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“TT Special – The True Story”

July 22, 2015

Eddie Mulder wheelie, 1969

(Photo: Dan Mahony)

 

Triumph, Norton and BSA motorcycles spearheaded the British invasion in the US throughout the 1950s and by the early ‘60s were dominating offroad competition, both on the dirt track and in the Californian desert. Lightweight and quick, the overhead valve parallel twins outperformed their more cumbersome, American-built rivals, the side-valve Harley Davidson 750cc vee-twins. To give the Harleys a sporting chance against the faster foreign invaders, the American Motorcycle Association, in a display of unabashed favouritism for the national brand, limited cylinder capacity to 500cc for bikes with overhead valve engines and 750cc for those with side-valve engines in all competition events except for TT steeplechase, scrambles and desert races. The English 650cc bikes, in their various guises, by 1960 had become the weapons of choice for amateur and professional riders alike in such events. Triumph, who had developed an almost cult-like following among these off-road competitiors, developed competition variants of their flagship road-going 650 models to cater directly for these customers. The Trophy-Bird (later shortened to a snappier “Trophy”), a sporty single-carb evolution of the Thunderbird with alloy head, higher compression pistons and higher lift camshafts, had been joined amongst much publicity by the twin carb Bonneville roadster, introduced as the T120 in 1959.

Gene Romero (22) and Dick Hammer (16), Ascot 1967

(Photo: Dan Mahony)

 

For 1960, the US model designators were TR6A for the road-going Trophy and TR6B for its off-road counterpart. The ‘B’ variant was equipped with a high-level exhaust system, trials tyres, speedo (but no tacho – available as an optional extra), bash plate and lower gearing; a dual-purpose ‘street scrambler’ that could be used on or off the road. Corresponding new versions of the twin-carb Bonneville were introduced for the 1960 model year, designated TR7A and TR7B, the ‘A’ model being the road-going version and the ‘B’ model being the off-road one. The 1959 Bonneville, which had a nacelle and valanced mudguards, had not been the anticipated success in America, where motorcyclists wanted the clean, sporting lines of the Trophy models. They got what they wanted with the TR7A and TR7B.

 

In 1961, the model designation for the Bonneville in the US reverted to T120: ‘R’ for the road version; ‘C’ for the off-road version, the "Competition Sports", with the same features as listed above for the TR7B. Those planning on competing on a T120 – and having the resources to buy a new one – would probably have opted for a ‘C’. However most racers, on a limited budget, would buy a readily available second-hand T120R roadster, strip off the non-essential lighting and electrical equipment, add an appropriate exhaust system and tyres and hot it up to meet their requirements.

 

By the 1960s, Triumph had two established distributors in the USA: the Triumph Corporation ("TriCor") on the East Coast and Johnson Motors ("JoMo") on the West. There were minor variations in specification according to which distributor the machines were transported. However, the specification was flexible, and could vary among different order numbers, sometimes driven by the availability (or not) of certain parts. Statements such as “West Coast models had black seats and East Coast ones had two-tone ones” are a little simplistic – there were almost always exceptions to the rule. The priority at Triumph was to get finished bikes out of the factory and to bring in income, and if that involved fitting them with a different patterned seat cover from the usual one specified, or mudguards made from alloy instead of painted steel, then they would.

 

 Danny Macias (Triumph race team manager), far left, Skip (59),  legendary race promoter JC Agajanian (in stetson), Dan Haaby (22), Dusty Coppage (32) Ascot 1969

(Photo: Dan Mahony)

 

Both East and West Coast had a demand for TT steeplechase race bikes (these races took place all over the United States on an irregularly-shaped dirt track with at least one right hand turn and a jump). The West Coast also had a requirement for desert racing motorcycles (‘desert sleds’) to satisfy the needs of the desert racing fraternity in California, where a whole host of clubs (the ‘Shamrocks’, “Checkers’, etc.) hosted, under AMA jurisdiction, races across various sectors of the Californian desert.

