The Storied British Motorcycle Manufacturer Has a Knack for Weathering the Storm

Triumph Motorcycles is the largest and longest-running British motorcycle manufacturer. In fact, it claims to be the oldest continuous production motorcycle company in the world, which is no small feat considering Triumph has survived two world wars (their factory was razed by German bombings during World War II), a series of bankruptcies and mergers, and full receivership in 1983. Its ability to endure has earned it iconic status among motorcycle marquees.

The company dates back to 1885 when 20-year-old Sigfried Bettman began importing bicycles from Germany to Coventry, England. Bettman changed the name to ‘The Triumph Cycle Company’ in 1886 because he thought the word Triumph was more easily understandable in most languages. And, as they say, the rest is history.

In 1887, German engineer Maurice Johann Schulte came on as a junior partner. In 1902, the first Triumph Motorcycle was produced, designed by Schulte, using a Belgian Minerva engine clipped to the downtube of a bicycle frame. In 1905, the first all-Triumph produced motorcycle is released.

By 1907, Triumph was establishing itself in the motorcycle road racing realm. Riders Jack Marshall and Freddie Hulbert placed second and third on a Triumph in the first motorcycle TT race, now known as the Isle of Man. By 1911, Triumph was producing four 3.5 bhp models – the Roadster, the Free-Engine Model, the TT Roadster and the TT Racer.

When World War I broke out, it actually benefitted the company. Production was switched to support the Allied troops and more than 30,000 motorcycles were produced. The Model ‘H’ Roadster, a 550cc side-valve four-stroker with a three-speed gearbox became known as the ‘Trusty Triumph’ and is considered by some to be the first ‘modern’ motorcycle.

During the Great Depression, Triumph split its car and motorcycle production in 1936 into two separate, independent companies. A year later, the first 500cc Speed Twin was introduced and became the definitive British bike. With a 27 bhp Parallel Twin engine and a weight around 361 lbs, the motorcycle was capable of speeds near 90 mph. The Parallel Twin would also become inextricably etched into Triumph Motorcycle’s lore.

In 1940, at the outbreak of World War II, the British government would again enlist the services of the motorcycle manufacturer, bringing bikes built for public consumption to a halt. Triumph began cranking out up to 300 motorcycles a week in its support of the Allied effort. Near the end of the war in 1945, production returned to bikes built for the public domain, and a new Speed Twin, the Tiger 100 and the 350cc 3T were introduced.

Triumph would expand its racing heritage following its success in the International Six Day Test. The British moto maker’s first trail bike, the 500cc ‘Trophy’ TR5, was introduced in 1948. The enduro motorcycle would win the Six Day Test the next four years running.

Triumph would solidify its presence in the motorcycle industry with the release of the first 650cc Thunderbird 6T in 1949. The 6T could easily hit the century mark on the speedometer and was built to increase export sales, particularly in the U.S.

In 1956, Johnny Allen set the motorcycle land speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats on a 650cc Triumph-powered streamliner. In 1959, the first 46bhp 650cc T120 Bonneville Twin is introduced to commemorate Allen’s run.

Triumph has shown an uncanny ability to survive numerous changes in ownership. In 1951, Triumph sold to BSA for 2.5 million pounds. Besides the BSA buyout, Triumph weathered other acquisitions as well. In 1973, the BSA Group merged with Norton-Villiers and became Norton-Villiers-Triumph. In 1983, it underwent full receivership and was on the brink of folding altogether until John Bloor, a former plasterer who became a wealthy English property developer and builder, bought the name and manufacturing rights from the Official Reviewer. Bloor helped restore prestige to the motorcycle maker in part to his development of a network of export distributors that helped expand the product globally.

Hollywood has also had a hand in the British motorcycle’s popularity. People like Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando and Evel Knievel made it cool to ride a Triumph. Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird 6T in the 1953 film, The Wild One, McQueen immortalized the TR6 in the movie The Great Escape, and Evel performed daredevil jumps on both a T-120 Bonneville and a 650 Bonneville Triumph.

The marquee would survive one more catastrophe when on March 15, 2002, while in the midst of preparing for its 100th anniversary, its main factory was destroyed by fire, crippling most of its manufacturing capacity.

2009 Models

Bonneville, Bonneville SE, Bonneville T100 – The Bonneville celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009. Powered by an air-cooled, fuel injected 865cc Parallel Twin. For 2009, it received a ‘70s look. The SE version has polished alloy engine covers on a blacked-out engine and a chrome Triumph tank badge while the styling of the T100 dates back to the ‘60s and includes two-tone paint, spoked wheels, fork gaiters and twin ‘peashooter’ style exhaust silencers.

Daytona 675 – Introduced in 2006, it is the first three-cylinder supersport motorcycle. The parallel triple engine produces around 53 lb-ft of torque and 123bhp. Claimed to have the lightest frame in the class and a narrow three cylinder engine, it was instantly a very competitive supersport package.

Speed Triple, Speed Triple R – A 1050cc naked bike with a claimed 130bhp. Comes with fully adjustable front and rear suspension.

Street Triple – This middleweight streetfighter is part Speed Triple, part Daytona 675 with a liquid-cooled 12 valve 675cc triple combined with a close ratio 6 speed gearbox.

Sprint ST – Triumph’s sports touring motorcycle. Utilizes a fuel-injected, three-cylinder 1050cc engine.

Tiger – A versatile, all-around motorcycle capable of everything from the daily commute to the week-long road trip. A torque-filled 1050cc triple ensures that there’s no shortage of giddyup when it’s time to roll.

Scrambler – Inspired by the -60s Triumph off-road sports motorcycles that riders stripped down in order to make them better off-roaders.

Speedmaster – Slash cut pipes, blacked-out engine casings and black cast wheels give the Speedmaster more attitude than other Triumph models.

Thruxton – Named after the legendary Thruxton racers of the ‘60s that inspired so many of the Café racers of the time.

America – Classic cruiser motorcycle styling with an air-cooled 865cc parallel twin.

Rocket III, Rocket III Classic, Rocket III Touring – Claimed to be the world’s largest production motorcycle when it was introduced in 2005, the mammoth cruiser motorcycle features a 2300cc triple cylinder engine.