Thursday, 19 September 2013

How Triumph motorbikes became cool again.

Clint Eastwood (above with Tisha Sterling) in Coogan's Bluff

Steve McQueen loved Triumph bikes 

Bob Dylan famously crashed his Triumph 

Ann-Margaret in The Swinger

Marlon Brando straddled his own Thunderbird 650cc in The Wild One

Triumph is now going great guns again. Last year it posted record sales of more than 49,000 bikes, finally eclipsing the record set in the Steve McQueen era (above the modern Triumph Thunderbird)
 Return of the wild one: How Triumph motorbikes became cool again
Brando, Dylan and Elvis made them cool  -  but Britain's Triumph motorbikes would have been consigned to the scrapheap if it hadn't been for a reclusive visionary, £200 million... and a little help from Tom Cruise.

Viewed from the road, it's an unassuming building on an industrial estate on the outskirts of a drab, grey Midlands manufacturing town. Hinckley lies halfway between Birmingham and Leicester; it's handy for the M69, but there isn't much else to recommend it.
Just a mile or so beyond the town centre, the factory is a sharp slice of metallic grey against the light-blue sky. If it weren't for the solitary dark-blue logo above the black-glass portico, I'd never make the link between this soulless slab and a venerable British motoring legend with an oil-stained pedigree as old as Rolls-Royce.
Inside though, it's like stepping back in time. Here 750 people design and build motorbikes using proper, old-fashioned engineering. The air is thick with the smell of oil and swarf as the engines' fundamental components are milled from solid blocks of steel and aluminium.
The bikes come down the production line seemingly at random; sharp-looking sports bikes follow gorgeous retro classics follow cruisers. But they don't hang around long. Each is built to order. Once finished, it's packed into a box and shipped to the customer. The factory isn't sexy. The location isn't glamorous. But the logo on the box tells a different story. These bikes are Triumphs.
Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood and Bob Dylan rode Triumph Bonneville T120s. Marlon Brando straddled his own Thunderbird 650cc in The Wild One, while Evel Knievel flew a Bonneville over Caesar's Palace fountains. But it was Steve McQueen who really made the Triumph name, when in one of the most memorable moments of 1963's The Great Escape he guns through the German countryside trying to outrun Nazi soldiers on his TR6 Trophy.
McQueen loved Triumph bikes. Not only was he inextricably linked with them in films, but he also owned dozens, riding them through the dunes around his California home and in some of the most iconic photos of the era. In the Fifties and Sixties the Triumph motorcycle was the ultimate symbol of cool, outshining even Harley-Davidson as the postwar epitome of style, freedom and rebellion.
Triumph is now going great guns again. Last year it posted record sales of more than 49,000 bikes, finally eclipsing the record set in the McQueen era, and turning a £14.5 million profit. Hollywood loves Triumph once more; George Clooney, Nicolas Cage and Ewan McGregor are all customers. The contrast with Britain's ailing car industry couldn't be clearer.
Two years ago Triumph even overtook Ducati to become Europe's second-biggest bike maker. And this is only the start. With mad styling and engines that other makers just don't have the nerve to match, the British brand now has the all-powerful BMW in its sights as it gears up to try to become the continent's dominant motorcycle manufacturer.
But it has not been a smooth ride. In the Eighties Triumph came so close to joining every other famous British motorcycle brand - and most of its car brands - on the industrial scrapheap. Its best year had been 1967; helped by the perfect celebrity endorsement, Triumph made 46,500 motorcycles and sent 28,500 of them to America.
But its fall was rapid. What has happened to Triumph since then is a scarcely believable tale. Along the way there have been recessions, a disastrous fire and the worst industrial practices of Seventies Britain, while the cast of characters involved includes Tony Benn, Tom Cruise and a reclusive, self-made multi-millionaire who took a £200 million punt on a broken company and won. This is the story of a great British triumph over adversity.
As a trainee plasterer, John Bloor had travelled to sites around his native Derbyshire on a Triumph, carrying his tools in a sidecar. By 1983, aged just 39, he had built Bloor Homes into a multimillion-pound company and was keen to move on to something new.
That year Triumph finally went into receivership after struggling to compete with the big Japanese manufacturers: Bloor bought the name from the Offi‑cial Receiver and licensed it to a small factory in the West Country. For the next seven years he seemed to do nothing at all with his once-fabled marque, but he had a plan.

