An All-American Motorcycle—From England

When Triumph Engineering was established in 1887, it seemed to be a distinctly British company. Founded in Coventry, England, to make bicycles, the company switched its production to motorcycles in 1902, producing about 500 a year by 1905. Through the next several decades, Triumph became a beloved brand, and by 1925 Britons were buying 30,000 Triumph motorcycles a year.

Yet the industry didn’t gain traction with the general public until motorcycles were thrust into the spotlight by events beyond Triumph’s control. World War II, with its startling leap forward in technology, called for better, faster transportation—and Triumph was ready to answer the call. The company provided motorcycles for the military as well as engines for the air force, helping the British war effort while gaining a following among military men.

When soldiers returned to civilian life, however, they found their lives lacking a certain element of excitement. To fill the gap, many bought a Triumph motorcycle—and the golden age of motorcycling was born. Suddenly, the motorcycle became a symbol of cool stylishness, a symbol that quickly crossed the Atlantic to the United States. Soon, Triumph bikes were turning up in Hollywood movies: Marlon Brando rode a Thunderbird in The Wild One; James Dean turned the motorcycle into a symbol of surly rebellion; Steve McQueen linked motorcycling with masculinity. Suddenly, this British bike was an all-American obsession.

As the rebellious ’60s progressed, Triumph motorcycles, especially the Thunderbird, were cemented in the minds of Americans as the ultimate emblem of hip defiance. But by the 1970s, Triumph was losing its hold on the market. The brand faced stiff competition from overseas companies, particularly those in Japan, which offered lower prices (but higher quality). So the company decided to reinvent itself, pulling out of American markets for a few years and re-evaluating its best product. What emerged in the mid-’90s was a brand reborn: new engines, new designs, new bikes—all under the Triumph name.

“We had to rebuild who we were,” says Greg Heichelbech, the company’s CEO. “We couldn’t just ask what Triumph was; we had to ask what it could be.”

At that point, Triumph only had the following of its longtime, diehard fans—what Heichelbech calls “the 1 percent of motorcycles.” So, as the company expanded its product line, it also launched a massive awareness campaign throughout North America.

But motorcycles are a challenging product to sell, even when people want them. Making a great bike is only the beginning; Triumph also needed to get its product out to its customers as swiftly as possible.

“We’re only as strong as our dealer network,” says Heichelbech. “Our dealers need to have a strong focus on pushing our brand. They need to believe in our brand.”

Having a dependable dealer network became especially important during the recession, when Triumph’s volume took a huge dip. The company knew it couldn’t skimp on quality and still retain its core customer base, so it began to consider alternative ways to stay afloat—while still selling a great bike.

“We looked at all the margins,” Heichelbech says, “and all our products and prices, and asked: What’s working? What’s not?” With that mindset, Triumph cut its overhead and readjusted its pricing, giving its dealers bigger margins while stepping up its marketing. And that was only the start of the makeover.

“We didn’t just change the way we sold bikes,” says Heichelbech. “We changed the culture inside our company. We turned off our voicemail; our customer service center now has a live person every time. We promised our dealers that we’d address any problem in 30 minutes or less. We began communicating with our dealers better.” And Triumph streamlined its internal operations, partnering with UPS to ensure that orders get to dealers as fast as possible—at no extra cost to the customer.

Today, Triumph has regained its hold on the global market and reasserted its products as American icons. It is, once again, the motorcycle of choice for stars—and for everyone else. If you love motorcycles, you probably ride a Triumph bike. And if you’re buying a motorcycle for the first time, what better place to start than Marlon Brando’s bike of choice?