British motorcycle makers find it's no easy ride to revival: Nigel Cope assesses attempts to recreate the winning ways of Triumph and Norton

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The Independent Online
AUGUST Bank Holiday is the traditional time for bikers to head for the coast. In the old days, they would then start hitting each other. These days, they are more likely to admire each other's machines: Hondas, Suzukis, Yamahas . . . and Triumphs and Nortons.

That Britain still makes motorbikes will come as a surprise to many people. Certainly the glory days of the Fifties, when two out of three bikes in the world were made in the UK, are gone forever. But most of the old names are still going in one form or another.

BSA, now based in Gloucestershire, makes small-capacity machines for sale mostly in Africa. It also makes 50cc single-speed bikes for children (price: pounds 500). The traditional Enfield bikes (no faring, plenty of exposed chrome) are being sold in Britain - though they are now built in India.

But two men have acted on a grander scale. John Bloor, a secretive Derbyshire-based housebuilding millionaire, went for volume production of a new Triumph. Philippe Le Roux, a former merchant banker, tried to relaunch Norton as a niche product based on proven racing machines. One appears to have succeeded. The other has not.

The Bloor-backed Triumph has the look of a potential success. When Triumph went bust in 1983, Mr Bloor quietly bought the name from the liquidators. Ranked the 84th richest man in Britain, with a net worth of pounds 100m, Mr Bloor invested an estimated pounds 40m in a plant in Hinckley, Leicestershire, filling it with the latest robotics and computer-aided design and manufacturing technology.

After eight years in development, a range of new Triumph bikes went on sale last year. There are six new models, sporting three names: Trophy, Trident and Daytona, each available in two engine sizes. Prices range from pounds 5,299 for the Trident 750 to pounds 6,899 for the Trophy 1200. The design is modular, which keeps production costs down. But, purists note with disappointment, the Triumphs' styling owes more to their Japanese rivals than to the great British past.

When the first Triumph Trophy was launched last spring, Mr Bloor played down its significance. 'I'm not interested in any rubbish about saving the industry,' he said. 'I'm interested in whether the public likes the bike.'

Sales suggest it does. Triumph sold nearly 1,000 in Britain in its first 12 months and 1,000 more were exported.

The company has kept tight control of its dealer network - it has just 36 outlets - and worked hard to stay close to them. A successful marketing ploy has been to invite dealers and potential customers to the Hinckley factory for a guided tour of the production process.

Triumph is gradually becoming more confident of its position as a born-again bike manufacturer. 'We didn't want to put ourselves up on a pedestal,' Bruno Tagliaferri, marketing director, said. 'There had been a number of comebacks and we wanted to take things cautiously. But now we're feeling pretty good.'

Sources in the industry feel Triumph's confidence is justified. 'I think they will go from strength to strength,' said Terry Snelling, news editor of Motor Cycle News.

But while Triumph's comeback looks set to last, Norton's has been dogged with problems. Its intended renaissance was the brainchild of Philippe Le Roux, who took control of the company in 1987. His plan was to build an industrial conglomerate that would finance the production of a new Norton in Shenstone, Staffordshire. But the company ran into all sorts of problems: it has been investigated by the DTI and Mr Le Roux is no longer involved.

The new Norton bikes did not fare well either. While the first bike, launched in 1989, looked terrific - it was a replica of the all- black, JPS-sponsored, rotary-engine F1, which had already started winning races - the pounds 13,000 price meant fewer than expected were sold. High production costs meant that even those that were sold lost money.

Norton has since produced new limited-edition bikes at the more competitive price of pounds 8,500 but is only making about 200 a year. New management was drafted in last April led by David MacDonald, chairman.

His strategy is to capitalise on the other applications of the rotary engine, such as industrial engines and engines for light aircraft. He says revenue from these other applications 'should outstrip the revenue from the bikes'.

Mr MacDonald's key tasks are to produce accounts, engineer a financial reconstruction and then eventually give way to a new board. He is aware of the responsibility. 'The name Norton has such a well of affection in this country . . . It would be a tragedy for Norton not to be making bikes in Britain.'

Whether or not Norton's strategy is successful it is quite possible that there are people out there who could show up and take over, and, just as John Bloor did with Triumph, start all over again. As Mr Snelling of Motor Cycle News pointed out: 'British bike companies have a way of hanging on.'

(Photograph omitted)