After its reign in the Fifties and Sixties, Triumph's problem in part was down to its success. Instead of developing its bikes, the company stuck with what it had.
'Triumph desperately needed new bikes and new engines,' says motorbike historian Roger Higgis.
'But like most of the rest of British industry at the time, Triumph was complacent. The technology that could have saved it had been around since the war; it was the same as that used in Spitfire engines. But they just didn't bother.
'Even the tools they used were 40 years old and couldn't make anything accurately, so the bikes leaked oil. Triumphs looked good and went fast but what really kept them going was that all their rivals, including Harley, were terrible too.'
That was true until the Japanese arrived, and showed everyone how bikes should be made. In 1972 the Government forced all the remaining British bike makers into a merger in an attempt to save them. The new firm attempted to close Triumph's Meriden plant in 1973; the unions staged an extraordinary two-year sit-in, which ended only when Tony Benn allowed a workers' co-operative to use the Triumph name and build the classic Bonneville. The company struggled on until 1983, when the recession and declining sales finally forced it into receivership.
The engine is a part of a bike's identity... You don't just see it; you feel connected to it
It was then that John Bloor stepped in, plotting one of the most audacious rebirths in British industrial history.
'Can you imagine a British company starting from scratch and deciding to challenge Japanese camera makers on price and quality, and building the product in the UK?' says Bruno Tagliaferri, who worked for Honda in the Eighties before joining Bloor's secret project. 'It's inconceivable, but that's what John decided to do with motorbikes.'
By then, the 'Big Four' Japanese makers - Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki - dominated every sector of the motorcycle market. Bloor planned to take them on.
As an insider on both sides, Tagliaferri had a unique perspective on the war Bloor was about to start.
'It was a fantastically well-kept secret. When I was at Honda we just hadn't heard of it. John gathered a small team of engineers around him and said absolutely nothing. The emphasis was on designing the bikes correctly, and properly equipping the new factory they were building in Hinckley. They even went to Japan to visit the factories there; the Japanese let them in because they had no idea what John was planning, and didn't even consider that these Brits could ever rival them.'
Bloor knew that although the Triumph brand still carried a certain cachet, buyers wouldn't tolerate anything less than the perfect reliability they'd grown used to from the Japanese. He also knew that the only way to guarantee quality was to invest - heavily. Most experts agree that Bloor wrote cheques for £100 million before anyone really knew that Triumph was coming back, and for a similar amount to finance its early years after it launched.
'It was a colossal gamble,' says Tagliaferri. 'But John was determined to make it work. When we launched not just one bike but a range of six new bikes in 1990, the motorcycle world was genuinely shaken. I just can't think of a parallel.'
But why did he do it?
'We don't know exactly how much he's put in, how much profit he's made and whether it stacks up as a business case,' says Professor Andrew Graves, from the School of Manufacturing at Bath University.
'But he has made it work, and for Bloor it isn't just about profit. He's a great believer in British manufacturing - he wanted to create highvalue jobs and he was reacting against the idea that you can create wealth without making something.'
The new Triumphs went on sale in the UK and Germany first. At the new factory, 100 staff built just 1,200 motorcycles. The next year it was 5,000, and after Triumph returned to America in 1994 it was 8,000. In 2000 Tom Cruise chose Triumphs for his motorbike duel scene with Dougray Scott in Mission Impossible II. It was world-class product placement, on a par with McQueen in The Great Escape, and all Triumph had to do was supply the bikes. The following year Triumph made 31,000 bikes: the company turned its first profit, and Bloor's 'colossal gamble' seemed to be paying off.
But there was a problem; in the rush to match Japanese quality, Bloor had copied their anonymity too.
