There’s no such thing as an original Triton
I looked up the address for Made in Metal and it said “Elms Business Park”. I thought warehouse; industrial unit; soulless. Imagine my joy when I arrived there and saw that it was actually a series of large sheds behind a pub in the quiet Staffordshire village of Great Haywood – exactly the setting you imagine an artisan bike builder might reside in.
It wasn’t always bikes though. Made in Metal started out in custom fabrication and architectural sculpture, specialising in bespoke metal staircases and water features. Neil Adams, the owner, has seen his work win gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show among other achievements, including an extravagant commission from the King of Bahrain. Like all of us though, his real passion is motorcycles, so for the last couple of years Neil has been shifting the business in this new direction. Their first few projects included a line of Ducati 900SS-derived café racer conversions, and just as they were ready to move onto other, bigger things, “Jim from Cheshire” showed up with an idea.
I’m big on the whole synchronicity thing, where people and ideas and plans and circumstances come together, and where something special results from this convergence that wouldn’t have happened if one detail was different, like if The Beatles had gone somewhere else instead of Abbey Road.
In this case, an unassuming bloke went to Made in Metal’s stand at the Stafford show and announced he wanted to discuss building a bike. Neil and Paul from MiM assumed at first that this was nothing major – another one with big ideas. One of about fifty they’ll have spoken to that day. Then a couple of days later, Jim from Cheshire (for that is how he wishes to be known), arrived at their workshop with serious intent. Eighteen months later, “The Triton” was revealed.
For those who don’t know, Triton was never a manufacturer. The name comes from the fusion of a TRIumph engine and a NorTON frame, a gene splice contrived in 1950s/60s privateer workshops as an attempt to combine the best of both worlds, with the official endorsement of neither. Most of them were built back then; a few more have emerged in the decades since, and nobody seems to know for sure how many there are. Now there’s one more.
It’s easy to think that this incredible creation is somehow a replica of a classic Triton, or a modern recreation like all those AC Cobras. But it isn’t. This is a very important distinction to make, and how it got started is the stuff of legend.
I went down to MiM to talk to Neil and Paul about it:
Neil: “the whole thing started as a bet between Jim and his mate in the pub at last year’s TT. His mate had some sort of old bike and Jim reckoned, half-pissed, “I can build something better than that” and it was “yeah, right”, and the bet was a pint of beer. He came to us and was really particular. He knew exactly what he wanted so there were no ifs and buts. He said “I want this and I want it done like that”.”
TRD: Regardless of cost?
“That’s what you want isn’t it? A customer that gives you the plans and says “build this!””
“Not only that, he came to us with all these ideas and plans and they were absolutely spot-on, so we can’t take any credit for design work – he wanted this, he wanted that, and we built it. It evolved and we made some changes as we went along, like the exhaust being done twice for example, but the overall philosophy was that it had to be right.
“About forty grand later…”
“Exactly. Everything on the bike was brand new.”
“So although it looks classically authentic, you weren’t averse to using modern materials?”
“That was the whole idea: to make it look original, but to really piss the purists off. People have seen it and they’ve gone “well it’s not an original Triton”, but they ignore the fact that there’s no such thing as an original Triton – each one is different! There’s a guy in the village here that’s got a Manx Norton that Geoff Duke rode. Put this next to that Manx and it makes the Manx look like it was built in somebody’s garden shed, which is funny when you think that the Manx is worth over £120,000.
“Everything on this uses modern, custom made parts made to look authentic. Absolutely everything is hand-made, which is why it took so long to build.”
“But again, it’s got to be right hasn’t it?”
“It has on something like this. No expense was spared. Many parts had to be fabricated because there’s nobody around that makes a bolt-on solution that was of high-enough quality. Everything that could be hand-made, was. The top and bottom yokes, and all the engine mounts are hand-made from billet. Even the exhaust hangers are hand-made. Rather than just a piece of metal hanging down, it’s been designed. The hinge on the seat too – when we came to do that, I wasn’t very keen at first because it seemed big and bulky and wouldn’t look right, but we’ve made it look like it was supposed to be there. ”
“Where were the frame and engine from?”
“The frame is a Manx featherbed Wideline in lightweight T45 steel, so it’s very strong, and it’s brazed instead of welded. We went for weight-saving everywhere too so things like fasteners and bolts are drilled.
