Triumph Motorcycles Ltd.
Triumph Motorcycles Ltd.
Incorporated: 1906 as Triumph Engineering Co. Ltd.
Sales: £165 million ($250 million) (2002 est.)
NAIC: 336991 Motorcycle, Bicycle, and Parts Manufacturing; 423110 Automobile and Other Motor Vehicle Merchant Wholesalers
One of the oldest names in motorcycle manufacturing, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd. is also one of the youngest—while production of the first Triumph motorcycles began in 1902, in its present incarnation the company has been in business only since 1990. Triumph’s motorcycle production facilities in Hinckley, England, had to be completely rebuilt after the original plant was destroyed by fire early in 2002. The plant is capable of producing up to 50,000 units per year; a second plant has been in the works and is expected to open in 2003. The private company’s sales are estimated at more than £165 million ($250 million) per year, with the United States representing the company’s biggest market. Triumph is entirely owned by John Bloor, who is also head of Bloor Holdings, a real estate development company. Bloor’s total investment in Triumph, which only began to break even at the turn of the century, is estimated to range between £70 and £100 million. Triumph also sells a line of Triumph-branded clothing and accessories.
Making Motorcycles at the Turn of the 20th Century
Nuremberg, Germany native Siegfried Bettmann emigrated to the town of Coventry, England, in 1883. A year later, at the age of 20, Bettmann founded his own company, the S. Bettmann & Co. Import Export Agency, in London. Bettmann’s original products were bicycles, which the company bought and then sold under its own brand name. Bettmann also distributed sewing machines imported from Germany.
In 1886, however, Bettmann sought a new, more universal name for his company, and the company became known as the Triumph Cycle Company. A year later, the company registered as the New Triumph Co. Ltd., now with financial backing from the Dunlop Tyre Company. In that year, Bettmann was joined by another Nuremberg native, Mauritz Schulte.
Schulte encouraged Bettmann to transform Triumph into a manufacturing company, and in 1888 Bettmann purchased a site in Coventry using money lent by his and Schulte’s families. The company began producing the first Triumph-branded bicycles in 1889. Meanwhile, the popularity of the bicycle and invention of the internal combustion engine had led a number of inventors to begin experimenting with the first motorcycle designs. By 1898, Triumph decided to extend its own production to include motorcycles.
By 1902, the company had debuted its first motorcycle—a bicycle fitted with a Belgian-built engine. The following year, as its motorcycle sales topped 500, Triumph opened a subsidiary, Orial TWN (Triumph Werke Nuremberg) in Germany in order to produce motorcycles for that market as well. During its first few years producing motorcycles, the company based its designs on those of other manufacturers. In 1904, Triumph began building motorcycles based on its own designs and in 1905 debuted its first completely in-house designed motorcycle. By the end of that year, the company had produced more than 250 of that design.
Triumph reincorporated as Triumph Engineering Co. Ltd. in 1906. By then production had doubled, and in 1907, after the company opened a larger plant, production doubled once again to 1,000 bikes. Triumph had also launched a second, lower-end brand, Gloria, produced in the company’s original plant.
By 1909, production of the Triumph brand had topped 3,000 per year, and the company added new, updated designs, including the popular Roadster model. The outbreak of World War I proved a boost of sorts for the company as production was switched to support the Allied war effort. More than 30,000 motorcycles—among them the Model H Roadster, often cited as the first modern motorcycle—were supplied to the Allies. The Roadster’s nickname, the “Trusty Triumph,” provided an early promotional push for the company.
Following the war, Bettmann and Schulte fell out over a disagreement, with Schulte wishing to replace bicycle production with a move into the automobile market. Schulte was replaced by Col. Claude Holbrook—who, in fact, agreed with Schulte. By the early 1920s, the company was prepared to launch its first motor car, the model 10/20, which came to market in 1923. Triumph continued to manufacture bicycles, however.
By the mid-1920s, Triumph had grown into one of Britain’s leading motorcycle makers, with a 500,000-square-foot plant capable of producing up to 30,000 motorcycles each year. With its models winning top honors at many of the races held during the period, Triumph also found its bikes in high demand overseas, and export sales became a primary source of the company’s revenues, although for the United States, Triumph models were manufactured under license. The company found its first automotive success with the debut of the Super Seven car in 1928.
