Motorcycle Classics

Rewind: Bike ’81 at Earls Court

I was dog-tired, but the tour of Meriden had left me curiously buoyant and even wired. The continuing heatwave and the capital’s seething undercurrent of civil unrest weren’t going to keep me away from Bike ’81 at the famed Earls Court exhibition hall in West London.

I grabbed what later proved to be a slightly brain-damaged Nikon, snapped a couple of frames just inside the Warwick Road entrance to the cavernous structure and picked up a program. I needn’t have worried about my appearance: Denim jacket, blue jeans, engineer boots and an ex-Army haversack doubling as a camera bag went unremarked amid the home-grown yobbos. I wandered in and began checking the guide to see what was on offer.

It was sobering.

What was once a showcase for Brit bike manufacturers was now a benefit for overseas companies. The Big Four from Japan were all there, along with Continental manufacturers. Even Harley-Davidson was on display. The British contingent had dwindled to two: The unwieldy — and to my eye, unlovely — Hesketh V-twin and the Meriden-produced Bonneville variations.

Nowhere in the show program were new BSA, Norton, Matchless, AJS, Ariel, Royal Enfield, Velocette models. All were gone. I knew they were, of course: It was hardly news. But it was sad to imagine what the place must have been like a mere ten or fifteen years earlier.

The Triumph stand was a joint venture between dealership Abbey Garage, the Triumph Owners Club and the Co-Op. On display were some of the models I had discussed with Peter Britton — the fully faired sports-tourer TS8-1, the yellow TR7T, the red and black Thunderbird 650 and the Bonneville. I didn’t much care for the TS8-1 or the off-roader, but I’d have snapped up a Thunderbird in a minute. It was a stunner.

Nearby were some curiosities. Edward Turner’s prototype 350cc twin, designed after he retired from Triumph/BSA, was meant to recover lost smaller-displacement ground. It would more or less morph into the promising BSA Fury and Triumph Bandit, both of which died horribly in the implosion of BSA.

Close at hand was the experimental Triumph 4, or Quadrant, a 1000cc model developed in secret and aimed squarely at companies like Honda. It too died aborning. At the extreme other end of the scale, there was a weird gold and black 50cc moped bearing the Triumph name.

There was also a Craig Vetter-designed X-75 Hurricane — another secret project, this one based in the U.S. It made the original styling of the Trident/Rocket 3 look exactly what it was: Hideous.

All were doomed, one way or another. The Quadrant, like the Trident, would have been a too-little, too-late, entry into the superbike field. Although the Hurricane did see limited — and much celebrated — production, Vetter had to wait months for payment from a miffed BSA management for his visionary work. A handful of Bandit and Fury prototypes made it out the shop doors, some of them winding up at dealers (at least one of them in Canada) as essentially display curiosities; very few were ever put on the road. I don’t think anyone ever did anything with that moped. Mercifully.

But, I thought back then, at least Triumph soldiers on, there in the traditional geographic centre of England. And I took comfort in that for the next two years … until the famous plant, and the dreams and hopes of its faithful workers, were bulldozed into oblivion. The long ride of the Speed Twin was over.

“Black shadow of the Vincent

Falls on a Triumph line.

I got my motorcycle jacket

But I’m walking all the time …”

            The Clash: “This is England,” 1984

  • Published on Aug 6, 2008
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