The Triumph monument and its history
By Bill Piggott
April 16, 2000 will go down in the history of the Standard Triumph Motor Co. as a very special day, the day that may prove to be the final act in the history of the old company on its principal site in Coventry. On that Sunday, an impressive and lasting memorial to the old firm, as well as many thousands of men and women who labored there to produce our sort of cars, was unveiled with due ceremony.
Coventry, a medium-sized industrial town near to the center of England, was in better times the hub of the British Motor industry. Among the illustrious marques produced here were Sunbeam, Jaguar, Daimler, Humber, Singer, Hillman, and more. Of these, only Jaguars are still produced in the city. Even the supporting motor components industry in the area has largely withered away. It seems fitting, therefore, that some memorial should be erected to one of the more exciting firms that once flourished in this city, and it has come about as follows.
The history and geography of the various Standard-Triumph plants scattered over the Coventry area is complex. The principal site concerned with assembling the sporting Triumphs of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s was at Canley, a western suburb of the city. Although the first few TRs were actually assembled at the old Standard factory in Banner Lane, Coventry, all production TRs (with exception of the Liverpool and Solihull built TR7/8s) were made at the Canley site. From 1961 onward, TRs were built in the new, purpose-built assembly hall, at the time the most modern in the world. Spitfires, GT6s, and Stags were also assembled there, as were the various models of Triumph Saloon vehicles. The final cars to be assembled at the Canley site were Spitfires, TR7/8s, and Dolomite Saloons from the 1980 model year, with production ultimately running out in late August 1980. The 1960-61 assembly hall received the unofficial nickname of the Rocket Range for reasons now obscure. But, you would not be long in the pubs of western Coventry before you came across a man in his 50s or 60s who would be happy to tell you about his time at the Rocket Range.
Following the cessation of Triumph cars assembly in 1980, the Canley site and its various buildings were used for a variety of automotive purposes by the owners—British Leyland, BL, Austin Rover, or whatever they were calling themselves that particular week. But by the early 1990s, all was quiet, and the bulk of the site subsided into dereliction. An exception was the old Standard-Triumph employees sports and social club, which continues to flourish for the benefit of former workers, and which happily was able to provide the venue for the lunch that took place after the unveiling ceremony on 16 April. Indeed, this sports and social club is now the only Standard-Triumph building surviving at this location. All else was swept away five or so years ago, and the 87-acre Canley site is a combination of modern businesses and retail parks.
The transformation of the site has been so extreme that even employees have difficulties in orientating themselves and in trying to decide and describe where particular Triumph factory buildings actually stood. Indeed, folks from the U.S. would feel quite at home, for where the Rocket Range formerly stood, now we see a McDonalds and a Blockbuster—such is the dreadful disease of creeping globalization. The transformation of the whole area means that the younger generation to come will have no idea that an important car factory, which helped win the war and earned for Britain millions of dollars in exports, had ever stood here. As a consequence, it was suggested that some form of memorial be erected, if only to cause those who hurry around the site today to reflect, if only for a second, on Britain’s vanishing industrial heritage.
Ironically, the initial idea for a memorial came not from a Briton at all, but from Don Elliott, a Canadian enthusiast who has owned his TR3A since new in 1985. Don was repaid for his foresight by being invited over for the opening ceremony. At first it was felt that a commemorative wall plaque was all that could be financed. However, over the past three years, the idea took root that something more substantial was justified. A large representation of the Triumph shield medallion found on the front of the TRs from TR2 to TR4 was selected. It is placed at the side of one of the main thoroughfares through the new complex, appropriately named Herald Avenue.
Incidentally, several of the new roads in the area have names with Standard-Triumph association. Despite certain cynical comments in the motoring press implying that the idea would never come to fruition, back in 1998 a monument organizing group was formed, and the idea was floated at the Triumph Forum, a six-monthly gathering of officials from the great majority of the many Triumph-based car clubs in Britain, at which ideas of mutual interest are discussed and progressed.
