So much has been written about the demise of the British motorcycle industry but relatively little about how it was resurrected. Why did Triumph succeed where others failed?
In 1983 the Triumph workers’ co-operative at Meriden finally went under after struggling financially for years, followed soon afterwards by the widely publicised failure of Hesketh motorcycles. It seemed as though British machines could no longer compete with overseas manufacturers.
Triumph’s saviour appeared in the shape of multi-millionaire house builder John Bloor, who was initially interested in acquiring building land on the site of the old motorcycle factory. Instead, he bought the Triumph name and intellectual property rights, with a view to adding motorcycle manufacture to his business empire.
The vast resources of the Bloor group meant Triumph could fund the engineering and manufacture of a new range of bikes without the penny pinching that had undermined previous British bike projects. Without this level of financial backing, Triumph would have remained a niche brand enduring a ‘hand to mouth’ existence.
If money was one of the key ingredients for success, spending it wisely was the other. Six former Triumph employees were selected to join the new company, chosen for their knowledge of motorcycle design, manufacture and marketing, coupled with their willingness to learn from the mistakes of the past and embrace new methods and technologies.
Triumph recognised that it would only get one shot at returning to the market so product quality and reliability would be paramount. It became one of the first UK companies to use CAD/CAM methods (computer aided design and manufacture). Triumph was also one of the first to use high strength extruded 7020 aluminium for swinging arms, plasma nitrided steel for crankshafts and robot welding for frames.
Perhaps the master stroke was in the product strategy which the new company adopted. The foundation of the new motorcycles was a modular design family of three and four cylinder models, each produced in two capacities just by changing the stroke of the engine. Ranging from 750cc to 1200cc, the bikes shared a common frame and chassis design along with many engine parts.
This approach enabled six new models to be launched with little more development work than a single bike would have required. It also drove down manufacturing costs by increasing the quantities of parts purchased. In a marketplace dominated by four cylinder engines, Triumph ‘hedged its bets’ by offering customers a choice between a familiar four or distinctive triple.
The concept even provided what we now call ‘future proofing’ (protecting the design for future changes). Because the frame was largely hidden by the fuel tank, seat and styling panels, it enabled subsequent models, such as the Tiger Trail with adventure styling and Thunderbird with classic styling, to carry over much of the previous engineering, reducing the development costs.
Now approaching 30 years old, those first modular Triumphs may seem somewhat heavy and bulky today, but they were well received by press and public alike and provided a strong foundation from which the company could build a more diverse product range.
Which classic bike marque would you like to see resurrected? Let us know in the comments below!