Triumph Live 20th Anniversary Celebration

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

By Roland Brown, Photography by Roland Brown

Those first Triumphs were well received, at least in Britain. The powerful Trophy 1200 was a capable rival to the Japanese superbikes of the day. I remember taking part in a four-way comparison that set the Trophy against Honda's CBR1000F, Kawasaki's mighty ZX-11 and Yamaha's FJ1200. The Kawasaki won, but we were all impressed by the new arrival. The Trident 900 that followed later in the year was a lively naked triple, though the short-stroke 750cc variant was less impressive.

Bloor's fledgling firm soon established a reputation for solid-if-unspectacular engineering. But things were far from easy: As well as facing cynicism from motorcyclists who had seen previous so-called British "world-beaters" fail, Triumph faced resistance from loyalists who thought the new bikes too "Japanese." Some cynics even claimed Triumph had links with Kawasaki. Sales in Germany and Spain, the first export markets, were disappointing. And the modular format made Triumph's Daytona sportbikes uncompetitive against purpose-built rivals, especially when Honda's CBR900RR arrived in '92.

Even so, production rose steadily from 2414 units in '91, passing the 10,000 mark three years later. An important advance came in '95 with the start of exports to America and the launch of the Thunderbird 900 triple-the firm's first classically styled model. Bloor had been cautious about exploiting Triumph's heritage, preferring to establish a reputation for high-quality engineering and to shed the previous, Meriden-built models' reputation for unreliability. But the T-bird confirmed the worldwide nostalgia for All Things Triumph, and its success paved the way for other retro models including the Bonneville twin of 2001. (Ironically, Triumph's classic models are now produced at the firm's factory in Thailand.)

Another key year was '97, when Triumph broke away from the modular format with the launch of the aluminum-framed Daytona sportbike and a stripped-down Speed Triple derivative. The 955cc Daytona (its Meriden-style T595 code name, misleading to many, was soon dropped) was a sleek, rapid sports machine that sold in large numbers both in Britain and abroad, despite still not quite matching the pace of a CBR. The revamped T509 Speed Triple featured a pair of "bug-eye" headlights that gave it an instantly recognizable image, and led the trend toward high-performance naked bikes.

The success of both models, and later the Bonneville, confirmed that Triumph did best when it stuck to two- and three-cylinder bikes with a distinctive character, rather than trying to compete head-on with the Japanese. By '01 annual production had reached 29,000 units, boosted by the Bonnie's instant success. But the following March saw what could have been a cruel blow when much of the factory was destroyed by one of Britain's largest-ever industrial fires. Production was halted for five months, costing more than 20,000 bikes and many millions in sales.

But at least nobody was hurt, and the fire did have some positive aspects. R&D wasn't affected, and the insurance payout helped Triumph move more quickly than had been planned into a new building on an adjoining site. Larger than the old factory and equipped with more modern tooling, it helped increase both production quality and quantity.

After that blip sales continued to grow, helped by an increasingly broad range that by '06 included models ranging from the hugely successful Daytona 675 triple to the unique Rocket III with its gigantic, 2294cc longitudinal three-cylinder engine. In '08 production reached almost 54,000 units, surpassing the 46,700 total that was the highest ever achieved by Meriden in the good old days of the '60s. And although production has since slipped back slightly, Triumph's market share has grown significantly in the last few years, and the company is now profitable and contributing to Bloor's healthy bank balance.

It's a remarkable achievement that vindicates the effort of a man who is now old enough for a pension but continues to work long hours-and shows no sign of being ready to hand over the company reins. At Mallory I kept an eye out for a wiry, dark-haired man in disguise, but if Bloor was there I didn't spot him. Although it was a Saturday he was probably down the road at the factory, plotting the next chapter of the Triumph story.

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