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31st January 2003

The Triumph Story: Racing and Production Models from 1902 to the Present Day by David MintonThe Triumph Story: Racing and Production Models from 1902 to the Present Day

Looking at our own bookshelf, it does appear to be absolutely crammed with books about Triumph motorcycles. Heaps of them. Do we really need another one? After due consideration (OK; two minutes) I say yes, yes we do. Because some of what has been published before is, frankly, not very good. Some of it is out of date. And much of it revisits the same old same old, saying nothing new about things which remain steadfastly the same. What you find in this new book about Triumphs covers ground where no one else has trod. This is history and historical interpretation, recorded here for all to read.

I also have a little inside info because I know roughly how much work went into this book; I worked alongside the author on various other projects while it was being written. I also know a thing or two dozen about motorcycle books; how they can be a cut-and-shut assembly job illustrated by press-pack photography and bundled out just in time for Christmas. The Triumph Story isn't like that. It may not be the pet project of a lifetime but it is certainly the culmination of several year's hard work, on top of a riding lifetime on two wheels. That has to be worth due consideration, I reckon.

In preparing The Triumph Story, Dave Minton went back to primary reference sources, to factory records, to the VMCC and Triumph Owners' MCC archives, to the remaining men of Meriden themselves, and so has penned an account of far more importance than simply a list of evolving motorcycle models, their designations and attributes. In many ways this book is as much as social history as it is an automotive one: as Triumph the company and Triumph the bikes progress and change, so you can see the reflection of British society developing with them.

Dave's aim with this volume was to cover a broad scope as the sub-title explains; Racing and production models from 1902 to the present day. That's well over a lifetime of bikes -- an awful lot of ground to cover in a single volume! And after reading it, cover to cover, it's clear that Dave didn't simply want to re-tread old stories. Instead he examines each era of Triumph and brings his own unique experience and understandings to bear. You're then on firm ground, because no one is better than Mr Minton when it comes to sharing those understandings -- he didn't write a book to fill the pages, he wrote a book to tell you and me how it really was, and why things really matter.

For instance, only as I read this did it really become clear that after the War, Triumph were forced to abandon their previous high standards of excellence in workmanship above all, and concentrate on churning bikes out for the mass market. And I'm not talking about WW2 here; I mean the Great War, the First World War! With the massive proliferation and success of the Triumph twin from, what, 1950 to 1980, it is so easy to associate the marque with those bikes and very little else. But Dave shows his readers that Triumph was a great marque long before Edward Turner. Many modern riders, like me, may find the later twins and triples the most accessible Triumphs because they most closely resemble the bikes we know best. Girder forks? Flat-tanks? Light Pedal Assistance? None of that seemed like motorbiking to me -- until Dave explained. And now I can see that those people who rode their motorised cycles a hundred years ago, well, they were a lot like you and me.

You need proof? OK. Try this; 'A normal top speed would be around 65mph but these engines responded well to tuning, so a keen type in tweed Norfolk jacket, riding breeches, gaiters and reversed cap lying prone over his finely fettled model could, with exceptional patience and a clear highway, expect to experience, if not see with his own eyes because speedometers then were rare and expensive items, a maximum speed approaching 70mph.'

We're talking about 1925, here folks. 70mph! Madness! And never let is be said that the soundbite now defines our reality. Dave still knows how to wield a sentence to best effect -- he is a truly gifted writer, and he takes mechanical fact and blends it with the emotion of the moment to reveal a truth about motorcycling. If you look closely enough you'll find a gem like this in every chapter.

Although the book is definitely at its strongest early on, don't let me mislead you into thinking that it's all about vintage machinery. Far from it. Dave leads the reader through Triumph's early years to the first Tigers singles -- and from there you hit Speed Twin territory. And I won't reveal exactly whodunnit, but you'll learn something extremely interesting about the ancestry of 'Turner's' twin, oh yes. Look closely at the first Tigers; the single-cylinder machines. That's a clue!

For the mechanically-minded, there's a whole chapter devoted to the engineering of Triumph's parallel twin -- and for those who prefer action rather than spanners Dave recounts the glories of Triumph's racing days across the decades. In fact for my tastes there is possibly a little too much racing -- I would have liked to read more from Minton himself recounting his own experiences of riding the bikes on the road -- but if you look again at the subtitle then you'll see that Dave does indeed place the track above the tarmac in his priorities for this tale. There is definitely another Minton book to be written (Minton's Motorcycling, maybe?) but I don't know if we'll ever be able to nail the man to a keyboard and get it out of him. He has a continent to ride across this summer, after all.

The Triumph Story is unlike many motorcycling books in that it isn't a great long list; Dave doesn't drive you batty with comments of the 'in 1963 the export model used a 24-tooth sprocket' sort. There's a lot of detail, but it is always used to illustrate a point. It's not just lifted straight from a brochure (or -- horrors! -- an earlier publication) for effect. And sensibly, Dave points his readers in the direction of Steve Wilson's Bonneville book if they're after a nuts and bolts history of that beast. The chapter which covers the twins' genealogy in brief is an interesting one; more pictorial than prose, it allows you to see the evolution of the twins and directly compare the American and British versions of the same bikes. The US often got the better deal, I think.

Where this book bogs down slightly is in The End; the chapters which tell the story of decline and fall are hard to read. It could just be me, of course -- that whole era is depressing and, although Dave explains that the madness wasn't limited to motorcycling, it's still gritty reading. The return to production and the Hinckley years, by contrast, are an honest, uplifting account. Where some recent Triumph books have been horribly sycophantic, Dave doesn't pull any punches when talking about the flaws of the modern bikes -- which means that you really believe him when he singles some out for heartfelt praise. It takes a brave man to criticise Bloor's bikes (and, I suspect, one who isn't reliant upon road test vehicles any more!).

Faults? An occasional suspect fact, the odd incorrect caption, a lack of attention from the publisher, perhaps -- little serious enough to detract from the book's overall appeal. Although the author's insistence of repeating each measurement in metric after the Imperial measurement drives me loopy when I'm trying to read. It disrupts the flow of the otherwise exemplary prose and, if you're talking about racing results, its turns the paragraph into a painful process. A bit of a minor grumble, mind.

Dave makes some contentious arguments in here: it's up to you whether you choose to agree or argue the toss. Either way you will be treated to a good read (it took me a week to finish and I normally rattle through a novel a day), and some beautiful illustrations. The use of archive period material is extensive, and some shots are so beautiful you want to cut them out and frame them.

It's impossible to capture all of Triumph in a single book, but this one gets close. Between the pages you'll find the spirit of Triumph, rumbling and revving and waiting to be released.

Rowena Hoseason

The Triumph Story: Racing and Production Models from 1902 to the Present Day by David Minton
Published by Haynes, ISBN 1 85960 4137, price 19.99.
Buy a copy from Amazon for 15.99


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