Updated: Aug 20
The Tiger 100C was Triumph’s challenger to the BSA Gold Stars and Norton Internationals in the Clubman’s TT races of the early nineteen-fifties. And it acquitted itself well in that role, with ‘top six’ leader board places in nine of the ten races that were held between 1947 and 1956, including ten ‘top three’ podium finishes and a win in 1952.
The Triumph factory was not officially involved in racing in the early ‘fifties but is said to have specially prepared some machines in the factory development shop for hand-picked riders deemed to be potential winners of the Clubman’s race. These included half a dozen of the 1954 Tiger 100 models with the swinging arm frame which was new for that year.
Tony Ovens finished fourth in th1 1954 Clubmans TT on the Triumoh Tiger 100C
Riding one of these allegedly ‘works prepared’ bikes in 1954 was Gloucestershire rider, Tony Ovens who finished fourth at an average speed of 84.87mph for the four laps of the nearly 38-mile Mountain Circuit. This was only fractionally slower than the three BSA Gold Stars that finished ahead of him.
Tiger 100 ‘race kitted’ models like that one had made Triumph twins a real force to be reckoned with in the clubman’s racing classes of the early nineteen-fifties and they were the culmination of the development of Triumph designer Edward Turner’s seminal 1937 Speed Twin.
With the runaway sales success of the Speed Twin, Turner's mind soon turned to further developing the potential of his new parallel twin motor. The lighter and more powerful Tiger 100 that followed in 1939 was developed as a sporting machine and, as with previous single cylinder models like the 90mph Tiger 90, the '100' referred to the claimed maximum speed of the new twin.
High compression, forged alloy pistons were used in the Tiger 100 engine, which was one of the first to use that new technology, and the cast-iron cylinder barrel was held in place by eight studs rather than the five of the Speed Twin. There was also the pre-World War II option of a bronze cylinder head, the use of this metal being popular for the heads of several sporting bikes in the ‘thirties as it dissipated heat more quickly than cast iron.
In March 1939, Triumph came up with an unorthodox 'launch' of the new Tiger 100. Using a Tiger 100 and a Speed Twin selected at random straight from dealer showrooms, the parallel twin’s endurance was tested with a run of over 1,800 miles. The bikes were ridden from John o' Groats at the northern tip of Scotland to Land's End in Cornwall – the whole length of the British Isles. Then they were ridden across the south of England to the Brooklands circuit in Surrey for six hours of continuous high-speed laps in tandem around the bankings of the Outer Circuit oval.
Riders Ivan Wicksteed and David Whitworth averaged 78.mph for the six hours, with a final lap of 88.5 mph for the Tiger 100. The combination of the 1000-mile trouble-free road trip and the subsequent Brooklands laps won Triumph the prestigious Maudes Trophy awarded for the most meritorious performance of the year by a motorcycle.
The Tiger 100's sporting claims were later proven still further through Freddie Clarke’s 1939 lap record in the over-500cc class at Brooklands of 118.02mph on a Tiger 100 only slightly bored out to 504cc.
Then came the war and the Triumph works in the centre of Coventry was destroyed by German bombers on the night of 14 November 1940 - along with much of the rest of the inner city. When production began again after the war in a new factory at Meriden on the outskirts of the city, Triumphs re-appeared with a new telescopic fork replacing the pre-war girder type.
The company also began the post-war period with success in the 1946 Manx Grand Prix for Irishman, Ernie Lyons, who rode a Tiger 100 fitted with the square light-alloy cylinder barrel and heads originally used on wartime fan-cooled stationary generator units because of their lighter weight and better heat dissipation.
Triumph boss, Edward Turner, had little interest in spending the company’s money on a racing team but he could see the publicity value of private riders doing the winning on the factory’s behalf. As a result, Triumph put a copy of Lyons machine into limited production and called it the Triumph Grand Prix. This bike was intended purely for racing and between 150 and 200 of them were built between 1947 and 1950. The GP model couldn’t match the speed of the Manx Nortons but was popular with privateer riders because of its lower price and easier maintenance.
In 1951 it was replaced by a new version of the Tiger 100 that was offered with a factory ‘race kit’ for the ‘clubman’ rider who wanted to go road racing. Up until 1951, Triumph riders had been unable to use the GP model in the Clubman’s TT on the Isle of Man as it was a pure racer without any road-going equipment. Clubman’s TT entrants up until that year were restricted to using the iron-barreled Tiger 100 because the square-finned alloy barrels of the GP racer were not used on the road-going bikes and not even listed as catalogued ‘upgrades’.
