Whatever the industry, it often seems that without big names and corresponding resources, great products are almost impossible to create. Ask small British manufacturer Triumph its thoughts on the subject though, and you quickly get the sense that where bikes are concerned, not a single soul at Triumph subscribes to that theory. Calling it a case of David and Goliath might not be far-fetched as Triumph’s story is a genuine underdog tale in which the “little” company engages in a quest to take on some of the most respected names in motorcycling. Bertrand Gahel is in conversation with Triumph Canada general manager Chris Ellis.
Look at what’s come out of Triumph Motorcycle’s Hinckley factory these past few years, and you have to acknowledge the Brits are doing way more than just talkin’. They’re doin’.
The company’s future promises to be quite exciting if Triumph continues to push as hard and to innovate as much as it has over the past few years. It has now demonstrated that, despite its small size, not only can it run with the biggest and the best, it can also downright astonish the market. Which is not an easy feat by any means considering the extremely high levels of quality, design and performance that have become almost commonplace now.
But to truly understand the level Triumph is playing on these days, hands-on experience with the best other manufacturers have to offer is essential, not to mention actual seat time on various products the privately-owned English company has produced over the past decade or so. Having both, I was eager to get some answers regarding everything from Triumph’s decision not to attend North American motorcycle shows this past winter to the choice of restricting engine configuration to Twins and Triples exclusively. A recent press event held in California turned into the perfect opportunity to sit down with company executives and discuss all things Triumph. To my surprise, the conversation was unusually open and even included some discussion of upcoming models.
Later, in a follow-up telephone conversation with Triumph Canada general manager Chris Ellis, I pursued the lines of thought I had begun with other Triumph personnel at the California event. I wondered aloud why almost every model in the lineup (except the popular Daytona 675 and Speed Triple) received quite substantial adjustments in pricing for 2007. Could this be seen, to some degree, as a repositioning of the brand? Ellis says no, the price cuts simply reflect fluctuations in currency. While on the subject of money, I asked Ellis to clarify why Triumph chose not to participate in industry motorcycle shows across Canada in 2007. His response and excerpts from our discussion follow:
CE: In 2005, Triumph chose to look at other marketing avenues and pulled out of the US shows. After not attending consumer shows for a year, Triumph sales in the United States actually increased by close to 30 per cent. Were the two related? Probably not, but it proved to us that possibly the shows were not an absolutely necessary part of the marketing thrust. The idea was then taken to include Canada in 2006-2007 and see what it was like not to have Triumph present at shows, then use the same marketing budget through the dealer network and see how that reflected in the business. Because we believe Triumph’s path is to market differently than other brands, we chose to use those funds differently, to help dealers advertise and put special events together. We want to try to drive the business directly to them versus to the consumer shows.
BG: So specifically who would Triumph consider to be its primary competition?
CE: Absolutely the other Euro brands. They have garnered a lot more respect and a lot better market share over the past three to five years. I think the reason behind that is consumers want more. They have high expectations, they want more for their money and they find that some of those European brands have more character. We don’t have a specific target, we’d rather keep doing our own thing and continue to build new and exciting motorcycles. We believe qualities such as style, function, character and sexiness will bring consumers to our brand.
BG: Triumphs from, say, 10 or 15 years ago were rather ordinary, while Triumphs from about five years ago were definitely good, but not quite great. Some of the Triumphs I’ve ridden over the past three years, however, were truly impressive. Bikes like the Rocket III obviously, but also the latest generation of Sprint ST and Speed Triple. Even so-called simple bikes like the Scrambler left me with a surprisingly good impression. And then you guys came up with the brilliant 675. Am I hallucinating or has something changed at Triumph over the past three or four years?
CE: Well, exactly three years ago, as a matter of fact, you’ll note the Triumph logo changed. Along with that change, our brand decided it would become more connected with its riders, that it would build models with character and that they would be sexy. What you noticed is the moment we recognized our brand needed to have a distinct path. We needed to be able to explain very simply what Triumph is and what it represents. Some of the very simple and resounding facts were that Triumph represented Twins and Triples. That’s why about three years ago all four-cylinder models were taken off the table.
Actually, here are a few lines from our brochure that seem to be the perfect answer to that question:
Are we living in a parallel universe? Or a triple one. Unlike other brands, Triumphs are powered only by parallel Twins and triples. There are plenty of rational, technological reasons for this: Our parallel Twins are smooth and well balanced; our triples deliver power by the bucket load, exactly where and when you want it most. The emotional reason? No other engines sound or feel like them …
BG: You now have a plant in Thailand. Which bikes are being produced there and are you in any way concerned that consumers may feel as though they’re not buying a totally English bike?
