TT100 for Uphill and the Bonnie
It was 13 years since Bob McIntire had broken the 100mph lap barrier at the TT.Now everyone expected one or more riders in 1969's 750cc production class to match Bob Mac's feat on the Gilera four.
"The best lap could be around the 103mph mark",predicted Paul Dunstall,for whom Ray Pickrell had put in a storming circuit of the 37.73 mile course at99.39mph on a Norton twin.But Dunsatall's favourite was Triumph's Malcolm Uphill,on a 60bhp 650cc Triumph Bonneville.
The production TT introduced in 1967 was no reprise of the worthy but often dull Clubman's races.Rider's were top names and engines were tuned to last for the three laps it would take to boost sales and prestige for the coming season.British Manufacturers might have lost the battle for the smaller capacity classes,but big twins like the Commando and the Bonneville were still competitive on the track and in the showroom.
Uphill ignored the pressure and still likes to recall how he eased off once he was sure of a win." The 100mph lap didn't mean much to me at the time",he says.Far more important was the £50 prize,£70 in trade bonuses and the £300 Triumph Bonneville MAC232E-his fee from Meriden.
Hunched well forward on the howling twin,pudding basin hemet bobbing above the steering head,Uphill flew through the speed trap at the highlander pub at just under 135mph.His standing start at 100.09mph looked effortless until spectators realised the scraping sound was Malcolm cornering on the K81's until his fairing touched the road.A faster second lap and a ton plus race average looked certain until this cool professional throttled back to finish with 99.99mph.It was the Bonnevilles finest hour,and a feat immortalised by Dunlop on the sidewall of every K81 the' TT100'.
'This feature originaly appeared in Classic Bike Guide and is copyright to CBG/Lee Palser'
It was southern-Canada hot that August of 1981 as I pursued two passions thousands of miles to the Midlands. Riots were dividing the country, spilling out of Brixton and touching even staid Leamington Spa. I planned to visit the tiny perfect redhead working in a bar at the Lord Leycester Hotel in nearby Warwick, but arrived to discover she'd already left; our letters to each other stalled some-where Mid Atlantic, thanks to a Canadian Post strike. Alone then, 1 travelled on to rny second stop, a short trip away by BritRail and bus: Meriden and the Triumph workers' Co-op.
The once-great company was struggling, due to circumstances now only too well known. A workforce that had numbered 2000 turning out 1500 motorcycles a week had shrunk to just over 100 workers producing 125 bikes, most of them Bonnevilles in one form or another. Fanatically loyal North American dealers, feeling betrayed and unable to get enough new products at anything like reasonable prices, were either out of business or selling almost exclusively Japanese motorcycles. A Triumph rnan ever since I was able to discriminate one bike from another, I had to go see for myself what was happening. The bus let rne off near the main gate of the plant, a long, reddish -brown, two-storey building with a few cars parked in the lot and Triumph Engineering Company in blue block lettering across the front.
I hesitated, snapped a couple of frames on rny old Nikon ,unsure now that the letter I had written to Managing Director Bob Lindsay had arrived. What kind of reception I would get would likely depend on my innate charm, seldom very dependable and not at all helped by jetlag from a overseas flight in steerage and a virulent argument with a BritRail conductor on the way to Coventry. ln the event, I was met by an affable, robust man in a grey suit who was sporting a handlebar moustache that utterly failed to hide a disarming smile. It was Peter Britton, Sales Director, and no, my letter with its accompanying introduction from one of Triumph's earliest Canadian dealers, hadn't arrived. He glanced cursorily at my Press credentials, peered a little more closely at my travel-battered camera gear and rumpled appearance, did something of a mental shrug and still said he'd be happy to show me around.
Along the way, we discussed the Co-op. I listened to the words and tried to search out the meaning behind them.I heard much hope for the future and an undertone of sorrow for those who had gone over the past few years. Some 300 of the remaining workers had accepted voluntary lay-off not long before, he said about about 100 remained, struggling to keep Edward Turner's venerable design alive. Those remaining were those who could do two or three or more jobs.But they were he said producing a limited edition Bonneville to clebrate the wedding of Lady Diana and Prince Charles, something similar to the Silver Jubilee of 1977 but in far fewer numbers and a correspondingly higher degree of exclusivity. Was I interested in seeing them? Soon he was standing amid distinctive grey frames that awaited their seats, side covers and special chrome-and-paint tanks.A justifiably proud look on his face.
Then it was on to other parts of the plant, where Britton made a point of showing me the assembly line that had recently been moved to the main shop floor by workers who came in to do the job on their holidays, working for free. If there weren't hordes of people, there were at least racks of engine casings awaiting marriage with crankshafts, frames ready to be welded up. Men and women, most oblivious to my presence, but some looking up, smiling, at hearing a strange accent, were busy spoking wheels, pinstriping sidecovers, powderspraying cylinder barrels, building up motors. They were a mixture of ages, intent on their work, and pushing hard to ensure there would be a tomorrow, but still able to muster some humour:' Don't marry for money, it's far cheaper to borrow it', read a hand-lettered thought-for-the-day on a chalkboard near one work station.
Britton made note of improvements that were steadily finding their way into production: the frame was now powder-sprayed and baked in high-temperature ovens; mating surfaces actually mated and proper seals to prevent the oil leaks that had long been a standing joke to riders. There were also trials with anti-vibration technology to overcome the inherent characteristics of the vertical twin design, and even the Prince of Darkness - Lucas - seemed to have improved its reliability to the point where basic illumination and electric starting were not an after thought.
Britton was as honest with me as he could be, under the circumstances. He knew the Co-op was in trouble - hardly a state secret - even though it had finally wrested control of its own marketing away from Norton Villiers the year before. He also knew that the North American dealers had lost faith, and acknowledged that there had been mistakes. Many of the problems were being addressed, he said, but it would take a while for the message to filter out. Triumph was instead concentrating on consolidating in the UK - where it maintained a 30% share of the 750cc market - before tackling overseas sales again in any big way. But meanwhile the Co-op was still hugely in debt. if they were to stay alive beyond the next couple of years, more would have to be done. The people in the plant, he said, had some good, sound ideas, some experimental work that he couldn't talk about. Meanwhile, the 650 Thunderbird -sporting black siamesed pipes - was back and there were entries in the off-road market, the 650 and 750 TR7-T. All that, coupled with high-end niche marketing - the fully faired Executive and the eight-valve TS series, including the new TS8-1 sports tourer - should help turn the corner. Triumph, he believed, would continue, albeit in reduced circumstances. it would be a slow, difficult climb out of the hole they were in, but they were going to give it everything they had. Later - months later, as it turned out, given the vagaries of newspaper production - I would write about my impressions of the plant, and interpret as best I could the hopes of the workers and the will they displayed, despite indicators that they could not long survive, no matter what they did, no matter what their supporters wanted. Undercapitalized, working with outmoded equipment, they were soldiering on, I wrote, striving hard for a turnaround. But it was a turnaround that would never come. The stories trickled out later about the efforts to find a 'white knight' or additional capital or even to make a merger. None of it happened, and the bankers and accountants descended. The factory and property were sold for housing estates, the money going to pay down the debt. Plans to move production to a nearby disused auto factory - ironically, Triumph's, which until the 1930s was part of the original company - fell through. By late 1983, the Co-op was gone the spares,the equipment-even the name-gone too.Triumph at Meriden was no more.
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