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 sold off another part of the company, its bicycle manufacturing facility. 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, however, the company’s two components became separate companies—the Triumph automobile operation went bankrupt in 1939 and was acquired by the Standard Motor Company. The motorcycle operation fared better, having been acquired in 1936 by John Sangster, who also owned the rival Ariel motorcycle company. That same year, the company began its first imports into the United States, which quickly grew into the company’s single most important market.
- German immigrant Siegfried Bettmann sets up S. Bettmann Import Export Agency in London and begins distributing bicycles under Bettmann name.
- The company changes its name to Triumph Cycle Company.
- Triumph buys a factory in Coventry to begin producing bicycles.
- The company moves its headquarters to Coventry.
- The first Triumph motorcycles go into production using a Belgian engine.
- A manufacturing subsidiary is created in Nuremberg, Germany, to produce Triumph motorcycles for the German market.
- The first fully company-built motorcycle is produced.
- Switching to wartime production, the company produces 30,000 “Trusty Triumph” motorcycles for the Allies during the World War I.
- The first Triumph car model, the 10/20, is launched.
- Triumph’s German subsidiary is spun off as a separate company, which continues to make Triumph motorcycles until the 1950s.
- Triumph car and motorcycle operations are broken up into two companies; Jack Sangster, who owns Ariel motorcycles, buys the motorcycle division.
- Triumph Cars goes bankrupt and is acquired by Standard Motor Company.
- The company switches to wartime production, building over 50,000 motorcycles for the Allies.
- The Thunderbird model debuts.
- Triumph is acquired by the BSA Group, which also makes BSA motorcycles.
- Marlon Brando rides a Triumph Thunderbird in the film The Wild One.
- The Bonneville, hailed as the greatest motorcycle of all time, is introduced.
- Triumph production peaks at nearly 48,000 motorcycles.
- Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT) is created in an effort to rescue the British motorcycle industry.
- After NVT chairman announces the closure of the Triumph plant; its workers stage an 18-month sit-in, shutting down production.
- Meriden Motorcycle Cooperative is created with government backing and production soon resumes at the Triumph plant.
- Triumph goes bankrupt, and its brand and manufacturing rights are acquired by John Bloor.
- Bloor opens a state-of-the-art plant in Hinckley and unveils new Triumph models.
- The company begins full-scale production of new models.
- Triumph returns to the U.S. market, distributing through Triumph USA subsidiary set up the year before.
- The company relaunches the Bonneville and approaches the break-even mark.
World War II and After
Production of civil models came to a halt once again as Triumph converted to wartime production at the beginning of World War II. The company supplied more than 50,000 motorcycles to the Allied forces despite a bombing raid on Coventry that had destroyed the company’s manufacturing facility in 1940. Production was moved to a new site in Meriden, which was to remain the company’s base until the 1980s. The company also began producing lightweight generator motors for Britain’s Royal Air Force.
Triumph returned to civilian production in 1946, although military production of its motorcycles continued for some time as well. The company was to base its newest models on the generator motor design, which led to the development of the acclaimed Thunderbird. Launched in 1950, the Thunderbird was hailed as the world’s first “superbike,” capable of reaching speeds of 100 mph (and also inspiring the development of the Ford Thunderbird automobile). In addition, the company introduced at this time the first of its three-cylinder engines (most motorcycles had either two or four cylinders), which became a company hallmark.
By then, Triumph—which had been bought by the BSA Group in 1951 for £2.5 million—had put into place its own dedicated distribution subsidiary for the U.S. market, Triumph Corp., based in Maryland. Known as TriCor, the subsidiary helped nearly triple U.S. imports of Triumph motorcycles in just a year. With the success of the 1954 film The Wild One, which featured Marlon Brando riding a clearly identified Thunderbird, Triumph became one of the hottest-selling motorcycle brands in the United States.
While continuing to roll out successful motorcycle models in the mid-1950s, Triumph extended its production into a line of scooters. In 1958, however, Triumph unveiled a new model, the Bonneville, named after the track where the model had set a new speed record. The Bonneville, which inspired the Pontiac Bonneville car model, was to become regarded as one of the greatest motorcycles ever built. 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.
By the middle of the 1960s, the United States had come to account for some 80 percent of Triumph’s production, which reached its all-time peak in 1969, with nearly 47,000 motorcycles produced that year. By then, however, Triumph, like the rest of the British motorcycle manufacturing industry, was already past its prime.
Collapsing in the 1980s
In the 1950s, the British motorcycle industry had been the world’s largest, producing three out of every five motorcycles sold worldwide. Yet English manufacturing methods had not kept pace with those used elsewhere in the world—especially in Japan, whose motorcycle manufacturers, including Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Kawasaki, had begun to impose themselves not only on the road but on the racetrack as well.
