Motorcycles | 25 April 2018Triumph Motorcycles: How the West was Won Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Nearly every motorcycle nut knows that Triumphs are the most famous bikes to ever come out of Great Britain. However, they also have an extensive history in North America and have been part of that continent’s motorcycling soul since long before World War II. From Triumph Motorcycles in America is an interesting tale of how the first Triumph dealership in the western part of the U.S. came to be. How the West Was Won As a thirty-one-year-old attorney vacationing in Hawaii, William E. Johnson wasn’t looking for anything but a bit of sand, surf, and relaxation from his California law practice. But the moment he saw a little motor scooter on a Honolulu street, his professional life changed—and the seeds of Triumph’s first official factory distributorship were sown. The tiny machine that caught Johnson’s eye that day in 1936 was a Salsbury Motor Glide. Immediately he was intrigued—“It occurred to me that it had real sales possibilities,” he recalled in a 1951 guest editorial in Motorcyclist. Upon his return to Pasadena, Johnson purchased a new Motor Glide. Until then, he’d never ridden a powered two-wheeler and was admittedly frightened by some of the Bay Area motorcyclists he had seen on local roads. He knew little about Indian and Harley-Davidson, America’s two surviving motorcycle giants. Johnson’s second store was at 1240 West Pico Boulevard. in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1945. A new Speed Twin is displayed in the center window and an Indian Four is on the right. Gaylin archive A bare-armed Ted Evans slides his 1939 Tiger 100 racer around the Ascot Park half-mile in Los Angeles in 1940. Note the upswept pipes with large-diameter megaphones, a typical Triumph racing modification. Gaylin archive But none of that mattered. Bill Johnson was a gearhead at heart, a talented amateur machinist who collected scalemodel trains, expensive German cameras, and firearms. The Salsbury scooter kicked off a new obsession: motorcycles. Johnson learned all he could by reading Motorcyclist—then the major American monthly bike magazine—The Motor Cycle, and Motor Cycling. The two British weeklies mesmerized him with the 1,000cc Ariel Square Four, arguably the most sophisticated motorcycle of the late 1930s. Johnson ordered a new Square Four from Bill Gibson at British and American Motors in Pasadena. It was a huge leap from his first little scooter. “I was most impatient for its delivery and in the meantime I had read the specifications so many times that I could repeat them chapter and verse,” he later recalled in the Motorcyclist article. Owning the big Ariel convinced Johnson that the American market was ripe for powerful, high-quality, beautifully finished foreign motorcycles. The annual 500-mile Greenhorn Enduro started in front of Johnson Motors in Pasadena and ran north to Greenhorn Mountain. JoMo supplied the coffee and donuts to all entrants before the race, in addition to hosting various customer events through the year. Decades later, the facility reverted back to a high-end automobile dealership; in 2017 it was home to Resnak Audi. Gaylin archive A sight to make motorcycle collectors today wish for a time machine! Johnson’s Pico Boulevard showroom, 1940. A Speed Twin is on the stand at right and a Tiger 100 graces the back window. Lined up on the floor are an Ariel Square Four, Ariel Red Hunter, various Indian Chiefs, Scouts and Fours, and a Tiger 100 behind the Square Four. Gaylin archive Edward Turner agreed. The two men had begun corresponding regularly after Johnson wrote to the Triumph managing director praising his Ariel. At the time, Turner had been scouting for an official American distributor for Triumph’s machines; he sensed potential in Johnson. Their letters started a close personal and business relationship that lasted until Johnson’s death in 1962. Clearly, Johnson wanted into the motorcycle business, but he needed a partner. He found one in Wilbur Ceder, an accountant friend who worked next door to his law firm. Ceder was older than Johnson and had a solid financial background. In 1938, after some negotiations, the new partners purchased Bill Gibson’s modest British and American Motors shop, which was up for sale. Established Indian and Harley dealers believed Johnson to be an affluent playboy running a “hobby” venture. Looking back years later, Johnson