Your guide to … The early Tiger Cubs

The Tiger Cub can turn its hand from originally being a learner bike to a great starter classic, a fun run-a-round, country lane champion, and even a competitive classic trials bike.

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I spotted the little motorcycle as soon as I rode around the bend. The rider was sitting bolt upright in his black waxed cotton jacket as he trundled down the country lane, the saddle springs of his Tiger Cub clearly soaking up more bumps than the plunger rear suspension. I tweaked the throttle of my Gold Star, quickly caught him up, and rode along behind.

He could see me in his mirror and I was expecting him to pull over so we could talk. But he kept on riding. And riding. I know, I thought, he’s heading for the next village. I’ve got a friend who lives there and he owns classic bikes – he’s probably going to call in to see him. But he kept on riding, and checking his mirror.

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Finally, after another couple of miles, he pulled over. “A Goldie!” he said. “I thought that’s what it was!” As I took off my helmet, he added: “You don’t recognise me, do you Phillip?” No, I didn’t, so I asked him his name. “Gordon Mills,” came the reply. “About 20 years ago you gave me a frame for the 1919 Model H Triumph I was restoring.”

Then I remembered. Gordon used to ride a 650cc Panther and a BSA Golden Flash, but I thought that he lived miles away. “I’m 82 now,” said Gordon, “and those bikes were getting a bit heavy for me, so I sold them a few years back. This little Cub is much more manageable.” It was a lovely day for a ride, but I was surprised when I heard where Gordon had been. “I often cover 180 miles on these roads before I get home for supper. It keeps me young!”

Gordon also has a 150cc Bantam Major in his garage besides the 200cc Tiger Cub, but he doesn’t rate the two-stroke. “The Cub is so much better – it returns over 100mpg, cruises at between 50mph and 55mph, and flies up hills that have the Bantam gasping like a 40-a-day smoker.”

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“The Terrier was the first production Triumph to feature unit construction of engine and gearbox, but instead of being split down the vertical centre line the crankcase was an almost full-width casting, with openings on the left and right sides.”

That would have been music to the ears of Edward Turner. The Triumph boss also didn’t like two-strokes, and he believed that a four-stroke would always be more reliable and more powerful. At the beginning of 1952, there were six Triumph models: the 500cc side-valve TRW twin, four 500cc OHV twins, and the 650cc Thunderbird. But there was no lightweight for the commuter or novice rider, and that left a big hole in the range. It wouldn’t have escaped Turner’s notice that BSA had a hit on its hands with the Bantam – the 125cc stroker had only been introduced in 1948, but sales were fast approaching the 100,000 mark.

Turner was not a man to hang around once he had made up his mind to do something; it took less than eight weeks to go from detailed drawings to road testing a prototype lightweight single. He was so pleased with the result that production commenced immediately, and the 150cc Triumph T15 Terrier became a last-minute surprise at the November 1952 London Motorcycle Show.

Turner settled on 150cc because he thought that a relatively high-revving overhead-valve single would give enough power for a top speed of 60mph and also be capable of carrying a passenger without wilting under the effort. The Terrier was the first production Triumph to feature unit construction of engine and gearbox but instead of being split down the vertical centre line, the crankcase was an almost full-width casting, with openings on the left and right sides. The crankshaft assembly was inserted through the left side and the four-speed gear cluster through the right. The left side crankcase cover also formed the inner primary chaincase and carried the drive side main bearing, while the outer chaincase cover carried the windings for the Lucas alternator. There was a single cover for the gearbox and timing chest on the right, with an outer cover to hide the gearchange mechanism. The iron cylinder barrel was painted silver to match the alloy head and inclined forward so that the pushrod tube followed the line of the frame downtube.

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The main frame loop was a single tube with the ends flattened into a D-shape so they formed a circle when they were brazed together at the headstock. Turner’s design used the petrol tank as a lightly-stressed upper frame member. Both wheels used 2.75 x 19in tyres and Turner decided that single-sided 5.5in diameter brakes would be big enough for a lightweight motorcycle. Plunger suspension looked after the rear end, with simple telescopic forks up front – there was no hydraulic damping, and each leg needed a pump from a grease gun every 4000 miles. At least the Terrier’s forks looked like those on its bigger brothers, while the headlamp nacelle, scaled-down tank badges and traditional Amaranth Red paintwork added to the impression that this was a Triumph in miniature.

