Triumph: Made in Great Britain. Made Greater in Texas.
For decades, Triumph has been known for building the world’s fastest motorcycles. All due to a group of hot rodders from Texas who decided that they didn’t want the record held by the Germans.
From 1955 to 1970, a Triumph powered streamliner held the absolute motorcycle land speed world record.
That legend began in 1954 at Pete Dalio’s Triumph shop in Dallas (operating today as Big 'D' Cycles). It was a Saturday afternoon shortly after closing, legendary Triumph mechanic and tuner Jack Wilson recalls, when “Pete, myself and Stormy Mangham were sitting around talking about how Wilhelm Herz had raised the record to 180 mph on an NSU.”
That brief conversation set in motion the events that would forever alter motorcycle history.
Stormy’s Streamliner: The Devil’s Arrow
Stormy Mangham was an airline pilot and aero engineer with a speed addiction, and Jack Wilson was a young motorcycle tuner of Triumph engines. Together they set out to build a motorcycle to topple the Germans’ stranglehold on the motorcycle land speed record. The project began to take shape at Mangham’s small Fort Worth airfield where he constructed a unique, projectile-shaped streamliner named The Devil’s Arrow. Housed inside Stormy’s lightweight frame was the Wilson-tuned Thunderbird 650 engine.
Unlike the German NSU team, Stormy didn’t have the benefit of a wind tunnel to test the streamliner’s aerodynamics. Instead, he carved a small balsa wood scale model and attached it to the fuselage of his DC-6 airliner, just outside the cockpit window. According to Wilson, the streamliner was cobbled together using anything available, including—legend has it—a few farm tractor and cultivator parts.
In September 1956, 27-year-old flat-tracker Johnny Allen climbed inside Stormy’s streamlined chassis with Wilson’s methanol-burning vertical twin engine and special race-rated Dunlop tires and prepared to embark on a historic record run. The Devil’s Arrow shot across the Bonneville Salt Flats, setting the new absolute speed record of 193.7 mph. The FIM’s refusal to ratify an AMA-sanctioned record didn’t seem to matter. As far as anyone in America knew, a Triumph-powered streamliner was the world’s fastest motorcycle.
The Germans were not going to go down without a fight, however. The NSU team returned to Bonneville with a 500cc supercharged streamliner and rider Wilhem Herz and promptly broke the record with a speed of 211.4 mph.
German Record Goes up in Smoke
The Texans would not yield and returned 33 days later armed with a more potent T- Bird twin. Wilson milled and re-ported the head to accept the racing Amal GP carb, and he worked his magic on the bottom end using a 30-lb. Natralloy billet crankshaft, standard Triumph roller main bearings on the sides and Cadillac V8 plain bearings on the rods. The BTH mag was replaced by a Lucas magneto. A new close-ratio gearbox with a wide low-gear pulled the newly renamed Texas Cee-Gar across the salt fast enough to reclaim the speed record from the Germans. The 214.5 mph record lasted until 1962, when it was broken by Bill Johnson riding a Triumph streamliner.
A New Triumph Effort
Triumph’s land speed pursuit continued in 1962, when aircraft mechanic Joe Dudek brought his streamliner to the Utah salt. His design was inspired by an X-15 rocket- plane and powered by a bored out T120 Bonneville engine. Rider Bill Johnson piloted Dudek's machine to a (gasoline-powered) record of 205 mph. The team then drained the gas from the bike, changed the carburetor jets and refueled with nitro methane and proceeded to set a new world motorcycle speed record of 224.57 mph - a record which stood (in the Streamlined, Altered Frame/Fuel class) until 1992. Unfortunately, the Dudek streamliner was destroyed in a fire in 1974.
