Triumph T160 Trident (1975)
Years produced: 1975-76
Total production: 7,000 (est.)
Claimed power: 58bhp @ 7,250rpm
Top speed: 109mph
Engine type: Air-cooled, in-line three-cylinder
Weight: (dry) 228kg (502lb)
Price then: $2,870
Price now: $6,600-$11,000
The sun was shining, the Triumph T160 Trident was running perfectly and I was slightly late taking it back to its owner — the perfect excuse for a last, fast ride. When a gap appeared in the traffic, I glanced over my shoulder, flicked down a gear and accelerated into the fast lane of the highway.
This was the final opportunity for the big Triumph to show its class, and it did not disappoint. With the throttle wound back the Trident pulled hard, its engine feeling stronger and stronger as the revs rose. I changed into top gear at an indicated 100mph and the tachometer needle dropped back to 6000rpm, the bike still accelerating gently as I crouched over the broad gas tank.
When I backed-off the throttle for a series of sweeping curves the Triumph remained effortlessly stable, banking to left and right with confidence-inspiring solidity. On the following straight it held an indicated 90mph with ease, exhaust note lost to the wind, plenty of power in hand, the unfaired machine’s narrow, almost flat handlebars giving a good riding position for high-speed cruising. This was genuine superbike performance from the machine that, until the resurrection of Triumph in 1990, represented the pinnacle of mass-produced British motorcycling.
Pushing for Market Share
The Triumph T160 Trident was launched in 1975, in a desperate attempt to make the Trident model a success following the disappointing sales of the original T150 version, which was announced in 1968. Completely restyled and with more than 200 mechanical modifications, the T160 was the bike that belatedly dragged Triumph into the modern era.
The revamped Trident could hardly have been introduced at a more difficult time for Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT), the group that owned the BSA and Norton marques, as well as Triumph. By the mid-Seventies, Britain’s once-great motorcycle industry was in deep financial trouble. In 1974, NVT reportedly lost close to $4,000,000. In the same year, workers at Triumph’s Meriden factory began a sit-in to protest threatened mass job cuts.
In those circumstances the T160, which was built not at Triumph’s Meriden factory but a short distance across the English Midlands at the BSA factory in Small Heath, Birmingham, was a surprisingly good bike. Its air-cooled, 740cc pushrod engine was basically that of the T150 triple, but incorporating a number of modifications. The most important was certainly the addition of an electric starter — one of the modern features that had helped Honda’s CB750 outsell the T150 by a huge margin during the previous six years.
Other engine changes included improved oil circulation, the switch to a left-foot gear change (the triple’s gearbox had been uprated from four- to five-speed two years earlier), slightly lower final gearing, some alterations to the car-style single-plate clutch, and an increase in compression ratio from 8.25:1 to 9.5:1. The exhaust system was also new, with four downpipes and twin Norton-style silencers, but the triple’s peak output was an unchanged 58bhp at 7250rpm.
Unlike the vertical T150 engine but like that of BSA’s similar Rocket 3, the T160’s engine was angled forward in a new steel frame, the layout of which owed much to Triumph’s factory production racers including the legendary Slippery Sam. The twin lower frame tubes were raised for improved ground clearance, the engine sat higher and farther forward, and the swingarm was lengthened. The front forks were slightly steeper and shorter than before, and now pivoted on taper-roller steering head bearings.
Arguably the new Trident’s most important feature was its styling, which replaced the T150’s angular gas tank with a wide, rounded 22ltr (5.8gal) tank, finished in either red with white flashes or alternatively white with yellow on the slightly smaller export version. Along with the slanted engine, new chromed front mudguard, sidepanels, seat and exhaust system, the tank helped give the T160 a totally different and very handsome appearance that contrasted vividly with that of the original triple, whose universally disliked styling was one reason for its poor sales.
Riding the T160 Today
The immaculate machine featured here was originally sold in the U.S. but now belongs to Brian Strickland of Radcliffe in northern England. Strickland is a former CCM, Armstrong and Cotton engineer (all three British companies were involved in the manufacture of racing motorcycles), who also once earned his living building brand new C-Type and D-Type Jaguars cars. He bought the 12,000-mile Trident in California as a box of bits, after it had been stripped for a rebuild that never happened.
