In the early 1990s, Herb Harris struck up a friendship with the legendary Triumph tuner Jack Wilson, builder of the 650cc Triumph twin engine that powered rider Johnny Allen to a 214.4mph world record at the Bonneville Salt Flats on Sept. 6, 1956, a feat that cemented Triumph’s reputation in the U.S. and launched the iconic Triumph Bonneville.
A lawyer-cum Vincent restoration specialist, Harris is perhaps uniquely appreciative of the value of documentation, a matter of extreme importance in law and increasingly important in vintage motorcycle and car circles: It’s one thing to say something is true, and often quite another to prove it.
Much has been written about Wilson, Allen and J.H. “Stormy” Mangham, the American Airlines pilot who built the Texas Ceegar streamliner. Harris and Wilson talked often about that famed 1956 record, and as the two got to know each other, Wilson explained “the real back story on how it all came to pass,” Harris says. In 1999, a year before Wilson’s death, aged 73, Harris realized he should document what Wilson had told him. “It was a fascinating story and I wanted to preserve it as Jack was close to the end, so I got Jack to agree to be taped.”
As Wilson related in the resulting taped interview (later transcribed), the inspiration for the Texas Ceegar was basically down to a taunt. In 1953, Wilson was working at Pete Dalio’s Triumph in Fort Worth, Texas. There were regular card games at the shop after closing, and one Saturday a shop regular, Col. George Kohne [the tape transcription says “Caney” but it’s assumed Wilson was referring to Kohne, whose role in events has been documented elsewhere], started bragging about NSU’s 1951 world record run of 180.29mph and how no one would ever top them. “World War II hadn’t been over but a few years,” Harris says, “so there were raw feelings, I guess.”
According to Wilson, Kohne kept on, saying NSU’s record would last forever. Mangham, also a regular at the shop, was there, as were Wilson and Dalio, and Mangham, getting irritated, told Kohne, “Hell, if I wanted to, I could build something that would outrun it.” Mangham’s comments just inflamed the argument, prompting “the damnedest word fight. Hot dang, they got after it,” Wilson said. Finally, Mangham stood up, threw down his cards and said, “To hell with you, you crow head,” and went straight to his shop, where he sketched out the chassis of the streamliner that would take the record. “Crow head,” Harris eventually learned, was a derisive term, a reference to the eagle symbol used by the Nazis, and Kohne was apparently a German-American.
Mangham built his streamliner in 1954, naming it The Devil’s Arrow. Practice runs at Bonneville that September showed a 165mph-plus potential — and that was using a stock Triumph 650 twin running on gasoline. A year later, On Sept. 25, 1955, Allen shattered NSU’s record, riding the now-Wilson tuned, nitromethane-burning streamliner at Bonneville to a record speed of 192.7mph.
Determined to defend its record, NSU returned to Bonneville in 1956, flying in a team of riders and mechanics, along with European journalists and their own timekeepers to record their effort. After a few difficult runs, on Aug. 4, 1956, NSU rider Wilhelm Herz set a new world record of 210.6mph on the supercharged 500cc twin-cylinder double overhead cam NSU Delphin III.
The record didn’t last long: Just 33 days later, on Sept. 6, 1956, Allen made his record 214.4mph run on the naturally aspirated 650cc pushrod Triumph, now called the Texas Ceegar. NSU spent a reputed $1 million in their bid to be the fastest. According to Wilson, the Texas trio spent an estimated $3,500.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting, because according to what Wilson told Harris in the 1999 interview, four streamliners were built over the years, their parts mixed and matched as needed. In the interview, Wilson described the different bikes, saying the first three all contained pieces of the first one, the 1956 record bike, which crashed heavily in 1959.
Harris says he got Triumph fan and restorer Stan Gillis, who had first introduced Harris to Wilson, to tape the interview. “Stan brought back the tape and I had a secretary transcribe it, but it had a number of places where it made little sense due to his [Wilson’s] accent and colloquialisms, the ‘crow head’ one baffling me, but eventually I got it,” Harris says. Phil Dansby, an old friend of Jack’s, helped Harris work through the tape and photographs of the streamliners.
And what of the four streamliners? “Jack explained to me one day how they started off with one,” Harris says. “Stormy raced it himself [at Bonneville] to see if it worked. Johnny Allen crashed it hard [in 1959] and they used parts of it to build another one or two. The craziest part was when he [Wilson] said Roy at the museum called wanting to buy the streamliner for display. Jack said he wanted him to have ‘a nice one,’ and since the crashed and patched up ones weren’t nice, he decided to give him the one that was most cosmetically perfect. This made sense to Jack, but when he told me, I knew I’d better get it in writing as it was too odd to believe.”
Jack was referring to National Motorcycle Museum founder Roy Richards, who acquired a streamliner from Wilson and shipped it to England to display.
In the interview, Wilson recounted his memory of the four different streamliners.
