Icon: Triumph Bonneville Beginnings

How The Archetypal Triumph Got Its Name

The most celebrated British motorcycle in history bears the name of a 159 square-mile expanse of salt near Wendover, Utah, because of a bunch of Texans who figured they could build the fastest motorcycle on earth. Only in America. Where else are you going to find an airline pilot and engineer with an affliction for building things that go fast on the ground (J.H. "Stormy" Mangham), a genuinely legendary turner of Triumph twins (Jack Wilson) and a 27-year-old flat-tracker with the brass and the skills to take a crack at 200 mph (Johnny Allen)? Everything and everyone came together in Pete Dalio's Fort Worth, Texas, Triumph shop in 1954.

Surrounded by Mangham's 15.7-foot-long steamlined chassis with Wilson's methanol-burning Thunderbird 650 twin behind him and special high-speed Dunlop rubber underneath, Allen fired the Devil's Arrow across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 192.30 mph, setting an absolute motorcycle land speed record in September '55. The Fédération Internationale Motocycliste's refusal to ratify an AMA-sanctioned record didn't seem to matter to anyone but the FIM itself. As far as anybody in America knew or cared, Triumph built the world's fastest motorcycle. But NSU Motor-enwerke AG-maker of fine German knitting machines, automobiles and motorcycles-cared a great deal more.

As it turned out, the NSU brass cared enough to send their very best. A full factory effort came to Bonneville in the summer of '56, including the 500cc twin-cam supercharged streamliner that took Wilhelm Herz to 210.77 mph. Nobody told the Germans not to mess with Texas. Not even in Utah. Mangham, Wilson and Allen returned to the salt flats that fall, Wilson's more potent T-Bird twin now using, among other things, rod bearings from a Cadillac V-8. The so-called Texas Cee-gar was designed to (sorry) smoke Wilhelm's record without a supercharger, and that's exactly what it did, going 214.17 mph on September 6, 1956. The FIM wouldn't ratify that one either, but a certain Edward Turner-father of the Ariel Square Four and the Triumph Speed Twin-did a good bit more, bestowing the name that has become synonymous with speed on the twin-carb T120 Triumph rolled out at the 1958 Earl's Court Motorcycle Show: Bonneville.

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