The first Triumph motorcycle was produced in 1902 using a Belgian engine fitted to the down tube of a bicycle frame. The first all Triumph machine was produced in Coventry in 1905 at their Much Park Street factory. The company was owned by two Germans, Seigfried Bettman and Mauritz Schlte, and these first Triumphs were powered by a 300cc side valve engine designed by Charles Hathaway.
In 1906 the Triumph cycle company moved to larger premises at Prior Street, Coventry and by 1907 Triumph was producing a 495cc side valve machine, a development of their TT model for that year which was available with a three speed Sturmey Archer gear system.
By the 1st World War annual production had reached 4000 machines. At this time the Model H was born, a 550cc sidevalve development which was a mainstay of Triumph production well into the 1920s, and which was used all over the world by the British army. An estimated 30000 Triumphs had been produced by the end of WW1.
In 1925 the 494cc side valve Model P appeared, and with a price tag of £42 it proved so popular that soon the Priory Street factory was producing 1000 machines a week.
During the depression in 1931, Val Page from Ariel joined Triumph and designed a new range of machines from a small 150cc runabout to a 650 cc vertical twin racer. These machines were at the grass roots of Triumph’s future success. Indeed, Val Page was the key figure in the development of Triumph’s first vertical twin, the 650 cc Model 6/1 in 1933.
A second important change, also involving Ariel, occurred in 1936. Edward Turner, was brought in by the new owner, Jack Sangster as General Manager and Chief Designer. Edward Turner was to have a huge impact on Triumph. He began by re-vamping Val Page’s rather conservative machines, and he introduced the model name ‘Tiger’, which has remained with the Triumph range to this day.
Val Page’s 250 became the Tiger 70, the 350 became the Tiger 80 and the 500 became the Tiger 90. 1937 saw the introduction of Edward Turner’s famous speed twin, a completely new radical design of a lighter, faster and more stylish machine which was to turn the motorcycling world upside down. Turner was a genius in all areas of motorcycle production, especially in achieving production economies. The bore and stroke of the 500cc speed twin (63mm and 80mm) was the same as the existing 250 single. This meant that the engine components could be shared, thus reducing production costs. This philosophy was extended to other Triumph motorcycle components. The speed twin was a tremendous success, and in 1938 it was followed by a sports version, the Tiger 100, producing 33bhp and capable of 100 miles per hour!
After the war Triumph moved to Meriden, and the new range announced in 1945 had a telescopic front fork. Rear springing in the form of the sprung hub appeared in 1946 and the swinging arm suspension appeared in 1954.
In 1946, the speed twin was supplemented by the Triumph Thunderbird, a 650cc machine with an extra 8 hp to satisfy the American demand for more power. Officially called the 6T, it was virtually identical to the speed twin in all but engine capacity and colour.
By 1954 the Thunderbird had evolved into the sportier Tiger 110, which by 1959 in turn had evolved into the twin carb. 46 bhp Triumph T120.
In 1956, the Texan, Johnny Allen, achieved a record breaking speed of 214.4 mph powered by a Triumph Thunderbird engine running on nitro-methane at Bonneville salt flats in USA. As a result, the new T120 became the Triumph Bonneville.
Unit construction of gear box and engine was adopted in 1957, when the Triumph Twenty One appeared with its rather peculiar ‘bathtub’ fairing. (‘Twenty One’ possibly celebrates the 21st anniversary of Triumph Engineering Co.Ltd. , but it is also the capacity of the machine in cubic inches, a measure used by our American cousins !) This was the first 350 Triumph since the 3T of 1946, and was also one of the first blunders made by Triumph because many riders disliked the styling of this model, especially in the USA, and sales suffered.
In 1947 Bert Hopwood joins Norton, and designed the Dominator 500 in this year. Doug Hele leaves Douglas and joins Triumph. As Triumph moved into the 60s motorcycle sales began to decline and the company launched a 99cc scooter, the Triumph Tina, in an attempt to tap into the cheap transport market. The Tina was not a success.
- The Triumph Tiger 90. a high performance 350cc 3TA was introduced, similar to T100.
- The twin carb 500 cc Triumph Daytona is introduced (T100T), to celebrate Buddy Elmore’s winning the Daytona 200 on a works prepared Tiger 100. Edward Turner, now 66, retires from the BSA board and is replaced by Harry Sturgeon.
