6 Jun 2011

What is a true Triton?

There are several official definitions of the word Triton. One is a form of reptile, similar to a Salamander, such as the one above, of the species Ichthyosaura alpestris. It is a direct descendant from certain dinosaurs.

Triton is also the name of a mythological Greek god who was son of the sea god Poseidon and Amphitrite, the sea goddess. In Greek mythology, Triton played the role of herald to his mother and is usually represented as a merman, with a mainly human upper body (although he had a scaly back) and the tail of a fish. If you have ever wondered (like me) how mermaids and mermen make love, this tender picture below will only give you part of the answer!

You will also notice that Triton carried a Trident, which could be a connection to the latter part of this story.

The word Triton can also be used to decribe a single-valve shellfish, or, again, a three-tone interval in music. But we are not yet at the end of the extraordinary versatility of this word.

For anyone versed in motorbike lore, a Triton is one of the bike world's most brillant hybrid machines, initially put together by amateurs in the England of the 1950's and 1960's to improve their bikes by taking parts from a Norton (the frame, the forks and other bits and pieces such as the tank) and the engine from a Triumph. This was usually a 650 Bonneville, often tweaked and bored out to improve its top speed and acceleration.

These bikes were/are often raced, like the ones above, and the look and general philosphy of racing motorcycles of that period clearly inspired these early builders of what are now known as "specials". This meant getting rid of any parts that were not strictly necessary, lightening the weight as much as possible, and improving the performance of the mechanics (engine, gearbox, clutch, brakes and suspension).

Tritons, with their Norton featherbed frames and Triumph engines, were/are often turned into show machines, highly polished in their deepest corners and made to look like shiny gods of modern times.

The racer look was part and parcel of this, even if the bike was often only ever "raced" between London's Ace café and the M1, or occasionally down to Brighton, thus getting them the name of "café racers" which has stuck and even become a modern revival fad with its own clubs, magazines and web sites all around the world.

Modern versions of the Triton can be very nice looking and are probably more carefully prepared than the earliest ones, chiefly because their owners have far more money to spend on them than did the working-class rockers of the 1960's. Many consider them to be the ultimate "classic" British machine.

Tritons often got together with mermaids too. What they do then is up to them.

A French outfit from Toulouse called Southsiders recently decided to do a very modern version of the Triton, which they named (somewhat pretentiously, but then they are French, so one has to excuse them) the "Ultimate Triton".

I think this bike is very interesting aesthetically, and it is beautifully finished from what I have seen. The builders have taken the mechanics from a modern Triumph, which almost certainly makes the thing more reliable, although it will probably offend the purists. I find that the tank is too flat and I just hate those silly fat tyres, especially at the front. These tyres will almost certainly prevent the bike from steering and cornering as a real Triton should do. They come from a different nostalgic stream that can be traced back to US bikes like Harleys and Indians and their fat front tyres. But those never handled either! This fad is annoyingly present in a lot of current custom bike design and just shows that such machines are primarily conceived for looking at, not for riding.

Now take a look at this, which, although it is not a "true" Triton since its frame was purpose built and not taken from a Norton, has the philosophy just right as the builder has pared down the wieight and the bike is tuned to go around a race track at decent speed. He has also made it up-to-date with disc brakes that should stop the thing. According to the recent article on it on Bike Exif, it also vibrates like hell, which can be annoying or rassuring, depending on what you are looking for! It also has nice detail work and an unusual colour to frame and fairing that I find very attractive. I suppose you could call it duck egg green.

As to the Trident mentioned at the inset if this article, this became the name for the last Triumph model to be created by the Triumph Meriden factory before it finally went bust in 1983 (and well before its subsequent revival elsewhere thanks to John Bloor). Meriden is near Birmingham and is often referred to as the geographical centre of England (see plaque below).

The Trident was of course a three-cylinder machine that was also often tuned for racing and which provided inspiration for the contemporary three-cylinder Triumphs. So Triton lives on, prongs and all.