Lawyer Nigel Winter takes a journey, following in the tracks of one of England’s greatest engineers. Discover the unique story of Triumph Motorcycles in this witty excerpt, taken from the chapter “Our Industrial Dunkirk” of Travelling with Mr Turner, published by Panther Publishing, 2011.
Dawn seemed to break early as a brief shaft of sunlight lit up my tent, pitched somewhere to the south of Leamington Spa. I stumbled out and was brought to by a man in brogues and twill trousers looking at me out of the corner of his eye and exclaiming, “The cricket news is that Long Itchington have won by eleven runs.”
And with that he paced away to the big house with his spaniel at his heels. I scratched my head, pulled my soap bag out of the panniers and made for that period toilet block whilst being serenaded by a song thrush above my tent. Mr Turner may have spent his night in the splendour of the Regent Hotel but I would not have swapped with him.
On my return I spotted a father and son as they paused by the Triumph and Dad pointed to the large chrome mouth organ tank badge, an unmistakable bequest from the 1950s.
“It looks brand new.”
“It very nearly is.”
He looked quizzically at the back and front of the bike and added a little doubtfully, “I didn’t know they made them anymore.”
“It’s a long story.”
Shortly I rode through the avenue of trees stirred by the morning breeze and back on to the road. The prospect of seeing Meriden in the flesh has never been dampened by the oft spoken words, ‘there’s nothing there mate’. However there is. There is a story that has to be told.
I rode on until I came to the nearest petrol station and filled her up where a new accent greeted me. Then it was on to Leamington Spa, land of wide lawns and afternoon tea. Leamington still had the feel of some distant colonial capital under blue skies with a relaxed ambience. It was everything that Stratford was not: friendly.
I turned the corner at the bottom of the hill, passing the town hall and the statue of Queen Victoria. Heading up the hill, the sun caught the bright front of a magnificent regency building. Was it a sign? At no point in this journey was there any event, coincidence or something faintly strange that even with a truck load of literary license would add a much needed spooky twist to this tale. Up until now, the door to Mr Turner’s celestial office remained firmly closed. However this rare break in the clouds did cause the sun to fall on the appropriately named Regent Hotel, but then that probably happens every morning at this time.
I duly swung the Triumph around in the road and pulled up between the Grecian columns. All was quiet as the incumbent reps had departed to dispense their industrial plastics and insurance policies on the unsuspecting. I put the bike on the side stand and strolled up the well worn steps under the coat of arms. There, through the swing doors was the foyer in which the Gaffers and their entourage had assembled on the morning of Wednesday the 7th of October, 1953. The place now looked like it had become the victim of cheap breaks that came with tabloid newspapers. The skirting board was scuffed by luggage on wheels and the foyer silent as all hands were clearing away the breakfast plates. The echo of Mr Turner that had once dissipated up there under the high ceiling was long gone.
I parked the Triumph down by the statue of Queen Victoria and had a quick look at the town. Relaxed, multicultural, spacious and best of all no incomprehensible modern architecture. Or perhaps this was just the effect of the sunshine.
An elderly gentleman pushed his wife in a wheel-chair in front of the bike. He too was pointing at the badge on the tank. He was either out of breath or his wife was genuinely interested in motorcycle tank badges. Either way the time had come for me to make my way to Meriden and all that poignantly happened there at a pivotal point in British history.
I left Leamington as my mind’s eye replayed the newsreels from a generation ago and I recalled all that I had read about a very human place from where the workers took on the world. It really could not happen today but once upon a time people were confident that they could change things and cared enough to try.
I increased the silky smooth speed of my new Triumph, before my thoughts returned to the 1970s. For in ‘those days’ it was not a good time to be in the motorcycle industry. The Department of Trade and Industry was, incredibly, being run by someone who had an open aversion to motorcycles, much to the delight of our competitors. Peter Walker was described by Britain’s satirical magazine, Private Eye as “…an unscrupulous smarmy faced arrogant little con man”. Peter was the Walker formerly of Slater Walker asset strippers and an appropriate appointee if you hold the view that Charles Manson was good for family values. If Peter had any empathy with Triumph’s difficulties given those experienced by Slater Walker when they rocked the City amidst scandal, he did not show it. Meanwhile one of our biggest export earners was allowed to continue withering on the vine until the happy arrival of the nation’s favourite socialist, none other than ‘Wedgie The Whizz’ himself, Tony Benn.
