Where it all began: Prototype Triumph from 1901 unearthed

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A veteran collector has restored the first-ever Triumph to running order – and it’s a prototype which predates the company’s official first production bike by a year.

It’s generally accepted that the first Triumph motorcycle – a bicycle with a small engine fitted – was made in 1902. But that first model was actually preceded by a prototype in 1901, which has now been found and faithfully restored by Triumph collector and aficionado Dick Shepherd.

Triumph and Dick knew that the 1901 machine existed thanks to press shots of it from the time taken at bicycle shows but no one could pin down where it had ended up.

“One of the tour guides at the Visitor Experience told me that someone had been in whose friend had died and that they had this 1901 bike,” Dick explained to MCN. “Obviously we were a bit sceptical about the bike but I contacted the guy and asked him a few questions about special little parts and he had the right answers to the questions I was asking.”

Triumph 1901 Prototype left side

Dick was suddenly very interested but as lockdown was in full swing and the bike was in Ireland, he couldn’t get to see it in person. He sent a representative in his place and confirmed that it was the right machine, so got his chequebook out and had it shipped back to the UK before getting to work on the restoration.

As you would expect for a 121-year-old machine from the vanguard of motorcycling, the operation wasn’t always straightforward, even down to what fuel to put in.

“We knew it wouldn’t run on modern petrol because it doesn’t vaporise enough,” continued Dick. “A friend of mine has an early Minerva engine push bike and he told me to try brake cleaner. I thought he was having a laugh but I tried it and it worked! It was running too hot to begin with, so we had to play around with the exhaust timing.

Triumph 1901 Prototype leather drive belt

“The other problem was the drive belt. A lot of early bikes used V-belts but the Triumphs used twisted cow gut. Obviously, we couldn’t use that today so I thought we’d use leather. We wrapped the leather around a neoprene tube and joined it with an aluminium double umbrella. We had to take a quarter of an inch out at a time as we tested until we got the right tension.”

Getting the bike running was one thing but stopping again was quite another as the push-rod cantilever front brakes aren’t up to much.

These were swapped out by the time the 1902 bikes hit the market, which is a good thing as the engine had also grown from the three-quarter horsepower unit in the 1901 to a one-and-a-quarter horsepower unit. Still, despite its age and somewhat timid power, it’s capable of a surprisingly brisk pace.

Dick Shepherd riding the Triumph 1901 Prototype

“I had it down at Brooklands on the banked circuit,” added Dick, “and someone noticed I was going pretty quick. We’re pretty sure it’ll do 30mph.”

From one to one million

As well as the 1901, Dick Shepherd owns a great many other Triumphs – he was well over 400 at last count but doesn’t actually know what the number is at now. As Triumph produced their millionth bike in 2021, we thought we’d get Dick to share some his favourite examples from the marque.

The original Daytona: The 490cc race bike Bud Elmore piloted from 46th on the grid to win the Daytona 200 in 1966, ultimately inspiring the name of the production machine.

Dick Shepherd with the original Triumph Daytona winning race bike

Gold medal winning 350: The 3TA that won five gold medals at the ISDT in the sixties and is the most decorated international trials bike from any manufacturer.

The first Bonnie: The very first Bonneville T120 rolled off the production line on July 23, 1958. They’ve built a few more since.

The Great Escape TR6: The very bike used by Steve McQueen and Bud Ekins in the film, built in England by ISDT rider Ken Heanes.

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Ben Clarke

By Ben Clarke

Assistant Editor (Motorcycling), hick for life, two cylinders max