“The owner had given it to a restorer who’d drunk the initial payment away and then asked for more,” Strickland recalls. “The owner refused to pay and took the bike back, but he wasn’t ever going to assemble it. It would have been lost if I hadn’t bought it, because in that condition it wasn’t really worth restoring.” Amazingly, the only missing part turned out to be a small shim in the gearbox. Several thousand dollars and several hundred hours work later, the Trident is in UK spec (with lower bars, the bigger tank, and only the reflectors on its oil-cooler hinting at its American-market origins) and looks cleaner than when it left the factory.
My first impression after climbing aboard was that the Trident felt fairly low but decidedly heavy. At 228kg dry (502lbs) it weighs 18kg (37lbs) more than the T150 and more than most modern superbikes, and much of that weight is carried high. The riding position is typical of a European bike of the Seventies, pulling the rider forward to the narrow, slightly raised bars with their squishy Triumph grips. The panel of four warning lights between the speedometer and tachometer looks unexceptional, but this was the first time the Trident had featured a neutral light.
Normally you’d hit the starter button to crank up a T160, but one of the few non-standard components on Strickland’s bike is a smaller battery (the only other departure from standard is his use of a modern O-ring chain), so he generally uses the kick-starter. The best bet is to “tickle” the outer two 27mm Amal carbs (if you’ve never ridden and early Brit bike, you’ve never had the thrill of “tickling,” flooding the carbs to start the engine), then give a gentle jab on the kick-starter to bring the triple to life with a fairly muted but wonderfully distinctive burbling, three-cylinder sound from its pipes.
Unlike some bikes, the T160 didn’t seem to shed much of its weight once under way, feeling ponderous at slow speeds. In town it was fairly well balanced, the supple suspension and snatch-free transmission allowing easy maneuvering through traffic. But on twisty back roads the Triumph’s combination of narrow handlebars, laid-back 28-degree steering angle (one degree steeper than the T150) and high center of gravity demand a very forceful riding style, and don’t exactly encourage enthusiastic cornering.
Provided it’s given a firm hand at the bars, though, the Trident always obeys the rider’s instructions — and the same is even truer at the higher speeds to which the triple is better suited. For an elderly bike the suspension is excellent, soaking up most bumps and allowing the Triumph to sweep serenely through fast main-road curves that would have put many contemporary rivals into a wobble.
The T160’s other components play their parts well, too. The pair of 19in Dunlop TT100s show their age with identical 4.10in widths, but they grip well enough to make good use of the Trident’s much-improved ground clearance. And although the front brake is only a single 254mm disc, this bike’s soft-compound pads, aided by the similar rear disc, slow the heavy bike reasonably well.
If the T160’s high-speed handling is impressive, it is the three-cylinder engine that gives the Trident its soul. The triple can’t match the torquey, relaxed low-rev feel of Triumph’s parallel twins, although it runs happily and reasonably smoothly at speeds as low as 2000rpm. The bike pulls crisply, if not particularly urgently, from below 30mph in top gear — but the triple responds much more enthusiastically if you make good use of the gearbox and keep the revs towards the 8000rpm limit.
Revved hard, the Trident is a thrilling bike to ride, its top-end acceleration matching most bikes on the road in 1975. The 120-degree three-cylinder engine is by no means completely smooth, buzzing enough to tingle my feet through the pegs. But the Trident has a lovely, rev-happy feel that encourages you to keep it spinning. And although its 58bhp maximum seems moderate now, the Triumph was and still is capable of covering large distances at speeds well in excess of the legal limit.
Back in ’75, UK magazine Bike was disappointed at the thirsty Trident’s 36mpg fuel consumption, but impressed by the 126mph one-way top speed they recorded, with the tachometer needle buried in the red in top gear. Sadly, the British machine was not as competitive as it seemed. Several years later it was discovered that the test-bike’s engine had been stripped and blueprinted by Triumph’s experimental department, in a desperate attempt to keep up with the Japanese opposition.
Such tactics were not enough to make the Trident a big success, partly due to Triumph’s mounting financial problems, which affected quality control, resulting in some reliability issues. The T160’s price was high, too — even in Britain it cost more than Honda’s CB750 – yet despite that, about 7000 were built and sold in 1975. By the end of that year, however, NVT was in receivership, the Small Heath factory was about to be closed, and the only Triumphs still in production were the Bonneville twins being built by the Meriden workers’ cooperative.
The cooperative struggled on for several more years before finally closing, but it could be argued that the British industry’s last hope really disappeared when the Trident was abandoned. Over a decade later, the new Hinckley-based Triumph company emerged with a completely fresh range. It was fitting that John Bloor’s firm should name its unfaired three-cylinder roadster the Trident, after the original Triumph firm’s best and arguably only true superbike. MC
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