By now Meriden was making the headlines in a largely sympathetic press. The nation’s foremost motorcycle pressure group, the Motorcycle Action Group, arranged a ‘Save Meriden’ rally. The resolve of the workers hardened prompting Biggles to comment that, ‘we didn’t bargain for the strength of their reaction’. He made but one visit to the factory and could not help but notice that which is missing today; pride of place. People at Meriden liked what they did, followed their parents there, got married there and one elderly worker ultimately had his ashes spread on the lawn in front of the factory. This was a feeling that had nothing to do with moronic management and truculent trade unions. This was about people and prompted a Sunday Times profile to refer to Meriden as ‘a drama…of central importance to British industrial history’.
Meanwhile Biggles was onto the worker’s tail (he would, in the style of the school boy hero refer to them as Bandits) and made them all redundant. They took their money and went back to the warmth of their brazier, marginally better off but no further forward.
The ensuing stand off was more than metaphorical. As the weeks rolled by, a secret meeting was arranged at a hotel near Heathrow. Biggles and a Bandit sat and stared at each other and could not even agree on who should buy the tea. Unlike the notorious unions of the day, particularly the miners who were indifferent to viability, the Bandits believed Triumph should remain in business precisely because they were viable. If the management had not got the nerve, the workers had and would run the factory as a co-operative. Wedgie was interested, parliament was not.
Biggles had another go at the Bandits by threatening to retrieve his assets from the factory. The Bandits then revealed that they had 4,000 supporters whom they could coach in, within the hour, to stand guard 24/7. Biggles had never had a ‘dog fight’ quite like this one.
The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, also had problems. Meriden was not his prime concern. Neither were the miners, the car workers nor the dockers. His own intelligence services had him labelled an ‘untrustworthy bastard’ and in the final rear guard action of the old establishment, were rumoured to be seeking to oust him, incredibly by means of a military coup! Now in Britain we do picnics well, whereas Latin Americans are naturals when it comes to trouble on the streets. But this quiet nation of old guards in bowler hats had had enough. The industrial unrest and an economy facing ‘whole scale domestic liquidation’ was not the reason why some had endured the North Atlantic Convoy or even Dad’s Army.
Harold stood nervously behind the sash windows of his Westminster flat. It was a short rumble for the tanks from Horse Guards to the Houses of Parliament and he realised that London has at its heart the military establishment. Behind the anonymous brass plated door of the Special Forces Club in Herbert Crescent, Knightsbridge and all the way up to Buckingham Palace, the old establishment could be seen but not heard. To make matters worse, Harold’s mates were a bit dodgy and dreary which contrasted with the raffish ‘chaps’ of the capital’s gentlemen’s clubs particularly the aristocratic Clermont. Harold’s mates included John Stonehouse MP; the unluckiest philanderer on earth who left his clothes on the beach and made out that he had ‘done a Reggie Perrin’. Unfortunately for the randy MP this coincided with the disappearance of the Clermont’s Lord Lucan. It was a bad time to even faintly resemble the naughty Earl and a ‘Lucan spotting’ craze spread across the Commonwealth. As randy John passed through Australian customs, the officers thought they would brighten up their day by pouncing on the first Englishman of that certain haughty bearing just in case it turned out to be the equally unlucky Earl. Their consolation prize was not a landed toff but a much sought after former Minister of Aviation, who rather than having been swallowed up by the waves in a most dramatic adieu, actually left behind his wife and assorted political worries and eloped to Australia with his secretary.
Cabinet ministers were disappearing, the economy was out of control and the Judiciary were still being made to feel like man-servants to the aristocracy. It turned out that the inappropriately named Lord ‘Lucky’ Lucan had been home to murder his estranged wife and tragically got his children’s nanny instead. A trial ensued in his absence that had to be stopped as the key witnesses had to dash off on compassionate grounds. Alas they turned up on the front page of the papers, having been photographed at Ascot and close to the Royal Box at that!
