1880's - First there were bicycles..

The seed of what was to become one of the most famous names in motorcycling was planted back in the late nineteenth century when German businessman Siegfried Bettmann made his way to England from Nuremberg. At first involved in the sale of sewing machines, Bettmann was impressed with the craze for bicycles that was sweeping Victorian Britain and decided to set up his own firm, selling bikes made in Birmingham by William Andrews. Rather than call them ‘Bettmanns’ the shrewd industrialist chose ‘Triumph’, as a name that would be understood in all European languages.

Betmann Image of him


In 1887, two years after he started his enterprise, Bettmann was joined by engineer Mauritz Schulte, also from Nuremburg. Both decided the future lay in manufacturing their own machines and Schulte found suitable premises in Coventry, where production started in 1889. As the new century approached and the internal combustion engine began to make an impact, Schulte considered the next step for the Triumph Cycle Co. Negotiations with other – albeit embryonic – motorcycle manufacturers proved fruitless, thus the stage was set for Schulte to make what would prove a giant leap for the firm…


1900's - Then came the internal combustion engine..


In 1902 the first motorcycle emerged from Triumph’s Coventry works. Known since as ‘No 1’, it was essentially a strengthened bicycle with a 2.25bhp Minerva engine hung from the front down tube. Drive was via a belt from the engine’s crankshaft to the rear wheel while the bicycle’s pedals, chain and crank were retained. Schulte chose the Belgian-made Minerva engine simply as a matter of quality – he was a perfectionist and, at that time, the cutting edge of internal combustion technology was coming out of continental Europe.

By 1905 Schulte – in collaboration with Triumph Works’ Manager Charles Hathaway, himself a gifted designer and motorcyclist – produced an entirely in-house machine, the Model 3HP. Featuring a 363cc single cylinder side-valve engine, it was claimed the Model 3HP produced a heady 3bhp at 1,500rpm and had a top speed of around 45mph. Ball bearings were employed for the crankshaft to run in, a novelty for the time and ignition was by accumulator but for an extra £5 a Simms-Bosch magneto was offered (and highly recommended by the factory…).

Schulte now concentrated on refining and developing his machine and while other manufacturers tried to move too quickly, Triumph kept on a consistent path of evolution, always proving their machines. In 1906, Triumph equipped their bike with a controversial ‘rocking’ front fork, which pivoted around the bottom crown against the springs at the top.

Engine capacity grew as the years clicked on – by 1908 the Triumph engine was displacing 476cc, putting out 3.5bhp and equipped with a ‘variable pulley’ to deal with difficult inclines. It wasn’t an easy procedure, however, as the rider had to stop, screw the pulley in or out (giving a ratio of 4:1 or 6:1) and then shorten or lengthen the drivebelt (using small, detachable segments). Still, it may have been preferable to pushing… An Isle of Man TT win in 1908 helped underline Triumph’s reliability and road worthiness; as was said at the time, ‘Eight Triumph’s started, and eight finished…’

1910's - Trust amongst the horror of war..

Triumph motorcycles had now proved themselves worthwhile machines and in 1910, a new advance was made to make riding a Triumph even easier - the ‘free engine’ device. Essentially a small, foot operated wet drum clutch it meant that the engine could be started with the bike on its main stand, via the pedals, rather than either bump starting or pedaling furiously for 30 yards or so. Once the engine was firing the clutch could be disengaged, the bike placed on its wheels and the rear hub clutch selected for forward motion.

In 1911 the TT races moved to their present home on the 37.5 mile Mountain Circuit and although Triumphs performed well they struggled against the mighty Indians. However, many other records were set by Triumph motorcycles in 1911, including the Six Consecutive Days record by Mr. A.E. Catt and the 900 mile Land’s End to John O’Groats run, which Insurance Broker Ivan Hart-Davies rode in 29 hours 12 minutes, at an average speed of 30mph. Hart-Davies used a specially prepared bike with a huge fuel tank, but considering the almost medieval roads and lack of suspension, it was quite a feat.