 

In 1963 an all-new unit construction motor was released. Production was to continue as before with Bonnevilles predominantly built in road-going spec as T120Rs, complemented by a limited number of T120C Competition Sports street scramblers. Similarly, with the single carb Trophy models, there was the TR6R and the TR6C Competition Sports – though in practice the latter was now designated the TR6S/C just to confuse matters!

 

The Competition Sports variants of the Trophy and Bonneville shared similar specifications: lighting, a speedo, alternator/coil ignition with a battery and 18T gearbox sprockets. Both had high-level exhausts and bash-plates, and were essentially unit-engined derivatives of the pre-unit Competition Sports "street scrambler" models. These in turn traced their lineage back to the earlier single-carb Trophies, which had achieved huge success in all forms of US off-road competition since their introduction in 1950.

 

Allegedly, Bill Johnson, the Managing Director of JoMo, met with Triumph representatives to agree the specifications for a new stripped down Bonneville marketed specifically towards TT steeplechase racers. As “Cycle World” put it in their road test of one in a May 1963 article, “here in the west, Johnson Motors is offering a model called the Bonneville T-120 TT Special [sic], which the Triumph Factory has kindly consented to produce for them, to their order”. 

1965 T120C Competition Sports Bonneville Scrambler

[Photo: C. Rising]

 

Derived from the T120C Competition Sports, it was introduced as little more than a prototype among Triumph's 1963 model range, with a range of tuning options available from JoMo (and, later, TriCor). According to Cycle World, "the machine will be delivered with any of several engine and drive options, at the customer's request" and that therefore "the stockness of the TT Special is of limited importance". These early TT Specials were something of a prototype and it seems that JoMo would tailor them according to customer requirements. 

 

Discussions regarding the specification for the TT steeplechase bike no doubt also included requirements for a single-carb desert racer, correspondingly derived from the Trophy Competition Sports. The first "West Coast T120C", or “TT Special” as it was soon nicknamed, is recorded in the Triumph factory records as being built on 6th December 1962 and leaving the factory the following week, on 15th December 1962. A few days after the first order for West Coast T120Cs was despatched, between 17th – 18th December 1962, a "Trophy Special" TR6SC desert racer was built, the first of an initial batch of 44.

 

Both of the Specials were bare-bones racers, with no lighting, ET ignition and high-level, open pipes.  The first TT Specials had 12:1 compression pistons (reduced to 11:1 from 1964), tachometer, bigger 1-3/16” carbs (compared to the 1963 T120R’s 1-1/16” ones - though there is some uncertainty about how these would have fitted to the cylinder head so as to improve performance, particularly given that the inlet tracts in the head were only 1-1/16”) and (usually) a 17T gearbox sprocket.

 

Engine specs for the first batch (66 bikes), taken from the engine assembly record, were “ET ignition E3613 pistons (eg 12/1 comp ratio)”. There have been suggestions made that these bikes had an 11.2:1 compression ratio instead of 12:1 in reality, but I have found no evidence to support this. The E3613 pistons were marketed as 12:1, though there would likely have been some variation in compression ratio among individual bikes.  I believe the 11.2:1 claim originates from a misprint in the 1964 US Parts Supplement No. 2. in which the pistons for the TT are listed as part number CP201, “Piston 11.2 C.R.” (not “11.2:1”). TriCor Service Bulletin No. 7 of June 1st, 1964 adds the following correction: “13 Add CP201 Piston 11.2:1 C.R. for T120/TT Spec.” However, in the Triumph factory Replacement Parts Manual No. 2 it clarifies what “C.P. 201” is: not an individual part number, but a “Carton Pack” containing a piston, 2 compression rings, an oil control ring, gudgeon pin and 2 circlips. The piston itself is listed as part number E5317, “Piston C.R. 11:1 (Alcohol fuel)”. The E5317 pistons fitted to the TT Specials between 1964 and 1967 are also often cited as being 11.2:1, when in fact they were 11:1 according to factory literature (nominally, I should imagine the exact compression ration would be subject to some variance among different individual machines).

