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Triumph's Origins

Today, the Triumph brand is known for its motorcycles, but at one point, they owned a succesful automotive division. Before motorcycles or cars, Triumph's first products were actually bicycles. The company's founder, Siegfried Bettmann, moved from his hometown in Nuremberg, Germany to Coventry, England. He worked in that city for the White Sewing Machine Co. as a translator. In 1884, around the time when the safety bicycle started to replace the penny-farthing or high wheel bicycle, he moved to London and started the S. Bettman & Co. Import Export Agency to capitalize on the new craze. Bettman's bicycles were made by William Andrews and marked with Bettmann's name. Consider this an early example of what auto-aficionados call "badge engineering."  For a short time, Bettmann also imported sewing machines from Germany. Two years later, in 1886, the company adopted a more memorable name as the Triumph Cycle Company.

In 1887 German engineer Mauritz Schulte joined the company as a junior partner and convinced Bettman that it would be better if the company manufactured its own bicycles. They changed the name to the Triumph Cycle Co. Ltd. and purchased an old ribbon-weaving factory in the heart of bicycle country in Coventry. With their sights set on manufacturing, the first bicycles built under the Triumph name were produced in 1889.

The First Triumph Motorcycle & WWI

By the mid 1890s, Bettmann and Schulte were tinkering with the idea of including motorized bicycles in their inventory. Schulte nearly licensed motorcycle manufacturer, Hildebrand & Wolfmüller in 1895, and Bettmann also nearly licensed Humber motorcycles, but an agreement was never reached.  Eager to produce their own, Triumph released their own motorcycle, designed in-house, in 1902.  It ran on a single-cylinder engine from the Belgian motorcycle maker Minerva. They fitted the engine to a Triumph bicycle frame and adjusted the design to ensure that the engine would fit and drivers could balance themselves. A year later Triumph added a J.A. Prestwick engine (known as the JAP)  on a second model. In 1905, the first authentic all-Triumph motorcycle was produced with a side-valve engine. The bike was belt-driven and could reach up to 3 horsepower and 50 mph. With their new model, total production reached over 1,000 motorcycles.

Triumph continued to improve its models, offering their first bike with a clutch that allowed riders to accelerate from start up without having to run beside it. At this point, Triumph was manufacturing 3,000 bikes a year. Before WWI, Triumph developed a few more models such as the Roadster and the C-3 Roadster. They even saw a few successes on the race track, getting second in the first Isle of Man TT Races.  

Triumph contributed to the war effort t in WWI by manufacturing Type H motorcycles for the British Armed Forces in 1915. The Type H earned the nickname "the Trusty Triumph" for its durability and reliability. It came with a relaxed handle and a three-speed, chain-driven gearbox that attached a belt to the rear wheel. It was also the first Triumph to be featured without a pedal.

After the war, Bettman and Schulte fell into a disagreement about the direction of the company. Schulte wanted to sell the bicycle making operation for an automotive division. Bettman was strongly opposed and the two decided to part ways in 1919. Colonel Claude Holbrook, the man largely responsible for contracting the Model H during the war, replaced Schulte. Ironically, Holbrook persuaded Bettman to buy the Dawson Car Company's factory in Coventry in 1921 to establish an automotive division. Out of it, came their first model, known as the 10/20, that was produced for the 1923 model year.

The Birth of Triumph Motor Company

The 10/20 was produced from 1923 to 1926 and featured a 4-cylinder engine. It came in a number of styles such as Sport and Four-Door, and was designed by the motor company Lea Francis. Only 65 were produced. A year later Triumph released the 13/35, which was the first British car with hydraulic brakes. It was a slightly larger model than the 10/20, but Triumph didn't see any real success until the Super 7, which was intended to compete with the Austin 7 that was made by the Austin Motor Company.  Known as the "British Model T," the Austin 7 was a great car to try to compete with. Triumph attempted to do this by cutting the length of the car. The Super 7 actually ended up being one inch longer  than the Austin 7.  Though it was still slightly larger than the Austin 7, the Super 7 had a successful run until 1934. It came with a 4-cylinder engine, two doors, and four seats, and featured a compact and sporty look. Over 31,000 were produced.

When the Great Depression hit, Triumph knew it could not survive without breaking the automotive division into an independently owned company. The company changed its name in 1930 to the Triumph Motor Company. The company started moving in a new direction, which surprisingly involved upscale sporty models. This was evident in the Gloria, which featured a more defined and lavish look. The curved body was laced in chrome with a two-tone color and came with lush leather seats covered by a soft or hard top. On the tip was the Triumph's chrome winged goddess. It sported a four or six-cylinder engine boasting 46 horsepower and could reach 75 mph. Eventually the Gloria came in all types of styles like the sporty Monte Carlo, the Southern Cross two-seater, and the Coupe. A second sporty model, the Dolomite, was released in 1934. Made in similar style to the Gloria, the Dolomite had a small success in rally racing. In the 1936 Monte Carlo Rally it placed in eighth, but that was still a feat.  It finished ahead of any other British car.  