Streamliner #1 was the machine that Mangham sketched out in 1953-1954 and that took the record in 1956. According to Wilson, the chassis was built using chrome tubing from a wrecked airplane. “All four of the streamliners got a little farm equipment in them,” Wilson said. “Whatever was handy was what we used.” That bike was crashed heavily in 1959 and parts of it were used to build Streamliners #2 and #3. It’s not clear from the recounting when and where Streamliner #2 ran.
In the 1990s, Harris sponsored the Roeder Racing team from Monroeville, Ohio, in Grand National dirt track. The two riders, George and Jess Roeder, are sons of ex-Harley team rider George Roeder, who passed away in 2003. Roeder had a Harley dealership in Ohio and Harris and his wife visited there a couple of times. On one visit, Harris saw their streamliner.
According to Wilson, that was Streamliner #3, which had been built around crashed bits of #1 and was later sold to Harley-Davidson. Mangham, a Harley fan eager to see Harley set a world’s record using a Sportster engine, contacted Harley’s race manager, Dick O’Brien, about using his streamliner. Harley bought it and installed a Sportster engine, but it wouldn’t go fast enough for a record. However, Harley had bought a controlling interest in Aermacchi in 1960 and was looking to get some name recognition, so they installed an Aermacchi 250cc single in the streamliner. On Oct. 22, 1965, George Roeder streaked across the Bonneville flats on the single to a new class world record of 176.8mph.
According to Wilson, Mangham built one final streamliner. Designed to accommodate a Chevrolet V8 engine, it was larger and apparently had no parts in common with the first three. It’s unclear if it ever raced, but it eventually ended up in the Pate Museum of Transportation in Fort Worth, Texas. The museum closed in 2010 and the fate of Streamliner #4 is unknown.
The last survivor?
The Aermacchi streamliner, however, still exists. In 1972, George Roeder applied to become a Harley dealer, and upon acceptance he drove to Milwaukee to finalize the terms of his dealership and to visit with Walter Davidson. During the visit, he asked Mr. Davidson what had happened to the streamliner he raced and was told it was in a warehouse gathering dust. In gratitude for the records Roeder had won on a Harley, Mr. Davidson asked him if he wanted the streamliner as a gift, which he accepted. Roeder drove his pickup to the warehouse, loaded the streamliner in the back and drove home, the streamliner sticking out the tailgate. Once back home, he set it up on display at his dealership.
In the 1990s, a representative for Harley-Davidson called Roeder asking to get their streamliner back to house in their own museum. Roeder consulted with Harris on the matter, and after a bit of research Harris advised Roeder that Mr. Davidson had apparent authority to act on behalf of the company in making the gift, so it was in fact the property of Roeder. When Roeder told the Harley people this they then asked to “borrow” it. Roeder questioned if he would ever get it back, and on advice of counsel he declined. Streamliner #3 remains at the Roeder dealership in Ohio to this day and is featured on their website. Interestingly, it appears the world’s fastest Triumph — or parts thereof — was also the world’s fastest Harley.
In the end, it’s not clear which streamliner actually went to England, nor does it really matter. A Triumph supporter to the end, Wilson’s greatest concern was ensuring that the National Motorcycle Museum had the best streamliner to display. Even if wasn’t 100 percent the 1956 record-breaking machine, it carried that bike’s parts and DNA. That bike was mostly destroyed in the museum’s devastating 2003 fire, but was rebuilt by Big D Cycle a year later and is back on display, sharing pride of place at the National Motorcycle Museum in England.
For Harris, the heart of the story of the Texas Ceegar is what motorcycling was like in the 1950s, with tough, card-playing guys like Mangham, who if they said they would do something, did what they said. “This story is really about these crazy Texans taking the record from the loud-mouthed Germans. All that money NSU spent on their record bike was surpassed by these Texas guys,” Harris marvels. MC
Born in the USA: The Triumph Bonneville
Leveraging the performance image gained from Johnny Allen’s 1956 record 214.4mph tear across the Bonneville Flats, in 1959 Triumph introduced its first dual-carb 650 twin, the T120 Bonneville. Based on the T110 650 Tiger, the high performance version of the 6T Thunderbird introduced in 1950, the Bonneville almost didn’t get the nod for production from Triumph boss Edward Turner, and even then it wasn’t listed in Triumph’s 1959 catalog. U.S. dealers were eager for a higher performance 650, but Turner was worried the new 46 horsepower engine, whose roots ran directly to the 1938 500cc Speed Twin, would wreck itself, and in turn the company. He needn’t have worried. Sporting a new one-piece crankshaft and the now famous splayed twin inlets to accept twin Amal carburetors, the Bonneville was a hit that ultimately defined the company. Only 1,100 came to the U.S. in 1959, but in 1967, Triumph’s best year here, U.S. dealers ordered almost 11,000 T120 Bonnevilles, making the model far and away Triumph’s best seller, accounting for almost 40 percent of Triumph sales. — Richard Backus