One way or another Harold seemed to have taken on a grey veneer, not helped by having a cabinet of bespectacled blokes in ill-fitting suits, all of whom seemed to be called Roy. Contrast this with the sharp suited Clermont owner and icon of fading Imperial values, John ‘Aspers’ Aspinall. Aspers had the veneer of an aristocratic villain, the brain of a scholar and once famously proclaimed that he would rather trust the safety of his grandchildren to gorillas than social workers. When the media tired of reporting on Harold’s under performing government their attention would be drawn to Lucan’s mates. Asper’s life of notoriety was about to begin by speaking of the Lucan trial and exclaiming that one should be loyal to one’s friends (and class) over and above the oath to the Court. It was no longer clear who was running the country but either way they were crazy guys, one and all.
Harold could scarcely have picked a worse time in history to be in power and the Bandits could not have picked a worse time to man the pickets, for it snowed. Biggles then switched off the electricity and water supply at which point the factory’s internal sewage system stopped working and waste emerged through the ground. It was now all down to Morecambe and Wise to deliver the ultimate Christmas show to lift the nation’s spirits.
The brazier at Triumph’s famous factory gates burned on into the long cold nights as Biggles repaired to his London club to let the winter winds from Russia do their worst. It felt like a long time since the Gaffers had swept through those gates and onto the Gallop. Along the fence at the front of the factory that they had once passed at speed, read the sign to passing traffic:-
Remember, Triumph Stays At Meriden Where The Legend Was Made
Beside this was a shelter erected from wood and plastic and an assortment of canteen chairs. Soon the Bandits became the stars of the BBC Man Alive documentary special entitled For The Love Of Triumph. Those that could afford a television set could see themselves on the silver screen. This did not please everyone and one of Biggles right hand men, the ‘Pink Panther’ (known as such for his customary gait) accused the BBC of bias.
When not being minor celebrities the Bandits played dominoes, their wives manned the tea urn and provided free meals from the canteen. They also read their own newssheet produced by this embattled community that was fighting for Mr Turner’s ‘little factory in England’. As they did all this they kept their factory as clean as possible, checked stocks and serviced production machinery, but it was hard for the family men in their midst. They knew that at school other children would ask theirs, “what did you get for Christmas?” The children of Meriden would go without that year, yet before the Thatcher/Blair era of the glorious self above all else, the strength of community showed its mettle. The wives and children of Meriden had stood by their men. The days were short, the puddles deep and the wind blew as the worker’s families passed through the factory gates for the children’s Christmas party. This was held in the factory canteen with Santa Claus being played by a Union convenor. It was the best they could do that year and it would have been far easier to give in and pick up their acrylic uniform from the local supermarket. But then there would have been no Triumph in the millennium and, importantly for the new breed of fast talking politicians, no huge exports from the very last of British industry. Of somewhat less importance, I would not be making this journey.
I rode down the A45 as the traffic thickened and ground to a standstill. On the old A45, Mr Turner had leaped from his office in his sharpest suit, picked up a bike off the production line and wound back the throttle to 100mph: from boardroom to the ton in a matter of minutes. And before rolling roads teams of testers flew down the road every half hour or so. The Metropolitan Police and the White Helmets motorcycle display team had passed having picked up scores of Triumphs. Legends were made but not on this road, for Meriden has since been bypassed. It could have been anywhere, not least as we were all stuck in a traffic jam.
From Pasadena, California to Woodside, New York, dealers scratched their heads and wondered why in the little island of the King and Queen and village green they could not organise themselves to supply a product that Mr Turner had ensured would remain in demand. Well they might, as many dealers in the US could recall the era when British bikes outnumbered Harley Davidson four to one in their own country. They were tempted by the view that modern Britain was an unworthy heir to a glorious heritage. Be that as it may, or may not be, the Bandits sought to restore Triumph to its former glories. They went to America where perplexed dealers confirmed the demand for their impounded legend. Consequently a business plan was prepared and the government duly petitioned. Meanwhile at Meriden the electricity bill was now being paid by wage contributions from other Trade Unions in the Coventry area following Biggles’ move to have it cut off.