By the outbreak of the First World War the Type A, as it was known, had a 550cc engine slugging out 4bhp. The British Government placed orders with Triumph in order to equip army dispatch riders at the front.

The now legendary Triumph Type H was pressed into service from late 1914 onwards. Although still belt drive (for simplicity’s sake) the Type H had a chain driven primary drive, Sturmey-Archer three-speed gearbox (with hand change), multi-plate clutch and a kick-starter. It also had a distinct lack of pedals – the first Triumph to do so. The Type H proved wholly reliable in the face of the mud and misery that existed for its riders in the Great War and earned itself the nickname ‘the Trusty’. 
Schulte parted company with Triumph in 1919 after disagreeing with Bettmann’s desire to diversify Triumph’s manufacturing capabilities.

1920's - The Great Depression bites..

Deciding to diversify Triumph’s manufacturing base, early in the ‘20s Triumph purchased the deserted Hillman car factory in Coventry and started producing a 1.4 liter saloon. Produced under the name of the Triumph Motor Co, this foray away from two wheels was to prove the eventual undoing of Bettmann’s empire. On the motorcycle front, two years after the end of hostilities in Europe, Triumph unveiled another evolutionary motorcycle, the Type SD. SD stood for ‘Spring Drive’ as its clutch now featured a shock absorber in the transmission. Perhaps more importantly it dispensed with the belt final drive of all previous models – the rear wheel was now chain driven.

With a capacity of 550cc the Type SD was too big to enter the Senior TT and, in 1921 Triumph fielded six bikes, with all-new single cylinder engines of 500cc capacity. Harry Ricardo, of Ricardo & Co Ltd, designed the cylinder head and barrel, which featured four overhead valves set at 90 degrees to each other, pushrod operated. The race was a disaster for Triumph – only one bike made it home, in 16th place – but worked carried on. The ‘Riccy’ (as it became known) went on to collect many world speed records at the time, including the flying mile at 83.91mph.

But in spite of the high profile endeavors the twenties were not a great time for Triumph. In the face of worldwide depression, the firm needed to generate income, so a cheap, basic bike was developed. 20,000 of the side valve 494cc Model P were produced and it was cheap – £42.17s.6d (the Type SD, to compare, was £83.00). Problems with the brakes, big end bearing and clutch marred the first batch, glitches that were solved by the later Mark 2.

Towards the middle of the decade the Riccy was discontinued and another new engine, developed by Victor Horsman, introduced in a new model, the TT (or Two Valve, as it was called). It displaced 498cc, with twin over head valves (and roller bearing rockers) and a three-speed gearbox. A steering damper came fitted as standard and stopping was taken care of by a pair of drum brakes. The Two Valve became the mainstay of Triumph’s range, and proved itself a very worthy design, especially in the hands of road-going motorcyclists. In 1927 Tommy Simister finished third in the Senior TT on one, in spite of crashing twice…

1930's - New beginnings and another conflict..

While Bettmann was making the decisions that would lead to his firm’s demise, others, such as John Young Sangster, were learning the ropes of the bike industry. Known as Jack, John was the son of Charles Sangster, who until his death in 1934 had headed a large engineering company, Components Ltd. Components Ltd owned Ariel, a firm with a reputation for building top quality motorcycles. Like Triumph, the Great Depression was draining Components Ltd of cash and in 1932 the company folded but Jack, through his own intuition, networking abilities, private wealth and application of Schulte-style values (rationalization and concentration on fewer models) turned the Ariel business around.

Triumph in the meantime was struggling, with cars in particular proving extremely difficult to turn a profit. Bicycles and motorcycles, which were still produced under the Triumph Cycle Co guise, were held up for sacrifice. The pedal bike plant went first, in 1932 and then four years later Jack Sangster purchased the motorcycle division. Ironically, Val Page, an ex-Ariel man and extremely talented engine designer had joined Triumph in 1932 and had set about designing a brand new range of bikes, including a whole host of varying capacity OHV and side-valve singles (that shared many common parts) and a 650cc OHV vertical twin.

