A Triumph of British engineering

From Sixties cool to Seventies turmoil, the Triumph marque has had a rocky history. But it's now riding high, says Tim Luckhurst
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My son's 14-year-old friend instructed me in modern orthodoxy. "Britain doesn't have a motor industry," he sneered. "It's all Japanese, German or American. We're crap at it." His dad had told him, and the lad lives next to the former Hillman Imp factory at Linwood near Glasgow (now a retail park), so I didn't argue. But I did inspect the latest financial details from Triumph Motorcycles and I did experience a moment of patriotic pride. Granted, I ride a BMW, adore Italian design, and have found nothing quicker than a Suzuki. But Triumph contradicts the orthodoxy. It is a successful British volume vehicle producer.

Endure, if you will, a financial briefing. In 2005 Triumph's turnover grew by 42 per cent from £125m to £177m. Operating profit rose from £1.5m to £10.7m. A total of 31,600 new Triumph motorcycles were sold worldwide, up from 24,500 in 2004. More than half of them were exported. In 2008 the company plans to build 80,000 bikes. It will sell at least 25 per cent of them in America and many more in France, Italy and Japan. This from a marque that was declared deader than a Norwegian blue when the Meriden co-operative collapsed amid quintessentially 1970s industrial acrimony and Soviet Bloc build-quality.

In those days Triumph symbolised the decline of British industry. Founded in 1884, it had supplied 30,000 bikes to the Allied armies in the First World War, and upped that production to 40,000 in the Second World War. Its post-war Thunderbird was the first mass-market motorcycle to achieve 100mph, and in the 1950s and 1960s, Triumphs were iconic. James Dean, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando appeared on film with them. The Bonneville was the cult ride of the era and Triumph the largest-selling motorcycle brand in the US.

But, after a final starring role in Robert Pirsig's 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Triumph collapsed in an oil-slick of prehistoric technology, antediluvian design and poor workmanship. One contemporary rhyme jested "Get a Triumph/ Buy the best/ Ride a mile and/ Walk the rest". When the entrepreneur John Bloor bought the marque in 1984, analysts dismissed his investment as a sentimental indulgence by a self-made millionaire who left school at 15 and started out working as a plasterer.

Bloor is cleverer than that. The Triumph name was so tainted that he realised it would be futile to talk it up until he had new technology. Small-scale production recommenced in 1985 and Triumph first had something to boast about when it launched the four-cylinder 1200cc Trophy at the Cologne motorcycle show in 1990. A single production line at Hinckley in Leicestershire could make between eight and 10 new Trophies per day.

It was more micro-industry than niche, but the new Triumphs soon gained a reputation entirely different from their predecessors. By the mid- 1990s, the range included the Tiger, Trident Sprint, Speed Triple and Thunderbird. More new models followed and, in 2002, Triumph planned to make 37,000 new bikes. That hope was dashed by a fire that destroyed the chassis assembly line. No bikes were built for five months.

In retrospect, the men who brought the company to its knees in the 1970s might have benefited from a similar disaster. What emerged from the blaze was a brand new factory running two state-of-the-art assembly lines capable of producing 100,000 motorcycles per year. The Hinckley plant feels like a temple to motorcycling. The parking space in front of reception, once reserved for executive saloons, is a dedicated bike park. If you're not on two wheels, you don't stop there. Inside, staff wear Triumph polo shirts. They can assemble a complete motorcycle from start to finish in two-and-a-half hours.

The king of the range, the massive Triumph Rocket III, attracts the most attention. Triumph's commercial director, Tue Mantoni, says that the technological investment and design innovation that went into producing this previously inconceivable three-cylinder, 2.3-litre behemoth has secured the company's future. "The Rocket is the most important bike for us ever. It shows Triumph is back to stay. Customers come just to look at it."

I experienced what that means while riding a Rocket in California. A motorcyclist pulled me over to gawp and gush. The Rocket has that effect, and the admiration it attracts alerts riders to Triumph's other bikes. Tue Mantoni says: "Triumphs are distinctive. They exude character. When you stop at a petrol station, people come over to you."

Among the most distinctive aspect is the three-cylinder engine now standard in all Triumph sports bikes. Mantoni says: "We have quit the four-cylinder market. Distinctiveness is our strength." It is a strength that keeps ambition in check. "For us, size is a balance. There is a limit to how big a niche manufacturer can be. This year, we will make about 40,000 motorcycles. I have a mental limit that we can't make more than 100,000. We need volume, but not too much."

At that level, Triumph would be only slightly behind Europe's largest motorcycle manufacturer, BMW. It is already competing in the US, selling 10,000 machines there in 2005, and optimistic that its resurgent combination of engineering and charisma can win more of the lucrative market. The company is big enough to invest in original design and pioneer new technology. For that reason alone, it stands where no British volume car manufacturer has for years.

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