The Triumph Motorcycle’s Great Escape—From Obscurity


While the name won’t mean much to anyone not versed in motorcycle lore, chances are you’ve seen one of Triumph Engineering’s legendary bikes. For a couple decades (about 1950-1970) the Triumph motorcycle was the definitive model, thanks to a series of high profile film appearances and celebrity owners. Marlon Brando rode a Triumph, which he used in the famous biker flick The Wild One, James Dean liked it so much he went out and bought his own and photos of the actor astride it are still popular on social media, and perhaps most iconic of all, it was a Triumph bike that Steve McQueen, the King of Cool, rode to jump the barbed wire fence in the 1963 prisoners of war thriller The Great Escape. For a while the Triumph motorcycle was the motorcycle, synonymous with the vehicle in a way no brand, not even Harley, could touch. But it was not to last.

In a story familiar to manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic, the company’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in the 1970s when it found itself overwhelmed by foreign models that were built better and cost less. In 1983 it was sold off to a property developer named John Bloor who spent the next decade revitalizing the brand. Bloor studied and incorporated Japanese manufacturing techniques that had allowed the country’s automobile industry to usurp Triumph’s place as an industry leader. When the new models began come out in the 1990s they combined the signature Triumph style with Japanese inspired engineering and reliability, and suddenly the old guard was back on the map. Today the company, now Triumph Motorcycles Ltd, has managed to reclaim some of its former status. International celebrities like Tom Cruise and David Beckham are clients, and what once was a symbol of western manufacturing’s failure to adapt with the times and compete in a global market, now represents the reinvigorated spirit of the modern manufacturing industry refusing to go gently into that good night.