'Those first bikes were very well engineered,' says Roger Higgis. 'But they were also very bland to ride, especially the big four-cylinders. The engines and the styling just didn't set the world alight.'
But in March 2002, as Triumph was preparing to celebrate its centenary, something set the factory alight. It took 100 firefighters five hours to get it under control; by the time they did the production lines had been destroyed.
'People thought, that's it, that's the end of Triumph,' says Tagliaferri. 'But before the fire was officially extinguished we were back in, processing parts orders.'
It would be six months before production could restart. Triumph slumped back to a loss again; Bloor had to cover a £4.5 million deficit that year but saw the chance to recast the marque yet again. He called in management consultants McKinsey, and they sent a team led by 27-year-old Dane Tue Mantoni. He told Bloor to drop the four-cylinder engines, focus instead on Triumph's charismatic twins and triples, and build more interesting, niche bikes.
'The engine is far more part of a bike's identity than a car's,' says Simon Warburton, Triumph's product chief. 'It's visible. But you don't just see it; you feel connected to it. It's two inches from your knees, after all. The triples have so much character. You can feel the power pulse as each cylinder fires but they also pull cleanly from idle and rev all the way out, with a great howl at the top end. The noise is unique. The educated ear can tell the difference.'
Bloor listened.
'Bloor is a very, very hard-headed businessman,' says Higgis. 'But he's also a bike enthusiast, and an enthusiast for British industry.'
He binned all the four-cylinder engines and instead gave the green light to an insane new model, the 2,300cc Rocket III, the largest capacity production bike in the world. The first bike from the new factory, it was a clear statement of intent from Triumph and had a waiting list 18 months long by the time it went on sale in 2004.
The other models were successes too. Its Daytona 675 competes in one of the toughest market sectors but regularly humbles the best Japanese machinery in magazine comparison tests. It shares its engine with the Street Triple, Triumph's best-seller: it looks like an angry insect and for less than six grand delivers performance that humbles supercars at 20 times the price.
The Thruxton is pure Sixties cafe racer; the Scrambler, with its full-length chrome pipes, looks just like the bikes McQueen rode through the dunes; and the reborn Bonneville looks just like it did in the Seventies, but with some very modern engineering.
Then there are the Easy Rider-style cruisers, the Speedmaster, the America and the new Thunderbird, which will lead Triumph's assault on the American market. And finally there's the Rocket III, which looks and sounds like nothing else on Earth.
Bloor's ability to make hard, fast decisions might have saved Triumph from the worst ravages of the recession. The global market for big bikes of the kind Triumph makes has collapsed by a quarter this year, and you'd expect Triumph to have followed kobal/ matrix/ getty Britain's luxury car-makers into a slump.
But Tue Mantoni, who last year, at just 33, was made CEO, saw the trouble coming and cut production by ten per cent and introduced new special editions to stimulate demand. Overall, Triumph's sales figures for this year will remain flat, but it will have increased its market share at the expense of its rivals and got closer to its next aim: overtaking BMW.
'We don't appeal to the super-rich,' says Mantoni. 'But our customers do have a higher than average income and they choose to devote a chunk of that to motorcycling. We're not that expensive compared to a Lamborghini, but at least as exciting. And crucially, these guys don't need finance. They pay cash.'
So having survived mismanagement in the Sixties, three major recessions, Tony Benn and a fire, is Triumph's future finally secure?
'As a British motorcycle manufacturer, Triumph is the last of its kind,' says Mantoni.
'In design-conscious countries like Japan and Italy they love British design; it's not too fussy, it's understated, it's cool, and we deliberately turn up the Britishness there. But the old British brands went out of business because they didn't pay attention to quality and innovation. We won't make the same mistakes.'

No comments: