Triumph Live 20th Anniversary Celebration

Can you believe the "new" Triumph is 20 years old?

By Roland Brown, Photography by Roland Brown

At first it seemed strange to be at an event celebrating a Triumph anniversary and find barely a single classic bike from the marque's former factory at Meriden-birthplace of the Speed Twin, Bonneville and the rest in the British industry's glory days of the 1950s and '60s. Triumph's story began more than a century ago, but Triumph Live-organized to mark the "new" Hinckley firm's 20th anniversary-was a celebration of more recent history.

The one-day event at Mallory Park saw more than 10,000 fans turn up for races, a custom bike show and a star-studded rock concert headlined by The Stranglers, whose bass player, Jean Jaques Burnel, is a long-time Triumph rider. The historical highlight was a large marquee containing examples of many key Hinckley models, alongside storyboards illustrating their development, production figures and background info.

The September date was apt because it was in that month in 1990, at the Intermot show in Cologne, Germany, that John Bloor's firm unveiled its new range of bikes to the world. Two decades later it's tempting to take Triumph's presence for granted, and to forget that, back in the '80s, the once-mighty British motorcycle industry seemed to have disappeared forever.

After Triumph went bust, the name and assets were bought in '83 by Bloor, then a little-known builder from the English Midlands. He proceeded to lease rights to Bonneville production to a spares dealer named Les Harris, who built 750cc Bonnies until the lease was not renewed. Hardly anyone expected a Triumph revival, or even hoped for anything more than the old twins' continued production as increasingly outdated curiosities.

But the Harris Bonnevilles were just a smokescreen for Bloor's real business. His purchase of Triumph included a Research & Development project code-named Diana. "But when we appraised it we found it wasn't viable, so we had to do something else," he later said. "I was told they'd spent X pounds on it, but within two months of buying the firm we'd arranged to go and have a look at how people who do it better operate. We came back, scrapped the lot and started again."

What Bloor and his small team spent the next seven years doing became clear on a memorable day a few months before Intermot in the summer of '90. I was part of a small contingent of journalists invited to an anonymous industrial park barely 20 miles from the site of the old Meriden factory, which is now a housing estate. I was astonished to arrive at what turned out to be a new Triumph factory, crammed with state-of-the-art production equipment, plus prototypes of a new range of multi-cylinder superbikes.

The setup was hugely impressive, as were the bikes, which were three- and four-cylinder machines with capacities ranging from 750 to 1200cc. The layout of their liquid-cooled engines and steel-framed chassis was modern, clearly inspired by Kawasaki's Ninja 900, the top superbike of a few years earlier. A fascinating twist was that the new bikes had been created using a modular concept similar to one proposed by legendary BSA/Triumph engineer Bert Hopwood shortly before that firm went bust in '73.

That concept, which involved the majority of engine and chassis parts being shared between all six models, made immediate sense. But few could understand why Bloor, then 47, had invested so much time and money in a motorcycle company, given the industry's dismal record and the fact that he himself didn't ride. "Bikes are an end product and I like end products. They're engineering and I like engineering. There's no bloody ego trip for me," he said, warning us to take photos because he wouldn't be giving interviews in the future. He meant what he said: Two decades later, I still haven't spoken to him again.

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