▲ The 1937 500cc 5T Triumph Speed Twin.
This is the bike that changed the biking world and put parallel twins on the map. Although not the first Triumph parallel twin, this motorcycle is nevertheless the spiritual granddaddy of them all (more).
▲ Edward Turner (jnr), Charmian & Jane
—proud "children" of the greatest British motorcycle designer of them all.
▲ Erum Waheed tells it like it is, while the Mayor of Southwark looks on with interest.
◄ Stephen Humphrey
Southwark Borough Council archivist:
"Edward Turner was a Southwark boy through and through, and it was here in Peckham where he first started and then developed his career in motorbike design, a career that was to make a name for him across the globe. It was at his own firm, Chepstow Motors, based on Peckham Road, where he built his first motorcycle, and later he went on to design such classics as the Ariel Square Four, the Triumph Speed Twin, and the Triumph Bonneville."
▲ Mr Tony Benn always had a soft spot
for Triumph and took the trouble to come down and pay his respects to Mr Edward Turner.
▲ Triumph men: John Nelson (ex-Meriden Service Manager) and John Rosamond
(ex-Meriden Co-op Chairman).
Both men gave a rousing heartfelt speech and travelled a long way to be involved in the commemoration.
▲ Edward Turner's Blue Plaque can be
found at 8 Philip Walk. Spare a thought
for the present occupants and kill your motors.
▲ Edward Turner's Daimler V8 engine.
Available as a 2.5 litre or 4.5 litre powerplant,
this engine was fitted to the Daimler Majestic saloon, the SP250 Daimler Dart sports car, and also to the Daimler 250 saloon.
▲ A "Blue" plaque in Amaranth Red?
We would have like to have seen it so presented. But Southwark Borough Council have a few traditions of their own to maintain and it couldn't be arranged. Pity.
Voted by the people. That's what it says on the plaque, and that's exactly what it means.
By the people.
They don't, after all, hand out Blue Plaques to all comers. To get one, you have to really deserve one—and that means more than unearthing a hitherto undiscovered dinosaur, or designing a wind up heart pacemaker, or doing any of a million other things to put yourself on the map of outstanding human achievement.
To be awarded a Blue Plaque (depending under which scheme you've been nominated—and there are many) you need to have a groundswell of people pressure behind you—either from members of your professional or arts society, or simply from the common man.
And you need to be dead.
Edward Turner, the greatest motorcycle designer that Great Britain has ever produced, fitted perfectly Southwark Borough Council's criteria and was finally duly recognised by the authority under their own "Blue Plaque scheme" as a man of outstanding achievement, and it was people power that put him there.
So how did it come about?
That's simple. Erum Waheed, a Triumph owner, barrister and "elusive" member of the Mighty South London Triumph Owners Club (not necessarily in that order) simply felt that Edward Turner—or ET, to those who knew him—deserved to have his name up on the bricks, and sought support from pretty much anyone who could put some muscle behind the fulcrum of official local government approbation.
One thing led to another, and soon Southwark Council recognised that they had another live one on their hands, so to speak, and threw a borough historian into the mix. And before you knew it, the house at
8 Philip Walk, London SE15 (where ET lived and worked in the 1920s) was rediscovered—along with a workshop building at the rear. With that, the remaining cogs and gears fell into place.
Much has been said, and mis-said, about Edward Turner; tales of his temper and petulance and inability to gladly suffer fools. Others decry his achievements citing more worthy motorcycling candidates for the Blue Plaque treatment. But the fact is that there's no progress without a little friction, and in his time Edward Turner made more progress than anyone else in the British motorcycle industry.
His designs, flair and intuitions seeded a generation of motorcycles not only from Triumph but from rival manufacturers including Ariel, BSA, Norton and AMC. Edward Turner's legendary 500cc 5T Speed Twin of 1937 was the most exciting motorcycle of its age, a bike that metamorphosed into the 650cc Triumph twin that set the world alight in 1956 when, piloted by Texan tornado Johnny Allen, it hit 214mph at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, USA.
The 1959 650cc T120 Triumph Bonneville, capitalising upon that success, was an instant hit and became one of the most famous motorcycles of all time.
Moreover, under Edward Turner, Triumph was always a profitable, successful and happy firm. In hard cash terms, the company brought home a fortune in much need Yankee dollars during the post-war "export or die" years, and ET also turned a worthy but otherwise unremarkable British motorcycle marque into an international icon.
Other industry worthies might well include Val Page, Bert Hopwood, Granville Bradshaw, Phil Irving, Bert Greeves and Phil Vincent (the latter two having already, and rightly, been rewarded with Blue Plaques of their own), but Edward Turner's unique ability to bridge the gulf between engineering, styling and marketing far and away puts his star at the top of the tree.
Edward Turner, Ariel, Triumph and BSA
Turner was born on 24th January 1901 in Southwark, South London, the third of seven children of which four were boys. By 1916, Edward was serving in the Merchant Navy as a radio telegraphy officer (contracted out by the Marconi Communication Company Limited).
In the early 1920s he bought Chepstow Motors in Peckham Road, South East London, which was a Velocette agency. By 1925 he had designed his first motorcycle engine; a geared OHC 348cc single. Within two years another machine, built to a similar design, had been completed and was known as the Turner Special.
