BSA TRIUMPH TRIPLES - THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

Updated: Aug 20



Feature by Alan Cathcart

Photographs by Kel Edge


In October 1969, the Triumph factory’s Head of Development, Doug Hele, was entrusted with the task of developing a racing version of the company’s new T150 Trident three-cylinder Superbike, which had been launched the previous year. For someone like Hele, who relished using racing to improve the performance of his company’s products, as well as demonstrating their worth in the hotbed of competition, this was an enticing challenge with just one drawback - he had to have six bikes on the grid for the Daytona 200 the following March, just four months away!


Three of these would be Triumphs and the other three BSAs, thus reflecting the fiercely competitive rivalry between the two principal brands in the parent BSA Group since the days when they were independent of each of each other. Each company had its own Competition Department but it was the Triumph ‘comp shop’ that was chosen for this venture over that of BSA, on the entirely logical grounds that it had ongoing road racing experience whereas BSA’s was off-road oriented and focused on motocross.

Gary Nixon won the 1967 Daytona 200 on a 500cc Triumph twin

That choice for the group management wasn’t a difficult one as Doug Hele’s men at Triumph had built bikes like the 500cc twin that had won successive Daytona 200 races for Buddy Elmore and Gary Nixon in 1966 and 1967 as well as the 750cc Bonneville twin with which Malcolm Uphill had won the 1969 Production TT (posting the first-ever 100mph of the Isle of Man Mountain Course by a production road machine in the process.

Malcom Uphill on the way to the 1969 Isle of Man Production TT win and a 100mph lap

It had in fact been Doug Hele himself who designed the 741cc in-line three-cylinder overhead valve engine powering the BSA Rocket III and Triumph T150 Trident, He did this over the winter of 1963/64, in his own free time and completely unaided, working on a drawing-board in his home. Essentially, in simple terms, the triple was a Triumph 500 twin with an extra cylinder grafted on Having then presented it to his colleagues at Triumph as a possible step up the capacity ladder, he then watched from the sidelines as the project got mired in BSA Group politics, with his boss, Bert Hopwood, the CEO of Triumph, even taking the credit for conceiving the bike when it was introduced to the marketplace in the summer of 1968. So, for Hele the chance to develop a racing version of his motor and house it in a full-race chassis in order to go racing at the highest level, was a particularly satisfactory outcome.

The decision of BSA Group management to fund a racing programme was the direct result of a change in the rules governing Grand National championship racing in the USA, the British firm’s largest market.

Until 1969 there had been a differential formula in Stateside competition, with overhead valve and overhead camshaft engines restricted to 500cc in capacity while side-valve bikes (aka ‘flatheads’) like Harley-Davidsons and in earlier years Indians, were allowed to be up to 750cc. That year the ohv/ohc limit was raised to 750cc for dirt-track races, although bizarrely the 500cc handicap was retained for road racing. That curious restriction by the American Motorcycle Association, which governed US motorcycle sport, had no other obvious function than to keep Harley competitive with its antiquated KR750 side-valve motor in the face of the opposition from the 500cc Triumph twins that had won at Daytona in 1966 and 1967.

That situation had, in fact, already been reversed in 1968 when Harley had been spurred on by the Triumph successes into taking road racing more seriously, rather than treating it as merely an occasional diversion from the established dirt track series. They sent their engines to the well-known California engine tuning specialist C.R. Axtell and to gas flow guru Jerry Branch and, even more importantly perhaps, had superb aerodynamic bodywork created by fibreglass fabricators, the Wixom brothers, with the aid of wind tunnel testing at the Caltech University. Armed with this ultimate KR ‘flathead’ weapon, Cal Rayborn duly won both the 1968 and 1969 Daytona 200 races.

Meanwhile Harley was known to be developing its own ohv XR750 contender so the old guard of AMA rulemakers, while no doubt still favouring the home-grown bikes, could not object to lobbying from the British and Japanese manufacturers and had no choice but to rescind the differential rule and allow the seven-fifties into the road racing arena.

This meant that the British triples could now go racing with a vengeance in the USA and doing so also provided the British firm with a chance to counter Honda’s threat to its road-going triples’ potential sales after it upped the Superbike ante with the 1969 debut of its CB750 four-cylinder hyperbike.

With just four months to get ready for the 1970 season--opening Daytona 200, the British factory concentrated on race-developing the three-cylinder engines in house but delegated construction of purpose-built road racing frames to specialist fabricator Robin ‘Rob’ North, whose shop was just ten miles from the Meriden factory.