CE: Our new Thailand plant is the most modern motorcycle plant in the world today. It’s been providing parts to the UK plant for about three years and we just started building our Twins over there this year. Now whether Triumphs are built in the UK or anywhere else, they will always be British bikes designed and conceived in England.
The truth of the matter is, in order for us to compete in what has become a global economy and to produce bikes on a global scale, and especially since our UK plant simply couldn’t meet demand anymore, the new Thailand plant was a necessary step. As for consumer perception, I just don’t see this being a factor. Other manufacturers have plants all over the world as well. I think where a bike is assembled is almost a non-issue today. Where the quality control and where the design is driven from is what matters.
BG: You mentioned a growth in sales of around 30 per cent last year in the US. That’s obviously huge. To what do you attribute such growth and which models are most responsible for it ?
CE: There is not one factor. It’s just Triumph coming of age. It’s the bikes, the branding, the dealerships. As far as which bike sells the most, in general it varies depending where you are around the world. In North America, the strength of the brand is built on Twins, probably because that’s where Triumph’s history came from.
This being said, the Daytona 675 is a huge success for us. We just couldn’t meet demand for it last year and it is yet to see if we’ll be able to in 2007.
BG: Let’s talk a little bit about some tech stuff if you will, particularly injection versus carburetion. According to Editor Campbell’s crystal ball, we could see fuel injection fitted to all carbureted Triumphs sometime before 2008, which would mean all your Twins would be fuel-injected in the very near future.
With evermore stringent emissions requirements from the EPA in North America and the Euro 3 norm in Europe, how wrong can Campbell be?
CE: All I can say is Triumph will meet all emissions requirements for today and for the future.
BG: All right, next question then. I was kind of surprised to hear unusually open talk about upcoming models by Triumph personnel during the launch in California. In fact, it was basically acknowledged that 2008 would bring to market a naked, Speed Triple-style version of the 675 Daytona, along with a twin- cylinder-engined cruiser displacing in the neighbourhood of 1500cc and destined to bridge the enormous gap between the relatively small displacement America and Speedmaster, and the big Rocket III. Can you elaborate in any way on those new models ?
CE: I won’t confirm or deny, especially since we’re still a long way from 2008. But I’ll remind you that a few years ago we promised our dealers at least a couple of new or redesigned models each year.
And I’ll also tell you the future of Triumph is extremely exciting, but I’ll leave it at that.
BG: Let’s wait and see, then.
Changes to the cruiser fleet
Since the primary purpose of Triumph North America’s recent press launch in California was to evaluate some relatively minor updates to already existing models, it has to be said that there was very little in terms of all-out excitement. That is, aside from the long black marks left by the Rocket III at pretty much every stoplight.
Still, the event demonstrated the kind of fine tuning the English lineup is continuously undergoing—such as the Touring version of the Rocket III Classic. It’s a more comfortable rendering of the original model, thanks mainly to floorboards and more sweptback handlebars. The addition of a pair of semi-rigid leather bags, a passenger backrest and windshield transforms the brute into a surprisingly pleasant and capable travel partner. Aside from the typical buffeting produced by the windshield at helmet level, and having to get used to some wide-rear-tire-related behaviour as far as steering input is concerned, the Touring version only reminds you how amazingly rider-friendly this 2300cc 140-hp beast actually is. Big time torque literally all the time, smooth engine, not too heavy at slow speed and downright agile at anything above a walking pace, the big triple is still one of the greatest testaments to Triumph’s know-how, not to mention cojones, some three years after its introduction.
In an industry where bigger and faster always seems to be synonymous with better, Triumph’s entry-level Twins, the America and Speedmaster, are a breed apart. As light and narrow as they are quiet and polite, Hinckley’s Bonneville derivatives are a convincing and pleasant lesson in basics: just pick your style and go ride. As far as the America and Speedmaster are concerned for ‘07, both receive some cosmetic changes, such as various new covers, wheels and silencers, along with a black-painted engine. Additionally, the America finally gets rid of the sluggish 790cc version of the trademark British parallel Twin in favour of the more enjoyable 865cc variant employed by the Speedmaster. To top it all off, both get substantial price drops this year—between $900 and $1,300 depending on model and paint choice.