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A Visit to Oddball's Autos

January 1, 2003, by Bill Cawthon

First off, Happy New Year! I hope 2003 is all you could wish for.

By the time this column appears, a significant milestone will have been passed in British auto history. At midnight on 31 December, all rights to the Roll-Royce name transferred to BMW. Volkswagen will keep the original works at Crewe, along with the Bentley name, but in the future, the legendary winged lady will perch on the hood of a mostly German automobile. Only the painting, wood- and leather-work and final assembly will take place at the new factory at Goodwood in West Sussex.

Perhaps some good will come from this: BMW might commission a 1:87 scale Herpa model of its new flagship. Volkswagen has shown no inclination to have models produced of its Bentley line, but BMW likes to have models of each of its products, so we can hope for the best.

While there are a couple of Rollers on the lot at Oddball's Autos, this column will focus on another British marque with a German connection: Triumph.

In the closing years of the 19th Century, there were hundreds of tinkers and engineers trying their hands at producing motorized vehicles. The founder of Triumph was neither.

GSiegfried Bettmann in his ceremonial regalia as the mayor of Coventry in 1913.

Siegfried Bettmann was just twenty years old when he arrived in the United Kingdom in 1883. He had left his home in Nürnberg, Germany to seek a career in business. After working for a while compiling business directories for Kelly & Co. and as a translator for White Sewing Machine Company, Bettmann decided there was more money in the rapidly growing bicycle market. In 1885, he opened "S. Bettmann & Co., Import-Export Agency" and began importing bikes and selling them under his own name. In 1886, Bettmann changed the name of his company to the Triumph Cycle Company. As Bettmann said, "I gave it the name Triumph, which would be understood in all European languages."

The following year, the company was incorporated with Dunlop Tire underwriting the stock. At the same time, Bettmann brought in Mauritz Johann Schulte, a young engineer from Bettmann's hometown, as a junior partner.

Schulte soon convinced Bettmann the company would do better by making its own bicycles. In 1888, using funds borrowed from their families, Bettmann and Schulte bought a former ribbon-weaving factory in Coventry. Triumph's first bicycles were produced in 1889.

By this time, motorized bicycles were becoming the rage all over Europe. Gottlieb Daimler had built the world's first motorcycle in 1885 and soon dozens of different designs were being developed. In 1894, Hildebrand and Wolfmuller became the first to put a true motorcycle into production. Schulte imported one for testing and recommended Triumph consider producing them under license. Fortunately, nothing came of the idea, because by 1897, the Hildebrand and Wolfmuller design was outdated and the company was in financial trouble. Bettmann looked into licensing Beeston Humber motorcycles, but that, too, went nowhere. In the end, Bettmann and Schulte decided to produce their own design.

It was not until 1902 that the first Triumph motorcycle made its debut. It was actually a standard Triumph bicycle frame with a single-cylinder Belgian Minerva engine. In recognition of the state of the art in those days, the new Triumph still had its foot pedals in case the engine failed.

The Triumph motorized bicycle was a commercial success and a branch was opened in Nürnberg. After experimenting with different engines, Bettmann and Schulte decided to develop their own motorcycle from the ground up.

Herpa's 022316 is a TR3. In the background is a Triumph ad from the late 1950's. Check out the whitewall tires and snappy duds. On the other hand, that $2675 price is a bit of nostalgia that would be nice to see again. Model photo: Promotex

The 1905 Triumph was not only the company's first completely in-house developed product, it was also the first all-British motorcycle. Designed by Schulte and Triumph works manager Charles Hathaway, much of the company's later success was built upon this product.

By 1907, Triumph had moved to larger quarters and Siegfried Bettmann was a city councilman.

Triumph motorcycles began to accumulate racing victories and Schulte and Hathaway were constantly improving the product. Within three years, the company was building thousands of motorcycles annually, in a wide variety of styles. There was even a model designed especially for women.

During World War I, Triumph supplied more than 30,000 motorcycles to the Allied forces, earning a reputation for rugged dependability and creating a new demand for the "Trusty Triumph" when hostilities ended in 1918. Bettmann himself had been elected mayor of Coventry before the war, but was forced to give up the post after political opponents labeled him an enemy alien.

Peacetime brought a major rift between Bettmann and Schulte. Bettmann wanted to take the next step and produce a car. Schulte was happy with Triumph's enormously successful motorcycle business and wanted no part of the already crowded automobile market. In the end, Bettmann bought out his partner of over thirty years for £15,000 (equivalent to about $675,000 today).

To replace Schulte, Bettmann bought in Colonel Claude Holbrook, the English Army officer who had been in charge of motorcycle procurement during the war. At first, Holbrook was also reluctant to move into the automotive world, but Bettmann prevailed and Triumph introduced its first car, the 10/20, in April 1923.

The new Triumph was based on the Dawson, an early brand that had not survived. Since Triumph's motorcycle factory was not suited to automobile production, Bettmann bought the Dawson Car Company's facilities in Coventry. To design his new car, he hired Arthur Alderson, who had done work for Dawson as well as Singer and Lea-Francis.