Triumph Detroit: Made in the Motor City
Triumph’s 15-year world speed domination reached its peak when legendary automotive designer Alex Tremulis teamed with Triumph Detroit Dealer Bob Leppan, and they unveiled their futuristic Gyronaut X-1 in 1965. Cutting-edge features included a chrome-moly frame, active landing struts, a roll-bar, anti-fire freon bottles, specially-designed Goodyear 250 mph+ tires, a racing harness for pilot Bob Leppan and a parachute. Power was provided by two highly-modified 641cc TR6 engines creating 70 hp each and redlining at 8200 rpm. The bike, which included a three-piece fiberglass shell, cost $100,000. The Gyronaut broke the (gasoline-powered) record at 217.624 before crashing. After extensive repairs and a few modifications, the biked returned to Bonneville in 1966 with better handling and slightly more horsepower to become the "World's Fastest Motorcycle" at 245.667 mph, a record Triumph held until 1970.
A Period of Silence
Triumph’s absence from the world speed record books coincided with the decline of the British motorcycle industry in the early ‘70s. The late Cal Rayborn held the record with his Harley Davidson streamliner for five years before giving way to Don Vesco. Vesco then became the king of the salt for 15 years, first with a Yamaha and then later with Kawasaki-powered streamliners
In 1990, Dave Campos with the Harley Davidson-powered Easyrider streamliner, began a long run of success that carried him into the new millennium.
The Godfather of BUB
Denis Manning has been a fixture on the Utah salt since the mid-1960s. His early engineering prowess helped dethrone Triumph in 1970 with his work on the Cal Rayborn-piloted Harley Davidson streamliner. He returned in 1972 with the Triumph- powered Manning-Murray streamliner. The bike was able to set a one-way record of 272 mph but was unable to make a return run, so the record eluded him.
Manning would later work with Norton and S & S before he started developing his own BUB V-4 motor and transmission, which set the table for his future success. In addition to running his BUB Seven streamliner periodically, Manning is the promoter of August’s annual BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The Battle to 400 mph
In 2006, the new generation of hot-rodders began a supreme battle for the World’s Fastest Motorcycle mantle. The first barrier was 350 mph.
The Top Oil-Ack Attack team of owner Mike Akatiff and rider Rocky Robinson used a twin Hayabusa-engined rocket to beat the 16-year-old record with a speed of 342.797 mph. That record would stand for just two days before the BUB Seven team would steal the show. On September 5, the BUB team of Denis Manning and Chris Carr would become the first team to break the 350 mph barrier with their methanol-burning 3000cc V-4 with a record time of 350.884 mph. These two teams have staged a Titanic battle over the past seven years, with the Ack Attack team currently holding the upper hand at 376.363 mph.
The Castrol Rocket: Honoring the Past, Chasing the Record
Triumph is back at Bonneville in 2013 with its latest streamliner effort. The Castrol Rocket was developed by Castrol, Hot Rod Conspiracy, Carpenter Racing and Triumph North America. The Castrol Rocket incorporates all of the ingenuity and racing prowess of the four Triumph-powered land speed record vehicles of the 1950s and 1960s (all with 650cc production-based engines), plus the best of today’s technology in engineering, aerodynamics, safety and power plant performance.
From the Salt Flats to the Showroom... and Back
The most celebrated British motorcycle in history bears the name of the 40-square- mile expanse of salt near Wendover, Utah, where four resourceful Texans took on a team of German engineers and made motorcycle history. In 1959, Triumph launched the Bonneville 650cc motorcycle as “The Fastest Production Roadster” offering “The Highest Performance from a Standard Production Motorcycle.” The very essence of café racer cool, the Bonnie arrived at just the right time to lead a revolution in the motorcycle industry.
Today, the Bonneville is loved by riders of all ages who appreciate a bike with a timeless style and appeal unmatched by any other motorcycle.
And while the Bonneville was the fastest production bike when it was launched in 1959, today’s record-attempting Castrol Rocket pays homage to Triumph’s Rocket III which, at 2.3 liters, boasts the world’s largest production motorcycle engine. The Castrol Rocket features a pair of turbocharged Rocket III engines making in excess of 1000 horsepower. Triumph technology that’s proven itself from the Salt Flats to the production line and now, back to the Salt Flats.
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