With over 120 years of history to its name, Triumph Motorcycles has had its ups and downs over the years. These bumps in the road were often accompanied by changes in ownership in an effort to keep the name of the world’s longest continuous production motorcycle manufacturer alive. We’ve chronicled these various ownerships below to help you better understand the history of Triumph and any particular model you may own.
The Early Years of the New Triumph Co Ltd
Like many of the earliest motorcycle companies, Triumph got its start in bicycles. In 1885, Siegfried Betteman began selling bicycles in London as the S. Bettemann & Co. Import Export Agency. It didn’t take long for him to realize that this wasn’t a very catchy name for a bicycle company, so in 1886 he decided to rename his company the Triumph Cycle Company.
A year later, after the company had received funding from the Dunlap Pneumatic Tyre Company, the name was once again updated to the New Triumph Co. Ltd. The first Triumph motorcycle was a bicycle outfitted with a Minerva engine sold in 1902. At this time, Triumph also began producing motorcycles out of Nuremberg, Germany under the name TWN (Triumph Werke Nürnberg).
The most popular bike produced during this era of Triumph was the Model H Roadster, also known as the “Trusty Triumph.” As one of the most reliable motorcycles available at the time, the model H was selected by the British Government for use in World War I.
The Triumph Engineering Co Ltd
By 1933, Bettemann had be forced to retire as the company struggled through the depression years. The bicycle manufacturing end of the company had been sold to Raleigh and in 1936 the Triumph motorcycle division was acquired by Jack Sangster of the Ariel motorcycle company. Sangster would reform the company as the Triumph Engineering Co Ltd with ex-Ariel employees filling most of the directorial positions.
One of the directors, Edward Turner, designed the 500 cc Speed Twin 5T whose OHV vertical twin engine served as the model for all Triumph twins up until the 1980s. A lighter and more powerful version of this bike was released in 1939 as the Tiger 100 (T100): the “100” referring to Triumph’s claim that the bike had a maximum speed of 100 mph.
Production Under BSA
In 1951, Sanger sold the company to the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) Company and joined the company’s board of directors. He would eventually go on to take over as Chairman of BSA in 1956.
It was under the ownership of BSA that Triumph released the now legendary Bonneville. The T120 Bonneville was an updated version of the Tiger T100 featuring twin Amal carburetors. The bike was so popular in the United States that Harley-Davidson was forced to respond with their own sporty model, appropriately named the Sportster.
By 1969, Triumph owned 50% of the US market for motorcycles over 500 cc, but things would quickly change as the Japanese bikes began to flood the market. Although the Japanese manufactures primarily dominated the small displacement market, when Honda released its 750 cc four cylinder BSA took a big hit. By 1972, BSA had gone bankrupt.
Norton Villers Triumph
In 1972, the British Government stepped in and brokered a merger between BSA-Triumph, Norton Villlers, and Norton Villers parent company, Manganese Bronze Holdings. The new company, Norton Villlers Triumph (NVT), suffered many setbacks over the next few years, including the loss of government aid and factory closures.
When the group announced the closure of the Meriden factory, workers staged a two-year sit-in to protest relocation of manufacturing to the BSA site in Birmingham. As NVT began to collapse in 1977, a co-operative of Meriden workers bought the marketing rides to Triumph.
The Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative
With more government loans, The Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative continued to produce the Bonneville and Tiger, as well as emission-compliant models such as the T140E Bonneville for the American market.
However, a strong UK pound kept sales low in the US and the co-operative’s dept only continued to grow. Some last ditch attempts at saving the company included the dual purpose TRT7 Tiger Trail, but by 1983, Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) was once again bankrupt.
Triumph Motorcycles Ltd
In 1983, Triumph was saved by the wealthy English developer, John Bloor, who bought the name and manufacturing rights, and established Triumph Motorcycles Ltd. For the next five years, as Bloor worked at reinventing the company, only a very few Bonnevilles were produced by Les Harris of Racing Spares.
Meanwhile, Bloor and several former Triumph designers visited Japanese factories to observe their production techniques and learn how to incorporate them into Triumph’s manufacturing process. By 1987, Triumph had built its first engine and a new era of Triumph motorcycles was born.
Since the launch of its new range of three and four cylinder bikes in 1990, Triumph has continued to grow steadily despite recent troubles in the global motorcycle market. For the most part, these Triumphs have proved reliable and competitive. One exception was the four cylinder bikes, such as the TT600, which have since been phased out.
As the company continues to grow, new models are steadily being released. The latest additions to the Triumph line-up were released in 2011 as the Tiger Explorer, the Speed Triple R and the Steve McQueen Special.