The battle dragged on with wives having to go out to work as two wage families and latch door children were a rarity then. Support remained but numbers dwindled on the back of a promise that jobs would be restored when the worker’s Co-operative was established. It was something to look forward to. Gone would be the practice of ‘Meriden Monday’ when the staff got splashed by passing chauffeurs coming to pick up their hard earned money to keep Jolly, the Brigadier and assorted hangers on in a country estate at Mighty Marmalade Hall. Gone also would be trade union restrictive practices and strikes called by bully boy shop stewards. Worker democracy was in and there was no remote management to kick against: it would be like kicking against themselves. All would have the same rate of pay whether in the office or on the factory floor. It would be utopia. Word came from Wedgie that he was in favour (bless him). The sight of trades unions wanting to work rather than stopping others from working was in sharp contrast to the antics employed in other disputes that were in the news.
Donations from well-wishers amongst the public flooded in but Biggles was not giving up. He came in for one last attack at the Bandits and applied for an injunction to release the assets, which as owner of Triumph he viewed as his all along anyway. Wedgie got word and followed on his tail with a promise to peel off if he did not fill the lawyers pockets. In return Wedgie would use his personal influence and get the blockade lifted, which he duly did when it dawned on Biggles that the world had changed since ‘so much was owed by so many to so few’.
It was a new dawn and the chattering classes briefly turned their attention to a motorcycle factory. That factory even made it onto the West End stage with a piece of agitprop theatre which then went on national tour. It went by the catchy title of, Events Following The Closure Of A Motorcycle Factory.
Behind the picket lines was the incongruous sight of motorcycles being tested up and down the car park. Tester Chuck Knight rode eleven thousand miles and carried out over ninety three thousand gear changes during the blockade. All this took place without pay to ensure that the new design worked when the bikes started rolling again. Draughtsman Frank Thompson, who had been at the factory since 1947, carried out this design work as the Triumph name meant a lot to these guys.
I untangled myself from the traffic, took the roundabout by the art deco hotel close to Coventry Airport into which Triumph’s land speed record bikes had been flown from America. However I was not flying anywhere as I now retraced my steps up the carriageway from whence I had come. Finally I made it to the Meriden roundabout and turned onto the long straight leading to the geographical centre of England. An old barn on my right had been converted into a health farm and golfers in polo necks on my left hauled their trolleys across the green. Had it all really happened here?
Even with Wedgie’s favour the Co-op’s creation was by no means guaranteed. Faith has no feature on the balance sheet but Wedgie’s faith led to the despatch of an accountant from his department to help the workers prepare a business plan. Significantly, local MP and future Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson added professionalism to what would shortly become a fledgling business.
Now Wedgie and the workers found themselves up against both the left and right wing establishments. He would record that even within the civil service:-
I could have moved much more quickly if I had not found it so difficult with my officials and the hostility of the establishment. What really frightened the establishment was that the ultimate discipline of private ownership was the sack and if people could escape it by sit ins and then establishing Co-ops it undermined the whole basis of industrial discipline.
Biggles and the Bandits had parted mid-dogfight while Wedgie had the unenviable task of dealing with his civil servants.
Finally the Bandits ended up paying Biggles £4.9 million of public money for the Triumph factory after he had set out looking for £7.3 million. Better still, a debate was only necessary in Parliament if over £5 million of public money was required. Wedgie could therefore stick two fingers up at the trades union toadies on the Labour benches and the massed ranks of asset strippers on the Conservative benches. And that is why he is the nation’s favourite socialist.
The dream was born but the nightmare would follow. The government eventually loaned the workers £4.95m and promptly took £200k for their own ‘accountancy services’. All the bikes had to be marketed through Biggles, a man hardly well disposed to the Workers’ Co-operative. Interest rates would cripple them and leave nothing for the much needed reinvestment in plant and new models that the competition would bring out annually. Geoffrey Robinson would describe the deal as being like:-
Rescuing a drowning man in the middle of a lake and leaving him up to his neck in quicksand.