The TR Register took on the primary responsibility for the project, the organizing team being led by the tireless Dave Lewis, reader of the TR Register’s Coventry local group and owner of a concours condition TR6. The club of Triumph forum agreed to contribute to the cost, in principal on a prorate basis according to their total membership numbers. In addition, sponsorship was sought out and was received from many local businesses in the classic car world. The final cost of the project, even allowing for generous discounts and gifts received, was approaching £10,000 ($16,000), and this sum has now been raised, meaning that the monument has proved, as was hoped, self-financed.
In addition to the stainless steel shield badge itself, which stands around 5 feet tall, there were considerable ground works and building works necessary to accommodate it and show it off to best advantage. All these needed to be organized, as did the necessary permission from authorities. A lease of the land itself from the developers of the whole site and also arrangements for upkeep, insurance, and maintenance of the monument was needed as well. The monument itself is beautifully crafted in stainless steel, with the words Standard Triumph in raised, hand-cut stainless lettering. On the front are plaques engraved with the names of the various businesses, clubs, and individuals who have donated money to the project, including, from the U.S., the Indiana and Minnesota Triumph clubs and the Montreal Triumph club from Canada.
As a matter of interest, it was learnt only just prior to the monument’s unveiling exactly what the Triumph shield medallion was originally designed to represent. Evidently, it is a stylish representation of the opened wings of the Wyven of West Mercia. A Wyven is a mythical bird, and West Mercia is the name for the ancient province of Britain in which Coventry now stands.
Despite production problems and delays, the monument was ready on time, the stainless steel badge being winched into positions a few days prior to Sunday, 16 April. It was boarded over for safety and final arrangements were made. For the actual ceremony, more than 100 special guests were invited, including prominent ex-Standard-Triumph employees, car designers, competition drivers with Triumph connections, officials from contributing and organizing clubs, and principal financial contributors.
Most notable among the guests was Mr. Harry Webster, now well into his 80s, a former director of engineering at Standard-Triumph, and the man with overall responsibility for production of several of the cars we now love so well. Harry Webster was invited to pull the cord that actually unveiled the memorial, and to assist him was the Lord Mayor of Coventry, actually a lady, but still in this peculiar country called Lord Mayor. She had herself actually worked at the Triumph plant in her younger days, and so had a direct interest in and connection with the memorial.
A car park for 50 interesting and historic Standards and Triumphs was placed directly behind the monument, and several hundred other cars produced by the company also arrived. These were accommodated across the road in the grounds of a newly built factory. Several Standards and Triumphs from the 1920s and 1930s arrived as representatives of nearly every model built by the company. Even such rarities as a Standard Vanguard Estate Car and a Triumph Herald Courier (a small, Herald-based, panel van) were there. My own ex-rally TR3A was on show, as were many other TRs of all sorts, and Spitfires of each marque. A one-owner from new Stag was there, and about the only model of Triumph absent was the late ’40s/early ’50s razor-edged Renown Saloon. Two roadsters in matching black turned up to compensate, however. Press, TV, and radio coverage was notably good, and a great deal of interest was generated locally.
Graham Robson, that noted authority on all things Triumph, and himself an old employee on the Canley site, carried out a most professional commentary. At precisely twelve noon, Harry Webster and the Lord Mayor pulled their cords and the splendid edifice was revealed to rounds of applause. Even the sun shone, which was pretty remarkable as both the day before and the day after saw heavy rain. Among the speeches and the interviews conducted by Graham Robson was one with Mike Moore, the well known Californian Triumph owner who just happened to be in England on business, and who just happened to hear about the unveiling on the curb grapevine—not surprisingly, Mike took the distance award.
At around 12:45, the principal guests were invited into the social club for lunch and drinks, and many a reminiscence was heard, and not a few a tears were shed for the old days. Congratulations were showered on those whose hard work and money had made the project a reality, and a good time in a good cause was had by all.
So there it stands—a beautiful monument to remind all that once upon a time, some splendid, long-lasting sporting cars were built on this site. Should you ever find yourself in Coventry, take a cab to the Herald Avenue, Canley, and reflect upon the industry of the many thousands of people who made it all possible. And who now will not be forgotten.