TRIUMPH FROM THE BEGINNING
The origins of the Triumph car, like so many of its contemporaries, may be found around the end of the nineteenth century, a period that saw the phenomenal growth of first the bicycle and then the motorcycle industries. The man who started the long journey that eventually led to the Triumph TR6 was Bavarian by birth, which may seem slightly ironic if one bears in mind that a Bavarian company (BMW) would acquire the Triumph car marque around a hundred years later. Siegfried Bettmann (1863–1951) was born in Nuremberg but, like other adventurous contemporaries, he ventured abroad in order to make his way in the world and arrived in London in 1883, where his fluency in several languages stood him in good stead for early employment.
After a couple of dalliances working for others, he set up his own business, S. Bettmann & Co., to act as agent for a number of German sewing machine manufacturers. From sewing machines came a move to bicycles, by which time he had gained a partner and moved to Coventry, where he would settle down with an English wife. Further successes, expansion and exports followed. The Triumph motorcycle had come into being by the outbreak of the First World War and would become an important tool of the war effort, known by servicemen as the ‘Trusty Triumph’.
By this time Bettmann had become Coventry’s first foreign-born Mayor, but the prejudices of war and the crowing of a xenophobic few meant that he was effectively forced from office and had to resign several directorships including Triumph (and, as it happens, Standard, although the two companies had yet to become linked). Even so, Bettmann had become a patriot of his adopted country and, besides supporting the war effort with the motorcycles, he also helped the families of staff who fell in the war and subscribed to a memorial after hostilities had ceased.
The first Triumph car was the Triumph 10/20 two-seater of 1923, complete with a 4-cylinder engine of 1.4 litres. It was a new departure for a company already well known and respected for its motorcycles. STANDARD-TRIUMPH
Meanwhile in 1918 the Dawson Car Company had been founded in Coventry on a wave of post-war optimism by Alfred John Dawson, the former works manager of Hillman. The Dawson business foundered by 1921 and Bettmann was encouraged to acquire the Dawson premises by Colonel Sir Claude Vivian Holbrook, who had joined him at Triumph in 1919. The outcome was the first Triumph motor car, the 1.4-litre Triumph 10/20, which was launched with an advertisement in The Times.
Production was significantly increased in 1927 when the Triumph Super 7 was introduced, selling well throughout its production life to 1934. The Depression hit most of the industry in 1929 and Triumph was no exception, separating
off its German subsidiary as a separate firm, Triumph-Adler, which continued to manufacture Triumph-branded motor-cycles until 1957. By 1930 Holbrook was in charge and under his direction Triumph moved upmarket to avoid cut-throat competition with the likes of Austin, Ford and Morris.
Perhaps the most dramatic pre-war Triumph from the fertile mind of designer Walter Belgrove was the controversially styled Dolomite Roadster of 1938, complete with its elaborate chrome-plated ‘waterfall’ radiator grille. STANDARD-TRIUMPH
Notable Triumphs of the period, styled by Walter Belgrove, included the Southern Cross and Gloria. Donald Healey, who later became a famous car maker in his own right, joined Triumph as Chief Engineer in 1934. Two years later cash flow problems led to the sale of the Triumph motorcycle business to Jack Sangster to become the Triumph Engineering Company and bicycle production was acquired by Coventry Bicycles; henceforward Triumph cars, motorcycles and cycles were under different ownership, even if in fond imagination many still linked them together.
Despite these drastic actions, however, Triumph suffered from the contraction of the upmarket car sector and like Riley, with whom an alliance was discussed, the business stuttered into the arms of the Official Receiver. Thomas W. Ward purchased the business and placed Healey in charge as general manager, but the business faltered again when war broke out and the Priory Street works were completely destroyed by bombing in 1940.
THE STANDARD-TRIUMPH YEARS
Shortly before the Second World War John Black commissioned Mulliners to build an SS Jaguar complete with a stylish razor-edged body modelled on that of a contemporary Rolls-Royce. Largely responsible for the design at Mulliners was Leslie Moore, who was asked after the war to effectively replicate the feat for what would become the first Standard-era Triumph, the 1946 Triumph Renown. There has been some debate about who deserves the credit for the Renown, but in his unpublished memoirs Moore makes it clear that he believes the work was mostly his own. Even so, Walter Belgrove would have been responsible for signing off the design, just as Moore would be twenty years later when he headed Triumph design. STANDARD-TRIUMPH
John Black, who was knighted in 1943, had joined the Standard Motor Company from Hillman, becoming General Manager in 1929. Black has sometimes been described as an autocratic monster, but in contrast, some who knew him have painted a different picture. While Black could be a hard taskmaster and had some fractious business relationships, he was recalled with loyal affection by his former employees as a forward-thinking strategist and, above all, a gentleman, who sought to know everyone who worked for him and always strove to improve his business. It may well be that the strained and complex elements of his personality that some witnessed, and which seem to have spilled over into some of his closer relationships, stemmed in part from his experiences in the First World War.