Robinson told the workers not to accept, but they were motorcycle engineers. This high-risk poker is the natural fare of politicians and businessmen whereas family men simply want next Christmas to be their children’s best and with that they took the offer. Just in the nick of time as it happened as Wedgie was replaced and in his department there appeared a report from the Boston Consulting Group (known as the Boston Stranglers) which condemned the British motorcycle industry as a whole. That industry was now on its own, and the ruling Labour party started its slow withdrawal from the industrial matters of its grimy benefactors, curiously without a corresponding reduction in the size of the civil service. Dealing with striking school teachers and single issue fanatics would shape the party’s future and lead to the election of a Prime Minister who could not tell the difference between a minaret and a missile. Wedgie would always be a thorn in the side of the post socialist Labour Party and evolve into a national institution in his own right.
In a cold factory in Meriden on Monday the 10th of March, 1975 the lights came on, the heating was cranked up and bikes started to roll off the production line. All were on a flat salary of £50 per week except Geoffrey Robinson who gave his time and ample talents for free. The older workers came back through the factory gates on the promise of ‘a job for life’ and the shop steward Dennis Johnson, a man committed to industrial democracy, was in at 7 am and encouraged worker participation in all decisions by holding mass meetings on a Saturday morning so as to avoid disruption to production. It was a million miles from the rest of strike-ridden Britain.
The ‘Billy big talk’ accountancy system of the Brigadier proved inoperable and a Miss Brenda Price, who had worked under Mr Turner, restored the one used by him. A young leader by the name of John Rosamund was appointed as chairman of the Workers’ Board of Directors. John was a big affable welder who was uncomfortable with the limelight and promptly sent Brenda to America to check out the markets there. I know that on TV heroes do not answer to names like Brenda or John, but these were real people from an age before we turned into a nation obsessed with celebrity and image. Having said that Brenda was quite a looker, between you and I.
John would also see off Richard and Mopsa English who would circumnavigate the globe on a donated Triumph and publish their book Full Circle on their return. They were photographed on their departure at the front of the factory under the Triumph logo and the usual array of reinstalled Union Jacks that had witnessed the Gaffers’ Gallop. Other travellers included university lecturer Paul Pratt who stayed out on his Triumph for fifteen years and published World Understanding On Two Wheels. However the most significant journey was that undertaken by author Ted Simon just before the blockade. Ted went on to publish Jupiter’s Travels, a book widely regarded as one of the best travel books of all time and the inspiration behind Ewan and Charlie’s Long Way Round.
The very first of the Co-op’s bikes only hit the streets by accident. They first of all had to pass the noise regulations and curiously one of the Co-op’s biggest detractors, Biggles was hanging around during the tests. To his delight the noisy old Bonneville failed. However Doug Hele, who was by then in his employment, was also present and pointed out to the workers that something was loose. This was promptly tightened and the bike passed the test much to Biggles annoyance. God bless you Doug.
The workers felt they had a debt to pay and sent their very first bike to the singer David Essex who had been a vocal supporter through their darkest hour. He picked up the bike in a blaze of publicity with his mate, Formula 1 World Champion, James Hunt in tow. Triumph were back in town.
Interest payments and a permanent cash shortage preventing essential reinvestment did not stop the workforce generating a small profit by 1976. It could succeed, but Meriden is a long way from the well insulated life of the nation’s political elite in Westminster and the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson had more on his plate. He heard that tanks had turned up at Heathrow airport and was advised that he could not count on the military to protect him if the mercenaries that were alleged to have assembled at assorted country estates, launched a coup. Worse still, the last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma, was allegedly poised to replace him. His speech to Parliament had already been prepared and was rumoured to be circulating within the confines of Buck House. Now in Latin America, the streets would have burned, in Italy the trains would have run on time and even the French would have given in to the temptation to chuck a brick or two. But this was Britain, the social season came around and everyone went to the horse races. Not a lot of blood was spilt but a great deal of strawberries and cream were devoured in London. ‘Up North’ it was a different story.