A neat touch is the cable operated gear indicator in the headlamp nacelle

To prove how good the Terrier was, Edward Turner and two of his top managers rode from Land’s End in the extreme southwest of England all the way to John o’ Groats, the most northerly point on the Scottish mainland. They averaged 36.68mph and 108.61mpg for the trip – pretty impressive, as Turner was no lightweight. Of course, not everyone would be satisfied with the Terrier’s performance and so for the 1954 season it was joined by a bigger brother – the T20 Tiger Cub. Basically the same as the T15 Terrier, the Cub’s engine was enlarged from 57 x 58.5mm to 63 x 64mm to give a capacity of 199.5cc. The compression ratio remained unchanged at 7:1, but the extra 50cc increased power from 8.3hp at 6300rpm to 10hp at 6000. An extra tooth on the gearbox sprocket meant that the Cub topped out at 67mph. The standard colour was a handsome shell-blue sheen.

The new engine now had a plain bearing big end like the rest of the Triumph range and the flywheel oilways were modified to include a sludge trap. This would have been fine if the oil was changed every 1500 miles as recommended in the handbook and the engine was warmed properly before riding hard, but the Cub was designed for commuting and that usually meant jumping on the bike, starting it up, and thrashing it all the way to work because everyone prefers five minutes more in bed.

A new plain big end with Vandervell VP3 bush material was fitted in 1956, but it was not until 1966 that the big end problem was finally laid to rest with an improved roller bearing.

Swingarm frame and damped forks came in 1957

I met up with Gordon a couple of weeks after I saw him on the road. He keeps his 1954 Cub in a small garden shed, but the bike is so tiny that there is still room for the Bantam, a model maker’s lathe, and a lawnmower. Like most Triumph owners, he follows the time-honoured method of freeing the clutch by pulling back the handlebar lever and depressing the kick-start two or three times. Then Gordon turns on the petrol, tickles the Amal until petrol seeps from the bleed hole in the top of the float chamber, and turns the ignition key in the headlamp nacelle. The Cub roars into life as soon as his boot caresses the kick-starter. I swear he could start this bike if he blew on the pedal.

I watched as Gordon pressed the gear lever down to select first (on a BSA you lift it up) and the indicator needle on the nacelle dial moved clockwise to number one. Then he was through the gate and down the road before I had time to buckle my helmet. With its short wheelbase and all-up weight of just 175lb (80kg), you can see why Gordon prefers his Cub to a big twin or heavyweight single for pottering around country lanes.

The handling is delightfully light, although the rather basic suspension means that over rough ground the back end chatters and the front end acts like a pogo stick. For 1956, Triumph changed from 19in to 16in wheels with fatter tyres. This may have given a more comfortable ride, but ground clearance is reduced and the later plunger cubs do not look as pretty as Gordon’s mount.

Gearchanges can be made quickly if you want to keep the engine on the boil and you can accelerate to over 40mph in second and 55mph in third, but if you want to live as long as Gordon, you don’t want to be doing that on these roads. Fortunately the brakes are a lot more effective than their puny size suggests.

The Terrier snapped at the heels of the Tiger Cub until the summer of 1956, by which time just over 9000 had been built, but the Cub went on for another 10 years. It was always a great learner bike and a brilliant commuter, but it really shone as a trials bike.

If you want to buy a Terrier or Tiger Cub, expect to pay £1000 for a rough one, £4000 for one in good condition and £6000 for one in top condition, although the more exotic versions like the Sports Cub with bikini bathtub, or the American market Mountain Cub, can easily reach yet more. Trials Cubs start at about £2300 for a basic T20 version without any trick parts. You can pay an awful lot more for one that has been seriously breathed on.

Gordon Mills

Gordon began riding in 1949 on an old 250cc side-valve OK-Supreme, to his first job on the railways. Like many youngsters he wanted to be a train driver, but he ended up as a fireman shovelling coal. When steam trains were replaced by diesel, he moved to the CAV diesel injector factory. His last job was with Lotus cars, where he worked in the Elise and Esprit engine assembly room, balancing flywheels and crankshafts. Gordon has never been without a motorcycle. He has been to Australia five times and on three occasions returned with motorcycles to restore – two veteran Rovers and a locally made V-twin JAP-engined GCS of 1926 vintage.

Words and photos by Phillip Tooth

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