On European holiday last spring, my mother dragged me to the underground bunker and war musuem of Winston Churchill. Wise men and wisecrackers alike have called UK's PM in WWII the greatest statesman, politician and wartime leader of the 20th century, but I didn't know why. Three hours spent walking through the caves, closets and tunnels that constituted England's White House and Pentagon during Germany's eight-month attack on British soil gave me a glimpse into the man who, among other things, pulled Triumph motorcycles from the brink of destruction.
In a speech delivered to British citizens one month before the German invasion, Winston Churchill uttered one of his most stirring lines of oratory. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." These words were inspired by the RAF's perseverance against superior Luftwaffe forces in the Battle of Britain, the fight Churchill knew the Nazis would bring the day French forces laid down. That battle came September 1940, and didn't end until the summer of 1941. Years later in wryer times, Sir Winston said something more comical but no less poignant. "Although personally I am quite content with existing explosives, I feel we must not stand in the path of improvement." Greatness recognizes its own shortcomings, then refuses to be limited by them.
In the '30s Triumph Engineering Company Ltd. called Coventry, England its home, but this and many other British towns and villages were destroyed by German bombs during the Blitz. All salvageable Triumph tooling and machinery recovered after the carpet bombing was moved to Meriden, West Midlands, where production resumed in 1942. The war in Europe didn't end 'til 1945, but that didn't stop England's finest from building motorcycles—the Prime Minister knew maintaining a healthy industrial complex for queen and country was good for moral and practical reasons.
During WWII, the United States created the Lend/Lease Program to finance war materiel for its allies. To help settle a tiny portion of this debt after the war, the UK shipped 70% of all new Triumph motorcycles to America, where they were sold for greater profit than was possible on domestic soil. The peformance pedigree Triumphs earned in the hands of American hop-up shops and speed demons contributed significantly to the British brand's mystique, something that no doubt made Winston Churchill proud.
Mom's first European vacation in 70 years was an eye opener for both of us. History wasn't something I could sink my teeth into as a student, but it's a subject the growing recognition of my own insignificance has taught me to love very much. I am light years from being a learned man on the subject, however. That distinction belongs to my friend Wes White, the first serious British bike aficionado I ever met, and a bona fide history scholar. Visitors to Wes's Four Aces Cycle in Pacoima, CA, may recall an enormous world map hanging on the shop wall. I've chatted with Wes about that map, but deeper conversations have eluded us. Perhaps on next year's El Diablo Run Wes will tell me about the part Mexico played in WWII. I know the story of Fanta soda's Nazi upbringing and how the bubbly beverage ended up in Brazilian ice chests, and I'll share it another day if this month's skip down memory lane strikes a chord.
Special thanks to Tony, Andy and the crew at Classic Cycles for letting me shoot their customer's stylish Triumph. I tried to get the owner's name and bike specs—honest I did—but no info was forthcoming. Now you know the real reason why I went on this historical bender. If you know they guy who owns this chopper, please encourage him to tell us about his British war vet here.