Triumph's Last Days at Meriden

Inside the Triumph Factory: Workers' Co-Op, August 1981

| September/October 2008

Race riots were dividing Britain, spilling out of the London suburb of Brixton and touching even staid Royal Leamington Spa. I had planned to visit the Tiny Perfect Redhead working in a bar at the Lord Leycester Hotel in nearby Warwick, but arrived to discover she’d already left, our letters to each other stalled somewhere thanks to a Canada Post strike.

Alone then, I traveled on to my second stop, a short trip away by BritRail and bus: Meriden and the Triumph workers’ Co-op. The once-great company was struggling. A workforce that had numbered nearly 2,000 souls turning out 1,500 motorcycles a week had shrunk to just over 100 producing 125, most of them Bonnevilles. Fanatically loyal North American dealers, feeling betrayed and unable to get enough new products at anything like reasonable prices, were out of business or selling Japanese motorcycles almost exclusively. A Triumph man ever since I was able to discriminate one bike from another, I wanted to see what was happening.

The bus let me off near the main gate of the plant, a long, reddish-brown, two-story building with a few cars parked in the lot and “Triumph Engineering Company” in blue block lettering across the front. I snapped a couple of frames on my old Nikon F and hesitated, unsure if the letter I’d written to managing director Bob Lindsay had arrived. What kind of reception I’d get would likely depend on my charm, seldom very dependable at the best of times, and not at all helped by jet lag from a flight overseas in steerage and a virulent argument with a BritRail conductor on the way to Coventry.

In the event, I was met by an affable, robust man in a gray suit sporting a handlebar moustache that utterly failed to hide a disarming smile. He was Peter Britton, sales director, and no, my letter, with its accompanying introduction from one of Triumph’s earliest Canadian dealers, hadn’t arrived. He glanced cursorily at my press credentials, peered a little closer at my travel-battered camera gear and rumpled appearance, did something of a mental shrug, and said he’d be happy to show me around.

Along the way, we discussed the Co-op. I listened to the words and tried to search out the meaning behind them. I heard much hope for the future and an undertone of sorrow for those who had gone. Some 300 of the remaining workers had accepted voluntary layoff not long before, he said. The 100 left, struggling to keep Edward Turner’s venerable engine design alive, were those who could do two, three or more jobs.

But they were, he said, producing a limited-edition Bonneville, the Royal, to commemorate the wedding of Lady Diana and Prince Charles, something similar in intention to the Silver Jubilee of 1977 but in far fewer numbers (250 as opposed to 2,500) and with a correspondingly higher degree of exclusivity. Was I interested in seeing them? Oh yes, I was indeed. Soon he was standing amid distinctive gray frames destined for the home market that awaited their seats, side covers and special chrome-and-paint tanks, a justifiably proud look on his face.

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