Don Brown Reviews: Turner's Triumph

Publish Date: 
Nov 1, 2002

Editor's note:  Author Jeff Clew has written 29 books and numerous features on motorcycles and the important personalities in the business.  He bought his first bike in 1946 and has participated in road, grass and sprint racing.  He is also a former president of the Association Of Pioneer Motorcyclists (1998-99).  Reviewer Don Brown, who was general sales manager for Johnson Motors, Inc. (1956-65), contributed various documents and information for this book.  Brown worked directly with Edward Turner on matters relating to sales, marketing and new model development for the American market; he was also responsible in 1969 for originating the styling project that led to the production of the X75 Triumph and hired Craig Vetter as the project's styling engineer.

Even though Edward Turner was the preeminent designer of motorcycles in the world following the introduction of his 1937 Speed Twin (the first commercially successful vertical twin motorcycle design), very little was written about him and even less was known of his personal life.  The book "Turner's Triumphs:  Edward Turner & His Triumph Motorcycles" helps immeasurably to fill that void.  Author Jeff Clew covers new ground with the help of John Nelson, a former longtime employee and senior staff executive of the original Triumph Engineering Co., Ltd., of Meriden, England.  Clew also gained the cooperation of Edward Turner's two daughters, Charmian and Jane, who provided documents from Turner's private collection.

While it may be hard to fathom today, there is no question that Britain once ruled the motorcycling world, and Triumph Engineering was its most consistently profitable manufacturer.  More than any other machine in decades, Turner's Speed Twin (essentially two single cylinders married side-by-side) made high-performance motorcycling appealing and affordable to the common man. 

It was truly Turner's most important legacy.  The lesson about affordable appeal that Turner and Triumph had to learn the hard way is just as applicable to today's market, as the industry ponders what the next phase of motorcycling will be when the current ardor for cruisers eventually cools.

Clew captures the essence of Turner's complex personality and the world in which he lived and worked.  Clew's painstaking effort took him five years to complete, but the insights were well worth it.  Turner's personality - which some limit to simple arrogance - prevented what could have been more favorable business publicity.  Yet, Clew recounts, few who knew Turner personally or worked for him directly had anything but pride and respect for this man who contributed so much to motorcycling and made their lives far more "eventful."

Clew devotes considerable space to the American market, its personalities and policies that helped drive the Triumph sales effort here.  The personal relationship that developed between JoMo boss Bill Johnson (Triumph's West Coast importer) and E.T. is legendary, and proves again how it is that people-to-people often makes the difference in a business where the primary product isn't "needed" but simply "wanted."  For E.T., Johnson (an attorney by trade and education) was the essential link that helped him to understand his most important market.

Turner found Johnson's love of machinery to be the perfect catalyst to drive sales here in the colonies (remember, the British bikes really were king of the sales mountain before Sochiro Honda and his friends took an interest in the U.S. market).  For his part, Johnson came to love motorcycles when he "met" his first bike, a 1936 Ariel Square Four, which he saw while on vacation in Hawaii.  Access to Turner's Triumphs was a dream come true, which certainly bolstered their business relationship.  Their personal steadfast friendship lasted until Johnson's death in 1962.

Now the legacy of Edward Turner lives on with a reborn Triumph looking to crack the American market.  Perhaps Clew's book can offer some clues to the next Bill Johnson? - Don J. Brown