The engine is a 3-cylinder Trident T150, built by P&M, and that’s had about £8,500-worth of work done on it. It’s 10kg lighter than a standard 750 engine would be. Everything that could be changed to magnesium alloy was changed. They really went to town on it: Omega pistons, Megacycle cams, Carillo rods, everything. The barrels are billet and it’s 850cc too, not 750. It has a Quaife 5-speed gearbox with a Newby dry clutch and belt drive, and we’ve retained the right-side gearshift. It’s even got race carbs, so you shut the throttle and the engine cuts. It’s even authentic in that way. The hand-built exhaust that ended up being done – and paid for – twice, has an F1-derived Zircotec ceramic coating which is so effective you can put your hand on it while it’s still hot.
The engine is so crisp. When it was first put together, the owner, Jim, came down here and he kicked it over in just a pair of Converse and we were like “are you nuts??” He kicked it and it went first time!”
“Are those old Smiths clocks?”
“No, they’re new too. But they’re chronometric so they look more period.”
“You mean where the needle ticks like a second hand?”
“Yeah, and the horn came from a boat.
“You stayed with drum brakes too.”
“The front brakes are Fontana 240mm twin leading shoes with magnesium alloy hubs again, and properly set up, they’ll embarrass many modern disc brakes. The wheels are magnesium too.”
“In some of the photos it has a steering damper.”
“It had an Ohlins steering damper at first, but Jim took it out and rode it, and came back and reckoned it didn’t need it so it came off. It has one of those traditional-style rotary dampers on the top yoke but that’s more of an aesthetic thing. But we did overrule him on one area though – the rear mudguard. Jim brought a period mudguard down for it, but I said, “you can’t put that on, it’ll look awful”. We did this aluminium undertray instead that runs full length, from under the seat, right down to the bottom of the frame so it acts like a mudguard anyway.
“It’s just incredible. There’s nothing I would change if it was my bike, not a thing. We took it to Stafford and had a massive response there, and we stuck some pictures on Facebook and we were getting 34,000 hits a week, and we’re getting phone calls from all over about it, and from people who want one too, and then we tell them the price and they fall off their chairs!”
“But what do they expect?”
“If people want one of these or want us to build something like it, it’s going to cost them, like £1200 just for the seat unit. That was ten or twelve days’ work, just me and a hammer and a bag o’ sand and one piece of metal, shaping it properly until it was just right.”
“You see so many of these massive projects like this that get put in glass cases and that’s it, game over. They never get ridden because of the belief that it’ll affect the value.”
“This bike has been built to be used right from the start. It’s on 18-inch rims to give a better tyre choice so it can be used (most old Brits use 19-inch rims). Jim went away to the Isle of Man on it for a week or ten days and he doesn’t mind using it in all weathers. He uses all his bikes. He spares no expense in getting everything right and he rides them all, especially this one. The few people who have ridden it, have all said it’s the best bike they’ve ever ridden.”
* * *
It’s important to establish then, that this isn’t a recreation, or a replica, or a restoration of a Triton at all, because all those definitions would require a progenitor Triton from which to reference it, but as Neil says, there is no such thing as an original Triton. A Triton is a theme, not a definition. This is a Triton that’s been built from scratch today, using 21st Century materials and technology, for riding in today’s world. Its image just happens to evoke a previous era.
On the other hand, at the risk of contradicting myself, I like the idea of calling it “The Triton”, as giving it the definite article implies that it is the definitive Triton, as if the others were experimental precursors to this one, which was built to the highest possible standard without any economic consideration.
As has been said to Neil and Paul: “you’ve got to appreciate what you’ve done here”. Not only have they made qualitatively one of the finest motorcycles on the planet, they’ve thrown a grenade into the classic bike purists’ hall of mirrors.
The Triton’s owner, Jim, has had this built for himself, not for external validation, which is right; but it needs to be seen and appreciated by a wider audience who will realise that the British bike industry is not dead at all. It exists in the form of specialist componentry and a knowledge base, together with small-scale artisan bike builders like Made in Metal, who employ three people and a Newfoundland mastiff called Duncan, work out of a large shed behind a pub and accept no substitute when it comes to pure craftsmanship. It’s what we do best. Leave the production line thing to the Japanese. The Triton wasn’t built, it was crafted.
(Postscript: if you’re still concerned about where The Triton stands on the authenticity scale, then how’s this for a can of worms? A purely contemporary interpretation of the Triton theme would involve a frame from one of those ersatz Nortons from Donington, fitted with a Triumph Street Triple engine. How do you feel about that? Would that be more original than this?)