 

The mythical 11.2:1 compression ratio, whether used with regards to the E3613 12:1 pistons fitted in 1963 or the E5317 11:1 ones fitted to TTs from 1964 onwards, originates in all probability from the misprint in the 1964 US Parts Supplement and erroneous correction in the TriCor Service Bulletin. In the years since it has been repeated in books, magazines and on the internet, acquiring bogus veracity along the way.  

1964 JoMo T120TT (TT pipes introduced in 1965)

[Photo: C. Rising]

 

The second batch of 65 TT Specials, built in February 1963, are recorded as having 17T gearbox sprockets. One of these was sold to "Solaris Productions",  Steve McQueen's company, and converted by Bud Ekins into a desert sled. This is being auctioned by Bonhams on 7th January 2016 in Las Vegas. 

 

A third batch of 118 built in March/April 1963 were recorded in the engine record as having 19T gearbox sprockets. Among this third batch, there were a handful which were sent to TriCor for the first time, who had presumably got wind of the new "West Coast TT Special" and wanted a piece of the action for themselves. The first TT Special sent to TriCor left the factory on 11th April 1963.

 

The engine record makes no mention of high compression pistons for the second and third batches of TT Specials. However,in an article on his desert sled in the June 1964 issue of "Cycle World", McQueen is quoted as saying, "The engine is basically a stock Bonneville but the compression was lowered from 12:1 to 8 1/2 : 1 for reliability". This suggests that the bike was originally fitted with the 12:1 pistons as installed in the other TT Special motors built that year. It is not clear whether the bike being auctioned in Las Vegas is the same one featured in the "Cycle World" article, but they both share several similar modifications and it could very likely be one and the same.

 

A fourth batch of 22 bikes, built in June 1963 was shipped exclusively to TriCor. These were recorded in the engine assembly record as “T120” with "ET 17T tachos 12:1 pistons". TT Specials henceforth almost always were recorded in the records as having 17T sprockets, regardless of whether they were dispatched to  East or West coasts. This makes sense: they were built as TT steeplechase racers, and the criteria for these events were broadly the same across the USA. From 1964, all TT Specials were specified in the factory brochures and parts manuals as having 17T gearbox sprockets.

 

The Trophy Special desert racer had the standard TR6R engine with 8.5:1 compression, ET ignition, no instrumentation at all and (usually) a 17T gearbox sprocket. In 1963, all were destined for JoMo only - none were sent to the East Coast. An initial batch of these was built a week after the TT Specials. Recorded as “TR6SS” in the factory engine assembly record (they all had the "TR6SS" prefix stamped on their engines), "TR6SC" in the assembly record and "TR6S/C" in the despatch record, the first from the initial batch of 44 bikes left the factory for the US West Coast on 3rd January 1963.

 

Alongside these stripped-down TT and desert racers, the dual purpose “Competition Sports” street scrambler variant of the Bonnevilles and Trophy  models was produced, in much smaller numbers. In 1963, these were all shipped to the East Coast. The Competition Sports variants of the Bonneville and Trophy are by far the rarest of the unit-engined variants produced over the years, with considerably fewer built than the TT in particular, as well as the less common Trophy Specials.

 

1963 Competition models are only identifiable by checking their “DU” prefixed engine/frame serial number against the factory records. There is no designator indicating that a motorcycle is a Competition model stamped on the engine or frame. ‘63 TT Specials and T120C Competition Sports models have the prefix “T120” before the “DU” engine number; TR6SC Trophy Specials and Competition Sports models have the prefix “TR6SS”. The frame number does not have any model designator, for either variant, just the “DU” serial number. The factory despatch record indicates the model as it left the factory, “T120C” or “TR6SC”, and can be used in conjunction with the engine assembly record and the (motorcycle) build record to establish which model it is.