A coup is a good reason to resign in any other country in the world, except dear old Blighty. Alas we only have scandals over sex and the Prime Minister was about to fire his parting shot. Rumours had long been circulating that Harold had been knocking his pipe out on the bedside table of his private secretary, Marcia Williams. He now bestowed on her a title, which attracted the merciless attention of Private Eye. Under the headline ‘Its Lady Slagheap’ we see round-shouldered Harold gazing into Marcia’s eyes while his speech bubble reads,
“So Marcia, I’ve made a Lady of you at last”
“Ooh saucy” she replies.
A long way from Meriden, Wedgie’s unsympathetic successor could not help but notice that this curious Co-operative beyond Westminster was surviving. Indeed it was producing the biggest selling 750cc in Britain. The Bonneville mopped up 32 percent of all sales right from under the nose of its old foe, the Honda 750-4. The promise of meeting ‘nicer people on a Honda’ was not enough and so Honda dropped their price and held it artificially low in the hope that the embattled old vessel of Meriden would slip below the surface and Japan would rule the waves. In this they failed, despite the Co-op’s marketing arm that was still being run by Biggles, refusing to match Honda’s price.
Back in the factory, it was all hands on deck. That famous Triumph quality of deep lustered paint and thick chrome was being maintained as its distinctive feature in an increasingly plastic market place. The tanks had their coach lines painted by hand by men who had been pulled out of retirement. Around thirty percent of the entire workforce had been there since before the war and on passing through the factory they could remember the figure of Mr Turner walking down their very production line, the glory days of world speed records and Steve McQueen’s visits. Now they saw a leaking roof over their factory in which only half of the floor space was occupied. The machinery was clapped out from when the Meriden staff were thrashed by the export drive of the Brigadier and Harry Sturgeon. They had simply taken the money and failed to reinvest and this was their legacy. The worker’s legacy was their skill that ensured that Triumphs continued to roll off the production line and be the star of any showroom that they graced with their presence. To a youthful Geoffrey Robinson, British products sold on heritage and he compared the Triumph to the MGB, both of which were traditionally made and gradually improved by evolution. Well, it worked with mankind.
With the government tied up in problems of its own making, the Meriden vessel was adrift at sea and needed a seasoned captain. The Co-operative was still working on the sincere belief in industrial democracy based on trust, hard work, honesty, full sick pay, no clocking on or off with all staff enjoying the same privileges, regardless of rank. And for a time it worked. But with an ambivalent government wrestling with a striking public sector and Honda holding it’s price down from $2,100 to $1,600, change was inevitable. At this point the former works manager who gave forty years of his life to Triumph, John Nelson, returned. Cambridge alumnus or not he wasted no time in shaking the hand of every one of the 700 workers at the factory. Incredibly the factory started to feel like it had under Mr Turner’s highly successful tenure.
The workers went on to tenaciously face one crisis after another and time and again the question resonated around the echoing factory, ‘what would Mr Turner have done?’ The same question was being asked over a decade after his death.
Slowly, worker democracy gave way to harsh reality and the need, as one worker told John Nelson, for a ‘real bastard in here’. Geoffrey Robinson became the still unpaid Chief Executive and although ascendant in the government he had no power to cancel the debt around the Co-op’s neck; a concession given to far more expensive and less successful government assisted enterprises of the day.
At this point Margaret Thatcher swept to power in a 3 1/2 litre Rover equipped with a poem about Francis Assisi and a contract on the head of the President of the National Union of Mine Workers. She lost the Rover, got the President and for better or worse Britain would never be the same again.
Stormy seas were ahead for the battle scarred vessel Meriden, which were uncomfortable when the water level was only just being kept below the bow. None of these were of the workers’ making and their factory was more like a family business whose customers preferred a motorcycle that was so well made it could pass from one generation to the next. Still the stricken vessel cut its path through currency fluctuations, interest rates and inflation, all of which took their toll. They had to consider the unthinkable; job losses, everything that the Co-operative stood against. But this advice came from the man who gave his time for free, Geoffrey Robinson. In him they trusted.
