Road Test: Triumph Speed Twin

1952 Triumph Speed Twin

In the 68 years since the new parallel twin set the fashion for decades to come, the world has been reminded to the point of complete boredom that Edward Turner designed it and that it went through a series of changes in its long life. So, let’s not go there yet again, in case my computer drops off to sleep. Let’s dig a little deeper and see who the new model moved or influenced, and where its origins lay.

Apparently Turner and the great Val Page were watching one of his Ariel Square Four engines running on the dyno in the early 30s, when ET suggested to VP that it might be possible to halve this unit and make a compact twin cylinder engine. Is it just coincidence that Page later designed a 650cc parallel twin for Triumph some years before Turner penned his own 500cc version? If Turner was telling the complete truth when he recalled that thought and his aside to Page, it may be that it was a seminal moment in the history of the British industry, because of the machinery it inspired.

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When Norton announced to the world that they were cutting back on their racing effort for the 1939 season, they explained they were concentrating their efforts on vital military work, all for the good of the country, don’t you know. Not according to Freddie Frith, a member of their racing team since 1936, who faced the 1939 season with the loan of 1938 bikes that had no development work to help face the challenge from Germany’s supercharged twins and Italy’s supercharged Gilera four. 'Nothing like it,' he told me when I interviewed him back in the 1980s. 'They were in trouble and needed the Army business because their regular range wasn’t selling. People wanted the new Triumph Speed Twin, not their old singles.'

Edward Turner was famous for not wanting to spend money on racing, and to find that he’d seriously affected such a famous racing name as Norton just by launching a new road bike rather proves his point. A lifelong racing fan and not likely to ever change that particular habit, I may not like the truth of that revelation, but it has to be recognised. Even when Ivan Wicksteed approached him and suggested he supply one of the twins for Wicksteed to supercharge and attack the Brooklands 500cc lap record – big news in the 1930s – Turner gave a curt refusal and walked. Wicksteed had to buy a bike like any other punter and only when he’d done the deed did the factory acknowledge him. So this motorcycle, born with no racing ancestry and saddled with a stubborn executive refusal to be officially involved in competition, holds the 500cc class lap record for the historic Surrey speed bowl in perpetuity. Nice one, Mr Turner.

There were diehards who refused to accept the new concept, and one trials rider refused to have anything to do with the factory until they went back to making ‘proper’ motorcycles with a maximum of one cylinder. He probably didn’t have a good maths master and struggled to count to two, do you think? Whatever, he turned his back and the factory prospered. When the Auto Cycle Union introduced the Trials Drivers Star in 1951, Jimmy Alves of Street in Somerset beat all the big singles on one of those damned parallel twin cylinder things that every dinosaur knew would never work in off-road competition. What the chap who refused to have anything to do with the company so long as they made twins said about that, I don’t know; it probably wasn’t printable anyway.

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Lorry load
And the police bought them by the lorry load. Whatever your personal view of members of the constabulary mounted on two wheels – which will vary according to the last time you had a roadside interview and its outcome – the simple fact is that major forces like the Plod spend their money where they know they’ll get good value and reliability. They wouldn’t have opted for the Speed Twin in the 1940s without knowing after much testing that it would do the job well.

What you have to remember is that a 1950s motorcycle won’t match today’s vehicles, two, three or four-wheeled, on a rapid long haul. But while the modern tack drones up motorways to the next traffic jam, a 1950s Speed Twin in decent nick will cruise the back roads at sane speeds (translate that as you will) and get you there, probably with smiles and waves from members of the public who remember that Dad had an old bike like that. And if you stop for a cuppa, the Speed Twin will break the conversational ice in much less time than a modern of any make or sort. Well, it will unless you’ve stopped in the middle of a Harley Owners Group rally, but that’s your lack of observation.

Such a bike as this 5T will be made easier to live with if you join the excellent Triumph Owners MCC or the less specialised Vintage MCC, because they both have great funds of knowledge within their memberships – that’s why many owners belong to both. They can point you to sources of parts and services, you’ll probably find them willing to vet a bike if you’re not familiar with the model, and they’ll know the wrinkles of restoration and maintenance.

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Triumph is one of the better served makes for decent spares, from original factory stuff to modern production of pattern or improved parts; another advantage of club membership is that they soon let it be known if someone has produced a duff batch of parts. Duff parts? I’ve seen a Royal Enfield kick-start lever that snapped in half when called upon to do its job, that’s what I mean by duff. So a Triumph is a good buy; they also keep their price better than most, as the current dealer price for good T120 Bonnevilles will confirm.

So a Triumph is a good buy. This particular bike is owned by the Vintage Club and it’s been shown off at shows around the country, but CBG was the magazine who said “Yes, looks nice, but can we actually ride it?”

'No problem,' said the go-ahead general manager Mr Hewing and a few weeks later he called to say it was on the road and singing its siren call around the lanes of Staffordshire. Off to the fair town of Burton-on-Trent we went, where club librarian Annice had come in on Saturday morning to let us snaffle the bike and head for the surrounding country. Annice is regular bike rider herself, having given up relatively modern stuff to concentrate on more mature wheels. She used to commute on a Yamaha Virago that was somewhat short of 100 percent reliable and one night on the way home it caught fire; ironically enough it was a wet night. Nobody around her had an extinguisher, so Annice had to let it burn and she didn’t shed a tear then or ever since. The insurance money was put towards an Ariel; sensible lady.

