Triumph is a truly British company. Its racing team, re-launched last February after three decades of non-competition, takes to the starting grid on Union Jack-liveried bikes and wearing the Cross of St George on their knee pads.
Every bike in its current range combines modern manufacturing with conscious nostalgia for the heyday of British motorcycling. Triumph even promotes its bikes under the slogan "Echoes from the Past". Those are echoes of Silverstone, the Rolling Stones and chip suppers at Margate, not of freewheeling past Big Sur en route to watch Janis Joplin in Los Angeles. But the Triumph product that has the world of motorcycling waiting in slack-jawed anticipation casts that tradition aside.
The massive 2,300cc Triumph Rocket III was pioneered at a styling clinic in Dallas, Texas. The first mock-up, complete with wooden engine, was shown to an invited audience in Los Angeles in August 2000. Last year the complete bike was shown for the first time at a conference of US Triumph dealers in San Antonio, Texas. They are reported to have given the machine a unanimous and unsolicited standing ovation.
The Rocket is a bike for America and it screams American excess. It is the motorcycling equivalent of a Big Mac with large fries as a starter, followed with a T-bone steak and ice cream.
This beast has the power usually associated with towing tanks out of quicksand. It is a brontosaurus of a bike with an engine that would propel a family MPV to illegal speeds and keep it there without straining.
I have not actually ridden a Rocket. Volume production is not due to start until next month and the only Britons to have mounted prototypes are members of the design team. But the concept is immediately apparent. The Rocket III is not so much a motorcycle as an inter-galactic battle cruiser.
It was commissioned to meet American demand for large-capacity cruisers and has been designed to generate more than twice as much torque as the Harley-Davidson V-Rod (150ft/lbs as against 74). At 2,300cc it has double the Harley's 1,130cc capacity.
The Rocket is as far as a motorbike has yet strayed from the economical source of high performance that once made them so attractive to young men. This is a monster based on the conviction that size does not just matter but is, in fact, everything.
Triumph researched their market. One hundred American
motorcyclists were paid $100 dollars each to participate in the early design process. They persuaded Triumph to combine a relatively conservative appearance with an emphatic commitment to the principle that bigger is absolutely better.
The result is the manufacturer's proud boast that the Rocket's pistons are "the same size as those of a Dodge Viper". You don't see a lot of Vipers on British roads. They are typically American cars in which subtle aesthetics are cast aside in favour of brute force. The Rocket is designed to appeal to the same demographic. That is why it has the 2300cc power plant instead of the original 1600cc. It has a rear wheel wide enough to grace a truck.
None of its claimed performance characteristics is remotely necessary. This machine could get a rider banned within a couple of seconds. It is capable of cruising at double the legal maximum speed in every state of the Union and will melt speed-cameras before it has escaped from first gear. Triumph have built something unique, but it remains to be seen whether it will prove desirable. On both sides of the Atlantic there is a market for luxury, long-range cruising machines. Ducati and BMW aim to fill it with their Multistrada and R1200 models. Each combines comfort, agility and luggage-carrying capacity with performance. So do options from Honda, Aprilia and Yamaha.
Most manufacturers supply their touring options complete with a partial fairing. It is an invaluable addition to any machine intended for motorway riding where rain may fall. The Triumph Rocket III is a naked design; this raises questions as to whether it is intended for touring or for posing.
When Harley Davidson launched the V-Rod in 2002 it was met with reactions ranging from bemusement to contempt by traditionalists. It does not look or sound like a Hog. Its sleek silver styling and Porsche-designed engine bear little relationship to the machines in Easy Rider. It is a very deliberate attempt to promote Harley Davidson to a new, less-oil-spattered generation.
The Rocket III is Triumph's V-Rod. It is impressive and it breaks entirely new ground. The three-cylinder, in-line engine pays nodding homage to Triumph heritage, but these cylinders are arranged along the frame, not across it, giving the machine an impressively slim profile considering its enormous size. But in most ways it bears as little resemblance to a classic Triumph as a Fiat Multipla does to a car.
The Rocket III is a power cruiser that redefines how much oomph is required to cover long distances on two wheels. It may prove capable of winning a very profitable niche in the American market. There is always room in that country for something bigger, more powerful and more conspicuous than anything else on the road.
But success will require more than that because existing Harley, Ducati, BMW and Japanese cruisers can all make the same boast. The Triumph's handling and refinement will have to at least match its capacity for speed and endurance.
Whether it will appeal to British motorcyclists is a different question. I suspect that it will lack allure for traditional Triumph fans and cost too much to appeal to speed freaks. But Triumph know that. The unveiling at the motor shows in Paris and Milan was not quite as important as the San Antonio launch. Any European sales will be icing on the cake.
Their gorgeous 865cc Bonneville Thruxton (which reaches dealerships this month) is the machine for the home market. It generates less than half the power of a Rocket III, just 69bhp, but I would gladly ride it from Glasgow to Athens.
The Rocket will be available to American purchasers before it is obtainable in Britain. It is an American dream, but one that may give Harley, BMW and Ducati pause for thought if Triumph can produce it in sufficient numbers.