The Triumph Tiger 90 had been discarded, an unwanted old bike unceremoniously dumped in a South Wales quarry.
But for Les Powell and an enterprising friend, it would have been the bike’s final resting place, an ignominious end for one of “Turner’s Triumphs”, the bikes that played a major role in turning around the company’s fortunes in the late 1930s.
It was 1957, and the Tiger – first registered in November 1936 – was spotted by a friend of Les languishing in the quarry at Stormy Down, near Bridgend.
“It was ridiculous really, but you could buy a bike for £5 in those days, so it wasn’t worth anything to this bloke and he just dumped it,” says Les, who owned a 350cc BSA B31 at the time.
“A friend happened to see it down there and asked me if I wanted any bits from it. I said ‘yes, I could do with a magdyno if there is one’.”
With the Triumph, or most of it at least, heaved out of the quarry and into a van, Les decided to take the whole thing.
“Nice little knockabout bike”
“I just thought it would be useful – it would make a nice little knockabout bike,” he says at his home near Lincoln on a sweltering July day.
Before the Tiger could turn a wheel, however, Les, who was 22 at the time, had some serious work to do finding missing parts including the carburettor and timing cover.
“I managed to get all the parts I needed, and got hold of odd bits of carb to make one up, and got it running,” says Les, now 84 and still riding regularly.
Before it could hit the road, there was one thing missing – a registration document.
“It came without the log book, obviously, so I needed the log book to keep the registration number, which was quite unusual,” says Les, the JX prefix indicating it was first registered in Halifax.
“Through word of mouth, I found out about the bloke who owned it. He wanted £25 for the log book, but I said ‘you’ve just thrown the bike away for nothing!’ I ended up paying him £1.10 in today’s money.”
Les and the Triumph have remained together ever since, at 62 years the partnership four years longer than his marriage to wife Meryl, who joins us in the conservatory to shed light on the relationship between man and machine.
“It’s been part of the marriage”
“I can’t quite put into words what it means to him,” she says. “It’s been part of the marriage. I said once or twice ‘what comes first, me or the bike?’ He did say me, being diplomatic.
“It’s important to him because of how he found it and what he did with it.”
Les has no intention of ever selling the bike, which is destined for his son, Mike, a keen biker and multiple BSA Bantam racing champion.
But there is another, desperately tragic, reason why Les has never been able to part with the Triumph.
The couple had two sons, but Mike’s brother Rick was killed in a road accident in 1986, aged just 23.
“Both my sons were around when I used to work on the bike – we’d spend all the summer evenings on it,” he remembers. “I’d take the boys with bikes to Fiskerton airfield to ride around.
“I started them on bikes when they were young because it was better than kicking bus shelters in!”
“Rick loved the Triumph”
Meryl adds: “Rick loved the Triumph. Both the boys had the same interest – they were like peas in a pod, and very, very close for bothers.
“The bike has always been a part of us and the boys.”
As well as the Triumph, Les has never been able to part with Rick’s 1972 MG Midget, which sits alongside the Tiger in the garage.
Both vehicles are poignant reminders of a much-loved son and brother and, as Les says: “Some things are worth more than you can put a price on.
“The Triumph is worth about £10,000, but I don’t need £10,000. Many years ago, I bought a 500cc Norton for a tenner from a chap at work who was getting too old to lump it around.
“I was going to keep it because I had two boys and then I could leave them a bike each. I was sad to see the Norton go, although I did get £1,000 for it.
“I’ve never considered selling the Triumph – it will go to Mike.”
“I think Mike would get another father if he sold it,” laughs Meryl. “He will come in and say, ‘mum, the garage door’s open’. He’s protective and over-anxious about it.”
The biking bug
Les, who was born in the village of Laleston near Bridgend, inherited the biking bug from his own father, who taught his son to ride…not entirely legally.
“In 1945 my father bought a 1936 Francis-Barnett – it was a 148cc solid cylinder twin exhaust, and it would do 40mph downhill with the wind behind you, if you were lucky,” he says.
“I was 10 at the time and I learned to ride that. We had a big garden and I would ride it there.
“Also, late at night after the lights went out at 10pm, my father would ride it up a fair sized hill with me on the back, and when we got to Cefn Cribwr I would ride it home down the hill. I was only about 11 at the time!”
Les’s lessons continued on his father’s next bike, a 250cc sidevalve BSA with a four-speed hand gear change, before he was able to buy his own first bike, the BSA B31, for £75 at the age of 18.
By then, he was two years into a five-year apprenticeship as a student engineer with the South Wales Electricity Board.
After completing his apprenticeship, Les worked on Bristol Hercules radial engines during two years of National Service at RAF Hullavington in Wiltshire, coming home almost every weekend on the BSA, “a good bike”.
Moving to Lincoln
A move to Brecon, still working for the Electricity Board, didn’t work out, and a year later Les and Meryl were on the move again, to Lincoln.
“Brecon was a lovely area but predominantly rural and that was not for me,” says Les. “Moving to Lincoln in 1964 was a good thing, they had a power station and I got a gorgeous job up here.
“We only came up for two years – I was planning on going back to Wales or somewhere else, but it never happened like that and we’re still here.”
By then, Les had sold the BSA, combining it with a Vauxhall DX 14 to part exchange for an Austin A70.
But the Triumph remained, travelling from Wales to Lincolnshire in the back of the removal van.
“It was the only bike I had left, and when I came up here I stripped it down, got it sorted and got it taxed and tested and on the road properly for the first time,” says Les.
The Tiger 90 – the 90 represented the bike’s top speed – played its part in the renaissance of Triumph following the arrival of Edward Turner as general manager in 1936.
Having made a splash designing the Ariel Square Four, Turner moved over to Triumph when Ariel owner Jack Sangster bought the company’s ailing motorcycle division.
As general manager and chief designer, Turner dropped unprofitable models and reworked the 250, 350 and 500cc overhead-valve singles that had been introduced by his predecessor Val Page.
The new Tigers, later dubbed “Turner’s Triumphs”, featured uprated engines, lighter frames, and gleamed with chrome, and their success was crucial to the company’s rapid return to profitability.
While the smaller capacity Tiger 70 and 80 continued in production until the outbreak of war, the 497cc 90 was only offered until 1938, having been superseded by the lighter, and faster, Speed Twin.
All of which makes Les’s bike a rare beast, even if it’s not entirely original.
The mudguards and petrol tanks are replacements bought from India a few years ago, while the headlamp is from an Austin A10.
That it survives at all is a minor miracle, an 83-year-old bike that was thrown away when it was 21 years old before Les painstakingly put it back together.
After Rick’s untimely death, Les and Meryl would ride together on annual memorial runs with biker friends and Electricity Board colleagues.
These days, Mike takes the Triumph on club runs, while Les still rides it regularly, much to Meryl’s disapproval.
“No, I don’t like him riding it, but no, I can’t stop him,” she smiles.
Photographs by Simon Finlay Photography
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