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The Vintage Club bought it from Ian Barker of Knottingley, and believes that he restored it to its current smart appearance. Nothing over the top about it, just a very original looking motorcycle repainted; there is no record of mechanical restoration work done, but wheeled out of storage, with a stone cold engine, it fired up second kick after the Amal had been tickled a bit. My spaniel pup is much like that in the morning, tickle him and he co-operates.

It wears the BT-H magneto that Triumph fitted, and British Thomson-Houston had a good reputation for the quality of their products. First start of the day second kick and from then on it was first kick every time, which suggests that Mr B T-H is still doing a good job down there. The gearbox engaged first gear with the characteristic slight crunch of Triumphs of the 50s and 60s; experienced riders have told me in the past that the trick of silent engagement is to dab the lever into second and then down into first, but the effect with this box was that same crunch whichever way the lever was moved when the bike was stationary. What you have to remember with Triumphs is their individual way of arranging their gear selection, with the lever going down for first and then up for the rest of the four ratios, which caught out quite a few riders used to the more conventional British one-up and three-down sequence.

Standard 1950s motorcycles fit the human frame comfortably, and the Triumph’s saddle height (none of your fancy new dual seats with this machine, it wears a proper saddle) of 29.5 inches (750mm if you must) imparts confidence as your feet settle easily onto the road. The handlebars are upright in a gentlemanly way and the footrests are a mite further forward than most makers put them, which adds up to a seated posture close to an armchair. Or, in the case of real gentlemen, a horse; I was going to write hunter, but that might confuse the Ariel owners among our readers.

So it fits comfortably, it starts reliably and it’s also a very easy motorcycle to ride; you feel at home in less than 100 yards. Riding out in Burton-on-Trent’s Saturday morning traffic in search of open country, its flexibility allowed top gear to be engaged at 30mph and you could roll the throttle on or off in that gear to respond to variations in speed to match the surrounding traffic. Only down into the low 20s did it object to accelerating away in that gear. No problem, because the Triumph gearbox is a sweet one, allowing rapid changes up and down at touring speeds. But this one is rather noisy, especially in third, suggesting a worn pinion where it’s been used a lot in heavy traffic or up and down hills.

Out of town, it accelerates at a rate that makes weekend traffic an obstruction, and I was glad to get off the main road and point it down some winding back roads, where recently trimmed hedges helped long distance vision and only previous experience of moo cow poo in agricultural areas calmed the enthusiastic throttle hand. Push your luck down a narrow lane if you want to, but rounding a corner at an ambitious speed to find that the local milking herd has done a temporary resurfacing job can have you in the hedge pretty quickly. That would be a serious case of embarrassment with a bike entrusted by classic clubland’s Big Boy, so I opted for touring mode and kept the speed down to 50 or so mph.

Popular opinion
Country lanes and B roads are the places to test the popular opinion that Triumph’s Sprung Hub did nothing to improve handling. Down a decidedly bumpy road where 60 or so mph could be used, the bike jumped around on long bends, but not enough to persuade this abject coward to back off. It was like most bikes working not very hard, and while it moved about it didn’t move off the chosen line. What you have to do to judge Triumph’s first attempt at rear suspension is consider it against the contemporary opposition, which meant rigid frames in many options, plunger rear ends from BSA and Norton, the very individual Anstey Link from Ariel and a swinging arm only from Associated Motor Cycles’ AJS/Matchless duo or Royal Enfield’s 500 Twin. Douglas in Bristol offered torsion bar suspension and advertised that its testers rode the 350 twin up and down kerbs at 30mph to emphasise the effectiveness of its leading link forks and torsion rear suspension. There’s significance to all that historic mumbo jumbo, because it was the big boys in Birmingham who offered rear suspension that was basically what you could get from a few makers back in the 1930s, while those outside the Masonic circle of Brum did things differently. Curious. Does it suggest that the chaps in Brum all got together to swap ideas, or were they persuaded to advance their designs only if the factory down the road did it?

Whatever, Triumph’s Sprung Hub takes the worst of road shocks out of the journey, and as such was an advance on the rigid rear end for the road user; racers had another requirement of the bike and comfort was not high on their list of priorities. It’s commonly acknowledged that when the Sprung Hub gets a bit worn the high speed handling gets to be exciting, but Arielists have told me that their Anstey Link arrangement is fine while it’s carefully maintained, and when it wears it’s also not much fun to live with. Plunger rear ends have very limited travel, just like the Sprung Hub, so it’s not the mechanical aberration some would have you believe. The clever part of Triumph’s rear suspenders is that the frame shop only had to make one type and the customer’s choice was met by slotting the appropriate type of wheel into place.

This example's mechanically wholesome, that noisy gearbox the only fly in the Meriden made ointment, but no bar to using the bike right away. Every enthusiast should try a Speed Twin… 

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