Riding a motorcycle, one capable of reaching 60 mph in six seconds or less, is an indelible and, in some cases, life-changing experience involving risk, intimacy and power. Until the early '60s, such machines came primarily from England. Harley-Davidson and other U.S. manufacturers built heavy—make that very heavy—road cruisers. Norton, BSA and Triumph: For 50 years these names held or set world standards in most kinds of competition. Then, in 1961, Honda appeared at the famous Isle of Man Tourist Trophy event in serious fashion. It brought prototype cycles and a team of excellent riders led by the late Mike Hailwood, who would finish the season as world champion.
These new machines featured chain-driven overhead camshafts, horizontally split crankcases, high rpms and wide, wide power bands. Hailwood won both divisions he entered, and Honda the first five places in each. The next year Honda returned in massive effort. The high-speed straights and narrow village switchbacks of the 37-mile Isle of Man circuit echoed with a sound that was soon to be heard round the world—a new generation of performance engines, forerunners of the Japanese machines that dominate motorcycling today.
I was a college student in the '60s. In a scheme to maintain beer funding, an entrepreneurial friend (a BSA owner) and I (then a Norton owner) opened a motorcycle repair business. Our shop was a drafty garage with a dirt floor and a kerosene heater like those used in duck blinds. We worked on whatever came through the door but preferred the British machines. Their eccentric, macho style matched our own. When literary-minded friends dropped by, we would entertain them with recitations from the English shop manuals—arcane nomenclatural tidbits like woodruff keys, gudgeon pins and swarf, and a particularly memorable oil-draining procedure that required cocoa tins.
But even a college student could see the writing on the wall: The British pushrod twins were doomed by the overheadcam Japanese bikes, which in five years had surpassed, or at least pulled abreast of, the best that England could offer. The Honda 305, for example, was a smallish machine with less than half the displacement of my Norton, but it could run all day at 70 mph and required only token maintenance.
The British factories tried to keep up—adding essentially cosmetic touches like electric starters, disc brakes and turn signals. But bad management and a refusal or inability to change basic engine design precluded any real recovery. In 1969 Honda struck again, this time with a production 750-cc four-cylinder that was fast and reliable. This new motorcycle continued pulling hard at 100 mph.
Today there are dozens of Japanese machines on the road whose acceleration (and braking) would be unbelievable, perhaps scary, to the average four-wheel motorist. And the English no longer make motorcycles for the open market. BSA closed its doors in 1973, Norton in 1976, and Triumph, following some feeble attempts at reorganization, sent its last machine to the U.S. in 1983.
After achieving college graduate status I tried some dirt track racing. It was the logical culmination of my four-year career as a student showoff with a hot machine. Alas, my performances were thoroughly average. In the straights my meticulously prepared BSA was slower than the then exotic Yamahas. And in the turns my taste for speed didn't extend to the ragged edge, which is where the winners ride. In 1970 I hung up (sold, in fact) my leathers and bought a car. (Beg your pardon? Oh, a Toyota.)
Ten years later I discovered a 1964 Triumph, and in less time than it takes to smile impulsively, I saw myself buy it. It had been sitting in a puddle of crankcase drippings for several years. The paint was horribly faded, and the once lovely chrome was rusted and pitted. Moths lived in the carburetor. I took it apart, rebuilt and repainted it (a case of cost overrun rivaling the MX missile) and, being a photographer, I rolled it ceremoniously in front of a sheet of white background paper and took a picture of it.
Just parked at the curb, the Triumph made a statement about economy of form and function that today's models can only parody. Its design is classic in the truest, simplest, least hackneyed sense. Even the name and logo are compelling. No color-coordinated saddlebags, windtunnel fairings or radio antenna. Just a lean, 360-pound package with 50 hp. No electric starter, either—this bike you kick over. And mind those 9:1 pistons and 38 degrees of timing advance, mate.
In handling and acceleration, the Triumph shares the heritage of all English motorcycles, which were developed to go fast on narrow, winding roads. Partly because of its wheelbase, partly because of the power characteristics of its pushrod engine and partly because of its frame geometry and weight distribution, the Triumph lays down comfortably for turns. It's nimble. From the stoplight, it moves ahead with a deep, satisfying, correct exhaust note.