One look at the 1959 Triumph TR6 Trophy and it's no wonder Triumphs were the best-selling big bikes of the late 1950s.
1959 Triumph TR6 Trophy
Years produced: 1956-1973
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 42hp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed: 110mph (approx.)
Engine type: 649cc overhead valve, air-cooled parallel twin
Weight: 180kg (396lb)
Price then: N/A
Price now: $6,000-$10,000
Even Steve McQueen himself couldn’t have looked much cooler than that, I thought with a grin, as the 1959 Triumph TR6 Trophy came to a halt, its rear wheel waaaay out to the left, with what must have looked like a perfectly planned and executed rear-wheel skid.
In reality, it hadn’t been planned at all. I’d been following a car at slow speed in traffic (and keeping a reasonable distance, I might add), when the driver suddenly braked for no apparent reason. Squeezing the front brake lever made almost no difference to the Triumph’s speed. So I stepped on the rear brake pedal with my left boot, at which point the contrastingly over-powerful rear drum locked the wheel, sending the bike to a gentle, sliding halt without ever feeling out of control.
That skidding stop might not have been planned, but when you’re riding a high-piped Triumph TR6 Trophy twin like the one ridden by movie icon and biker McQueen (on the silver screen and in real life, too), acting cool comes with the territory.
You only have to take one glance at the TR6 Trophy, with its lean lines, handsome parallel twin engine and high-level exhaust system, to understand why Triumphs were the best-selling big bikes on the West Coast in the late 1950s and 1960s — and why the TR6 Trophy was one of the most popular of all.
The importance of the TR6 Trophy goes further than its sales figures and dollar-earning ability for Triumph. When it was launched in 1956, the offroad-oriented twin was the first “street scrambler” from a major manufacturer, introducing a style that continues to this day. It was created specifically for export, targeted not simply at the States, but more precisely at the desert-racing hotbed of California.
Essentially, the TR6 Trophy was based on the 500cc TR5 Trophy, fitted with the 649cc engine from the Triumph T110 Tiger that was introduced two years earlier, in 1954. The T110 Tiger itself had been built largely at the request of Triumph’s U.S. dealers and their customers, and was a hopped-up version of the Thunderbird model with which Triumph had entered the 650cc market at the start of the decade.
The T-bird’s lasting popularity led to the new street-scrambler model being nicknamed the “Trophy-bird.” Predictably, it became another hit for Triumph. The TR6’s engine was an updated version of the T110 Tiger unit, with an aluminum cylinder head instead of the cast iron head that had a tendency to overheat under hard use. The Trophy-bird also featured a small fuel tank, short dual-seat and a new waterproof Lucas magneto, plus a quickly detachable headlight.
For many eager Trophy-bird riders the offroad-style high-level exhaust system was a vital part of the new bike’s specification. The model was also sold with conventional low-mounted twin pipes when it was called the TR6/A, with the high pipe model being the TR6/B.
But it was out West where the Trophy-bird’s suitability for desert riding made it most popular with riders including McQueen and his pal Bud Ekins, the offroad ace who doubled for the movie star in riding stunts in The Great Escape. The bike got a near perfect start in 1956 when Triumph launched it by entering three completely standard machines (one ridden by Ekins) in the demanding offroad Big Bear Run in Southern California. The Trophy-birds dominated from the start and finished first, second and third, setting a pattern of Triumph desert-racing dominance that would last for the next 10 years.
The TR6 Trophy soon became regarded as the ideal basis for the “desert sled” — a big twin-cylinder roadster adapted for flat out charging through hot, desolate places such as the Mojave Desert. Triumph’s twin-cylinder engine had the power to hit 100mph in standard tune, and the torque to kick the back end out and let the rider steer on the throttle on the loose surface.
Most riders kept the engine stock to aid reliability, but made modifications including fitting a better air filter and rewiring the electrics. Lights and exhaust baffles were removed, cut-down seats replaced the original, and offroad tires were fitted, along with a substantial metal skid plate to protect the engine. Some riders also modified their suspension to give more travel, and used custom-made, heavy-duty fenders and brackets.