Master chassis designer and constructor, Rob North

This combination of Rob North frames and 750cc three-cylinder power formed the basis of the six factory Formula 750 triples shipped to Daytona. There were three Triumphs all ridden by Americans - Gene Romero, Don Castro and Gary Nixon – a two-time AMA champion for Triumph who’d already won the Daytona 200 in 1967 on a factory-tuned 500cc twin Then there were three BSAs for young Californians, Jim Rice and David Aldana, along with the legendary British veteran and multiple World Championships winner Mike Hailwood.

Hailwood (above) had been driving in Formula One Grand Prix competition and the World Sportscar Championship but had been coaxed back to bikes via a large BSA cheque for what he (prematurely!) declared would be his last-ever bike race.

Initially, the Daytona debut of the BSA/Triumph triples was nothing short of spectacular when Gene Romero qualified his Triumph on pole at the record speed of 157.34 mph for the flat-out flying lap on the Florida speedbowl’s bankings. He did so thanks to running two over-inflated front tyres on his bike for reduced frictional drag, making him a huge 5mph faster than next-best rider, Mike Hailwood at 152.90mph.


Gene Romero gets a final briefing from his engineer, Pat Owens, prior to his qualifying lap.


But things didn’t work out as well in the race itself. Hailwood retired from the lead at one-quarter distance with a broken valve stem tip in his BSA’s engine, leaving Nixon to lead until his engine also failed. The race was thus won by veteran Dick Mann on a Honda four, with Gene Romero only a couple of seconds behind (after crashing and remounting) and teammate Don Castro hard on his heels in third. It had been frustratingly close to a dream debut for the new triples.


Gary Nixon (9) and Mike Hailwood (50) each led the 1970 Daytona 200 before problems with their BSA Triumph triples. Dick Mann, who is shadowing them here, won for Honda.

It was a frustrating finish to the Daytona 200 for the BSA Triumph team in 1970. Especially for Triumph teammates, Gene Romero and Don Castro, who were this close in second and third. However, a few seconds earlier Dick Mann had won the race for Honda.


There was a large measure of consolation, however, in that Romero kept adding points all season long then duly won the 1970 AMA Grand National title, with BSA/Triumph riders filling the top five places. Overall, the mission to go racing with success in the USA had been accomplished! In fact that 1970 season did see the debut victory for the Rob North-framed bikes. This came at Talladega soon after Daytona, when rookie (first year Expert) David Aldana rode his BSA-3 to victory on the banked Alabama track at what was then the fastest ever average speed for a 200-mile race of 104.59 mph, including pit stops.


David Aldana scored the first US victory for a triple on a BSA at Talladega in 1970.


Gary Nixon also won the AMA Grand National Championship round at tight and twisty Loudon on his Triumph-3 in front of a massive crowd – the sight and especially the sound of the British triples with their haunting howl was an undoubted crowd-pleaser.

The same was true in the UK, after Triumph’s Paul Smart smashed the Crystal Palace outright lap record to score the first of many British BSA/Triumph short circuit race victories. Later in the year he teamed with Tom Dickie to win the Bol d’Or 24 Hour race in France, the first time any British riders had ever won the event.

A Rob North Triumph Trident in Bol d'Or endurance racing trim. This is an 830cc version


To add to the Bol d'Or 24 Hours success, Malcolm Uphill (below) used a Trident 750cc triple to repeat his Isle of Man Production TT win in 1970 that he had scored the previous year on a Bonneville 650cc twin.


For the following season BSA/Triumph went large, upping their racing budget to a massive million dollars of 1971 money in a display of excessive spending which the motorcycle racing world had not previously seen. After a shakedown pair of races in South Africa, no less than ten triples took to the track at Daytona, including an improved 1971 version with a lowered Rob North frame for the previous year's race winner, Dick Mann.


Hailwood had been enticed back to bikes again via the usual fiscal means, and was assigned a likewise updated BSA, with similar machines under the Triumph label for Daytona debutant Paul Smart and AMA champion Romero.


The Triumph team at Daytona 1971. From left to right: USA team riders Gene Romero, Don Castro, Gary Nixon and Tom Rockwood plus Englishman, Paul Smart.

These were joined by 1970-specification Triumphs that were provided to Gary Nixon (racing with a leg broken just days earlier!) Don Castro and team newcomer Tom Rockwood, with year-old BSAs for Aldana, Rice and another rookie, Don Emde. He was the son of the 1947 Daytona 200 winner, Floyd Emde, who took his win when the seaside course included a miles-long blast down Daytona’s famous beach that had been the scene of many outright Land Speed Record runs by both cars and motorcycles in the 1920s and ‘30s.


American BSA team riders (from left to right) were Don Emde, Dick Mann, David Aldana and Jim Rice. They were joined by Mike Hailwood making a return to the Florida classic.


