To understand the fame accrued by what, in the final analysis, is only a modified street motorcycle it is important to remember just how important Production racing was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the same time as enthusiasm for racing road bikes was at its peak, interest in mainstream GP racing was at an all-time low ebb, with spectators becoming weary of an endless stream of twin cylinder Yamaha two-strokes in the smaller classes and the legendary Giacomo Agostini giving high-speed demonstrations with the bigger MVs. By contrast, Production racing had a plethora of factory-entered bikes of all sizes, shapes and capacities.
Production racing also offered a huge publicity return for every dollar invested. The top bikes were very cheap to make and the leading riders were highly affordable. For example, following Malcolm Uphill’s 100mph TT win in 1969, Uphill received £50 ($65) prize money and £70 ($90) in trade bonuses – plus the bike on which he had won the TT!
Malcolm was later invited to the factory for a VIP reception to celebrate the win. At this star-studded event, the TT winner was publicly thanked – and then given a £12 ($15) transistor radio. Rossi eat your heart out!
The bikes that won were cheap too. All Triumph racing machines started life as production line rejects. Les Williams, the mechanical genius behind much of Triumph’s race success, remembers how the Triumph Tridents for the 1970 TT arrived in the Experimental Department.
“When a bike was run on the rolling road, if it wasn’t up to standard we would get it instead of it being rectified. Our first bikes all had oil pump failures so the main parts of the bikes were fine.”
The 1969 Production TT had been a bonanza for Triumph in terms of publicity with Uphill’s 100mph lap becoming the stuff of legends. However, the story nearly had a very different ending. Here’s Les again:
“When we stripped the bikes down we saw how close we had been to a disaster. The pistons on Malcolm’s bike were cracked and they wouldn’t have lasted another half lap. Everyone knew then that we needed the Triple if we were to carry on winning in Production racing.”
Not that things were straightforward. Les explains. “The Americans were pressing the BSA board (Triumph were part of the BSA Group) to go to Daytona for 1970 so a decision was made that we were going to race the Triple. Doug Hele (Triumph’s Development Engineer and the mastermind behind their racing success) came down to the Experimental Department and explained what we had to do. To be honest it was all a bit of rush.
“The Experimental Department was a very close team – more like a family than a factory. All the four mechanics were involved in the discussions because although Doug was in overall charge and I was the foreman, or something approximately like this, we were a team and everyone was encouraged to contribute ideas.
“We took a standard Triple to Castle Combe, with Percy Tait, and it didn’t handle well enough to race seriously so I worked with Rob North, who we already knew from a frame he made for Percy a year earlier, to make a proper race chassis which was the first High Boy frame – and this did handle.
“Rob made the frame in 30 hours from scratch which was an amazing piece of fabrication.
“At the same time, we worked on the standard road engine and we found that it would give plenty of power.
“To prepare for Daytona, in the winter of 1970, we went to South Africa with Ray Pickrell, Paul Smart and a couple of mechanics to get some idea of how the bikes would work in a hot climate and then it was almost straight to Daytona which was the most important race in America.
“The Production racers had to take very much a back seat until things settled down.”
I pressed Les about the importance of the Production bikes and his answer was very interesting. “They were just another job. Every job was important and we wanted to win every race we entered – but you have to remember that we didn’t have a dedicated race shop. Race bikes were done in the Experimental Department, and always on a very tight budget, so we did what we could with the resources we had.”
The Trident Production racers were helped hugely by the factory’s experience with the Bonnevilles. The alloy fuel tank, rear-set footrests and “Clubman” handlebars were all direct lifts from the Twins and, in theory at least, they were all available to be purchased as Triumph accessories – as was the brand-new, five speed, Quaife race gearbox. However, what went into the engine wasn’t!
The Triples could be made to produce power, and reliably too, in a way the Bonnevilles could never achieve. From a typical figure of 58 horsepower produced by a good Trident road bike the Triumph team was soon getting 70+ hp of useable power from the Production racing engine – equating to a genuine 150mph in the Isle of Man.
Because the Triple owed so much of its engineering to the earlier Twins, a considerable amount of this racing experience was carried across to the new engine. The TH6 race cam was used along with ball-ended tappets and W&S valve springs with titanium valve caps and collets. The rockers were lightened and polished for reliability. To help breathing, the cylinder heads were meticulously ported and the high compression pistons matched to individually machined squish bands in the cylinder heads.
