Triumph of skill and a pounds 40m gamble

Four years after its rebirth, the Midlands motorcycle maker is riding high, writes Nigel Cope
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The Independent Online
When the International Motorcycle Show opens at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham today, the Triumph stand is likely to be the centre of attention. Of the 140,000 biking enthusiasts who are expected to descend on the show in the coming week, many will swoon over the group's latest model, the 900cc Adventurer, an American-influenced roadster that is expected to take the market by storm.

Others will come to cast an admiring glance over the latest Trophy, a redesigned touring bike with heated handlebar grips and built-in panniers, or the Thunderbird, a 900cc beast of a bike, designed in classic 1960s style with no fairing and plenty of exposed chrome.

But there is more significance here than a couple of new machines. Exactly four years after its relaunch in Britain, Triumph claims it is set to break even for the first time.

Bruno Tagliaferri, Triumph's sales and marketing manager, says: "It has always been a long-term project but we are now in a break-even situation. The volume is now at the right kind of level."

If the company does roar into the black it will put British motorcycle manufacturing back on the map. With Norton struggling - it hasn't made a bike for years - Triumph is the UK industry's last hope, and a profit record would confirm its position as a genuine recovery story rather than a rich man's folly.

It is John Bloor, a secretive Derbyshire housebuilder, who has dragged Triumph back from the ruins of the old Triumph Meriden Co-operative that failed in 1983. He bought the marque and invested an estimated pounds 40m in the business. So far he has yet to see a penny profit and the losses run into tens of millions of pounds.

Accounts filed at Companies House show that, in the year to March 1994, Triumph Motorcycles recorded a pounds 5.7m loss on sales of pounds 35m. This compared with higher losses of pounds 7.8m on sales of just pounds 14.6m.

Fortunately Mr Bloor's main company, Bloor Holdings, remains profitable, even though it includes the loss-making Triumph operation in its accounts. In 1994 the company made pounds 11m profit on pounds 141m sales. - the housebuilding business recorded profits of pounds 16.5m on sales of pounds 100m, an excellent performance in the current market conditions.

Mr Tagliaferri says that higher volumes are the key to success. From its purpose-built factory in Hinckley, Leicestershire, Triumph will manufacture 15,000 motorbikes next year, compared with 35,000 in its first four years put together.

After a planning permission delay, the group is now building a new factory a quarter of a mile from the existing plant to add more capacity. The plant will also create more local jobs, pushing the staff level well beyond the current 370.

Triumph is doing well in the UK, selling 2,300 bikes this year, with a target of 2,750 in 1996. But it is the export market that will make or break the company.

Triumph, so far, is selling in 34 countries, including, France, Germany and Japan. Last summer it started marketing in the United States, which it sees as potentially the bike's biggest market.

"America is going to be a huge market for us," Mr Tagliaferri says. During the days of Triumph Meriden, 80 per cent of sales were in America.

After initial scepticism, the new Triumph company now has the backing and respect of the industry. Terry Snelling of Motor Cycle News says: "It took them a good year to gain some credibility as the motorcycle community thought it might be just a flash in the pan. But there was a big pent- up demand for something British."

Triumph has also established a reputation for reliability, a far cry from the days when buying British meant spending the weekend wrist-deep in clutch fluid. Dealers like stocking the bikes became they don't find dissatisfied customers coming back complaining about faults.

Although expensive - the Thunderbird retails at pounds 8,000 - they hold their value. Triumph has also been helped by the rise in popularity of larger bikes. A key feature here has been the rise of the born-again biker, who may have ridden a British bike 20 years ago and is ready to don the leathers again.

After a grim time in the 1980s when the UK motorcycle market suffered badly from the recession, the market is now growing again at a rate of between 5 and 10 per cent a year. The larger-bike sector has been growing even faster. This compares favourably with the market for smaller machines, which has shrunk owing to high costs, expensive insurance and motorcycling's perceived lack of glamour among younger age groups.

The trade press, which has monitored Triumph's every move, is convinced that, this time, the rebirth is for real. "John Bloor has run Triumph with bullet-proof logic," says Motor Cycle News. "Four years on, the company looks stronger than ever."