The first cut was the hardest: the blockade veterans over sixty-five. The very men who had come back because their skills were needed to compensate for the worn out machinery. One told the press:-
I have been treated as if I was just an employee of any private company and not as a member of a workers cooperative.
It was no easy task to place the palm of one’s hand on the shoulder of a proud old craftsman and tell him to gather his tools.
The public, being the public, dug deep and thousands of pounds of donations rolled in; this was a business like no other. Consequently my journey down the tree lined road leading to Meriden was tinged with emotion. Much maligned today, it plays no part in making money but can be an overriding factor in making a purchase. If only purchasers would be logical, the world could be bland and markets divided up between a few producers who would be masters of the universe.
I eased up alongside the village sign that read:-
Meriden, the centre of England
It had been stormy the previous night and there were branches and debris in the road. Hard hat Hi-Viz types took their chain saws to the odd branch before throwing them in the back of a Land Rover. No one was in a hurry and they only broke the silence occasionally. They went about their business oblivious to my presence as the clouds parted and sunlight fell upon the lush green roadside. Time has clearly moved on.
As 1980 came around, thousands of motorcyclists gathered at Meriden. On this road they had rumbled by before riding all the way to Downing Street to implore that Triumph be saved, whilst the public cheered from this very verge. That emotion can be a powerful thing.
It was not the throbbing of thousands of Triumphs outside the Prime Minister’s pad that lead to a cancellation of the government debt. It was the belief that they had no chance of getting it back, so what the hell. They could have done it a bit sooner but Westminster is a long way from Britain and governments only care when they are up for election. The cancellation did not clear all the debts by any means and the local authority came round for their cut of the rates as with any other business.
The workmen moved the ‘Tree Cutting In Progress’ sign further down the road and broke for tea. They were too young to have attended the Meriden factory’s Family Christmas Party.
In March 1982, John Rosamund had pulled the corner of a Union Jack that fell away to reveal Triumph’s new model to the audience at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. Never has any factory managed such a successful development in such constrained circumstances. The 120mph 750cc TS8-1 had arrived and the workers had built their own ‘superbike’ worthy of the title. Incredibly, the Japanese police ordered several for trials with their own force. Finally Rosamund, Robinson and the greatly reduced workforce had cleared their bank loan. They were out of debt at last!
I threw my leg over the bike and rode to the centre of Meriden village. It was quiet and only enjoyed the services of a baker and hairdresser, both of which were closed. The buildings were 1930’s style and set back behind long lawns. I figured that Meriden must have a lot of people who qualified for their free bus pass and it certainly felt as far removed from the source of a legend as you could get.
Over the road an old boy in a deerstalker strolled by. The village gamekeeper? Did he once see Mr Turner roar by every morning? Does he remember Steve McQueen stopping for a bacon butty before dropping in to the factory? Now for some living history I thought.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where the Triumph factory used to be?”
Stone deaf and probably because of all the world speed record bikes that used to be revved up outside the hairdressers. I repeated the question.
“I’ve only lived here three months.”
In the early eighties the recession started to bite deep. Even without debt the workers needed more business and much was available from Third World police forces that needed a rugged and reliable motorcycle. However many were military dictators and the Co-operative was a principled left leaning business. Or as America’s Cycle World magazine put it ‘redder than the bleeding Bolshoi ballet’.
The recession could not have come at a worse time with hard nosed monetarism the prevailing school of thought. Anything ‘constructive’ was becoming habitually dismissed as being part of the dated ‘smoke stack’ industries and instead everyone was encouraged to become an estate agent. Alas the estate agents, instructed to secure the sale of the Meriden factory pending a move to a smaller site, were less successful than the workers were at making motorcycles. The delay proved deadly, but as ever with Triumph the old vessel still fired a deadly salvo whilst slipping beneath the waves. The Texan dealer, Big D, had an incredible 155 mph victory in the Battle of the Twins at Daytona on their TS8-1. Then at long last a consultancy firm looked at the Co-operative and advised that an advance of £1m to enable the workers to retool would bring long-term viability within reach. However this was followed by a rebuke for a local authority employee for his ‘over enthusiasm in helping Triumph that went beyond the detachment normally expected of senior local government officers.’ It must have been the first and last time the words ‘over enthusiasm’ and ‘local government’ were used in the same sentence.
