Bunhill: Triumph out of a disaster

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The Independent Online
A GREAT roar will emanate from deepest Leicestershire this weekend as hordes of motorcycle fans descend on Donington Park racetrack for the British Grand Prix. Most will arrive on Japanese bikes such as Hondas, Suzukis and Yamahas and what they will see is races won mostly by the same Japanese manufacturers.

Look closely, however, and you might notice a British presence. There will be a demonstration by a Norton Commando, and the track marshalls will be riding Triumphs: not 1950s relics, but spanking new models produced in a brand new factory just a few miles up the road.

What does it all mean? It would be too much to suggest that the British motorcycle industry is fighting back against Japan, but in the last five years both Norton and Triumph have made comebacks.

A revitalised Triumph sold 2,000 bikes this year, its first full year back in production, and a Norton bike won the Isle of Man TT race in June, the first British machine to do so for more than 30 years.

But fortunes have differed. While Triumph has taken a cautious route back to what looks like long-lasting commercial success, Norton, which was relaunched to great fanfares in 1988, has been unable to emulate its racing form off the track and is in danger of spluttering to a standstill.

In years past, Norton and Triumph were just two of the names which together with other British marques such as BSA and Matchless made British bikes the kings of the road. In the 1960s, British bikes accounted for 70 per cent of world sales. Then the Japanese moved in and stole the market with their technological edge and cheaper volume production. By the early 1980s, British manufacturers held only 1 per cent of their home market.

The story is told in a new exhibition, The Decline of the British Motorcycle Industry, at the Design Museum in London. It blames the demise on lack of commitment to long- term investment, complacency towards design and a failure to take overseas competition seriously. But though the British bike industry withered, at least it never died.

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