 

It was not until the 1964 model year that the Competition models had the “C” identifier (“T120C”, “TR6SC”) stamped on their engines. Prior to 2006 when the Triumph factory records became readily available to view at the Vintage Motor Cycle Club library in Burton-on-Trent, England, it could be difficult to determine whether a Bonneville or Trophy re-imported from the USA was a Competition model, and consequently restorers often rebuilt the bike simply to T120 or TR6SS spec. There was also considerable confusion over the differences between the TT and Trophy Special models and their Competition Sports scrambler counterparts.

 

In the UK it used to be believed (and still is, by some) that T120Cs despatched to JoMo on the West Coast were all TT Specials, while those that went to TriCor on the East were ‘street scramblers’ with lights and mufflers. As a result, there are some Competition Sports models in circulation which started life bound for TriCor as TT Specials, and have been incorrectly rebuilt as Competition Sports scramblers.

 

One of these built up from a matching numbered frame and engine cases by a Triumph restorer in the south of England has found its way into a book, accompanied by a confusing claim by the author to the effect that all East Coast T120TTs prior to 1966 were in fact Competition Sports street scramblers! This is complete nonsense: the 1964 East Coast brochures have pictures and technical specifications of TT Specials; the 1965 East Coast brochure has a picture and technical specification for the TT Special and a technical specification (but no picture) for the Competition Sports version. This bike was awarded a trophy for "Best British bike" in the October 2015 Classic Mechanics Show at Stafford!

 

There were two distinct variants of the unit T120C with the street scrambler being available on the East Coast, albeit in very limited quantities, between 1963 – 65. TT Specials were distributed to both coasts from their introduction in 1963 until their demise in 1967; Trophy Special desert racers were predominantly sent to the West Coast, between 1963 - 66.

1965 East Coast T120C TT Special

[Photo: C. Rising]

 

There is a huge amount of misinformation, both on the internet and in published books and magazines, about the Competition Triumph 650s, particularly in respect of the production figures. In June 2014 I purchased a 1965 TT Special advertised on an online auction site as “One in 141”. As part of my pre-purchase research, I paid a visit to the Vintage Motor Cycle Club library to verify the frame and engine numbers. Looking through the Triumph factory records, it quickly became evident that there was many more than 141 Triumph TT Specials built in 1965. My final count is 775.

 

The 1965 TT Special I was interested in was advertised as a “West Coast Factory Desert Racer”. The records indicated it was dispatched to TriCor, in Baltimore in August 1964 (the 1965 model year started in mid-July 1964) – making it very much an East Coast model. When I told the vendor he told me that the only difference between the West and East Coast models was that the latter had high pipes! It was very unlikely it had ever been a desert racer, but in all probability it had been campaigned in TT steeplechases in Ohio, from where it originated.

 

The TT Special was never really intended as a desert racer, the single carb Trophy Special fulfilling that role, though some TT Bonnevilles were successfully campaigned in desert competitions in California. As above, Steve McQueen had a 1963 one, though the first thing he did was replace the 12:1 pistons with standard 8.5:1 ones. JoMo Service Notes Bulletin 5-63 stated categorically “WARNING…1963 TRIUMPH T120C…T.T. SPECIAL This Model is Not Recommended for Cross-Country or Highway Use”! Nevertheless, it was used at times as a desert racer, a fast street bike/dragster, and a scrambler (all warranties void, no doubt!) Many TT Specials were sold for highway used, fitted with horns and lighting - despite the warnings.

Skip van Leeuwen, Tulare, CA, 1969

[Photo: Dan Mahony]

 

TT Specials were commonly customised to suit their owners’ preference and their intended use, whether TT racing, desert racing, scrambles or drag racing (for which they were particularly popular on the East Coast). An increasingly wide range of performance parts were available for the Triumph 650 from the distributors and third party suppliers and the TT Specials provided an excellent basis for modification. (In light of this, I can’t help wondering why it is that now we all have this obsession with restoring them to look exactly as they did when they came out of the factory crate – which is never how they would have remained for long!)