At around this time Steve McQueen’s life was drawing to a close. It was a long time since he, Don Brown and Bud Ekins had raced in the desert. In his final days he returned to his Uncle Claude’s Hog Farm way down in Slater, Missouri. Maybe he reflected on his life on the red carpet or maybe desert tracks taken at speed. Don Brown recalled to the author:-
I think Steve became very Hollywood after he did ‘The Great Escape’ (Bud did some of the stunt work on that film). When Steve was dying he tried to reach me by phone but I was on a new assignment and my secretary didn’t know who he was so she failed to call me, so I missed him.
Steve died a week later having failed to say goodbye to his old friend who had sold him his first Triumph. Never again would he fly to Meriden to see the bikes he loved being assembled by hand. Neither would he cause office girls to comment on how short he was in real life, or give a pair of his gloves to one of the workers. Years later there would be an indecent scrabble by manufacturers of motorcycles, clothing, watches and sunglasses to find some association between the ‘King Of Cool’ and their products. When his real gloves were found in a Coventry garage by the wife of the factory worker to whom they had been given, she threw them away thinking they were just any old pair of gloves.
Meanwhile the lack of a buyer for the Meriden site and the absence of an alternative smaller site cost critical time that the world-weary workforce did not have. The cash had run out and the odyssey of one of the most unequal struggles in British commercial history was drawing to a close. One of the members of the Workers’ Co-operative would later recall that
We said we’d celebrate when we’d solved this problem or that problem. We never really did celebrate.
I followed the road out of the village. On my right ran a hedge that marked the border of the Triumph factory. Behind it lay a housing estate of ‘executive’ homes: Bonneville Close, Daytona Drive and there, under the dappled shade of a beech tree, was a stone memorial. In pewter was the casting of a man at speed on a Triumph under which were the words:-
THIS WAS THE SITE OF
THE TRIUMPH MOTORCYCLE
1942 – 1983
I rode by and out of the village to where the road feels as if it leads to nowhere, but it has simply been bypassed. The road that time forgot leads to the last remaining part of the Triumph factory. I eased up by the iron fence. It was rusted and the weeds grew up around this once proud factory. An old flagpole without a Union Jack remained at the corner of the building and behind the frosted windows was the incomprehensible shape of goods in storage. Despite there being half a dozen cars parked at the front there was no sign of any activity. In these very buildings they had prepared the bikes that conquered the world. I idly leant against the fence which had not seen a paint brush since at least 1983.
In the autumn of that same year, Mr Turner’s glamorous daughter Charmian had visited the complete but silent factory for the last time. The Triumph logo was still above the main entrance but the flags were gone. Her father had commenced the Gaffers’ Gallop from the same spot at which she was photographed for their private family album. The following day another film crew made its final visit to Meriden as people gathered at the gates in silence. They were knocking our factory down, or so it felt.
I rode back to the site of the demolition, now unrecognisable as a modern housing estate. An old lady in man-made fibres planted posies in her front garden as the wind tugged at her silver hair. She did not look up. The locals are used to the spectacle of sentimental motorcyclists photographing their street sign.
Throughout the day of the demolition there had been a succession of cars and motorcycles passing very slowly. At around mid-day a car turned the corner into Meriden’s Main Street for the very last time. Inside was Ivor Jennings, the export manager who had suffered perpetual title changes at the hands of the consultants in the sixties. In his passenger seat was the very proper Nan Plant, Mr Turner’s secretary for nearly four decades. Nan was a lady who had probably never sworn in her life. They both gazed from the car as the factory was being reduced to rubble and Nan uttered a very minor profanity. From her it summed up the moment as a crane swung an iron ball into Mr Turner’s old office. After several stubborn attempts, it was no more.