Triumph Motorcycle historyKeyin Web
Triumph motorcycle history is fascinating: probably because is the story of one of the first motorcycle brands, or maybe because is the proof that with perseverance and courage everything can be achieved. Let’s learn more about this brand.
Siegfried Bettmann emigrated from Nuremberg, Germany to Coventry, England, in 1883. A year later, at the age of 20, Bettmann founded his own company: the S.Bettmann & Co. Import Export Agency. At the beginning, the company bought bikes to sell under its own brand name, and distributed sewing machines imported from Germany.
In 1886, Bettmann decided to change the company name in Triumph Cycle Company, and a year later – financially supported by Dunlop Tire Company – registered as New Triumph Co. Ltd. In 1887, another Nuremberg Native, Mauritz Schulte joined Bettmann and encouraged him to transform Triumph into a manufacturing company. This led to the purchase of a site in Coventry in 1988 and the beginning of the production of Triumph branded bicycles in 1889. Nine years later, in 1898 the company decided to start working on including a motorcycle line in their production.
Triumph unveiled its first motorcycle in 1902: a bicycle equipped with an engine built in Belgium. Since in 1903 motorcycle sales reached 500 unites, Triumph decided to open a subsidiary in Germany under the name TWN (Triumph Werke Nuremberg) to sell motorcycle on that market as well. In the early years of motorcycle production, designs were strongly based on other manufacturer designs; it was only in 1904 that the company started working on its own designs and, in 1905 debuted with its first motorcycle entirely designed in house.
In 1906 the company reincorporated as Triumph Engineering Co. Ltd., and in 1907 the company opened a larger production plant. In 1909, production reached 3000 models in a single year. The beginning of World War 1 represents a turning point in Triumph motorcycle history, with the company producing 30.000 motorcycle to help the allied war effort: the most popular of them was the Model H Roadster, famous for its nickname “Trusty Triumph”.
Right after the war, Bettmann and Schulte had a disagreement and split: Schulte wanted to switch bicycle production with car products. What’s incredible is that the person who replaced him – Claude Holbrook – agreed with him… Triumph put on the market the model 10/20 in 1923. However, the bicycle line was not discontinued.
In the mid-1920s, Triumph was among Britain’s leading motorcycle makers, with a 500,000-square-foot plant capable of producing up to 30,000 motorcycles each year. The company models won races and export sales became a primary source of the company’s revenues.
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Triumph spun off its German subsidiary as a separate, independently owned company. The Nuremberg firm continued to manufacture motorcycles under the Triumph brand until 1957. In 1932, Triumph let its bicycle manufacturing facility go. By then, Triumph had been struggling financially, and Bettmann had been forced out of the chairman’s spot. In 1933, Bettmann retired from the company.
Renamed Triumph Co. Ltd., the company enjoyed success from both its motorcycle and car sides through the 1930s. In 1936, the motorcycle and car segments split in two separate companies; as a result the Triumph automobile operation went bankrupt in 1939 and was acquired by the Standard Motor Company. Acquired in 1936 by John Sangster, the motorcycle side did way better, with the United States market quickly growing into the company’s single most important market.
World War II
With World War 2 comes the second stop of civil models production in Triumph motorcycle history: the company converted to wartime production again. Despite the destruction of its production facility during a bombing raid on Coventry in 1940, Triumph supplied more than 50,000 motorcycles to the Allied forces. With a great effort, the production line was moved to a new site in Meriden (which remained the company’s base until the 1980s) and began producing lightweight generator motors for Britain’s Royal Air Force too.
Civil motorcycles production was reestablished in 1946 with models inspired by the generator motor design: the result led to the launch of the Thunderbird in 1950. The Thunderbird, with its 100mph top speed, is the world’s first “superbike”. This is also the time in Triumph motorcycle history in which the company introduced its trademark: the first three-cylinder engines.
