Road Test: Triumph Trophy

1950 Triumph Trophy

We were lucky with the weather. A gap in the chilly rains of late January made a test of this lovely 1950 Triumph Trophy trials bike practical. Never mind the cold, the Trophy sat there looking gorgeous, slim and minimalist in the way of machines born of competition use. I don’t mind getting cold to ride such a gem as this.

However, photographer Wilkinson wanted a fitting location for the pictures, and restorer Graham Horne was directing him down all the narrow, mucky back lanes he could find. The bike’s proud owner, David Leppard, was in the car too, to keep an eye on his investment.

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Now I’m not a complete coward when it comes to tackling the odd mucky road, but a brief experience of trials many years ago convinced me I have no talent in that sphere. I’ll ride my Norton Dominator down rough tracks, but I don’t push my luck. So what was I doing, on this nice man’s immaculate Triumph, following obediently down narrow lanes with muck and the odd evidence of horses passing this way, spread from one mud bank across to the other? What’s more, when the potholes were full of water and you couldn’t see what was in their murky waters, it did get a bit worrying. I was tempted to stop the bike and shout for my mum.

The car kept ploughing on though, leaving me and the Trophy to pick a way through mud, water and heaven knows what else. When the potholes became really bad – I’m talking about 50 metres or so of successive pools of something liquid – I resigned myself to the job of getting through and not dropping the motorcycle. First gear engaged, the convenient handlebar mounted ignition lever set to half retard, I fed in the soft clutch and let the bike pull through the slurping mess.

Heritage is a much overworked word today, but is appropriate to British trials bike of the 1950s, when manufacturers had moved on from slightly modified road models wearing competition tyres as an offering for serious competition and begun to develop machines better suited to the conditions likely to be found in trials, from the rocks of the Scottish Six Days Trial to the glutinous mud of the south. Ground clearances increased, wheelbases decreased to give easier manoeuvrability around tight turns, engines were tuned for flexibility, weight shed. Like it or not specialisation was here, and Triumph’s offering was based on the twins ridden by their team to win three Gold Medals in the 1948 International Six Days Trial; in effect, the motorcycling Olympics. The lessons learned in that impressive outing were applied to production models like this.

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'The engine pulled smoothly as the front wheel dropped into and rode out of a succession of mighty mucky holes; I just clung on and let the bike’s ability pull me through'

The engine pulled smoothly as the front wheel dropped into and rode out of a succession of mighty mucky holes; I just clung on and let the bike’s ability pull me through. What on earth was David Leppard going to think of his once lovely, shiny Trophy being christened in this manner? I was genuinely concerned that the man would be seriously put out – he had good reason to feel that way.

When our small convoy eventually stopped, I apologised to him for getting the bike so dirty. “Don’t worry about it, it’s meant to be used. It’s not going to sit in the garage or lounge and just be admired,” he assured me. Coming from a man about to pay a fair old bill, that was a remarkable display of tolerance, but then David is a patient chap and has waited a long time for this bike to be reborn.

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An established Triumph buff, he had fancied a Trophy for a long time and 11 years ago bought most of one as a basket case, intending to restore it himself, until inevitably work got in the way and the idea was abandoned. Instead, the engine and gearbox were restored by SRM before David gathered the lot together and delivered it to Midland Classic Bikes in Walsall to be completed, where Graham Horne helped him trace some of the essential Trophy parts that were missing. Unfortunately, the tragic death of gaffer Andy Cavalot brought Midland Classics and that plan to an end, so it was only natural to seek help from the man who had been so helpful, Graham Horne. “I really didn’t want to do it, there was so much missing,” Graham admits today.

David had dealt with Graham before this, and bought a Bantam restoration project off him at the Borders Classic Bike Show in Cleobury Mortimer. That was another planned restoration that pressure of work – he was covering the country on behalf of a big corporation – consigned to the ‘forget it’ bin and the little Beezer was passed on. The Trophy was, however, a very different matter, and he wasn’t going to be put off. Delays had to be accepted, but no way was he going to end up without the Triumph he’d coveted for many years.

1950 Triumph TrophyTogether they went through the boxes and baskets in which the bike had come, to reveal a disaster zone of incomplete parts and others that weren’t right or fit for use. “The sprung hub was a mixture of Mark One and Two types,” Graham recalls. “When I took the frame down to Redditch Shotblasting for them to strip, they found the rear subframe rusted through from the inside and the steering head bearing housing was cracked.” Rebuilds that are wanted this badly tend to attract their own luck, and David located a new old stock frame. OK, so it’s not the genuine original, but let’s be clear that this is a bike the owner intends to use, so if the sound chassis he now has didn’t leave Triumph’s Meriden factory with the rest of the bike, that doesn’t make it any less usable – and an unused frame is many times better than what he had to start with.

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The restoration job by Graham was in turn delayed, when the National Motor Cycle Museum had its tragic fire and Mr Horne suddenly found himself with lots of jobs lined up to get the place back into operation. It was a matter of getting priorities sorted, and in between Museum work he was seeking out bits. You can appreciate that David Leppard has had to become patient in the matter of returning this machine to prime working condition. Among the lessons learned in that long process, he does single out Oliver Barnes, of Tri Supply, for sourcing many rare and genuine parts for David’s needs; the final touch was a period speedometer, which sits proudly central in a wonderfully simple handlebar layout.