Doug Hele and Williams shared a common passion for the complete racing bike, where neither power nor handling was allowed to take precedence over making a bike which was useable over the whole course of a race.
Les said: “It wasn’t the absolute power we wanted – but race winning power that the rider could make the best use of: that was the only thing which counted.”
The Production racers ran on 27mm Amal Concentric carburetors from the road bikes to comply with regulations.
The “Ray Gun” silencers, which were loathed by customers on the Trident and Rocket 3 road bikes, were actually a sound piece of engineering. Les tried them without any baffles but found that they were much more efficient with the production, road, reverse flow baffles. It’s just a shame they are so ugly. To go with the silencers the exhaust pipes were raised and tucked in.
The standard Trident frame was designed by Doug Hele and so it was no surprise that the core handling was fine. The biggest improvement was fitting an enormous 250mm double sided, twin leading shoe Fontana brake which was needed to stop the big, heavy triple from 150mph.
The front forks were tweaked by removing the cast shuttle valve damper and replacing this with shuttle valves machined in the Triumph tool room. With the handmade valves, adjustments of 10 thousandths of an inch could be made and the front forks were then excellent.
Girling built unique dampers for Triumph. They looked liked the items you could buy over the counter but had special damping in them. Girling provided three sets for each bike, each with slightly different damping.
Dunlop supplied the new TT100 supersports road tires in a 19-inch size and these larger rims gave a little more ground clearance than the 18-inch wheels used on many race bikes of the time.
Favored Triumph dealers could purchase most of the special parts used on the works bikes directly from the factory because these had to be, at least nominally, available to comply with Production racing regulations. However, the full tuning kits were very tightly controlled and released only to dealers who were likely to be successful with the bikes they built.
The TT was the biggest Production race of the year and Les set off with high hopes for the race in June 1970. You can imagine the scene. All the Triumph workers stream out on to the lawns outside the Meriden factory and there is a huge send off. Managing Director Lionel Jofeh comes across from Small Heath to shake the team members’ hands and wish them Bon Voyage. Except that it wasn’t quite like that…
Here’s Les. “For a start, we only had one knackered old Transit van which we belonged to the Experimental Department. Van hire had just started in Coventry – so we went to Batleys and hired a second Transit. We all piled into the two transits – the whole team.
“I used to watch every penny to save money. I was always worried about management thinking that we were spending too much money on racing, so I had to be careful.
“We all stayed in a little guest house in Douglas. Sometimes, five of us shared one bedroom. It wasn’t very posh but we had a nice breakfast – the full English – and then meat and two veg in the evening so it was good.
“The BSA lot had a real budget and stayed in the Douglas Bay Hotel but we weren’t bothered because we knew we could beat them so we were happy where we were.
“Norton had sponsorship from John Player cigarettes but our management wouldn’t accept sponsorship so we weren’t flash. We were all in different overalls and didn’t look very professional but Fred Green, the Triumph Sales Manager, got some nice overalls for us from Rivit’s Leathers so we looked the part.
“Later in the season, when we went to the Bol d’Or, Paul Butler, the Dunlop Competition Manager, came to see us and asked where our team clothing was. I said that we didn’t have any so the next morning he came back with ten Dunlop jackets, which were much appreciated. They were really nice jackets.
“The Triples went well but they grounded out everywhere – and I do mean everywhere. The three cylinder engine was wider than the Twin and so the primary chain case and timing cover grounded all the time.
“Brian Steenson was riding the factory BSA triple and it was like a sledge just sliding about from one corner to another. But we had a fix for our bike.
“We rented a garage from a private house up on Mona drive and there was an old Fiat outside. So when it was quiet we “borrowed” one of the bumpers and made protectors for the engine from it. We slipped these between the engine and the fairing, they worked fine and Uphill won the race for us, beating Peter Williams on the factory Norton.
“Brian Steenson retired on the BSA and Bob Heath was fifth on the second works BSA so we knew that we had got everything right.
“When we got back to the factory everyone was pleased but there was no champagne or wild party. We’d just done our job which was to win races for the least possible expenditure – and that’s what we’d done.”
Despite the success, there was agreement that the frame was dangerously low so it was decided to raise the engine 1 3/8-inches. Today, this would have been a sophisticated piece of computer-aided design requiring hundreds of hours of meticulous planning: but not at Triumph in 1970.