 

The production figures for TT Specials widely available online are completely fictitious, and should not be relied upon. There has never been any verified count of the figures from 1963-65 until now. The figures for 1966-67 were provided to a well-respected American author by a former Triumph employee who obtained them from the engine assembly records, which he had retained when the factory had closed down and preserved exclusive access to in the ensuing years. The former employee counted 798  instances of “T120TT” engines built in 1966. Unfortunately he neglected to count the 506 entries for engines with the “T120C” stamp built that model year before the "T120TT" stamp was introduced in December 1965. These T120Cs, with ET ignition, were all TT Specials. In total, 1,310 TT Specials were produced in 1966, making it the most prolific year of their production.

 

The Triumph former employee declined to provide the figures for other years as he considered the task too onerous (I can empathise!) The figures for 1963 – 65 in widespread circulation all seem to originate from the online advert of an American collector, an HC Morris of Lexington, Kentucky, who was selling his six TT Specials (“The Special Six”) in a US auction in August 2012. In the absence of any evidence regarding the figures for 1963 – 1965, HC apparently just made up his own (or perhaps the auctioneers did, we can only surmise). The collection did look stunning in the advertisement though, it has to be said.

 

Fictitious TT Special Production Figures (the "HC" figures)

 

1963 – 7

1964 – 136

1965 – 141

1966 – 798

1967 - 900

Total 1,982

 

These figures are completely without foundation and wildly inaccurate, making the TT Specials out to be twice as rare as they are in actuality.

 

The figure for 1966, 798, was the erroneous one provided by the former Meriden employee, which now appears in various publications. For 1967, in his advert the vendor suggested the production figure was 900. Presumably, this figure was arrived at by just rounding down the correct published figure of approximately 1,100 for that year by a couple of hundred to fit in with the others. Or perhaps it originated from the minutes of the US Sales Conference held at Triumph, Meriden between 10th and 11th November, 1966. These confirm orders from JoMo for 500 TT Specials in 1967 and from TriCor for 400 (kind thanks to Lindsay Brooke for sharing his research) - though the production records confirm the number built was just over 1100 (which corresponds roughly with the sales figures in the TEC accounting records). Triumph North America unwittingly joined in the hype, stating excitedly online that “The Triumph TT Special is one of the  rarest and most collectible Triumphs on the planet”! Vendors now pick up the Morris figures from the internet and use them to advertise their machines, and they have been accepted by many as “true”.

 

The matter has been compounded by otherwise reputable magazines such as “Real Classic” and “Classic Bike Guide” – in displays of uncharacteristically sloppy journalism – using the Morris advert as a basis for their research and producing articles in January 2014 and January 2015 respectively replicating the false figures. In doing so they have, to many a casual reader, embellished these figures with the hallmark of veracity. The result has been a massive boost in prices for TT Specials, which now fetch approximately twice that of an equivalent roadgoing T120 Bonneville from the same period. It’s debatable how much this price hike was driven by false notions of rarity generated by the fictitious figures, but it would seem reasonable to suppose that they at least played a part. The correct figures for the TT Specials, collected after several months of research at the VMCC library, are as follows:

 

Corrected TT Special production figures (from the factory records)

 

1963 – 315

1964 – 412

1965 – 775

1966 – 1,310

1967 – 1,108

 

In total, 3,920 TT Specials were produced over their production years from 1963 – 67. While not as rare as many have been led to believe, these are still fairly uncommon, particularly when compared to the thousands of road going T120Rs which left the factory.

 

In addition to my work with the factory records, I have also spent time researching the accounting records for the Triumph Engineering Company, held in the library of the University of Warwick, England. Sales figures are only available for T120 TTs for 1966 – 67, and these are as follows:

 

T120TT Sales Figures (from Triumph sales records)

 

1966 JoMo – 536

1966 Tri Cor – 652

 

Total T120TTs sold in the USA in 1966 – 1,188 (compared to

1,310 in the production records – I am unsure as to the reason

behind the 122 difference, but possibly it's due to the accounting year running from 5 April and the Triumph production year staring in late July/early August, dependent on year).