The 1959 TR6 I rode for this article is contrastingly standard, and none the worse for that in my view. The nicely restored bike is lean and good-looking in a way that only Triumph seemed to manage, with the compact engine perfectly offset by a shapely gas tank enhanced by its cream and red color scheme, chromed luggage rack, rubber knee-pads and distinctive tank badge. The siamesed, high-level exhaust pipe gives an offroad look from the left side and a slightly empty appearance from the right, but from every angle it’s easy to see why style-conscious riders love the Trophy-bird today and have for years.
Triumph fans appreciated high performance just as much, of course, and the TR6 delivered, even if, more than four decades later, it feels more like a bike for gentle cruising than for blasting across the desert with the throttle wide open.
This bike is impressive at low revs, and it’s very easy to start. With a tickle of its Amal Concentric carburetor when cold, a lazy jab of the kick-start is enough to get the 360-degree twin firing up with an unusually low, rather flat sound pouring from the single muffler behind my left leg.
Sitting astride the low dual-seat, the bike feels great as I check out the view of slightly raised bars, chromed headlamp with integral ammeter, black-faced 140mph Smith’s speedometer, plus the knob for the friction steering damper. The Trophy pulls away briskly after I prod it into gear with my right boot and let out the very light clutch, and accelerates from idle as crisply as I’d expect of a single-carb Triumph. Its four-speed pre-unit gearbox is reliable, though slightly noisy.
The Trophy-bird cruises fairly happily at an indicated 70mph, feeling reasonably relaxed, too, but at higher revs I am slightly disappointed that it doesn’t feel more lively. Rolling back the throttle at that speed sends the Triumph forward, but it feels as though it would take some time to reach a top speed of about 110mph, as the proud owner of a new Trophy-bird would have expected it to do given a long enough stretch of either road or desert back in the day.
Not that there is anything wrong with the TR6. It is probably only because I have recently ridden an exceptionally quick Bonneville of similar vintage that the single-carb model seems to lack a little of the rev-happy nature that did so much to make Triumph’s twins popular, especially after the Bonnie’s launch in 1959. It’s also possible that the single-pipe exhaust costs the 649cc pushrod-operated engine a little of its high-rev output, which was rated at 42hp at 6,500rpm.
Still, when the traffic drops away, it isn’t too hard to grab hold of those wide bars, stick my chin on the tank and imagine myself roaring across the sun-baked Mojave with a bunch of equally hard-ridden twins on my tail. For a short time, at least. In typical British parallel twin fashion, vibration begins to be a pain at high revs, so it’s more fun to throttle back, stick to a pace at which the ‘Bird feels pleasantly smooth, and reserve the rapid riding for occasional bursts.
As a bike for modern-day use, the TR6 would be fine, and its handling is well up to the job, too. This bike has Triumph’s original single-downtube steel frame, which on the 650cc models was superseded by a duplex design in 1960. On reasonably smooth roads the Triumph feels very stable, thanks partly to its fairly firm and well-controlled suspension. And it steers easily and precisely, helped by its relatively low weight (180kg/396lb) plus the leverage provided by its wide handlebars.
The Trophy’s Dunlop Gold Seal tires give a reasonable amount of grip on dry roads, too; enough to get a solid-mounted footrest touching down in right-handers. This bike doesn’t have a centerstand, so ground clearance on both sides is pretty good. The biggest letdown is the front brake, a single-leading-shoe drum that requires a very firm squeeze of the lever, and even then doesn’t have much effect. At least the typically sharp rear drum gives some welcomed extra stopping power, as long as I remember it will arrive with a skid.
In California in the late Fifties and Sixties, of course, no self-respecting TR6 rider would have contemplated riding far without plenty of skids and slides. The Trophy-bird’s suitability for offroad competition led not only to the very successful, heavily modified home-made desert sleds, but also to an official desert-racing version from Triumph, whose production was being increasingly directed by the U.S., its largest market.
Meriden’s upgraded Trophy-bird was designated the TR6SC Trophy Special, and was built in small numbers for the West Coast market only. It combined a standard, single-carb 650cc engine with two long, straight, high-level exhausts, Dunlop Sports knobby tires, alloy fenders and taller gearing. It produced 45hp with a broader spread of power than the standard bike, and performed impressively when tested by Cycle World.
“It’s such fantastic fun to ride,” the magazine reported, “with more hair on its chest than King Kong.” No wonder. The Trophy Special was the ultimate expression of the TR6 Trophy-bird — which was one of the most successful models the old Triumph firm ever built. MC