Triumph is a privately-owned British company with over 100 years of history. Triumph has always had its own distinctive character and a history of creating bikes that become design classics since they first came to market in the 1900s. Like the rest of the British motorcycle industry, Triumph went out of business by the 1980s.
But the brand was resurrected in the 1990s by British industrialist John Bloor who has built a lineup of cutting-edge sportbikes to nostalgia-themed throwbacks.
1883 Siegfried Bettmann moves to Coventry, England from Nuremberg, Germany.
1884 Bettmann starts an import-export company. He imports German sewing machines and also sells bicycles badged with the name “Bettmann.”
1887 Bettmann changes the name of his company to New Triumph Co. Ltd. (Later it will be changed again to Triumph Cycle Co. Ltd.) His principal investor is John Dunlop, a Scottish veterinarian who, albeit briefly, holds the patent for the pneumatic tire. Nice idea, too bad he didn’t really have it first! (Another Scot, R. W. Thompson, was the real inventor.) In any case, Dunlop is the first to successfully commercialize the invention.
A German engineer, Mauritz Schulte, joins Triumph. He convinces Bettmann that Triumph should design and produce its own products.
1888 The company buys an old ribbon-making factory in Coventry and sets it up to make bicycles.
1895 Schulte imports one of the first “practical” motorcycles, made by Hildebrand and Wolfmuller, to study the machine. Triumph considers making it under license, but under English law, powered vehicles are subject to a 4-mph speed limit. A man must walk ahead of each vehicle waving a red flag. This is bound to limit commercial appeal, and Triumph chooses not to get into the motorcycle business.
1902 With the repeal of those onerous sections of the Locomotive Act at the end of the 19th century, Schulte sets out to design his own motorcycle. First Triumph is produced – known as No. 1. This is basically one of the company’s bicycles, fitted with a 2-hp Minerva engine made in Belgium.
1903 Triumph opens a subsidiary in Germany to build and sell motorcycles there. Better engines are sourced from JAP (the initials of James A. Prestwich.)
1905 Triumph produces its first motorcycle completely in-house. It’s powered by a 3-hp engine and has a top speed of 45 mph.
1907 Annual production reaches 1,000 units. A new 450cc motor makes 3.5 hp.
1908 A new model comes with a variable pulley to help with difficult inclines. To change gears, the rider comes to a complete stop, gets off the bike and moves the belt by hand. Jack Marshall wins the single-cylinder class at the TT (on the old Peel course) averaging about 45 mph. It’s not known if he stopped to change gears or just pedaled his ass off, too.
1910 Triumph makes a big advance with the ‘free engine’ device (basically, the first practical clutch), which allows the user to start the engine with the bike on its stand and ride away from a standing start. There are two models in the lineup, and sales hit 3,000 units!
1911 Most bikes are fitted with footpegs only, not pedals.
1913 Schulte builds a prototype 600cc vertical Twin.
1914 Despite its strong connection to Germany, Triumph is chosen by Col. Claude Holbrook to supply the Type H motorcycle for military Allied military service. Triumph will sell 30,000 motorcycles to the military over the course of WWI.
1919 Schulte leaves the company, with a (very!) generous severance package. He’s replaced by none other than Col. Holbrook.
1920 Triumph produces the 550cc Type SD, the company’s first bike to feature a chain-driven rear wheel. SD stands for Spring Drive – it’s an early version of a cush drive.
1921 Bicycle-style rim brakes are replaced by drum brakes. The new bikes need better brakes, as they now make a lot more power – especially the prototype 20-hp Model R, with four-valve head. It is known as the “Riccy” after one of its designers, Frank Ricardo.