Winter development on the triples had produced a motor with extra horsepower via a ‘squish’ band machined into the cylinder head’s combustion chamber. In addition, there were altered Rob North frames with lowered steering heads that gave better handling and improved aerodynamics thanks to the distinctive ‘Letterbox’ fairing, with the oil cooler now mounted ahead of the steering head. These quickly became known as Lowboys, with the older frames now nicknamed Highboys.


Rookie, Don Emde (left) got a year-old BSA 'highboy' for the 1971 Daytona 200 while his 'elder statesmen' teammates, Mike Hailwood (centre) and Dick Mann got new 'lowboys'.


The British triples dominated the race, with Paul Smart qualifying on pole with a new full course lap record on his Daytona debut – the previous one-lap shootout around the banked oval for grid positions having been dropped in favour of conventional qualifying. Smart and Hailwood were both running the new squish motors and pulled clear of the field from the start. But Mike’s new BSA retired with a holed position caused by ignition issues, and the same fate befell Paul, who had a 27-second lead when he was forced into the pits and retirement from what would have then been the biggest win of his illustrious career with just eleven laps and less than 40 miles of the 200 left to run.


Paul Smart leads Mike Hailwood in the 1971 Daytona 200


This left the wily veteran, Dick Mann (above) to score a repeat victory similar to his previous year’s win on the Honda four in which he patiently kept in touch with the front runners but did so without stressing his engine by battling for the lead. This left him perfectly poised for a late-race charge to come through to win as the leaders faltered. This time he repeated the trick on a BSA, leading a dominant 1-2-3 sweep for the British bikes, with Gene Romero second for Triumph – both he and Mann on ‘71 Lowboys – and Don Emde's older BSA Highboy, in third for a truly satisfying end to his first Daytona 200.

Victory Lane, Daytona 1971. Reigning National Champion, Gene Romero, had to settle for fi runner-up to Dick Mann for the second year in succession. Rookie, Don Emde (right) was a fine third on his year-old obsolete model behind the new bikes of Romero and Mann.


This was the start of a dream year for BSA/Triumph, with Mann going on to win the AMA championship, while on the UK mainland BSA-mounted John Cooper defeated the hitherto unbeatable combination of serial World champion Giacomo Agostini on his 500cc MV Agusta GP triple to win Mallory Park's Race of the Year and repeated that achievement one week later in the UK’s season-ending Race of the South at Brands Hatch.

John Cooper leads Giacomo Agostini through the Devil's Elbow at Mallory Park.

A half-wheel margin saw John Cooper rob Kel Carruthers of the lion's share of the $50,000 Champion Classic prize fund - still regarded as the biggest bike race payday ever.

Cooper then travelled to America to wrap up a hat-trick of wins marking a memorable top-flight season for the Rob North-framed BSA/Triumph triples, with victory in the lucrative Champion Classic 250-mile race at Ontario Motor Speedway in California, while Percy Tait and Ray Pickrell teamed up to repeat Triumph’s 1970 victory in the 24-hour Bol d'Or endurance race at Le Mans.

Sadly, though, the victory champagne was in fact a final drink in the last-chance saloon, for the BSA Group was in desperate financial straits, with losses amounting to £8.5 million in 1971, £3 million alone for BSA motorcycles. The impoverished company was sold to Norton owners Manganese Bronze to create Norton Villiers Triumph, which itself lasted barely another three years before a combination of government interference and political manouvering to support the Triumph Workers Cooperative, brought NVT to its knees.

By 1975 it was all over – but the BSA/Triumph racing triples had already been sidelined, for the FIM’s newly recognised Formula 750 category was now dominated by Japanese two-strokes, meaning the days of the pushrod triples and all other four-strokes – even Honda’s overhead camshaft fours and Ducati’s V-twin = – were well and truly done. But while it lasted it had been fun – and frantic!

And as a footnote, it should also be remembered that it was BSA’s advertising budget that was the reason for the establishment of the Transatlantic Trophy series – the most popular race series in the UK for 15 years. It would most likely never have happened had not Peter Thornton decided to use a goodly chunk of that budget to finance a three-race Easter weekend series of races at Brands Hatch, Mallory Park and Oulton Park that pitted six American riders against six Brits – all on BSA Triumph triples – in the first of the Anglo-American match race series. It might have started as a PR exercise but the concept caught the imagination of the British public and the series has since passed into legend, decades after the last time that it ran in 1986.

And when older race fans who were there discuss the series, as they still do in large numbers, one of the high points they always talk about is hearing a dozen unsilenced BSA Triumph triples howling around the tight confines of the British short circuits.

Make sure to subscribe to this Motorcycle Files magazine (free of charge) to read the full inside story of how the Transatlantic Trophy series came about. It celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the first Anglo American match races and has been written by Bruce Cox, one of the three men who came up with the concept back in 1970 and made it happen. He is currently writing a book about the series for release late in 2021.


Gallery Photographs by Kel Edge