Even so, the Tiger 100 riders from 1947 to 1950 fared pretty well in the Clubman’s against the opposition of the day. Allan Jefferies finished second to the Norton of Eric Briggs in the first of those races in 1947 and was second again in 1949 to another Norton International. He, of course, was the patriarch of the famous Yorkshire family of TT stars, his sons Tony and Nick and his grandson, the late and much-missed David.
The Norton that finished ahead of Allan in 1949 was ridden by a certain Geoff Duke, then a Norton trials rider making his road racing debut with an Isle of Man win! Geoff, of course, went on to win the Manx Grand Prix later that year and then five more TT races and six World Championships. No disgrace for Allan and Triumph, then, in giving best to that superstar in the making in 1949!
In 1950 it looked as though the Tiger 100 would score its first win in the Clubman’s as Ivan Wicksteed (one of the riders in the pre-war Brooklands record session that won Triumph the Maudes Trophy) had a lead of over three minutes as he started his fourth and final lap. But only a mile or so later he was out…retiring at Quarter Bridge with a split fuel tank. That left his fellow Triumph rider, Allen Hill, battling with Norton-mounted Phil Carter for the win over the final lap. In the end the Norton man took the honours by 26 seconds.
So Triumph Tiger 100s had always been in contention for the Senior (500cc) Clubman’s TT win since the very first race – and there were few who would have bet against a Triumph victory in 1951. That year the production Tiger 100 road bike had gained a new close-finned, die-cast alloy cylinder barrel and head, far superior in both construction and design to the old generator-based components used on the Grand Prix model. In addition, the T100 race kit had many components that had been developed for the GP Triumph, including the E3134 camshafts that were later also used on the 650cc Bonneville. The rest of the kit included twin carburetors with a single remote float chamber, improved valves and springs, high compression pistons and open megaphone exhausts.
A road test of a race-kitted Tiger 100 by Motor Cycling magazine in 1951 showed that just how good that kit was in boosting engine power. First off, the standard bike was clocked at 96mph on the Motor Industries Research Association (MIRA) test track near Nuneaton in Warwickshire. The fitting of the kit then raised that top speed by a most impressive 13mph and further proof of its effectiveness came from the results of both the 1951 and 1952 IOM Clubman’s races.
In 1951, Triumph riders, Ivan Wicksteed and John Draper were a close second and third but Wicksteed admitted throwing the race away by easing off too much on the last lap, believing he had an unassailable lead. Signals he got at Ramsey with a third of the lap to go appeared to confirm this so, mindful of his 1950 disappointment, he eased his pace over the Mountain to save overstressing the engine.
Unfortunately for Wicksteed, Ivor Arber on a Norton was right then putting in his fastest lap of the race, lapping in 27m 59.6s despite a spill at Governor’s Bridge hairpin, the final turn before the finish.
Wicksteed’s initial standing start lap had actually been three seconds quicker than Arber’s final charge but that was his fastest lap of the race. Relying at signaling both at the pits and out at Ramsey he had decided to run a controlled race to ensure a finish and a victory but a final lap at 29m 22.6s was almost a minute and a half slower than Arber’s. Wicksteed had somehow managed to turn a minute’s advantage into a 20 second deficit at the flag.
Having thrown away what seemed like certain victory, Ivan was sporting in defeat.
“I hope you all see the moral in this” he said at the prize giving, “don’t try to be too ruddy cunning!” And what hurt almost as much, he said, was the fact that by dint of having finished in the top three he was prevented by the Clubman’s regulations from coming back in 1952 for another crack at a race that he could have won in 1950 and should have won in 1951.
And as a final aside on the 1951 race, the third man home, also on a Triumph, was Johnny Draper – better known as one of Britain’s best scrambles (motocross), observed trials and International Six Days Trial enduro riders in the ‘fifties. He was typical of many ‘all-rounders’ who embraced the true ‘clubman’ spirit of the Clubman’s TT over the years – riders like (to name but two of many) grass track and sprint star, Alf Hagon and 1955 winner, Eddie Dow, who also won Gold Medals in the ISDT and First Class Awards in the Scottish Six Days.
Back to the TT timeline, however, and it was Bernard Hargreaves who secured the hitherto elusive win for Triumph in 1952. All four of his laps were in the 27 minute bracket and he won comfortably at a speed of 82.45mph, more than half a minute ahead of the second man.
Incidentally, that 1952 race saw the racing debut of one Frank Perris, who finished 18th on a Tiger 100. Frank, of course, went on to star as a works rider for the Suzuki Grand Prix team and to become manager of the John Player Norton team after his retirement from racing.
