Inside Triumph Motorcycles

October 20, 2011
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

Triumph has made more than 500 000 motorcycles sinces its rebirth in Hinkely.
Once a powerhouse in motorcycling, Triumph nearly disappeared before John Bloor purchased the rights to the historic marque and launched the new company in Hinkley.

Triumph is one of the most historic names in motorcycling. The British marque has branded itself into the collective riding consciousness with seminal bikes like the Bonneville and Thunderbird – not to mention a little help from Hollywood icons like Brando and McQueen. But that’s the storied past. Triumph’s history and lore make it easy to forget that its current incarnation, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd., is a young company of only 21 years. The modern Triumph is perhaps the greatest example of a brand rebirth in the motorcycle industry, and this summer Motorcycle USA paid a call to the English Midlands to see exactly how the new Triumph makes motorcycles.

Old Brand, Young Company

One of the more interesting aspects of the re-born Triumph is the dichotomy of old and new. Founded in 1887, Triumph Cycles produced its first motorized cycle in 1902 making it one of the industry’s oldest brands. From there the marque’s history weaves its way through two world wars and booming post-war popularity, both domestically and in the United States. But things unraveled in the early 1970s, with the original Triumph dwindling into obscurity (along with the rest of the once robust British motorcycle industry). The factory in Meriden (just down the road apiece from the current Hinkley locale) limped along under various mergers and eventually a worker owned co-operative, but it stamped out obsolete models with outmoded tooling – a far cry from the industry giant Triumph once was.

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There’s nothing outmoded about company’s current facilities in Hinkley. Its 11,800 square-foot headquarters and factory is state of the art. Credit British business magnate John Bloor for the turnaround. Rising from modest means to amass a fortune in housing development (he started in housing as a plasterer), Bloor purchased the intellectual rights to the Triumph when it went into liquidation in 1983. He soon began assembling a team to re-launch the new company. During the interim, a limited amount of Bonnevilles continued to be produced thanks to a licensing agreement with former Triumph parts dealer Les Harris.

Bloor was not content to have Triumph stall out as a low-volume boutique brand. He invested tens of millions to build the framework of a legitimate motorcycle manufacturing enterprise. Seven years of secretive research and development yielded the launch of Triumph’s inaugural six-bike lineup in 1990.

Now 21 years later Triumph employs 600 at its Hinkley facilities. It celebrated the production of its 500,000th unit in 2011, and manufactures just under 50,000 units annually. Those latter numbers exceed the best years of Triumph before the fall, its Meriden works topping out at 47,000 annual units.

Triumphs Hinkely headquarters house its main production effort  with two engine assembly lines and one chassis line.
Triumph’s Hinkley headquarters is also the main production hub for final assembly of many models. The company also has three factory sites in Thailand, which produce most of the bike components, as well as final assembly for the 875 Twin and 675 and 1050 Triple.

British Brand, Global Company

Triumph may be a stolidly British brand, but it’s a global company. While Hinkley remains the base of operations, Triumph has constructed three manufacturing facilities in the Chonburi Province of Thailand. The first factory produces chassis components like frames and swingarms, as well as fuel tanks. The second fabricates plastic parts and bodywork via injection molds. It also houses an assembly line, with Triumph moving maturing model lines overseas for final assembly (currently its Thai factory assembles the 865 Twins, as well as the 675 and 1050 Triples). The third Thai facility casts most of the engine parts, including cases, cylinder heads, crankshafts and camshafts. All told more than 50% of a completed motorcycle is fabricated completely in house.

Most OEMs go out of the way to disassociate production ties to mainland Asia, but Triumph takes another tack. “We’re quite up front and proud of the fact that we have set up our own facilities over there, rather than farm out to subcontractors,” says Triumph’s International Communications Coordinator Paul Taylor, during our Hinkley factory tour.

Triumph maintains quality control over its Thai production via a dozen British nationals, who manage the factories. Thai workers push the Triumph workforce tally up to 1500 worldwide, and some rotate back to Hinkley for cross training.

Production at Hinkley is supported by three active factories located in the Chonburi Province of Thailand.

The decision to move some production to Thailand was based off the successful practices of the Japanese manufacturers. Bloor toured extensively to model his business after existing examples. As such the 1930’s era tooling from Meriden was replaced with modern equipment – tooling very similar to the sort used by Kawasaki during his visits. It’s also no coincidence that Kawasaki bases some production in Thailand too, including key models like the Ninja 250R.

The current Hinkley site has expanded over the decades as well. Purchased in the ‘80s, the original Factory 1 served as the sole production site for the first decade of the company. A larger, second factory site was purchased in the mid-90s, in anticipation of increasing production requirements, and completed in 1999. Factory 2 was slated to transition the production load from Factory 1, but a fire destroyed the first factory in 2002. Engine and chassis assembly lines would eventually be rebuilt and moved to Factory 2 – site of the current headquarters as well. Factory 1 was also rebuilt, and is now home to a paint shop and the offices of Triumph’s domestic subsidiaries and accessory departments.