 

1967 JoMo – 494

1967 TriCor – 571

 

Total T120TTs sold in the USA in 1967 – 1,065

 

In addition there were 32 “T120T” models exported outside of the USA in 1967. These I suspect were TT Specials, some of which are recorded in the dispatch record as “T120T” (it is unclear why) – though as “T120TT” in the engine assembly record . These were shipped to Canada, Mexico and various other places (including a couple to Finland).

 

Total TTs sold in USA and elsewhere in 1967 would therefore be 1,065 (USA) + 32 (T120T, elsewhere) = 1,097, which corresponds closely with the 1,108 production figure. It's ironic that the TT Special, initially nicknamed the "West Coast T120C" due to it's Californian origins, towards the end of its production cycle in 1966 and 1967, was sold in greater quantities to the East Coast distributor than the West Coast one.

 

Far rarer than the TT were the Competition Sports T120C Bonneville Scramblers. The figures for these are as follows:

 

T120C Competition Sports (“Bonneville Scrambler”) Production Figures

 

1963 – 67

1964 – 60

1965 – 100 (revised from 71 following correspondence with 2 owners in October 2017)

 

227 T120C Competition Sports built between 1963 - 65

 

Total T120C Competition Sports sold in the USA between 1963/65 - 227

 

Just 227 in total over their production lifecycle, making them the rarest production Bonneville variant. In terms of scarcity, the T120C Competition Sports is on a par with the Thruxton Bonnevilles (though these were true production racers, while the American Competition Triumphs had not received as much development).

 

The figures for the Trophy Special desert racers are as below:

 

Trophy Special Production Figures:

 

1963 - 194

1964 – 159

1965 – 255

1966 – 399 (sales figure, TEC accounting records)

 

1006 Trophy Specials built between 1963/66. 

 

 

Trophy Competition Sports Production Figures

 

1963 - 59

1964 – 77

1965 – 87

1966 – 407 (sales figure, TEC accounting records)

 

630 Trophy Competition Sports built between 1963 – 66.

 

If you're in the market for any of these competition variants, it’s wise to carry out careful research as many of the claims made about them, either regarding their rarity or their specifications, are untrue. Furthermore, there are a large number of “fake” or non-original versions in circulation, particularly of the TT Special. As these were competition bikes, it was not unusual for engines to be replaced and the numbers were often ground off and restamped to match the frame ones.

 

A machine with a non-matching engine and frame is worth a fraction of the price of a matching numbers example in today's classic bike market, where originality is paramount. Fraudsters are known to falsify numbers too, turning a more commonplace and less valuable T120R, for example, into a T120TT. These are usually relatively easy to identify, but there are examples of restamped numbers which can be very convincing.

 

1967 Triumph T120TT in the Barber Museum, Alabama

(Photo: C. Rising)

 

A 1967 TT Special advertised in the UK earlier this year for £17,000 on an online auction site (unsold - now, January 2016, and currently being advertised on behalf of its owner for £20k by a London-based classic Triumph dealer) clearly has a non-original engine stamp, as did one sold for $19,000 at a Mecum auction in the US in 2014. Without any confirmed provenance it's impossible to tell why the numbers have been ground off and restamped, but they very clearly have in both cases. Did these bikes leave the factory as TT Specials? Or has somebody in the past 50 years or so fabricated them from components for fraudulent purposes? Impossible to tell. Either way, they are in effect replicas and worth a fraction of the advertised price. Pretty as they may look, they are not the real thing! It is very much a case of “caveat emptor”!

 

Charles Rising

January 2016

 

 

1965 East Coast TT Special - engine tuned by John Woodward, ex-Meriden Experimantal Department - First Run

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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