Sangster immediately installed two of Page’s Ariel ex-colleagues at the new Triumph Engineering Co Ltd; Edward Turner became Works’ Manager and Bert Hopwood was appointed designer. 1937 proved a landmark year for Triumph with the launch of a range of revamped singles (known as Tigers) together with the remarkable 498cc Speed Twin (T100). This model had, at the time, the same effect on motorcycling as the four-cylinder Honda CB750 did in 1969. It started well, ran well, had a reported top speed of over 90mph and simply defined everything a modern motorcycle should be. 

The press raved, the public intrigued and other manufacturers were inspired… and Triumph had the essence of the motorcycle they’d be building for the next thirty years.


1940's - Bombs, bikes and the USA..

The outbreak of WWII put a different complexion on Triumph’s commercial aspirations, as all production was geared up for the armed services. The 343cc Model 3H became Triumph’s warhorse, and was renamed the 3HW for service application. A prototype 350cc twin – the 3TW – was on the blocks and approved as the standard service bike when, on the night of the 14th November 1940 the Triumph factory was completely demolished in the blitz of Coventry. Undaunted, motorcycle production was resumed in temporary facilities in Warwick, while a brand new factory, in Meriden (the so-called centre of England) was built. The new plant opened its doors in 1942.

The T100 had impressed the American flat track racing community, and proved itself in competition repeatedly in the late ‘30s. Turner, sensing a business opportunity once hostilities finished looked hard at the US market for Triumph motorcycles. Throughout the war Turner maintained correspondence with Bill Johnson, who had started selling Triumphs from 1937, after Turner arrived at Triumph. In 1945, Turner met Johnson in the first of what would become an annual visit to America. Their friendship blossomed, as would Triumph’s sales in the US and the door was open for every other manufacturer to join the throng.

Post war the range on sale consisted of three models - the Tiger 100 and Speed Twin, as they were six years’ previously but with the bonus of telescopic front forks (and a ‘sprung’ rear hub), plus the smaller ‘touring’ 349cc 3T. In 1946 Irishman Ernie Lyons won the Manx Grand Prix on a Tiger 100, beating a host of Nortons. Hopwood, ironically enough, moved to Norton himself a year later as Chief Designer… 1949 saw in the same three bike line-up, but with the styling addition of the headlight and clocks being enclosed and mounted in a nacelle – a unique (and instantly recognizable) feature at the time. Two additions as the decade drew to a close were the off road 500cc Trophy, and the big bore (649cc!) Thunderbird, built in response to the constant American plea for more power.


1950's - A legend is born..

The 1950s were to prove a golden decade for Triumph, however it started with the firm being sold to rivals BSA by Sangster in 1951, to avoid crippling death duties (Sangster eventually took over the chairmanship of the BSA Group in 1956). Friendly competition continued between the two factories and in 1953 a new breed of Triumph bike arrived with the advent of the 149cc OHV Terrier, which had a four speed unit gearbox (the gearbox was part of the engine, rather than separate) and the look of its larger siblings. The 199cc Tiger Cub followed a year later – essentially the same bike with a larger capacity, it proved massively popular and eventually, after two years, replaced the Terrier. 

In 1954 the Tiger 110 was introduced. In essence a ‘sports’ makeover of the 649cc Thunderbird twin it had swinging arm rear suspension and a bigger front brake. Two years later Johnny Allen set a new world motorcycle speed record (214.5mph) on the Bonneville Salt Flats using a 649cc Triumph engine in a streamlined vehicle. His record was rejected, due to alleged timing gear problems but was to provide something that, for Triumph, would become immeasurable…

By adding a pair of carburetors to the T110 (which had been an option for the Tiger range for some time) and tuning the engine Triumph, in 1959, created perhaps its most famous bike, the T120, or, as it was called to commemorate Allen’s speed run, the Bonneville. The very essence of café-racer cool the Bonneville had the right, spartan look and just as importantly, the performance to go with it. It was a truly special motorcycle and arrived just in time to take full advantage of what was to become a very special decade…


1960's - Business booms but the future’s uncertain..