loved to tell this story: one day, not long after the business opened, he was cleaning up the shop, clad in overalls, when he heard someone banging on the door. Two men were outside: Dudley Perkins, the famed San Francisco Harley-Davidson dealer, and Hap Alzina, the California Indian distributor who would later become BSA’s Western distributor. Obviously Perkins and Alzina were snooping on their new competition. But neither man recognized Johnson in his “worker’s” clothes. Long before he was American Honda’s service manager and masterminded Dick Mann’s 1970 Daytona win on the CB750, Bob Hansen raced a prewar Triumph twin on midwestern dirt tracks. Note the reinforced girder fork, open primary, and single carburetor on Hansen’s Tiger 100, shown here at Davenport, Iowa, in 1946. Brooke archive While his reputation at the Meriden factory was often that of a tyrant, Triumph supremo Edward Turner could turn on the British charm during his annual visits to Southern California. Bill Johnson’s connections with Hollywood enabled Turner to rub elbows with many celebrities, including screen star Rita Hayworth in this 1947 photo, taken on the Columbia Pictures sound lot. Snazzy shoes, nice bike, knockout passenger! Gaylin archive The first Triumph Grand Prix production racer to arrive at Johnson Motors, photographed in the shop area, autumn 1947. This is a Mark I model with 4¼-gallon chrome-and-painted fuel tank, long megaphones, and steel wheel rims, all unique to the first production batch. Note the unusual gear change linkage, 8-inch brakes, and Vokes remote oil filter canister in the scavenge line between gearbox and crankcase. Lack of a kickstart lever, required under AMA rules, indicates this bike is fresh out of the crate. Brooke archive A freshly built Tiger 100 dirt track racer for one of JoMo’s sponsored riders soaks up sunshine on the Colorado Boulevard sidewalk in 1948. The Mustang fuel tank was wildly popular with American racers and customizers. Many Triumphs in this configuration were also run in speed-record events on California’s dry lakes. Brooke archive “I went on with my job,” Johnson explained in the article, “but couldn’t help overhearing their conversation. The gist of it was that this chap Johnson ‘will never make a success of this business’ as it has been tried before in a small way, without success.” Johnson and Ceder spent most of the next two years promoting Triumph and Ariel, mainly in Southern California. Shortly after acquiring British and American Motors, they hosted a weekend motorcycle exposition in their showroom and invited the public to attend the event free of charge. In addition to a display of new Ariels, BSAs, Calthorpes, and Salsbury scooters, Johnson pulled a radical move—he invited his competitors to display their new Harley-Davidsons and Indians! Some dealers thought that Johnson was crazy. Many predicted he’d soon be out of business. Some 15,000 people attended the three-day show. Pete Colman remembered it as a great success, he told the authors, though Johnson did not yet have a new Speed Twin to display. Alzina, who’d brought some Indians to the open house, was so impressed with Johnson’s spirit and promotional abilities that he offered him the Indian franchise for central Los Angeles. Buy From an Online Retailer This is a comprehensive, visual history of the motorcycles from Britain that were bred in the US and Canada. Tuck in with Triumph Motorcycles in America and get ready for the ride of a lifetime. Triumphs have been part of North America’s motorcycling soul since long before World War II. Born in Britain but bred in the US and Canada, Triumph’s iconic models—Bonneville, Trophy, Thunderbird, Daytona, Tiger, Speed Twin, Speed Triple, and Rocket III—resonate deeply with enthusiasts who love their style, sound, performance, and undeniable coolness. It’s not coincidental that Triumph was Steve McQueen’s favorite ride. Triumph Motorcycles in America is packed with thorough, entertaining text, plus hundreds of historical images, most of them in color and never before published. This incredible volume of history and culture was written by award-winning professional journalist and lifelong Triumph fanatic Lindsay Brooke, with a foreword by America’s favorite “Triumph guy,” Peter Egan. Don’t think twice about it, Triumph Motorcycles in America is a must-have for every fan of Britain’s most legendary bike brand. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.