I’m riding the Pacific Coast Highway out of Malibu, heading for San Francisco, on a brand-new black-and-chrome Triumph Bonneville. Made famous by Marlon Brando in the 1953 movie The Wild One, the iconic outsider ride from the United Kingdom has returned with a vengeance. Larger, faster, and fitter than its classic predecessor, it’s still unmistakably a Bonnie, purring along the highway like a big cat on the prowl. First the highway patrol pulls me over north of Santa Barbara—but only to admire the bike and ask where one can be acquired. That incident is repeated in rest areas and at city intersections; at one stoplight a swarm of vacationing Wall Street traders dressed like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers astride gleaming red Ducati "crotch rockets" ogle the understated Triumph. Outside San Luis Obispo an elderly couple flags me down to admire the machine they courted on. We spend half an hour bathing in their nostalgia.
Back in the fifties and sixties, the coolest guys on the planet rode Triumphs. It started with Brando in The Wild One, a story of two biker gangs taking over a small California town. The movie was deemed too violent to unleash on impressionable youth and was banned in the UK for 15 years. But the times they were a-changin’. As Dylan, Hendrix, Woodstock, civil rights, protests, and flower power swept away the cobwebs of conformity, Brando’s surly, leather-clad outlaw suddenly seemed almost quaint. In 1963 Steve McQueen made his epic leap to freedom in The Great Escape aboard a Bonneville. By the late sixties Clint Eastwood, playing a cop, was a one-man posse on a TR-6 chasing his quarry through New York’s Central Park in Coogan’s Bluff.
The Triumph motorcycle has come a long way from its humble be-ginnings as the brainchild of a sewing-machine salesman who built bicycles, then implemented the idea of marrying a combustion engine to its frame—he was just a nose ahead of those American titans Harley and Indian. The first Triumph was produced in 1902 and would have struggled to win a soapbox derby with only a 2.25-horsepower engine. By the sixties, though, Triumph was dominating race circuits, and in 1968 it even recorded the world’s first 100-miles- per-hour lap by a production motorcycle. Americans bought 28,700 Triumphs, mainly Bonnevilles, that year. The Bonnie was the machine against which all others were judged. It captured the freewheeling spirit of the decade. The bike wasn’t just fast—it was beautiful, balanced, a sculpted synthesis of style, street cred, and speed with a bubble headlight, banana seat, and gorgeous tailpipe. Riding a Bonneville could make a dentist look like a gunslinger; it could also give a rebel an air of country club respectability.
Then came the crash. Japan geared up during the seventies, cloning cheaper, more reliable bikes and flooding markets with products that didn’t leak oil or blow gaskets. British bikes, meanwhile, idled, coughed, and, by the middle of the decade, died of management sclerosis complicated by labor intransigence, lack of investment, and market guile.
In 1985 John Bloor, a young entrepreneur who had made a fortune in construction, rescued the sickly, spluttering Triumph from bankruptcy, assembled a design team, and created a high-tech factory. He sent his workers to study Japanese manufacturing techniques and set about secretly crafting bikes that paid homage to the Triumph pedigree while pushing the envelope of engineering and performance. After investing nearly eight years and an estimated $60 million to $120 million of his own money, Bloor unveiled six new Triumphs at the 1990 Cologne Motor Show. Just three years later the factory was producing 5,000 motorcycles a year. By the end of 1994 Triumph had returned to the American market.
But it wasn’t until the middle of this decade that Triumph truly charged into high gear and reemerged as the favored cycle of the ultracool: The Matrix featured a muscular naked Triumph; it was also the bike Tom Cruise straddled in both Mission: Impossible I and II; and it was a sixties-era Bonnie that bore Robbie Coltrane’s considerable Hagrid bulk through the Harry Potter series. Jay Leno rides a Triumph; so, too, do Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Keanu Reeves, and Nicolas Cage.
Last year Americans bought more than 10,000 Triumphs. And fueling the surge was the Triumph Rocket, a top-of-the-line cruiser with the world’s biggest motorcycle engine, capable of speeds topping 135 miles an hour. It’s a fortress of gleaming steel-and-chrome crenellations that look as if they were tooled by architect William Van Alen to top off the Chrysler Building before he changed his mind and put wheels on them. This year sales are predicted to grow by 10 percent to 15 percent. The machines are stylish, whether they be one of the modern classics, an urban sports bike, or a cruiser. They are sold in some 40 countries, and in the United States there are more than 150 gleaming new dealerships. And Triumph motorcycle clothing often accompanies Gucci and Prada from Manhattan to Milan.
In Europe social trends have played a role in the rise of the cycle. As commuters have gridlocked cities and politicians impose ever greater taxes on cars, two-wheeled transport has become not just a cheap way to get around town but it’s hip, too. In London, where motorists pay $200 traffic fines and a $16-a-day fee for the privilege of driving at an average snail’s pace of seven miles an hour through the congested metropolis, middle-aged bankers are buying the toys their parents denied them as teens and students are switching from creaking and costly public transportation to road-legal scrambler bikes. Urban- chic ladies who had become confident and cool on Vespas have also upgraded. Chelsea girls straddle thunderous Triumph Speed Triples and city slickers maximize office time by growling to work on Triumph Daytonas, while the ubiquitous Bonneville, beloved among the baby boomers who came of age in its heyday, attract a parade of pedestrian rubberneckers. And the defining evidence of Triumph’s cool credibility? The French, never fond of anything of English design, bought 3,300 of them last year.
There are other telltale signs of a resurgence. Ten years ago I tried to rent a motorcycle in New York. The only outlet was a Harley Davidson dealer that thought I was insane for asking. Now Triumph, BMW, Suzuki, and others all have Manhattan dealerships. I can rent my choice of motorcycle at almost every gateway American airport and major city. I can choose from hundreds of designated scenic motorcycle highways.
Motorcycles are fun; they lift the mood. They are also inexpensive and practical, and they civilize a commute. But ultimately, they are the essence of freedom: There’s just you, the road, and a beautifully balanced machine that responds to the flick of a wrist and the flex of your fingertips.
A new Triumph can range from $7,000 to $20,000. For more information, visit triumph.co.uk.
How Triumph Did It
The first 2.25-horsepower Triumph is created by Siegfried Bettmann in Coventry, England.
After struggling through a failed foray into car manufacturing, Triumph gets back to basics and debuts the 1938 Speed Twin, which revolutionized motorcycling.
Triumph brings its first models to the States. The Triumph Trophy is designed to satisfy the American desire for more horsepower.
Johnny Allen sets a new motorcycle speed record (214.5 mph) at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats on an altered Triumph, which inspires the making of the iconic 1959 Triumph Bonneville.
Triumph’s golden age: Marlon Brando’s The Wild One finally opens in the UK, and Steve McQueen stars in The Great Escape—and 50,000 Triumphs pour into the U.S. market.
After a disastrous decade during which the motorcycle market was dominated by Japanese models, Triumph closes its doors in 1983. Two years later John Bloor rescues the company by purchasing the brand name and production rights and begins plotting the return of the Triumph.
Triumph reenters the U.S. market with the T595 Daytona.
The Bonneville returns.
American sales reach five figures—10,000—for the first time since the sixties.