Four decades of the Triumph Tiger TR6 and friendship

Triumph Tiger TR6

The Triumph TR6 was a motorbike made for adventure.

Famed for its role in the chase scene in The Great Escape, the bike later nicknamed the “desert sled” also boasts a distinguished competition history.

And while Steve Jones can’t quite match Steve McQueen’s on-screen exploits, when his bid to escape pursuing Nazis aboard a Trophy TR6 was foiled by a 12-foot-high barbed wire fence, he’s enjoyed more than his fair share of thrills on the bike he bought new in 1974 and still owns today.

Tours of Europe and the UK with friends as a young man, and trips to see his future wife in south Wales, are punctuated by tales of youthful misadventure and hold a lifetime of memories.

And those memories, bound up with close teenage friendships that have stood the test of time, are why Steve, from Coventry, will never sell the bike that will one day pass to his 35-year-old son, Dave.

Triumph TR6 is part of Steve

“The bike is part of me,” he says. “It makes me think of all the good times with the lads. I’ll never be able to sell it, unless someone offered me £100,000!

“It will stay in the family. I’ve promised it to my lad, so he’s looking forward to it. He’s known it since he was very small, and he’s always saying ‘you’re going to leave me the bike aren’t you dad?’.

“I’d probably sell him first before the bike!”

Steve, now 62, bought the Tiger TR6 (his model was renamed from the Trophy in 1971) at the age of 18 for £479 from a Triumph dealer in Tooting, trading in a Honda CD175, but only after rejecting a Triumph Bonneville that failed to start.

“I started at 16 with a Yamaha 50, the one with the leg shields, but that spent more time in the back of my dad’s car than it did on the road,” he says.

“Dad was a mechanic and would fix it for me, but I got fed up with that so he gave some money to get the Honda. That was a bit small so I put a deposit down on a secondhand Bonneville I saw for sale.

“That wouldn’t start so I went back the next week and for an extra £100 I could have a new TR6. There were six or seven of them still in the packing cases – I looked for one that didn’t have oil underneath it, and chose it on that basis.”

After struggling to sort out the insurance – Steve’s existing insurers refused to cover him for the 650cc Triumph – his father rode the bike home to the Midlands with his son on the back.

“It had a left-hand gear change and I was not very confident, so dad rode it back with me on pillion,” he says.

“We were leaning at 45 degrees to get home”

“There were gale force winds and we were leaning at 45 degrees to get home. We were stuck on the motorway for a while and ran up and down to keep warm. I think that night a motorcycle rider got killed from being blown off the road.

“We got home late at night, chucked it in the garage and went and had a shower to warm up. It was covered in mud and it took a day to clean it.”

That perilous journey was just the start of a love affair with the bike that would last Steve’s entire adult life, only interrupted by the demands of a young family and the need for the space afforded by a car.

Launched in 1956, the Trophy TR6 was developed to satisfy the demand for a larger capacity bike for the American market, and proved hugely popular and successful in off-road competition.

The all-alloy engine, effectively a single-carb version of the Bonneville, produced 42bhp and gained a reputation as a do-anything all-rounder, capable of unrivalled off-road performance.

But Steve, a building services consultant, didn’t need its off-road capabilities to have plenty of fun, including a memorable lads caravan holiday in Cornwall.

“There were seven of us on our bikes, staying in a caravan,” he remembers.

“They got me drunk on my 19th birthday, stripped me naked, shaved all my body hair and chucked me in the sea.

“I was chatting to this girl and started to feel unwell. I told her I needed to go to the caravan, and I’m not just trying to get you back to the caravan!

“They took me down to the sea and chucked me in”

“Then I passed out. They’d been spiking my Newcastle Brown Ale. When I woke up four of them were holding me down and one of them was shaving me naked – the girl had gone by then!

“They took me down the sea and chucked me in. On that trip we had pillow fights, water fights, a door got broken and one of the lads did an oil change in the washing up bowl, so we lost our deposit.

“On the way home the guy who shaved me was following me on Bodmin Moor and he disappeared. We thought he had gone to find some girls we had been chatting up, but he had actually broken down.

“We waited in the nearest pub, and there aren’t many on Bodmin Moor! He didn’t show up, so we thought he must be staying the night with them, so left him there.

“He pushed it for a mile or two until he found a house and asked him if he could leave it in his garden and come back for it the next week. He then had to hitch a lift back to Birmingham from Bodmin Moor and went back the next week with a van.”

A European tour, encompassing France, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, was almost as eventful, after a falling out over who would ride on which bike as pillion.

After changing the big end the day before the trip, Steve set out with three friends, two riding pillion, for the continent.

“My suspension was bottoming out,” says Steve, who also has a Yamaha FJR1300. “I had a large person on the back and I thought we should swap passengers to save the suspension.

“One of the lads refused to get on the bike, I don’t know why, so we left him in Luxembourg.

“I fell asleep on the motorway”

“I rode to Calais, got an early ferry back, then rode to see my girlfriend at the time in South Wales. I fell asleep on the motorway, drifted two or three lanes, and went on to the rumble strips, which woke me up.”

Steve and his mates – who he met while working at the GPO at the age of 17 – were regulars at the Clock pub in Birmingham, where they tried to emulate the bikers at the legendary Ace cafe in London.

“My mate had a BSA 650 Lightning, and there was a dual carriageway nearby,” he says. “We put a record on the jukebox to see if we could get back before it finished, like they did at the Ace Cafe.

“He was the fastest. I chickened out, I was always the saner one. We went from the Clock to Stonebridge Island, about four or five miles away. We didn’t get back before the record finished.”

After 10 years of ownership, marriage and the arrival of Dave saw Steve swap the Triumph for his brother’s car, a Triumph Vitesse.

“My brother used it, but he sprayed it black and it looked horrible,” he says.

“About seven or eight years ago, I found it in the back of his garage and said ‘can I have it back?’

Restoring the Triumph TR6 to its former glory

“When I saw it there I thought ‘this was brand new when I had it, I kept it sparkling’, and I saw it there rusty and covered in black paint. I thought it would be a good project to put it back together again and then one day Dave can have it.

“I said to the missus, ‘can I build the bike in the back bedroom?’ She said ‘yes, how long with it take?’ I said about two months. She said ‘yes, as long as you redecorate it afterwards’. It took two and a half years to rebuild!

“The lads gave me a hand rebuilding it – the same guys who came down to Cornwall helped me put it back together again.

“We got it as a rolling frame with the engine in and thought ‘how the hell do we get it down the stairs?’ We had to get four or five lads to lift it over the bannister.

“The engine was built by a mate who used to work for Triumph at Meriden. It started second kick, but there was a lot of smoke! He’d fitted the scraper rings upside down, so we put them back the right way up and it rode fine.”

With the Triumph back on the road, and now sporting a tax exempt black and silver 1972 number plate (the year it was manufactured as opposed to first registered), the years in between were swept away.

More than just a bike

These days, the bike is reserved for Sunday rides and trips to the Norman Knight pub at Whichford, which hosts a classic car and bike meet once a month – all with the lads, of course.

“We’ve known each other for a long time, and for our 60th birthdays we went to America and hired an Indian and a Victory,” says Steve, a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorcyclists and for 12 months secretary of the Triumph Motorcycle Club.

“Compared to the modern bikes, the Triumph rides like a bag of nails, but it’s more than just a bike to me.

“I’m looking forward to getting my 11-year-old granddaughter Meghan on the back, maybe she’ll catch the biking bug too.”

The Triumph Tiger TR6 is woven into the fabric of Steve’s life, and is set to remain a fixture in the Jones family for decades to come.

Photos by Simon Finlay.

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