Les tells the actual story. “When a road bike came back to the Service Department from a big crash they re-built it totally, so that the customer effectively got a brand new machine. They were very proud of the level of service they offered to Triumph customers.
“There was one old boy down there who could do anything with a frame. He could straighten anything out, braze it – anything. We went to see him, explained what we wanted and he modified the frame for us and it worked straight away. You could get anything done in the factory if you knew who to ask.”
Towards the end of the season, the French Triumph importer pressed the factory to enter the prestigious Bol d’Or, held at L’Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry just outside Paris. Tom Dickie and Paul Smart won the event for Triumph covering 469 laps, a total of 1838 miles at an average speed of 76.553 mph – a truly incredible performance.
Ironically, the headline was not the Smart/Dickie win but Percy Tait and Steve Jolly who finished fifth, and covered in oil, on the second factory Triumph. So what actually happened in this legendary incident?
Les actually knows. “The problem started because we were given Duckhams’ mineral oil for free but I wanted to use a castor racing oil because of the extreme valve tip wear we were experiencing. Duckhams gave us some of their R40 and we put this into the engines.
“The problem was that castor and mineral oils are not compatible and I think that the castor oil caused a blockage in the oil cooler. This made the engine wet sump and the oil blew out of the engine breather and all over poor old Percy Tait who was not happy.
“But the bike still finished and we called it “Slippery Sam” after this.”
Slippery Sam won everything there was to win in Production racing so what was the event which Les remembers most fondly?
“When the Triumph factory closed, I was able to buy the bike for £300 ($375) which was an awful lot of money for me at the time. (Ed’s note. If the bike ever came on the market today collectors would have to find $125,000+ to even think about owning it). I continued to race it under my own name. I spent a lot of time refining the bike until it weighed under 400-pounds ready to race. For 1975, the Production TT was going to be a 10-lapper and everyone told me not to race the bike. It was a legend and to have it blow up and destroy its reputation would have been a tragedy.
“But the bike had done nearly 2000 miles in one Bol d’Or so I was sure it could manage 10 laps of the 37 ¾ mile TT course – and it did. Dave Croxford and Alex George won at a race average of 99.61mph and the bike never missed a beat. That was my proudest moment with “Slippery Sam.”
As a seminal piece of British motorcycle history, “Slippery Sam” eventually found a permanent home in the National Motorcycle Museum and then, in 2003, disaster struck. A fire swept through the museum and the iconic bike was badly damaged. Les was determined to restore it to its original condition.
“The alloy parts suffered badly but we had some good luck. The original, lightweight fairing was still upstairs in my loft because the bike had been fitted with one of the heavier ones when it was on display in the museum.
“Then many of the key parts could be salvaged – even down to the oil tank with the dent from where Norman Hyde (a Triumph development engineer who worked with Les) belted it when he fell off in a drag race at Silverstone.
“So no, the bike is not a reproduction but is the real bike just as we raced it.”
Thanks to James Hewing, the National Motorcycle Museum’s Director, I was given the privilege of riding “Slippery Sam” in a classic bike demonstration and while I felt very honored, I approached the bike with a lot of trepidation.
I race a Manx Norton, which is slim and light, and a 500cc Seeley Suzuki that is positively miniscule: “Slippery Sam” isn’t! In fact, for a race bike, this is a huge motorcycle in terms of width and length. The cockpit is so immense that you could have a barbecue in there and not have to come up from behind the fairing.
But it is also a wonderfully practical place to be for long races on fast courses. Its size makes the bike extremely comfortable and the ergonomics of the controls, fuel tank and handlebars are perfect. If you wanted somewhere perfect to live when you were doing 150mph down Sulby Straight, this would be it.
On the tight little course where I rode the bike, its weight was very apparent but there was the feeling that, given 100mph corners, it would be as stable as the Orient Express.
The engine feels very modern, but in a classic way, with effortless, creamy power and no sense of sharpness. In the dark of the Bol d’Or or the rain and the bumps of the TT course, this is an engine on which you could rely.
In fact, that was the single most important thread running through the whole bike: a racing motorcycle perfectly fit for purpose and worthy of its legendary status.
With special thanks to Les Williams and Norman Hyde for their help with this story and The National Motorcycle Museum for the privilege of allowing me to ride Slippery Sam.
Images courtesy of Frank Melling.