Unfortunately the new direction would be short lived. The 1930s brought on a hard time for all of the Triumph companies. In 1936, the bicycle division was sold to Coventry Bicycles and the motorcycle operation was sold to British industrialist Jack Sangster. In 1939, the Triumph Motor Company went into receivership. It was purchased by Thomas W. Ward Ltd., but any production was halted in the onset of WWII. In fact, the factory in Coventry was bombed to smithereens by the Luftwaffe in the London bombings known as "the Blitz."

The Formation of Standard-Triumph

When the War ended, the Standard Motor Company purchased the remains of Triumph, which was really no more than a brand name.  Triumph officially became a subsidiary of Standard in 1945. The first car produced under the new Triumph name was the 1800 Roadster. Standard continued Triumph's tradition of building sporty cars, and the Roadster was a strong representation of that. The style was as gaudy as the Gloria and just as attractive.

The economic effect of WWII left England nearly bankrupt, and many automotive companies faced the grim reality of perishing if they failed to establish a market overseas. By the early ‘50s fascination with the sports car grew, and Triumph developed several prototypes in response. The 20TS, their first prototype, also known as the TR1, was developed in 1952.  The car could reach up to 90 mph, but it still needed dire improvements.

The result was the TR2. With the help of rally driver Ken Richardson, Triumph was able to pinpoint problems that were addressed with the prototype of the TR2. After a number of changes, the car was deemed successful enough to put into production. It was released for the 1953 model year. Under the hood sat a 4-cylinder engine that could kick 90 horsepower and could take the car to 105 mph. With the help of that engine, the TR2 lead to a successful stint in rally racing with a victory in the French Alpine. This eventually lead to further models such as the TR3 in 1956 that featured an all new addition of front disc brakes. Modifications such as the TR3A and TR3B showed just how popular Triumph sports cars were becoming. Triumph seemed to have finally found its niche in the automotive market.

Leyland Motors, the TR Series, & the Spitfire

Seeing Triumph's obvious success, Leyland Motors acquired Standard-Triumph Motors in 1960 and continued the tradition, leading Triumph to arguably its greatest decade. 1962 saw two great releases for the company. The TR4's design was much smoother than the previous TR models, and it maintained the distinctive look that many enthusiasts had grown to love. The Spitfire Mark I was seen as a cheaper alternative to the typical sports car and was small and beloved by many. It was built to compete with other compact sport cars like the Austin-Healey Sprite and the MG Midget. Featuring an independent suspension, wind-down windows, added interior space, and an engine that produced 63 horsepower, the car was a hit in the US, selling 6,224 in 1963. Sales only increased in each continuous year up to 1965. By 1968, over 70,000 TR4s had been sold in the American market.  

Next came the TR5, which was the first TR powered with a 6-cylinder engine. A carbureted version known as the TR250 was made for sale in the US. Shortly after, came the TR6 in 1969. A fan-favorite, the TR6 was the best-selling of the TR series and was a powerful car both on and off the track. It was one of the best models for club racing in the SECA, and even won the President's Cup with Paul Newman behind the wheel in 1976. Interestingly enough, the companies that the TR and Spitfire competed against-Jaguar, Austin-Healey, Morris, MG, and Daimler-were all purchased when Leyland Motors acquired the British Motor Holdings company in 1968. Despite this, the TR6 is still seen as the most memorable of the TRs.  

Triumph's Demise

By the late ‘70s, Triumph was lumped into the Jaguar Rover Triumph division of the British Leyland Limited company and was labeled under the specialist division of Leyland Motor. Some enthusiasts claim the real end of Triumph happened with the release of the TR7, largely because it failed to live up to the name of the other TRs.

The last Triumph model was known as the Acclaim and was produced from 1981 to 1984. It was the result of a joint effort with Honda and was seen as a rebadged Ballade. When the division renamed to the Austin Rover Group, it was apparent that the Triumph name was being phased out. Final production ended for Triumph in 1984.

Though it's been long gone, the Triumph name is now owned by the BMW group after their acquisition of the Rover Group in 1994. Some fans may remain hopeful that the Triumph mark returns, but there has been no indication that BMW plans on resurrecting the brand. However, Triumph Motorcycles lives on strong, which attests to the fact that while companies can go flat, they can indeed be redeemed and become industry leaders once again.

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