Exclusive Interview With Triumph’s Chief Engineer On Building Bikes For Real People

Stuart Wood discusses the process of building modern bikes for the real world.

Stuart Wood
Stuart WoodTriumph

Following an unforgettable day riding the 2018 Triumph Tiger 1200 through the Sierra Nevada mountains and with a full stomach of roast lamb and Rioja, I sat down with Triumph Chief Engineer Stuart Wood to talk modern bikes and the design process of Hinckley’s newest high-end ADV tourer. Wood, who joined me on the ride earlier in the day, made it clear that Triumph’s primary objective for design and engineering is to build bikes for the customer, as obvious as that sounds. “There are real customers who want real things,” Wood said. “They might have ideas and dreams and be interested by specials and ideas, but actually they’re going to buy a motorbike. They’re going to buy a bike to use, to ride. What’s going to be a genuine benefit to them?” To answer that question, Triumph relies on focus groups to test a proposed design. Assessing existing customers and customers who own competitors’ bikes gives an inkling of what technology riders are willing to pay for. At the same time, Triumph tests engineering and styling feasibility and gauges customer responses to confirm the direction of the project. By the first phase of design, called “scheming,” every area of the bike is understood; from the engineers come CAD drawings submitted to suppliers. By this time, all kinds of calculation, simulation, and analysis have been done, creating production drawings that represent a high level of confidence; what’s on paper (or screen) will become the production bike. “The drawing board is communication,” Wood added. “All the work’s done before that.” Triumph doesn’t do a lot of prototyping, relying on mule bikes to determine the precise geometry, ergonomics, and weight distribution of the motorcycle. Production tooling begins after this phase. There’s no turning back; the next time anyone rides the bike, it will have components (e.g., frame, wheels, brakes) built from production tooling. Wood stressed that “the bike is not designed or tuned by mathematicians; it’s designed and tuned by riders—the guys who are doing the development. The guys who are running the team are riders, and they get how a bike should work. For us it’s 100 percent about the ride.”

The next phase includes durability testing of specific components, called the validation phase. I rode with one of Triumph’s development riders who puts 400 miles on a testbike every day. After 10,000 miles, he runs the bike at full speed on a test track then repeats the process.

The last phase is preproduction. The bikes are built in small batches as a final test prior to giving the go-ahead to start production. Wood admitted there’s a lot to consider when building a bike that will be profitable and will perform well in the marketplace.

“If you think [about it], [we’re] producing motorcycles with Ferrari levels of performance for shopping-cart money,” Wood related. “Our mass production is tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of millions, so all the economies of scale are less. We’re trying to produce all this performance on a vehicle that’s probably more critical for things like stability and control than in a car. There’s no hiding in a bike. It has to work well.”

Today, bike design and engineering is very software focused. “All the technology we’ve listed today [at the press intro] is electronic,” Wood added. “That’s huge. Motorcycles used to be nuts and bolts, pistons and con-rods.”

The 2018 Triumph Tiger 1200 features self-balancing semi-active suspension, a rev-matching up/down quickshifter, linked braking with cornering ABS, Hill Hold, adjustable traction control, and adaptive cornering lighting among them.

Wood affirmed that the technology is about improving the motorcycle for real people: “We try very, very hard to design the bike to suit the customer.”

After riding the Tiger 1200 on and off road for two days in Spain, I would say it appears Wood and his team have succeeded. It’s one of the most refined and easy-to-ride bikes I’ve ever swung a leg over. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the 1996 Honda VFR750 that I rode early on. Off-road, the Tiger’s traction control saved my butt several times; on the street, the semi-active suspension made the bike feel glued to the pavement, and adjusting its firmness with a flick of a switch on the left grip tailored the bike to however I wanted to ride it.

Wood said this was always intrinsic to the design of the bike.

“We want bikes that we want to ride up those mountains,” he explained. “But then when you add something like Hill Hold—really? Do you need Hill Hold? And then when you’re on the gravel on the side of the road and you [mimes grabbing the brake to activate Hill Hold] and you just pull off and ride away with no scrambling for control, it’s like, ‘That’s pretty good. I like that.’ You try doing the same thing on an adventure-tourer on the side of the hill with two people on it, with luggage, and you’re really going to appreciate Hill Hold.

“So we buy in 100 percent because we’ve been [through that process of questioning if we need certain technologies] and really test it,” he continued. “And [the ’18 Tiger 1200] is pretty well top of the range. From our point of view, we’ve thrown everything at it, but for the right reasons. Not to make it just a list of parts. It’s a motorbike. First and foremost, this is a motorbike to go motorcycling on and enjoy.”

And enjoy it I did.