Motorcycle Classics

Triumph’s Last Days at Meriden

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.

Then it was on to other parts of the plant, where Britton made a point of showing me the assembly line that had been recently moved to the main shop floor by workers who came in to do the job on their holidays.

If there weren’t hordes of people, there were at least racks of engine casings awaiting marriage with crankshafts and frames ready to be welded up. Men and women, most oblivious to my presence, but some looking up, smiling, at hearing a strange accent, were busy spoking wheels, pinstriping side covers, powder-spraying cylinder barrels and building up engines. They were a mixture of ages, intent on their work and pushing hard to ensure there would be a tomorrow, but still able to muster some humor: “Don’t marry for money, it’s far cheaper to borrow it,” read a hand-lettered thought-for-the-day on a chalkboard near one work station.

Britton made note of improvements that were steadily finding their way into production: The frame was now powder-coated and baked in high-temperature ovens; mating surfaces actually mated and had proper seals to prevent the oil leaks that had long been a standing joke to riders. There were also trials with anti-vibration technology to overcome the inherent characteristics of the vertical twin design, and even the Prince of Darkness Lucas seemed to have improved its reliability to the point where basic illumination was not an afterthought and even electric starting (with a made-in-India component) was viable.

Britton was as honest with me as he could be, under the circumstances. He knew the Co-op was in trouble — hardly a state secret — even though it had finally wrested control of its own marketing away from Norton Villiers not long before. He also knew the North American dealers had lost faith and acknowledged there had been mistakes. Many of the problems were being addressed, he said, but it would take awhile for the message to filter out. Triumph was instead concentrating on consolidating in the UK, where it maintained a 30 percent share of the 750cc market, before tackling overseas sales again in any big way.

But the Co-op was still hugely in debt. If they were to stay alive beyond the next couple of years, more would have to be done. The people in the plant, Britton said, had good, sound ideas, including some experimental work that he couldn’t talk about. Meanwhile, the 650 Thunderbird, sporting black siamesed pipes, was back and there were entries in the off-road market, the 650 TR6T and 750 TR7T. All that, coupled with high-end niche marketing — the fully faired Executive and the 8-valve TS series, including the new TS8-1 sports tourer — should help turn the corner. Triumph, he believed, would continue, albeit in reduced circumstances. It would be a slow, difficult climb out of the hole they were in, but they were going to give it everything they had.

Post script

Later — months later, as it turned out, given the vagaries of newspaper work — I would write about my impressions of the plant for the business section of the Canadian paper where I worked, and interpret as best I could the hopes of the workers and the will they displayed, despite indicators that they could not long survive, no matter what they did, no matter what their supporters wanted. Undercapitalized, working with outmoded equipment, they were soldiering on, I wrote, striving hard for a turnaround. But it was a turnaround that would never come.

The stories trickled out later about the efforts to find a “White Knight” or additional capital, or even to make a merger. None of it happened, and the bankers and accountants descended. The factory and property were to be sold for housing estates, the money used to pay down the debt. Proposals to move production to a nearby disused auto factory (ironically, Triumph’s, which until the mid-1930s was part of the original company) fell through. By late 1983, the Co-op was gone; the stock, the spares, the equipment — even the name — gone, too. Although a handful of Bonnevilles continued to be built under license for the next few years at Racing Spares in Devon, Triumph at Meriden was no more.

I grew up in the Sixties, in an era when British twins ruled the Canadian roads. I got my motorcycle license and a bike — albeit a lightweight Japanese single — as soon as I was able, and spent time in the Army reserve Signal Corps, where I hung around bothering the dispatch riders on their Triumphs and Nortons when I wasn’t out climbing telephone poles.

Along the way, I never lost sight of a very personal objective: to own a Bonneville. By the time I arrived at the main gates in 1981, I had one, a 1973 750 5-speed that went like lightning and sounded like thunder, leaked oil and vibrated — and provided as much fun as I’ve had in my life in a saddle.

Sometimes I miss that Bonnie, but more often, I miss the idea of those bikes and those dedicated people at Meriden. I am very pleased to know that they are building beautiful, modern Triumphs bearing famous model names just up the road in Hinckley. I am happy to see a new Bonneville that so clearly pays homage to its more illustrious namesake. But I don’t think I’ll ever make a pilgrimage to John Bloor’s Leicestershire plant. They make a world-class motorcycle there, but not “The Best Motorcycle in the World.”

Oh, yes, the redhead I was going to see that hot August? She’s right here. Passions, like legends, deserve to live on. MC

Newspaper man Lee Palser also took in the international bike show at Earl’s Court,Bike ’81.Read about it here.

  • Published on Aug 18, 2008
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