Memorable MC Triumph Speedtwin

November 2, 2005
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The Triumph Speedtwin harkens back to a different era  when the gentleman motorcyclist cruised along the backroads at a leisurely pace.
The Triumph Speedtwin harkens back to a different era, when the gentleman motorcyclist cruised along the backroads at a leisurely pace.

It’s 1961. You have never heard of the Beatles. John F Kennedy has just been elected as President of the U.S., and Honda is known only as a manufacturer of quirky lightweight two-wheelers. Motorcycles are cool, respectable and fashionable. And sitting right on top of the high fashion bike tree are Triumph motorcycles.

Forty five years ago, the world center of engineering excellence was the West Midlands. Vast numbers of cars from Birmingham, aero engines to power the world from Coventry, and the world’s finest motorcycles pouring out of the Triumph factory at Meriden. Even in this hot house of manufacturing, the Triumph work force considered itself to be an elite: the highest paid, the most skilled – making the best motorcycles. The rest of the world stood, they thought, in awe.

Meriden workers had every right to walk with their tails in the air. The European manufacturers were miniscule in size by comparison and had tiny product ranges. BMW produced only three different types of bikes – and one of those was simply an over-bored version of their 500cc flat twin.

The Speedtwin was powered by a 490cc engine that was tuned down to produce 27bhp. The same engine could be tuned up to 5obhp for racing.
The Speedtwin was powered by a 490cc engine that was tuned down to produce 27bhp. The same engine could be tuned up to 5obhp for racing.

By comparison, every red-blooded motorcyclist was catered for by Triumph. Sporting riders adored the Tiger 100. Americans worshipped the 650cc Thunderbird – and gentlemen rode the Speedtwin. This distinction is important to understand. Bank Managers, Headteachers, and Doctors all rode Speedtwins – as did the Police. The Speedtwin was not a bike just for high days and holidays but a mark of status and soundness of judgment. Sensible, thoughtful people making carefully considered decisions bought Speedtwins.

By 1961, the 490cc unit construction engine was three years into its design life and the staff at Meriden hit every single marketing button. The motor was softly tuned and relaxed producing only 27bhp. This compares with almost 50bhp wrung out of the same engine in Daytona road racing trim: to say the least, the Speedtwin was lightly stressed.

The clutch was feather light in operation – the four-speed gearbox light and positive. Starting was simple and reliable with a coil ignition controlled by distributor, as was common in cars of the day.

Everything about the bike reflected that it was, first and foremost, a gentleman’s carriage. The rear of the bike was fully enclosed with the now legendary Triumph “bathtub” and the front headlamp was housed in an equally elegant nacelle. The 4 gallon tank was topped with another Triumph styling icon – the “bread slicer” carrying rack.

If you were, or even are, a member of the professions, or perhaps an interior designer, the Speedtwin provides the most elegant of motorcycling experiences. But behind the apparent sophistication was another and far less glamorous story. The chassis was old fashioned even by 1961 standards, as were the single leading shoe brakes. But braking and handling were not the concern of the Speedtwin rider. His was the gentle wafting along roads at modest speeds caressing corners with grace and style – not attacking them with sporting aggression.

One of the Speedtwin s unique styling icons is the  bread slicer  carrying rack placed on top of the gas tank.
One of the Speedtwin’s unique styling icons is the “bread slicer” carrying rack placed on top of the gas tank.

The problem was that by 1961 the Speedtwin was providing a service which increasingly few customers wanted. In 1959, Austin launched the Mini. Now, the teacher could drive to school in winter – warm and dry. Now, the bank manager needed to be at least as well equipped as his customers in motoring terms. As for the motorcycling fraternity, 55mph cruising, soggy handling and relaxed braking was a solution looking for a problem. By contrast, Triumph could sell you the charismatic Bonneville with its modern frame and high adrenaline 100mph performance. Motorcycling was on the cusp of an historical change – and the Speedtwin belonged to the dying era.

Yet, of the many charismatic classic bikes one can ride today there are few more satisfying than the Speedtwin. Ambling along a hawthorne hedged, wild flower perfumed English country lane on soft summer’s evening it is easy to yearn for a long lost era of courtesy, a ham and pickle sandwich with a pint of warm real ale – and the pride in nation of engineers and craftsmen which the Speedtwin so evocatively exemplifies. Now, all are past.

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