Memorable Motorcycles: 1956 Triumph TR5

January 13, 2010
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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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 1956 Triumph TR5 is a simplistic machine that offers the best of classic motorcycling that even in these modern times is still a thrill to ride.

When the TR5 Trophy was launched in 1955, Triumph was making the best motorcycles in the world. With the debacles which exemplified the end of the British motorcycle industry in the late 1960s and early 1970s it is important to remember that things weren’t always a shambles.

A visitor to Triumph’s Meriden works in the 1950s would have found the highest paid workers in the Coventry area, with boundless pride in the machines they were making. Triumph also had a switched on sales and marketing team closely in touch with its customers – and there was an overwhelming sense that things were going from good to better.

The Trophy fed a near insatiable demand from the critical American market for off-road sports bikes. In modern terms, these were dual sport machines which could be used for serious off-road racing, trail riding or road use. With the TR5 Trophy, Triumph quite simply had the best bike in the world – and by a huge margin too.

Triumph’s history includes the association of Hollywood icons, like film star Steve McQueen and stuntman Bud Ekins.

The factory had the long-established experience of casting alloy heads and barrels thanks, strangely, to the RAF generators it had manufactured during the Second World War. After the war, these parallel exhaust port engines became the basis for the Triumph Grand Prix road racing machine – a genuine out-of-the-box race bike to which the rider added only fuel and oil before heading for the start line.

At the same time, Triumph was defying the received wisdom that a big, four-stroke Single was required to win in off-road events. Jim Alves, who lived near the Triumph factory, began competing on a 350 Triumph Twin in 1946 and soon shocked the established off-road stars.

But there were two problems with the ex-generator cylinder head and barrel. The first was a technical imperfection. Triumph Twins always run hot when tuned and while the high-speed air-flow satisfactorily dissipated the heat from the Triumph GP’s parallel exhaust ports in road racing, the motor ran too hot in off-road competition use. A splayed head, with the exhaust ports widely separated, was required for the engine to stay cool when used off-road.

The second problem was one of marketing. Edward Turner was not an innovative designer and was also a bully and autocrat of immense proportions. But he did understand

Just being seen on one of these beauties brought the rider instant status amongst the uppercrust.

his customers root and branch and he knew that the ex-generator engine looked dull and crude – regardless of how well it went.

The solution to both issues was the Trophy’s iconic fine pitched alloy head and barrel. Here was an utterly beautiful engine – lithe, angular and a metallic onomatopoeia for power. In practice, the engine worked as well as it looked. And things just got better and better. The new, all alloy engine was untemperamental, easy to ride and, in the right hands, very fast. Triumph even did a 650cc version, primarily for the American market, where it went on to dominate desert racing.

With the engine came a sweet, four-speed gearbox and a bulletproof clutch. The frame was modern with both telescopic front forks and rear swinging-arm suspension.

The Siamesed exhaust was a masterpiece of pre-computer engineering giving perfect carburetion and excellent pulling power. Although the end

The classic lines of the Triumph TR5 appealed to the American market.

can was barely baffled, the exhaust emitted only the most delightful growl.

The TR5 was genuinely competition orientated straight from the showroom floor. The ventilated front brake was, by the very low standards prevalent in the day, one of the best on any road bike and the quickly detachable rear wheel was a real bonus in long distance off-road events.

In the best Turner tradition, the bike looked gorgeous, too. The polychromatic paint was state of the art and meticulously applied, and elegant styling touches like the “bread slicer” carrying rack on the fuel tank marked the Triumph as a bike with real style. If you had a reasonable amount of money in your wallet, nothing on two wheels bought you more instant status.

The overall result was a truly outstanding motorcycle and one of those few classic motorcycles which is still a real thrill to ride even today. The pushrod Twin is turbine smooth and pulls from tick over all the way up to 6,500 rpm – the sensible limit for what is now a very old motor. The power is completely linear and this made the TR5 the best machine of its day for dual sport use. On the road, and in the woods, the TR5 is a sweet, reliable, willing motorcycle which flatters the rider’s ability.

Unlike the single-cylinder British sportbikes of the day, the TR5 fires up instantly – even when it has been stalled. The clutch and gearbox are bombproof, too, with only the front forks letting down what is an outstanding design.

Hollywood stunt man Bud Ekins on the Trophy TR5. Ekins was the man behind the legendary motorcycle jump in the movie “The Great Escape” starring Steve McQueen.

Again in contrast to many British sportbikes of the same era, the Triumph is a simple bike to work on and is easy to tune. Triumph supplied an extensive catalogue of “go faster” goodies and these were simply bolted on for guaranteed extra performance.

In fact, everyone ought to have a TR5 in the garage along with their modern bikes simply to enjoy the best of classic motorcycling.

Sadly, this is not going to happen for one very good reason. All the traits which make the TR5 so desirable also mean that the bikes are expensive. A solid, clean, roadworthy bike is going to cost $8,000 and a real head turner another $6,000 on top of this. Far from cheap, but still one of the best classic motorcycles in the world – at any price.