The success of Bernard Hargreaves in 1952 led to the introduction of the Tiger 100C model for 1953 which was a complete and fully race-kitted motorcycle, ready to wheel out to the start line at the Clubman’s TT. Only 560 of those models were made and it was discontinued as a catalogue listing after that single year, although all race-kitted Tiger 100s are generally referred to these days as a Tiger 100C.
Possibly the reason for the removal of the complete T100C Clubman racer from the Triumph model line-up, though we shall never know, was because Norton had easily bested the previously successful Triumphs to win the 1953 Clubman’s TT. Their old plunger suspension frames, affectionately known as the ‘Garden Gate’ type because of their agricultural-looking construction, had been replaced by a road-going version of the famous Manx frame. The nickname for that one, of course, was the ’Featherbed’ – which more than underlined its superiority – and into that masterpiece was installed the same single-overhead camshaft, single cylinder engine which, although a mid-thirties design, had already proved that it had the necessary speed. That bike was the final incarnation of the Norton International.
The best Triumph T100C in 1953 placed fourth, with another one in seventh. The rest of the top ten were all on the new Nortons, so Triumph apparently read the writing on the wall and quietly dropped its complete ‘clubman racer’ from the 1954 catalogue.
The performance parts of the T100C race kit were still available from Triumph dealers, however, and over the following years the factory continued to develop the Tiger 100, including the introduction of a new cylinder head with separate induction manifolds for twin carburetors and angled inlet ports. That new ‘splayed ports’ cylinder head design came later in the ‘fifties, however, and for 1954, it was Triumph’s rear suspension that got the most attention from the development team at Meriden.
The superb handling of their new frames had been more of a key to Norton’s 1953 success than the power of their single-cylinder engine. This was essentially a 20 year old design and no more powerful than the Triumph Tiger 100 twin. The handling capabilities of the new Norton frame, however, had definitely pointed up the deficiencies of Triumph’s ‘sprung hub’ rear suspension. This self-contained unit looked neat and had the advantage of fitting straight into the standard rigid frame of the day.
A complete sprung hub rear wheel was offered as an optional extra on new machines or could be bought separately from Triumph dealers to ‘upgrade’ rigid frames. But ‘upgrade’ was perhaps something of a misnomer because, judging by contemporary photographs, many racers preferred to stay with the rigid frame. The sprung hub relied on coil springs within the hub to provide about two inches of suspension movement and appeared to have had little or nothing in the way of rebound damping.
After the 1953 defeat by the ‘Featherbed’ Nortons it had become obvious to Triumph that a swinging arm system was badly needed and that’s the way they went with their 1954 Tiger 100 road bikes as well as for the bikes allegedly prepared at the factory for that year’s Clubman’s TT. Otherwise, the engine and close ratio gearbox were as per the previous year’s T100C.
Unfortunately for Triumph, 1954 was the year that the legendary single cylinder BSA Gold Star began its eventual total domination of the Clubman’s class. The best that a Triumph twin could do was the fourth place achieved by Tony Ovens, who averaged 84+mph – a speed that would have been good enough to win the race before the latest versions of the Gold Star arrived.
Gold Star specialist, Eddie Dow was one of the BSA riders that year but was still getting over extremely serious injuries incurred in a very bad crash at Laurel Bank while he had been leading the 1953 Clubman’s on a Gold Star. Many years later, Eddie still remembered the Ovens Triumph well. He rode a ‘Goldie’ to tenth place in that 1954 race and told John White that Ovens on the Triumph had gone by him as though he was standing still…! Eddie came back to the Island again on a Gold Star in 1955 – when the Clubman’s TT was switched from the Mountain Circuit to the shorter, seven mile Clypse circuit. This time he won the race, with Ian Atkinson and Raymond Kelly filling the other podium places for Triumph.
Power was never really the issue for the Tiger 100C. Handling rather than horsepower was where the Gold Stars really had the advantage over the T100C. By 1956, however, it was plain to see that the great-looking BSA singles had a stranglehold on both the 350 and 500cc classes of the Clubman’s TT. Seventh place for John Hurlstone was the best a Triumph could do that year, although Mike Brookes had got as high as fifth before his twin succumbed to clutch trouble.
With only a solitary Velocette Viper amongst 68 BSA Gold Stars in the 350cc race and half a dozen Triumphs and a single Norton against 35 Goldies in the 500cc class, the 1956 Clubman’s TT proved that the original concept of the race as a way of comparing the sports bikes available to the clubmen riders of the ‘fifties had obviously run its course. The organizers did not see the point of creating a BSA benefit and the event was dropped from the Isle of Man calendar.
Read more about racing with the Triumph Tiger 100 in the 1950s and '60s in the e-book published by www.themotorcyclefiles.com.