In 1951 the BSA Group bought Triumph for £2.5 million and placed its own dedicated distribution subsidiary for the U.S. market, Triumph Corp., based in Maryland. As a result Triumph almost tripled U.S. imports in just a year. In 1954 the movie “The Wild One”, in which Marlon Brando rode a Thunderbird, Triumph became one of the hottest-selling motorcycle brands in the United States.
In 1958, Triumph unveiled a new model named after the place where the company set land speed records: the Bonneville. The movies once again proved a new source of publicity, as Steve McQueen rode off on a Bonneville in the 1961 film The Great Escape.
In the Mid-60s, United States represented 80% of Triumph’s revenues; a market that reached its all-time peak in 1969, with nearly 47,000 motorcycles produced that year.
In 1971, the BSA Group was losing money, and in 1972 the group began cutting back on its personnel. In 1973, in an effort to salvage the country’s motorcycle industry, the British government engineered a merger among Triumph and two other manufacturers, creating Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT), controlled by Norton chairman Dennis Poore. By the end of that year, Poore announced the company’s decision to shut down the Triumph facility in Meriden, sending more than 3,000 employees home.
Triumph employees went on strike, entering an 18-month sit-in that ended production at the Meriden plant. NVT relaunched production of some Triumph models at its other sites in 1974. That year, the Labour-party led government created the Meriden Motorcycle Cooperative, owned by the plant’s workers and backed by a government load of £5 million.The Meriden Co-Op resumed production of Triumph motorcycles in 1975.
The co-op never quite took off, however, despite a £1 million order for 2,000 motorcycles from GEC, designed to help stabilize the company. In 1977, the company sold the rights to the Triumph name to the Meriden Co-Op, and then went bankrupt. The Meriden Co-Op limped on, building up more than £10 million in debt. Despite the government’s waiver of its debts, and the co-op’s conversion into a worker-owned limited company, Meriden continued to fail, and by 1983 run out of money.
Reborn from the ashes
In 1983, John Bloor purchased the Triumph name. Touring the Meriden plant, which was slated for demolition in 1984, Bloor became interested in Triumph, and particularly its still highly regarded brand name.
Bloor did not relaunch Triumph immediately, he decided to license production of the Triumph Bonneville to a small plant in Devon, which produced the model on a limited scale until 1988. In the meantime, Bloor set to work assembling the new Triumph, hiring several of the group’s former designers to begin work on new models. Bloor took his team to Japan on a tour of its competitors’ facilities and became determined to adopt Japanese manufacturing techniques and especially new-generation computer controlled machinery.
As a result, in 1990, Triumph returned to the worldwide motorcycle scene with the launch of six new models and, in 1991 the company sold 1,200 motorcycles with shipments to Germany, Netherlands, Australia, and France.
The new Triumphs were winning praises for their innovative design and for their high quality. 1995 is another milestone in Triumph Motorcycle history: the company reentered the United States market with an updated version of its famous Thunderbird. The company also launched a line of Triumph-branded clothing and accessories. The United States proved a ready market for Triumph, fueled in part by the company’s willingness to allow dealers to offer test rides which, at the time, was something most motorcycle manufacturers refused. By 1997, in order to meet growing demand, Triumph initiated an expansion of the Hinckley plant.
In 2000, the company relaunched its legendary Bonneville, the success of which boosted the company’s total production to 33,000 units by 2001.
In February 2002, as the company was preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary as a motorcycle maker, its main factory was hit by fire, which destroyed most of its manufacturing capacity. Nevertheless, the company, which by then numbered more than 300 employees, quickly rebuilt the facility and returned to production by September of the same year. John Bloor was not only credited with reviving an industry legend, he had also proved that high-quality, state-of-the-art manufacturing remained possible in Britain in the new century.
Today Triumph is one of the leading motorcycle manufacturers in the world, producing Classic, Cruisers, Roadster, and adventure motorcycles. We must highlight that, today, the company also has a deal with Moto2 as unique engine supplier until 2024.
What a journey!