The ‘60s were to prove a fabulous decade for motorcycling in general and Triumph had a winning formula. The Bonneville was a fantastic success - the definitive sports twin of the ‘60s, without question - both in Britain and in the States and competition success at the TT and Daytona spawned a myriad of models.


Bert Hopwood returned to Triumph in 1961 as Director, thanks to Turner’s efforts. Turner was to retire eventually as chief executive of the BSA Group in 1964 (but remained a director until 1967) but not before he got a glimpse of things to come after a trip to Japan. He was stunned by the ability of the Japanese to manufacture in vast quantities and the speed with which they could research, design and produce a bike to very high standards. However, it was felt that the Japanese would always build small bikes, which meant when all these new motorcyclists wanted more power they’d have to buy British.

Although the seeds of disaster were being sewn, at this time sales of Triumph motorcycles were very healthy. Sixty percent of all output went for export, which left 40 percent for the domestic market and evolution, not revolution remained the name of the game. Harry Sturgeon, an ex-MD of a BSA group subsidiary, took over from Turner in 1967. Eventually rumors of a Japanese 750 could not be ignored and Sturgeon needed to know how his group were going to counter this new threat. As it happened, Hopwood and Doug Hele had been working quietly – and without official sanction – on a three cylinder 750. The design was rushed through the prototype stage and became the Triumph Trident (T150) and BSA Rocket Three.


1970's - Things take a turn for the worse..

The 1970s were to prove disastrous for Triumph. Sturgeon died three years after taking the helm and Lionel Jofeh replaced him – a man who, like Sturgeon, was on the ‘outside’ of the business. He didn’t last long and was replaced by Brian Eustace. Management of the BSA group as a whole was in a state of flux, constantly changing and with no consistent strategy. Some of the products emerging too were a little doubtful; the Ariel 3 was a two-stroke three-wheeled moped, hinged so it could lean into corners with the rear wheels remaining in contact with the ground. It was a disaster both to produce and in terms of sales, and reputedly lost £2,000,000. Ironically, the three cylinder motor was proving almost unbeatable on the race track and in its ‘Slippery Sam’ guise won the IoM Production TT five years on the trot from ‘71-‘75, as well many Formula 750 races.

Throughout the ‘60s a healthy profit had been earned, but times had changed. Thanks to the internal confusion, and the rapid progress of the Japanese factories, Triumph was in deep trouble, with the BSA group recording a loss by 1971 of £8.5m. A year later a £3.3m loss was posted and things were looking bleak. In July 1973, in a government sponsored move, a new company was formed - Norton-Villiers-Triumph. Against the wishes of the Triumph workforce Norton Villiers Triumph planned to move Triumph production to the BSA factory at Small Heath, Birmingham. As a result the Meriden workers staged a sit-in that lasted almost two years. It ended finally when in March 1975 a workers’ co-operative was set up purely to manufacture the Bonneville in 750cc form, primarily for the American market.

Although there were some noteworthy bikes built during this period - the ’77 Bonneville Jubilee Special and T140D Special with cast wheels - the writing was on the factory wall.

1980's - The end and the new beginning..

The Meriden factory closed its doors in early 1983. The cash had simply run out and liquidation followed along with the sale of the company assets. The Meriden site was bulldozed into rubble in ’84 and houses built. It seemed like the end of Triumph and, with it, the British motorcycle industry. But, fortunately, it wasn’t. Property developer and self-made millionaire John Bloor bought the Triumph name and a new, privately owned company - Triumph Motorcycles Limited - was born.

Initially Devon-based firm Racing Spares (who’d previously been making parts for Triumph) were licensed to build the final incarnation of the Bonneville, principally to keep the Triumph marque alive, while the new company laid plans for Triumph’s return to the world stage.

