ve even been pulled over by a po­lice­man who just wanted to talk about my bike

I’M king of the road, with a grin from ear to ear, and very of­ten singing in my hel­met,’ ad­mits Ken Tal­bot, chair­man of the Tri­umph Own­ers Mo­tor­cy­cle Club, when asked what it feels like to ride the iconic Bri­tish mo­tor­bike. It’s this joie de vivre that en­cap­su­lates why it has oc­cu­pied a special place in mo­tor­cy­clists’ hearts for more than a cen­tury. In­deed, whether or not you ride a bike, the name is in­stantly recog­nis­able. ‘Many peo­ple see Tri­umph as an icon of when Bri­tain was truly great,’ en­thuses Mr Tal­bot. ‘I’ve even been pulled over by a po­lice­man who just wanted to talk about my bike.’

Now 135 years old, Tri­umph is not only the last all-bri­tish owned and run ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­turer in the world, but also the old­est con­tin­u­ous mo­tor­cy­cle pro­duc­tion com­pany.

‘As they were the fastest and most re­li­able bikes on the mar­ket, they’ve al­ways been de­sir­able,’ ex­plains the club’s vice chair­man, Mick Bar­ratt. ‘They put an enor­mous smile on my face and a buzz in my heart.’

Start­ing life as a bi­cy­cle man­u­fac­turer, Tri­umph didn’t wheel its first mo­tor­cy­cle onto Much Park Street, out­side its orig­i­nal fac­tory in Coven­try, un­til 1902. This tiny, sin­gle­cylin­der, 2.2bhp Min­erva-en­gine mo­tor­cy­cle formed the in­cep­tion of Tri­umph’s pi­o­neer­ing as­cent to au­to­mo­tive great­ness. By 1915, its H-type model was the go-to mo­tor­cy­cle for the al­lied forces dur­ing the First World War.

In 1937, it so­lid­i­fied its dom­i­nance of the in­dus­try through chief de­signer Ed­ward Turner’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary par­al­lel twin en­gine— a de­sign that sur­vives to this day. Pro­duc­tion con­tin­ued to boom through­out the Sec­ond World War, when more than 50,000 mo­tor­cy­cles were sold to the mil­i­tary.

How­ever, it wasn’t un­til after the war that Tri­umph truly came into its own. When Mar­lon Brando ap­peared astride a 1950 Thun­der­bird T6 in The Wild One, the firm im­me­di­ately be­came a house­hold name, herald­ing the be­gin­ning of an era of in­ter­na­tional su­pe­ri­or­ity. This rep­u­ta­tion for speed and build qual­ity was strength­ened in 1955, when Johnny Allen set a new land-speed record of 193mph at the Bon­neville Salt Flats on a mod­i­fied 650cc Tri­umph Thun­der­bird—a record the com­pany held for 15 years.

Mr Allen’s suc­cess also in­spired one of the firm’s most fa­mous de­signs, the Bon­neville, which quickly be­came the best-selling Bri­tish-twin mo­tor­cy­cle of all time. ‘It’s prob­a­bly the best-known name in motorcycling, even to­day, and it still lives,’ adds Mr Tal­bot. ‘Its her­itage is clearly vis­i­ble in what’s still a state-of-the-art ma­chine.’ In 1963, Tri­umph’s en­vi­able prove­nance was en­hanced by Steve Mcqueen, rid­ing a 1961 TR6 650 Tro­phy in The Great Es­cape. In real life, the bike me­chanic turned ac­tor was a keen mo­tor­cy­clist and racer, who owned dozens of Tri­umphs that he reg­u­larly rode in com­pe­ti­tions. ‘He cer­tainly lives on in Tri­umph,’ as­serts Mr Tal­bot. ‘Un­til re­cently, it was pos­si­ble to pur­chase a new bike painted and dressed to look like the ma­chine from the film.’ In­deed, many film stars— in­clud­ing James Dean, Clint East­wood, Richard Gere and Brad Pitt ( see box)— have ap­peared on the sil­ver screen on Tri­umph bikes. ‘It’s amaz­ing how many peo­ple come to talk to you when you park up on a Tri­umph,’ says Mr Tal­bot, who ad­mires the way the com­pany has

Other brands were con­signed to skips–tri­umphs were kept to be res­ur­rected by later gen­er­a­tions

man­aged to sur­vive through the tough times as well as the good. In the 1970s, when many Bri­tish mo­tor­cy­cle brands were fall­ing apart, its work­ers formed a co­op­er­a­tive to keep the name alive and, although they pro­duced a frac­tion of the mo­tor­cy­cles made by other firms, their com­mit­ment helped to keep it go­ing.

In 1983, Tri­umph was pur­chased by John Bloor, a prop­erty ty­coon, who soon got the firm back on track. ‘He im­me­di­ately set about modernising the brand at the same time as pay­ing homage to its his­tory, re­sult­ing in the mar­vel­lous machines we see to­day,’ says Mr Tal­bot.

Tri­umph now pro­duces more than 50,000 mo­tor­cy­cles a year, with some 80% sold overseas. ‘It’s a bril­liant prod­uct with a phoenix story,’ en­thuses Mr Bar­ratt. ‘The Tri­umph brand is as strong as ever, with a legacy of com­pe­ti­tion and record- set­ting suc­cesses that other brands would die for.’

The ap­petite for vin­tage Tri­umphs is as strong as ever, too. ‘Although other brands were con­signed to skips, Tri­umphs were kept in the back of sheds to be “put on the road one day”, to be res­ur­rected by later gen­er­a­tions,’ ex­plains Mr Bar­ratt. From rusty barn­found projects used as run-around bikes on farms and es­tates to cus­tomised cafe-rac­ers, rem­i­nis­cent of the 1960s Ace Café rocker cul­ture, and the high-per­for­mance race machines seen fly­ing around Good­wood to con­cours- ready im­mac­u­late two-wheeled steeds, Tri­umph has a na­tional fol­low­ing like no other.

This is, in part, due to the resur­gence of pro­duc­tion parts. Twenty years ago, it would have been im­pos­si­ble to re­store many vin­tage machines with­out cre­at­ing parts from scratch. How­ever, as num­bers of en­thu­si­asts have grown, so has the mar­ket for spare parts, en­abling many once-for­got­ten mo­tor­cy­cles to be brought back to life.

‘There are so many vin­tage Tri­umphs out there to be rid­den,’ notes Mr Bar­ratt, ‘Many em­brace the abil­ity to re­pair, fet­tle and ride a bike that gives you so much sheer sat­is­fac­tion. They’re beau­ti­ful, lithe, re­li­able and cool.’ Tri­umph Mo­tor­cy­cles, Hinck­ley, Le­ices­ter­shire (01455 251700; www. tri­umph­mo­tor­cy­cles.co.uk)

Fac­ing page: As well as rid­ing one in The Great Es­cape, Steve Mcqueen com­peted on his own Tri­umphs. Right: He’s a wild one: Mar­lon Brando helped to make the brand a house­hold name. Be­low: Prince Wil­liam, known for his love of mo­tor­bikes, ar­rives at a polo match in 2005

Leader of the pack: Tri­umph boasts a legacy ‘that other brands would die for’

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