While it was attractive and competent enough, the 10/20 was not a standout among the dozens of brands created by British automotive entrepreneurs. A few years later, Triumph rolled out the Super Seven, a new design that was more competitive, but the timing was all wrong. The Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression left Triumph in financial difficulties. The bicycle business was sold to raise cash, but it was not enough. Under pressure from the company's creditors, Bettmann lost his management position to Col. Holbrook and retired from the company in 1933.

Wiking's 815 03 22 TR4 model is based on the first generation, built from 1964 to 1965. In the background is the cover of one of the original Triumph brochures.
Model photo: Wiking

Three years later, Triumph sold its motorcycle business to Jack Sangster, who renamed the firm Triumph Engineering Company. One of Sangster's first actions was to bring Siegfried Bettmann, now 72, out of retirement to be the chairman of his new company. From then on, the two Triumphs followed divergent paths and Bettmann never again had any connection with Triumph cars.

Under Col. Holbrook, Triumph began to make a name for itself in the racing circuit. The company's management realized it could not compete in the mass market with Austin and Morris, so it began to concentrate on sportier upscale cars. Holbrook had brought in racecar driver Donald Healey (who later created the Austin-Healey) as a consultant in 1933. Healey's Dolomite roadsters and the Vitesse sedans created by Rob Green did a lot to burnish Triumph's image as a maker of high-performance cars. Unfortunately, just as before, they didn't sell well enough to keep Triumph out of trouble. In 1940, Triumph was forced into receivership, having built just 35,000 cars in seventeen years.

As if to add insult to injury, German bombers leveled Triumph's Coventry works during the Blitz. Today, Coventry Cathedral's Chapel of Industry stands on the site of the original Triumph car factory.

After the war, Sir John Black, head of the Standard Motor Company, bought the Triumph name from the receiver. Black hoped to build a new brand of sports car that could compete with Sir William Lyons Jaguars. Soon after the war, Standard introduced two new cars that carried the Triumph name: the 1800 Roadster and the 1800 Town & Country. A few years later, Standard introduced the Triumph Mayflower for the American market that was so important to postwar Great Britain. However, the Mayflower's styling did not do well with Americans, who had fallen in love with the inexpensive MG-TC and TD and the sleek Jaguar XK. The curse of the Triumph name seemed to still be working, as Black, like Siegfried Bettmann before him, was ousted from his own company.

The car that finally brought real success to the Triumph name made its debut at the 1952 Earl's Court Motor Show. The TR1 was essentially a Mayflower with a two-seat roadster body. The TR-1 itself wasn't all that beautiful, but it showed promise. Standard brought in Ken Richardson as chief test engineer to tweak the car for production and Walter Belgrove to work on the styling. The sleeker, more refined TR2 was unveiled at Geneva in March 1953. It was one of the hits of the show and, for once, the timing was perfect. The Standard Triumph TR2 fit a niche between the cheaper, but hopelessly obsolete MG and the far more expensive Jaguar. For the time, it was a real performance car, although its 0-60 time of 12 seconds and top speed of 105 would seem laughable today.

The TR2 was a hit, especially in America. It was followed by the TR3 in 1955 and the TR3A in 1958. Between all three variants, more than 80,000 cars were produced in just eight years. Sadly, Siegfried Bettmann did not live to see his dream realized. He died on September 24, 1951, a year before the TR1 was unveiled.

At the end of 1960, the wave of consolidation that was sweeping the English auto industry caught up with Standard and it was bought out by Leyland Motors, which in turn became part of British Leyland in the late 1960s.

The TR3A remained in production until 1961, when the Michelotti-designed TR4 replaced it with added amenities like roll-up windows and a larger engine. Interestingly enough, Triumph's American dealers were concerned about public acceptance of the new design, so a special model, the TR3B, was produced for the North American market. The TR3B kept the TR3's body and chassis, but added the TR4's transmission and engine.

In the end, Triumph outlasted its old competitor MG, getting the nod for new product development after British Leyland cut off work on a successor to the MGB. In addition to its line of sports cars, culminating with the radical wedge-shaped TR7 and TR8, the Triumph name appeared on several performance-oriented sedans.

The North American market played a large part in Triumph's successes, right up to the end. The last Triumph sports car to roll off the assembly line was a silver US-spec TR8 that left the Canley works in October 1981. The short-lived Acclaim of 1981-1984 was a rebadged Honda Ballade (U.S. Civic) produced under a joint venture with Honda.

On April 13, 2000, the city of Coventry honored Siegfried Bettmann with a plaque in Cathedral Square, near the site of his old factory.

Oddball's Autos has two Triumphs on the lot. The first is a Herpa TR3 typical of those built from October 1955 to August 1957. The principal spotting feature is the small rectangular grille. The TR2 did not have a grille and the TR3A had a wide grille that incorporated the turn signals.

The second Triumph is a TR4 from Wiking. The TR4 was in production from 1961 to 1965, when it was replaced by the TR4A with its improved, independent rear suspension. The visible differences between the two are minor with a different grille and the turn signals being moved to the fenders on the TR4A.

As with all the vehicles at Oddball's Autos, both the Herpa and Wiking models are prototypical for North American layouts, although the Wiking TR4 needs to be converted to left-hand drive.

There are lots more interesting makes on Oddball's lot and this year, I will try to introduce you to more of them.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005