From 1985, for three long years, Racing Spares built the ´Bonneville USA´ model as Triumph put plans in action in total silence and secrecy. During this time a new factory was built in Hinckley, Leicestershire. By 1989 the rumors were circulating. The new Triumphs would be totally different to those that had gone before - three and four cylinder engines with water-cooling, four valves per cylinder and double overhead camshafts - in other words, contemporary with the then Japanese technology. As Racing Spares carried on with a legend that had been born and very much left, in a very different era, the new company were focused very much on not only the here and now, but also on the future. Triumph would once again be a force to be reckoned with.

1990's - New factory, new technology, new bikes..

Six new brand new Triumph motorcycles were unveiled to the bike industry and press at the Cologne Show in September 1990. Based around two different engine formats, these models – the unfaired Trident 750 and 900 Triples, the touring-oriented Trophy 900 triple and 1200 four and the sports-slanted Daytona 750 triple and 1000 four - employed a modular concept, meaning that many parts were common to all. Thoroughly modern in performance and technology, they were well received in all quarters. The line up evolved when in ’93 the Daytonas grew in capacity becoming a 900 triple and 1200 four. Soon after a Triumph once again wore the name ‘Tiger’ on its tank, with the introduction of an off road styled 900cc triple that won legions of fans for its long-legged capabilities.

But it was the advent of the Speed Triple, in 1994 that really caught the press and the publics’ imagination. Just as the hopped-up Thunderbird had metamorphosed into the Bonneville in the ‘50s so the new Speed Triple captured a piece of café racer chic. It had a ton of character, plenty of performance and a raw look that was just right for the time. It also had its own one-make race series, which ensured that the public saw what the Speed Triple was capable of on a racetrack.

Ever growing volumes meant the opportunity to evolve away from the modular concept and in 1997 the T595 Daytona was launched to an expectant world. Dispensing with carburetors its brand new three-cylinder engine used state of the art fuel injection, which at the time was a rarity. It also had a chassis the match of pretty much any production sports bike available and marked Triumph’s ability to not only exist as a manufacturing entity, but to lead once again. Subsequently the fuel-injected engine was adopted to power new versions of the Tiger and Speed Triple, together with the unveiling of a brand new sports-touring machine – the Sprint ST. 

The end of the decade also saw an expansion to Triumph’s production facilities with work completed on a second Hinckley manufacturing facility.



2000's - An eventful start to the decade..

The dawn of the 21st Century saw Triumph build its 100,000th bike at the Hinckley plant and release two brand new motorcycles. The first, the sports middleweight TT600, met the Japanese manufacturers squarely on their turf. With a 599cc fuel-injected inline four-cylinder engine and a chassis that was won universal praise the TT600 was and still is, the only non-Japanese contender in the class. Perhaps even bigger news for Triumph was the unveiling of the second new model – the Bonneville. An evocative 790cc air-cooled parallel twin, the new Bonnie combined the look, feel and soul (even granted today’s restrictive noise and emissions tests) of the legendary late ‘60s T120. It was an immediate success, not only here but also – just as before – in America. The cruiser-style Bonneville America followed hard on its heels, specifically designed for the US rider.

Then fate intervened again. Just as Triumph geared up for the busy coming season, the factory was devastated, this time not by bombs but by fire. The blaze of 15th of March 2002 saw the complete destruction of the chassis and final assembly lines and the injection molding area. The machine shops, engine assembly area and paint shop were affected by water, heat and corrosive soot. The fire was one of the largest industrial conflagrations ever to occur in Britain and although bike production was halted for six months and a shortage of some 20,000 machines caused some problems, there was never any doubt that Triumph would, just as before, come back. Almost six months to the day, the rebuilt factory was fully operational.

Soon after, at the 2003 International Motorcycle Show in Birmingham, England, the four-cylinder Daytona 600 supersports bike was shown publicly for the very first time. Visually stunning and packed with state of the art technology, the Daytona 600 is the fruit of hard earned knowledge and experience, gained from the TT600. Schulte, Sangster, Turner, Hopwood and the cast of thousands that have been involved in Triumph motorcycles over the last 100 years would surely approve…