5th January 2021

Motorcycling Landmarks: The Triton

In the 1950s and early 60s, the hottest roadburner available to a rider on an everyday income was not the product of a single manufacturer but a home made special, the Triton. By fitting a Triumph twin into Norton’s legendary featherbed frame (to make a Tri-ton), an owner could combine the gutsy, free-revving performance of the Triumph motor with the exemplary handling and steering of the Norton frame.

The popularity was understandable. At the time, Triumph’s frames were widely criticised for poor high-speed handling, which probably resulted in many crashed machines with perfectly good engines being available cheaply for salvage. Meanwhile Norton didn’t just use the featherbed frame on their performance models; it was also used on more mundane, less desirable machines with pushrod single cylinder engines that were often sold for a song, especially if the engine needed attention.

Norton’s chassis expertise wasn’t limited to the frame design either. Most Nortons also came equipped with the excellent Roadholder forks and a very competent front brake. All the builder needed to complete a Triton was a bespoke set of engine mounting plates and a suitable footrest arrangement.

Of course, few builders stopped at that point. More often they would add clip-on handlebars, a racing fuel tank and seat, a central oil tank, swept back exhausts and megaphones. In the engine department, the widespread availability of tuning parts for Triumphs meant the only limitation for an enthusiastic Rocker was the size of his (or her) weekly wage packet.

Although some Tritons were built with 500cc engines, for example to race in the 500 class, the prime choice was a 650, particularly the Bonneville with its twin carburettors. The ultimate tuning modification was the rare and expensive Weslake 8-valve head, giving four valves per cylinder which was unheard of at the time outside Grand Prix racing. Capacity increases to 680 and even 750cc were also available.

Part of the attraction of a Triton was the individuality of each one, reflecting the personal preferences of the builder. However, the most accomplished builds tended to come from professional companies, such as Dresda Autos in London who assembled as many as one Triton per week in the mid-60s.

Experts will argue over the perfect specification for a Triton. The featherbed is a long frame, designed to wrap around an engine with a separate gearbox. When Triumph introduced its shorter, unit construction motors with engine and gearbox combined, it made building a Triton more difficult. Placing the engine well forward improved weight distribution; placing it further back improved rear chain geometry; not an easy choice.

Even the featherbed frame variants divide opinion. The original ‘wideline’ frame has been likened to sitting astride an ironing board! The later, narrower ‘slimline’ frame overcomes this but some say it handles less well than the original.

Manufacturers often use words like ‘thoroughbred’ in their sales literature but the lasting legacy of the Triton is that a mongrel, built from carefully chosen parts, can deliver a combination of style and performance equal to any so-called thoroughbred.

What do you think of The Triton? Let us know in the comments below.