- The Triumph Trident 3 cylinder 750 (T150) was announced. Producing 58 bhp and capable of 125 mph, it was designed by Bert Hopwood, Doug Hele and Jack Wickes.
In 1970 Triumph and BSA held a massive promotional joint launch, the last the company was to hold, of a new range of 16 machines. One of these was Edward Turner’s last design, the Triumph Bandit (or the BSA Fury). With a parallel twin 350cc dohc engine producing 34 bhp and capable of 110 mph it could have revitalised the company, but unfortunately financial problems killed the project.
In the following years the production focused on T100s and Bonnies. The engine size increased in 1973 to 724 cc and later that year to 744 cc, and renamed the T140. Tridents were built at Small Heath alongside the BSA Rocket Three.
In July of 1973, the BSA Group merged with Norton-Villiers to form Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) with Dennis Poore as Chairman, and so the name BSA was gone.
Edward Turner died in August and later in the year, Poore announced the closure of the Meriden factory from February 1974. An 18 month employee sit-in immediately began and the Meriden plant closed. By the end of 1973, production of all models except the T120 had ceased.
Meriden was demolished in 1984.
Trident production continued at the BSA Small Heath factory until 1976, and in 1975 the Workers Co-operative at Meriden began producing 750 Bonnevilles and TR7 Tigers again. Although 100lbs lighter and better handling than the new 3 and 4 cylinder 750 Japanese machines, they could not match their sophistication and reliability.
In 1977 the Triumph marketing rights and assets were sold by NVT to the Meriden Co-operative, NVT is declared bankrupt. Production struggled on through the late 70s and early 80s producing various versions of the T140 Bonneville and later, a 650cc Thunderbird.
In 1980 the Meriden debt reached £2 million despite heavy loans from the British Government, in 1982 the TSS model appeared, with an alloy, 8 valve engine based on the Weslake. Although very fast, the engine proved unreliable and eventually the firm went into liquidation in late 1983.
The name and manufacturing rights of Triumph were purchased by John Bloor, a wealthy property developer interested in the Meriden factory site for development. Bonnevilles continued to be produced under licence by Les Harris in Newton Abbot, Devon for five years until 1988.
It is interesting to note that at the start of the 1960s there were close on two million motorcycles on the roads of Britain (1,853,000). The vast majority of these being home produced, but less than ten years later the names of Excelsior, Matchless, AJS, James and Frances Barnett had already disappeared and the rest of the UK manufacturers were in financial difficulties.
When the Triumph Engineering Co. Ltd. went into receivership in 1983, John Bloor bought the name and manufacturing rights form the Official Receiver. Initially, production of the old Bonneville was continued under licence by Les Harris of Racing Spares, Newton Abbot, Devon.
Production of about 14 per week continued for about 5 years. Meanwhile work was secretly begun on new prototype models. By 1987 the company had completed its first engine, and in 1988 Bloor built a new factory on a 10 acre site in Hinkley, Leics. The Triumph production team visited Japan on a tour of motorcycle factories with the intention of adopting similar manufacturing techniques.
In 1991 a new range of motorcycles bearing very familiar model names (Trident, Daytona and Trophy) arrived. There were new 750cc and 900 triple cylinder bikes, and 1,000cc and 1,200 four cylinder bikes, all using a modular design to keep production costs low. (This concept was originally put forward by Bert Hopwood in the early 1970s but sadly was never adopted by the BSA/Triumph company). As sales improved so the 4 cylinder machines were phased out (the last being the 1200 Trophy in 2003). The company, instead, focused on parallel twins and triples. Triumph has enjoyed a great deal of success with many of the resulting models. Bruce Anstey won the 2003 Isle of Man Junior TT on a 600 Daytona, the first Triumph win for over 30 years.
Triumph has also exploited the demand for retro machines with modern engineering, and models such as the 865cc Thruxton, and the 790cc Bonneville have proved to be instant hits with the older generation of motorcyclists. The Triumph Group announced worldwide sales of 37,400 motorcycles in 2005/06 financial year and by 2008 Triumph was the world’s fastest growing motorcycle brand with sales increasing on average by 17% per year.
In the 2013/2014 financial year the 111 year old company sold 52,089 machines, up from the 48,957 of the previous year.
By 2014 one in every five new motorcycles over 500 cc sold in the UK was a Triumph, and it is the market leader in the UK in this category.