The second iteration of the Triumph ‘razor edge’ design philosophy was arguably less successful, but Black was determined to create a small but elegantly styled contender (in his view) for the small car home and export market. This time Les Moore certainly has the credit. CHRIS MOORE
After wartime success, Sir John’s plans were no less bold: his Standard Vanguard brought with it modern styling and an all-new 2.2-litre wet-linered 4-cylinder engine that eventually saw service in everything from Massey-Ferguson tractors to Triumph sports cars. Before the war, Standard had built a lucrative business supplying William Lyons with engines for his SS line, which became the Jaguar, but the two regularly argued and Lyons refused Black’s overtures for a merger.
Immediately after the war, Black sold the engine tooling to Lyons but various sources say that he later tried to buy it back after starting his sports car project.
Just as the Renown was the sharp-suited Triumph saloon offering in 1946, the Roadster was the model aimed at teasing customers away from rivals with a higher price and pedigree. Styled by Standard’s Frank Callaby, the Roadster (initially 1800 and later a 2-litre with a Vanguard engine) was never a great success and was reportedly a disappointment to Sir John. It only really became famous more than thirty years after it went out of production, with a starring role from 1981 in the BBC TV detective series ‘Bergerac’. STANDARD-TRIUMPH
These developments were no doubt part of the reason why Black bought the remains of the Triumph business in November 1944 for the grand sum of £75,000 and set about creating a brand new Triumph range, starting with a so-called ‘Town and Country’ saloon and a roadster. The latter, known as the Triumph 1800 Roadster (model ‘18TR’) and launched in 1946, was styled by Standard’s Frank Callaby (whose better-known role was as company photographer) with body engineering by Arthur Ballard. Ballard was one of the largely unsung staff who would continue to be involved with Standard and Triumph bodies right through to the start of the 1970s.
In September 1948 the old Standard engine of the original Roadster was replaced by the more modern 2-litre Vanguard unit, the name also changing logically enough to Triumph 2000 Roadster. It did not survive long, however, because the bulbous lines with upright grille and old-fashioned headlamp arrangement seemed rooted in a fading prewar past, whereas something like Jaguar’s sleek new XK 120 of 1948 showed a much more dynamic, modern style that only served to make the poor Triumph look even more of an anachronism; production ended in 1949 ahead of Sir John’s bold experiment with the TRX.
Perhaps one of Black’s less successful decisions (and Les Moore’s more oddball efforts) was the cabriolet version of the Mayflower. Seen here in a press photo from October 1950, the car was received with disinterest and soon limped out of production. CHRIS MOORE
In an interview with Richard Langworth in 1973, Alick S. Dick explained that he had joined Standard as an engineering apprentice in 1933. At the start of ‘shadow’ aircraft engine production before the outbreak of war, however, he had been transferred to the Purchase Department, where he had gained experience in production and personnel management to supplement his speciality. According to Langworth,
Black had encountered Dick during the war, and the young man is often referred to as his protégé. Though there was a connection by marriage between them, which had caused Dick to join Standard (instead of Rover) originally, subsequent separations did not make this much of an advantage. Dick won most of what he earned – an assistant directorship and board position in 1947 and in 1953, the helm itself – the hard way.
Dick was a dynamic managing director in a modern mould, often extravagant and bullish beyond his company’s true means, but even though he was similarly unafraid of the limelight he was less of a martinet than Black. His most obvious legacies would be the Triumph Herald and the TR4, together with the irony that the TR would go on sale just weeks after he left the company: ‘Dick’s last Triumph’, as someone unkindly said at the time.
THE ORIGIN OF THE TR SPORTS CAR
Determined not be outdone by the exciting Jaguar XK 120 of 1948, Sir John Black asked Walter Belgrove to create a new Triumph Roadster as a replacement for the rather vintage-looking Callaby model. The result was the sleekly styled TRX, based on the Standard Vanguard chassis and running gear. STANDARD-TRIUMPH
The Triumph Roadster was an interesting diversion, but despite its open-topped bodywork and sporting name, it was more of a soft-top cruiser than a true sports car. The next effort was the TRX or ‘Bullet’, an aluminium alloy-bodied car styled by Walter Belgrove and laden with sophisticated features. ...