The new frame, the hubs, loads of little bits and mudguard stays, fabricated by Mr Horne, went off to Redditch Shotblasting for one of their usual excellent powder coatings. The tank and mudguards – all found in the long trek through the jungles of Jumbleland – went off to Micky Stych for that silver sheen paint 1950 Triumph Trophyand two tone blue striping to be added. The sprung hub, Triumph’s answer to the need for rear á suspension, but something of a weight penalty in the light of its modest 2.5in (63mm if you prefer) of movement, was carefully dismantled and put back together with the appropriate parts to make it a Mark Two version.

Trophies originally came with a 20in front rim, but finding a trials tyre to fit was difficult, so it now wears a 19in rim and a Cheng Shin tyre with a rather Dunlop looking tread pattern. The rear wheel is an 18in with 4.00in wide Dunlop Trials Universal tyre.

There are lots of little details on the bike that Graham Horne has added. Like the mounting bolts for the separate saddle, that were originally threaded only part way along their length, but now come with the thread all along their length. Economies of production time in the pattern accessories market? Whatever, these now have a sleeve over part of the thread to make them look like those that Meriden fitted. Just a minor job in a restoration that took about 300 hours.

So what’s it like on the road? I had only ridden one of these many, many years ago, when Alan Beaumont, of Pinner Road Motorcycles, in Harrow, let me have a go on his. I remember it for lively acceleration and a degree of unsteadiness as the speedo got round to 85 on the long bend in the dual carriageway between Harrow and Hatch End. What we call a Brown Trouser Moment these days; I’m sure my language was more colourful at the time.

Graham Horne had put a few miles on the new engine and reported the handling: “Typical Triumph, very light and twitchy.” It certainly made the rider feel at home, with wide bars, slim tank and footrests slightly rear set by Triumph’s Meriden standards. It started first kick – what did you expect from a rebuilt motor and Lucas magneto? – and, with the light clutch lifted, it engaged first gear silently.

1950 Triumph TrophyFor those readers not familiar with 1950s Triumphs, I should explain that they didn’t normally engage first gear without a characteristic clunk. In fact, I’ve been told at that time that the way around the noise was to ease the lever up into second gear and then dab down for a silent first, the experienced rider telling the novice how to avoid a clunk that other manufacturers had somehow managed to avoid in their own production models. In the 1950s, magazine testers did not write ill of the machines they were given to ride and I remember one very respected tester telling a club night questioner that the readers should read between the lines to find criticism of a machine. How was a novice to know that he had to read between the lines of a publication he’d bought for impartial information?

Never mind the vagaries of the 1950 motorcycle press, this Triumph engaged first gear silently every time and the gearbox was light and positive in the lightly loaded conditions this ride imposed. No heavy loads were imposed on an engine with just 30 road miles on it, and with the low gearing of a trials model, speed was very restricted. “50mph maximum with light loadings?” I asked Mr Horne. “Hmm, about that. I haven’t seen more than 45 on the speedo so far,” he hinted in reply. So this would not be anyone’s idea of a high speed day.

The handling is light and slightly twitchy, just as Graham said, but lay the bike into a corner and it would go around with complete ease, bearing in mind that it wears trials tyres of mixed parentage and is therefore a very different animal from a late 60s 650 twin with modern rubberware. I can remember thrusting Roy Shilling’s stunning TR6 Trophy around a roundabout for the benefit of the pictures and the bike feeling completely planted; that’s what two decades of development and the addition of 21st century tyres did. This Trophy, very light and easy to move around with its wide handlebars, was all ease of use and no hurry. Its modest 263lb weight (119kg) also gave the brakes an easy life, and they offered progressive control from a mild squeeze in mucky stuff to acceptable stopping on the Tarmac.

Henry Vale, Triumph's off-road specialistThe tight engine hinted at good things to come, smooth in operation and very responsive with such low gearing. It also had an impressive capacity to trickle along at walking pace with the clutch fully engaged, as you’d expect of a trials machine. The saddle was very comfortable, its springing supplementing the limited movement of the sprung hub rear end. The handlebar layout is minimalist English. Apart from the standard clutch and brake levers and the throttle, there’s a long advance/retard ignition lever on the left bar, horn button and dipswitch within easy left thumb reach and in the centre of the bars is the ignition kill switch with the Smiths speedo above. End of list.

I suspect that few genuine Trophies, especially those with the early square-barrelled engine with the mounting bosses for the cooling shrouds worn by the RAF generator unit from which they were taken, are used in active competition today. Maximum respect to any rider who does so, but I suspect that the majority are used as smooth and tractable road machines with the sort of good breeding to help the rider through tricky conditions if he finds himself in such a situation. I know the bike can do it – I’ve been there, didn’t get a T-shirt and better still, didn’t fall off and damage a lovely motorcycle.

I envy David Leppard a bike he clearly intends to use both on and off-road. After that long wait I hope their union is a long and happy one. Lucky man. bike

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