Japanese mass production techniques enabled these new brands rapidly to build up their share in the market, offering good quality and low pricing. Triumph, meanwhile, had become haunted by a reputation for its low production quality, the result of a lack of investment in its manufacturing base. The U.S. market, the world’s largest, had during this time grown from just 50,000 motorcycles per year in the 1950s to more than two million per year at the beginning of the 1970s—growth inspired in large part by Triumph itself.
By 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 had announced the company’s decision to shut down the Triumph facility in Meriden, putting some 3,000 employees out of work.
The 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. NVT hardly fared better. 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 had run out of money.
Reborn in the 1990s
In 1983, the Triumph name and manufacturing rights were quietly purchased by John Bloor, a plasterer turned real estate magnate who had become one of the United Kingdoms’s wealthiest individuals. Bloor, who had little interest in motorcycles, had for some time wanted to start up a manufacturing business. Touring the Meriden plant, which was slated for demolition in 1984, Bloor became interested in Triumph, and particularly its still highly regarded brand name.
Due to the fact that the company’s manufacturing plant and its designs were too far out of date to compete against the now-dominant Japanese makers, Bloor did not relaunch Triumph immediately. Instead, production of the Triumph Bonneville was licensed 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. In 1985, Triumph purchased a first set of equipment to begin working, in secret, on its new prototype models. By 1987, the company had completed its first engine. The following year, the company purchased a new site in Hinckley and began construction of a new, state-of-the-art facility, completed in 1990.
In that year, Triumph returned to the worldwide motorcycle scene with the launch of six new models. Full-scale production began in 1991, as the company, now with nearly 100 employees, produced some 1,200 motorcycles. Bloor, who continued to bankroll the company’s development from his own fortune, had correctly judged that the Triumph name remained a strong marketing tool, and by the end of 1991 the company had begun shipping to Germany, then Holland, Australia, and France. The company also shrewdly kept many of the original Triumph model names from its heyday. By 1992, the company’s production had already topped 5,000 motorcycles.
The new Triumphs were not only winning praise for their design innovation but for their high quality as well. Sales and production continued to surge, topping 8,000 in 1993. By 1995, the company was already reaching the 15,000-unit capacity of its existing facility, as orders came in from more than 25 countries. In 1997, in order to meet growing demand, Triumph initiated an expansion of the Hinckley plant.
Triumph initially avoided entering the U.S. market because its production facilities were not yet able to meet the expected demand. In 1995, however, Triumph reentered the United States, launching an updated version of its famed Thunderbird. The company also took a leaf from Harley Davidson’s book, launching a line of Triumph-branded clothing and accessories. The United States proved a ready market for the company, fueled in part by Triumph’s willingness to allow dealers to offer test rides—something most motorcycle manufacturers refused.
Triumph relaunched another legendary model in 1996, the Daytona, which surprised the industry by outselling its comparably classed rival from Honda. Meanwhile, the company moved to take advantage of a growing shift in the motorcycle market away from youthful customers to a more affluent clientele of 35-50 year-olds attracted by Triumph’s retro styling. In 2000, the company relaunched its legendary Bonneville, the success of which boosted the company’s total production to 33,000 units by 2001. The company was also finally beginning to break even, on sales that had risen to an estimated £165 million ($250 million). Bloor’s own investment in the company was said to have totaled as much as £100 million.
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 that year. Furthermore, Triumph began plans to build a new, cutting-edge manufacturing facility, which was expected to open in 2003. 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.
Triumph Motorcycles Inc. (USA).
Honda Motor Company Ltd.; Bayerische Motoren Werke AG; Suzuki Motor Corp.; Harley-Davidson Motor Co.; Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd.; Kyocera Corp.; Yamaha Motor Company Ltd.; Ducati Motor Holding SpA.
Brown, Roland, “Wheeling Back in Triumph,” Independent, April 19, 1997, p. 20.
Brown, Stuart F., Fortune Small Business, April 2002, p. 48.
“Company Triumphs Through Adversity,” Newsletter, December 21, 2002.
Harris, Alan, “A Global Triumph,” Evening Telegraph, July 8, 2002, p. 15.
McDiarmid, Mac, Triumph: The Legend, London: Smithmark Publishing, 1997.
Tipler, John, Triumph Motorcycles, Thrupp, England: Sutton Publishing, 2000.