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Triumph roars back from adversity


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The Rocket III is the first production bike with a 2,300cc engine.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When the Triumph motorcycle company went bankrupt in 1983, it appeared only a matter of time before the legendary British marque disappeared from the roads.

Based in the English Midlands, Triumph had built their first motorcycle in 1902, going on to become one of the biggest bike manufacturers in the world.

With starring roles alongside Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape" and Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" and regular wins on the race track, Triumph bikes achieved iconic status.

Yet Triumph's glory days were a distant memory by the early 1980s. Out-powered and out-priced by Japanese manufacturers and struggling to sell a range of stale models, Triumph appeared to be living in the past and without a future.

Even when John Bloor, a plasterer turned construction magnate with a passion for biking, put up $100,000 to save the company from the liquidator, it seemed that Triumph's survival had more to do with Bloor's desire to preserve a piece of motorcycling heritage than any prospect of turning it into a profitable business.

But Bloor had other ideas. "It was an opportunity to make money," he told CNN. "But it was more difficult than I anticipated."

More than two decades later, however, Bloor's patient restoration work is finally starting to pay dividends.

Earlier this year Triumph announced a 12-month sales increase of 22 percent, while sales of the company's top models doubled.

The company also revealed it was aiming to increase sales by 25 percent every year until 2008. Currently building 30,000 bikes a year, Triumph has ambitions to raise that to 80,000.

With 650 employees, Triumph has come a long way since Bloor walked through the door to discover that, other than in name, very little of Triumph existed.

The collapse of the British motorcycle industry meant that the company was manufacturing its own parts because there were no local suppliers left.

Starting again with just four staff, Bloor decided that Triumph couldn't compete in the mass production market and instead focused on building a small, flexible and well-trained workforce that focused on quality engineering.

"We've concentrated on that area," Bloor told CNN. "The area that we concentrated on first was to get our quality of design and manufacture right. Possibly we overkilled it a little, but I think it's paying now."

Bloor also looked to Japan to learn about making bikes.

"We purchased the name in January. We went to Japan in June. By September we had scrapped everything. And we started afresh. There was nothing here that we could use for the future."

Re-born in 1990, Triumph's sales grew steadily, until a devastating factory fire in 2002 shut down production for five months at a cost of $95 million.

Justa few years earlier such a scenario would have been calamitous, but under Bloor's management Triumph was quickly back on track again. And in July the company launched its most audacious bike yet -- the 2,300cc Rocket III.

Designed in response to customer demand for an Easy Rider-style cruising bike, the $21,000 Rocket III, which has the biggest engine in biking, is aimed squarely at the Harley-Davidson-dominated U.S. market.

"Triumph just didn't have big bikes," commercial director Tue Mantoni told CNN. "We needed big bikes. At that point we didn't even have anything above 1,000cc. So they wanted a bike. They got a big bike. This is the biggest bike."

Triumph's faith in their customers has been rewarded. The first 300 Rocket IIIs were sold long before they left the production line, and the waiting list to get hold of one now stretches into 2005.

Successful once again on the road, Triumph has also set its sights on a return to glory on the race track.

"Racing has been dominated by the Japanese for many, many years and they took over where the British were years ago," said Jack Valentine of the Triumph ValMoto team, which claimed its first victory in the British Supersport series earlier this month.

"Hopefully we can get Triumph back at the top where they belong."


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