In 1928 drawings were completed for a very new type of engine that would soon become the Ariel Square Four; a compact 500cc unit with twin (geared) crankshafts and a one piece cylinder block. BSA showed little interest either in this design, or in the Turner Special. But Ariel, under the control of Jack Sangster and with Val Page as its Chief Designer, saw the potential in the 500cc four-cylinder engine and promptly offered Edward a position in the firm.
Working under Val Page, Turner further developed the Square Four. It was first shown at Olympia in 1930.
By 1936, Turner had moved from Ariel to Triumph and was now Chief Designer—also with Jack Sangster in control of the firm. Triumph's existing range of 250cc, 350cc and 500cc singles (designed by Val Page—who had spent four years at Triumph before moving to BSA)—were revamped into the more sporting Tiger 70, Tiger 80 and Tiger 90 models. And in 1937, the legendary 498cc, 27bhp 5T Speed Twin was unveiled.
In 1949 the 649cc 6T Triumph Thunderbird appeared; essentially an enlarged Speed Twin. And ten years later, in 1959, the T120 Bonneville was launched. By this time, Edward Turner had already made a serious and positive impact on the the American market which was buying every Triumph they could get—the supply of which, it's said, was carefully controlled by ET to avoid saturating the market and thereby lowering the price.
The following year (1960), with the BSA group now owning Triumph and Sunbeam, Turner visited Japan and was mildly shocked at what he saw. The Japanese motorcycle industry was clearly gearing up for a full scale assault on the west, and Triumph—along with the other British manufacturers—was ill-prepared.
The writing was on the wall.
However, there was hope in the new thinking from designers such as Bert Hopwood who had worked under Turner before switching to AMC, and various new bikes appeared (some rationalised with BSA models) which included the Triumph Tina (scooter), the Triumph Trident (pushrod triple), and the Triumph Bandit/BSA Fury (OHC twins)—which never saw full production
But Edward Turner, who resigned in 1963 as Chief Executive of BSA-Triumph, was now taking a more low-key role as a consultant and was largely out of the political and industrial fray.
Nevertheless, he retained close ties with Triumph until his death in 1973.
Edward Turner lived through tumultuous times beginning with the Edwardian era, passing through two world wars, a depression, and some of the biggest political cock-ups Britain has ever made. But throughout, he maintained his focus and served both his country and British industry, and made an indelible mark on the world of motorcycling.
Today, the name Triumph is one of the most prized brands in the biking arena—and it was largely Edward Turner's drive, energy, enthusiasm and sheer genius that made it so.
The unveiling of Edward Turner's Blue Plaque
If you want the truth, the organisation was pretty lousy. The spirit was there, but the management nous was sadly lacking. There ought to have been hundreds (if not thousands) of Triumphs, Ariels and BSAs rather than the dozens that attended. There ought to have been gridlock around Peckham Rye—and probably would have been had the news been properly leaked to the motorcycling world that the event was taking place.
But what little advance intelligence managed to seep from the black hole of information was confusing, conflicting and overdue. Sump received an email regarding the itinerary only at 1.45am on the morning that the plaque was due to be unveiled; roughly 12 hours ahead of the launch.
Parking was disorganised. There were few, if any, real photo opportunities. And the mainstream and classic biking press were conspicuous by their total absence.
Moreover, the street outside 8 Philip Walk had, a few days earlier, been torn up—which, okay, was perhaps mostly bad luck (and perversely made the paucity of advance information a distinct virtue), but was still a bloody nuisance.
That said, there wasn't anyone there who didn't really want to be there, and Southwark Borough Council, to its credit, made a huge effort to ensure that one of its most famous sons was duly recognised in a fitting and dignified manner.
There were brief speeches by John Rosamond (ex-chairman of the Meriden Workers Cooperative), John Nelson (ex Triumph service manager), Duncan Saunders (of the Daimler Dart SP250 owners club—ET designed the V8 engine and was heavily involved in the Dart's styling), the Mayor of Southwark and even Tony Benn (ex-Secretary of State for Industry who helped establish the Workers Co-op) put in an appearance.
And Erum Waheed, appropriately enough, gave a few well received words.
Notably, the event was also attended by Edward Turner's three children; Charmian Hawley, Jane Meadows and Edward Turner (junior, who did the unveiling), all of whom were highly approachable, gracious, and genuinely surprised at the strength of affection within which their late father is held.
Other familiar faces included Harry Beal from Essex who brought his 1937 Speed Twin, and Bill Crosby (and son) from long established West London Triumph dealer, Reg Allen Motorcycles.
Overall, the day went well—but nowhere near as well as it might have. Edward Turner, who died peacefully on Wednesday 15th August 1973 at his home in Ockley, Surrey, would no doubt have been pleased, nonetheless.
If you're in the area and want to take a look at the plaque, feel free. But do it on the quiet, if you will. The house is under private occupation, and there's only so much motorcycle racket local residents can take.
If there was anything we'd be inclined to change about the plaque itself, it would be the colour. Blue is all very nice and fitting, but in this instance we feel that Amaranth Red—the classic colour of the legendary Speed Twin—would have been far more appropriate.
That said, we're more than happy with what we got.