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expected a Triumph revival, or even hoped for anything more than the old twins' continued production as increasingly outdated curiosities.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.

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.

Hinckley Hits...

Trophy 1200, 1991
Triumph's powerful sport-touring four was a superb debut model, competitive against the mighty Kawasaki ZX-11 and the rest. It made 125 horsepower with lots of midrange, and its steel-framed chassis gave sound handling.

Trident 900, 1991
Removing the sport model's fairing gave a naked Trident triple that came in two sizes: long-stroke 900 and short-stroke 750. The larger model was quick, torquey and sweet-handling, the smaller one less impressive.

Daytona 1200, 1993
The big, yellow four had its 1180cc motor tuned to give 145 bhp, in John Bloor's defiant gesture to the UK importer's 125-bhp limit. The big Daytona was a bit crude, but good fun all the way to 160 mph.

Tiger 900, 1993
Triumph's modular format stretched as far as an adventure-tourer, whose 885cc triple was detuned to 84 bhp. An unchanged frame plus long-travel suspension and trail tires made a useful road-biased "trailie."

Speed Triple, 1994
The original Speed Triple was essentially a Daytona 900 with its fairing removed, and with a five-speed (instead of six) gearbox in an otherwise unchanged 97-bhp motor. The modern-day café racer's raw character hit the spot.

Thunderbird 900, 1995
Released in time to lead Triumph's return to the States, Hinckley's first retro model combined its softly tuned, 69-bhp triple with high bars, "mouth-organ" tank badge, heavily finned motor and a laid-back character.

T595 Daytona, 1997
Hinckley's first purpose-built sportbike proved the British could build a competitive superbike. The classy 955cc Daytona combined its 128-bhp triple with a sweet-handling aluminum chassis. The misleading T595 designation was soon dropped.

T509 Speed Triple, 1997
Three years after the original Speed Triple came the aluminum-framed T509. With its bug-eye headlights, it captured the essence of a naked sportbike perfectly and earned a cult following. Its T509 nomenclature was likewise soon dropped.

Sprint ST, 1998
Triumph bolted a 955cc triple into the firm's first alloy beam-framed chassis to create a brilliant sport-tourer. Imagine the joy at Hinckley when prestigious German magazine Motorrad rated it ahead of Honda's VFR! Later, the ST was stripped down to create the Sprint RS.

Bonneville, 2001
The 790cc, air-cooled Bonnie resembled a late-'60s T120, down to the two-tone paint and "eyebrow" tank badge. Its 61 bhp and 450 lbs. made it no quicker than the old model, but that didn't prevent it from being a hit.

Rocket III, 2004
Triumph's growing confidence was shown by the outrageous Rocket III, whose 2.3-liter, 140-bhp longitudinal triple boasts motorcycling's biggest purpose-built engine. A sound chassis made the Rocket fun rather than scary to ride.

Daytona 675, 2006
After years of struggle to produce a competitive middleweight four, Triumph got it right with the unique and brilliant Daytona 675 triple, which matched the Japanese 600s for performance and was voted Motorcyclist's Motorcycle of the Year.

...And A Few Misses

Daytona 1000, 1991
Triumph's modular format meant the sporty Daytona shared most of its engine parts and its steel frame with the softer models, so there was no way the 119-bhp four could be competitive with purpose-built supersports.

Daytona Super 3, 1993
Cosworth Engineering tuned the 885cc engine to give 113 bhp, and chassis mods included multi-adjustable Kayaba forks, six-pot calipers and carbon cans. But the price was high, and it was still no match for a Honda CBR900RR.

TT600, 2000
Beating the Japanese 600cc fours would have been difficult enough with a bike that ran flawlessly, so the TT600's low-rev flat spot gave it no chance. Its Daytona 600 successor was stylish and sorted, but still not quite quick enough.

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