Thursday, 20 December 2012

Triumph motorcycles - still going and still cool

These days Triumph, threatened with extinction in 1983, has been reborn thanks to John Bloor, a clever and hardworking businessman who started life as a plasterer and was so successful that he ended up with enough cash to save Triumph's bacon. John Bloor bought Triumph when it went into receivership in 1983 and, using clever planning, saved it's bacon so that nowadays bikes roll off the Hinkley production line to order and Triumph is still a cool as it was in the day of Steve McQueen and not consigned to the scrap heap like so many other great marques and manufacturers...

A Triumph over adversity


Triumph started out as a success story, by 1967 it was the epitome of cool and loved by the celebrities of the day such as Steve McQueen, who owned dozens and rode them around the dunes near his home in California.  Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and Clint Eastwood all had Triumph Bonneville T120s and Marlon Brando looked cool and sulky on a triumph Thunderbird 650cc in The Wild 

Triumph Tiger Cub 1963

Despite its early success it has not been an easy ride for Triumph and the company nearly foundered in the eighties at the same time as many other great motorcycle manufacturers fell by the wayside.   Triumph's tale of woe up to 1983 included a serious recession, and a failed attempt by Tony Benn to turn Triumph into a workers' co-operative, which eventually left Triumph in the hands of the receivers after failing to compete with the muscle of the big Japanese manufacturers.  Triumph was really a victim of its own success, it had just carried on producing the same bikes with the same outdated technology year after year and its rivals, like Harley Davidson, were doing the same thing. Because there wasn't much competition Triumph and Harley got away with it until the Japanese entered the market to give them a run for their money and do it properly, with reliable engines that always worked.

1983 Triumph Bonneville

Stunning good looks

However all was not lost for Triumph, due to its stunning good looks and general coolness, John Bloor loved it enough to take a punt on it.  John Bloor, was a reclusive self made millionaire who had made his fortune from humble beginnings as a trainee plasterer riding round on a Triumph motorcycle. This early connection with Triumphs had obviously made him love the bikes enough to try to save the company. 

Triumph Bonneville

Bloor  was only 39 in 1983 but had already built his property company into a multimillion pound business and so he bought the name Triumph from the Official Receiver, built his own small west country factory and promptly did nothing for seven years while he formed a cunning plan...

The cunning plan...

Bloor realised that Triumph was not able to compete in the modern Japanese dominated market, in its present form with outdated machine tools and design so he planned to drag it kicking and screaming up to date. He was a clever man and he worked out that people wanted the coolness of a Triumph but were no longer prepared to put up with a bike that was out of date and unreliable - they were used to Japanese bikes now which actually worked. So he decided that he would take the Japanese on. He did this with a mixture of courage and cunning. He assembled a team of great British engineers and took them to Japan to get an idea of how the Japanese were doing it.  The Japanese even invited them in for a tour, never suspecting that the Brits were going to take them on!  This gave Bloor the opportunity to see how they were doing it and give him some great ideas.



After extensive research Bloor was ready to go.  He realised that the only way Triumph was going to work was with hefty investment at every level - of the order of £100 million was invested, it's thought, before it had even re-launched.  In 1990 Triumph launched with not one but six new bikes and took the motorcycle world by storm.

Bloor, in a reaction against the 1980s idea of wealth creation without manufacturing, had built a factory in Britain with a British workforce of 100 which made 1,200 motorcycles in its first year - but that was only the start.

Production steadily increased and Triumph returned to America in 1994.  Tom Cruise helped the cause by using a Triumph in Mission Impossible II -  great publicity for Triumph which helped to build the brand in the US.

All was going well it seemed but although Triumphs were now very well engineered and reliable, the styling had become a bit anodyne and bland and they didn't have the grit and coolness of the earlier models. Then in March one of those disasters happened which looked as though it might really be the end for Triumph this time - a massive fire took hold in the factory and completely destroyed the production lines.

Ashes to ashes

It looked like the end but yet again Triumph rose phoenix-like from the ashes due to Bloor's determination.

1998 Triumph Daytona
Bloor, never one to give up, called in the management consultants and actually listened to what they said about the problem - they were concerned about making Triumphs aspirational again and advised Bloor to stop making boring bikes and go back to a niche market product with two or three cylinder engines and to his credit he listened.  The 2,300cc Rocket III, the largest capacity production bike in the world was born.  This was clearly a sign of how Triumph meant to go on and had an eighteen month waiting list by the time it went on sale in 2004.

Spurred on by his success at re-inventing the Triumph, he had further successes with all the new models the Daytona 675 regularly comes out on top against Japanese models, sharing its engine with the Street Triple which is the best seller.  The Thruxton, has retro sixties cafe racer styling, the Scrambler is reminiscent of the Steve McQueen era and the Bonneville looks just how it used to but has a great modern engine.  The Speedmaster, the America and the Thunderbird all have easy rider styling for the American market.  The Rocket III is the king, however, with a sound and look which makes it totally unique and very covetable.

2000 Triumph TT

One step beyond

Always ahead of the game Bloor made Dane Tue Mantoni from the management consultants firm McKinsey who had originally advised him on the direction to go in, CEO at the age of just 33 and he cleverly  saw the recession coming and anticipated problems with sales.  His strategy was to cut production, bringing out special editions to encourage people to buy and so far it seems to have worked with Triumph keeping up well with its rivals.

Triumphs remain as popular as ever and are really rated in countries which appreciate style like Italy and Japan. British design has an understated coolness and cachet, and a passing Triumph will always turn heads which is why they are still popular with celebrities like Brad Pitt and Prince Harry. 

Roll on Triumph, let's see what they do next!


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