Trial by Fire

The fire in 2002 proved a critical event in Triumph history. The logistical consequences shuttered for almost half a year. But hearing the tale from inside Triumph HQ, the fire forced a fundamental re-examining of the corporate identity. Those factory flames were the crucible in which Triumph’s core design philosophy was forged.

Triumph’s playful three-cylinder powerplants have been produced since the beginning, but the distinctive Triple wasn’t the only engine focus in the early days. The company also pursued more conventional Inline Four configurations. At the time of the fire, Triumph was pressing forward with a large-displacement Inline Four dubbed the A13. A Hayabusa-type hypersport, the project was only a year from production. After the fire, the A13 project was scrapped.

Triumph’s Inline Threes constantly tempt our editors to hooligan antics with their playfulness and performance. 

An outside consultancy firm, McKinsey & Co., came in and re-charted the path forward (one of the McKinsey consultants, Danish-born Tue Mantoni, would eventually hitch up with Triumph after the evaluation and serve as CEO). Instead of making bikes exactly like the Japanese to compete against the Big Four, Triumph would hew to a more distinct path. Inline Fours were out, Inline Triples in. Years later a similar reasoning would see the Thunderbird attack the Big Twin American cruiser market, not with a V-Twin but its distinctly different 270-degree Parallel Twin. The company also mined its historic prestige with the Parallel Twin platform powering the modern classic lines.

With its two engine platforms set and a clear direction in place, Triumph developed several flagship models incorporating the Inline Triple platform. The 2.3 liter Rocket III debuted in 2004. Two years later came the Supersport Daytona 675 (winner of Motorcycle USA’s 2006 Supersport Shootout) The 1600cc Thunderbird directly challenged the Big Twins from Milwaukee in 2009, and more recently the middleweight Tiger 800 has taken to the street, and dirt, to contest the adventure-touring segment. All are significant models, and all stand out as unique in their respective classes thanks to the engine platform.

Biggest R&D Effort Outside of Japan

For its size and market share, Triumph’s new model development has been relatively prolific. Credit Triumph Designs, an independent firm run under the parent Triumph Motorcycles umbrella. The company touts its motorcycle R&D effort to be the largest outside of Japan, and Triumph Designs supports a staff of 180. It’s no mean feat maintaining a staff that large, particularly considering Triumph’s Midlands location: Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin and several Formula 1 firms are just a few of the high-performance neighbors competing for engineering talent.

Project Manager Simon Warburton helms project development, who works closely with Bloor (as a privately owned company Bloor retains final say on all things Triumph). Typical designs follow a three-to-five year production plan. New bikes concepts get the requisite research to determine target price, power and weight. Components are designed in house or outsourced as needed. Engines are designed and tested in house. Chassis development takes 18 months or more on closed circuits in Spain. David and Felipe Lopez handle test riding duties, the brothers delivering feedback and conducting benchmark testing against industry competitors.

The success of new models like the Tiger 800 have expanded Triumph’s market share during the dire economic times.

Once the development is complete, production testing begins with an initial run of 200 prototypes. After the kinks are sorted out, the larger volume production can begin in earnest. Then it’s the official press launch and off to the dealer sales floors.

Future Plans

The introduction of new models and support of popular existing designs, like the iconic Speed Triple, has seen Triumph’s market share continue to grow. New comers like the Tiger 800 have “exceeded expectation” according to Taylor – with some 10 to 12K of the small Tigers built in 2011. Triumph was able to take advantage of the popular response to its AT middleweight thanks to its lean production process (building bikes based off direct orders from its dealers and subsidiaries – read more in How Triumph Makes Motorcycles).

The current portfolio of Triumph sales are evenly distributed throughout its model lines. The stalwart “roadsters” (long-serving Speed Triple and its younger sibling the Street Triple) make up the largest share at 25%. The modern classics, i.e. the retro-styled Bonneville, Thruxton and Scrambler, make up 20%. Cruisers get another 20%, more than half of those being sold in the United States (though the segment is growing in Europe). The Tiger 800 alone carries 20% of the production pie, anchoring the AT segment. That leaves the rest to the sportbikes, namely the flagship Daytona 675. Triumph’s sportbike sales, like the rest of the industry, suffered worst in the market collapse.

And what does the future hold? The only straight answer we could tease out was what we won’t see: Triumph in the small-displacement 125/250 market. It’s too difficult to turn a dime in the high-volume small-bike racket, at least for Triumph. Instead expect the Brits to move into already established segments with their own Triple-powered take on things.

The much-rumored and oft spy-photo’d Triumph 1200 adventure-touring bike should make its debut this fall, if not at the Milan Bike Show then shortly before it. And, say, Triumph doesn’t seem to have a true Superbike in its lineup… Our loyal Triumph guide was tight-lipped about developing projects, except to say that obvious holes in the existing lineup will be filled – sooner or later.

Walking the halls and production line of the new Triumph there seems to be an air of quiet confidence. Where other manufacturers tend to blend together with design conformity, the British OEM stands apart with its brazenly simple strategy of being different. Where its competitors are still reeling from the economic downturn, Triumph has in fact gained ground and basks in the success of new model releases. A generation removed from the collapse of its domestic motorcycle industry, British bikes have rebounded with Triumph leading the way.