The period of Triumph history in Australia between the collapse of Meriden and the Bloor era is an untold story. Phil Pilgrim, boss of Union Jack Motorcycles, knows were all the bodies are buried…
Let’s start with the business: Union Jack Motorcycles is pretty-much a one-stop shop in Australia if you own or are rebuilding a Triumph motorcycle built before 1988. It air-freights around 400kg of spares a month into its Melbourne warehouse. Phil will have what you want but, in the unlikely event it isn’t in stock, you’ll wait a maximum of three weeks before it arrives.
The business has around 85 per cent of parts for Triumph T140 (oil-in-frame models from ’72 to ’88) in stock and around 60 per cent of what you’d need for the unit dry-frame models from ’63 – ’70. Union Jack is also your best Australian source for pre-unit (up to ’62) spares. The important thing here is that if Union Jack doesn’t stock it, Phil knows how you can get it. In this business, knowledge is gold.
Phil Pilgrim started his working life as an automotive mechanic but found himself working on Vincent speedway machines rather than cars. This led him eventually to the original Victorian Motorcycle Wreckers in Melbourne where he eventually became frustrated by dismantling rather than building bikes.
His path eventually took him to Graeme Laing at the Melbourne Motorcycle Company (Suzuki) where he was considered for a job but was asked to wait a weekend for the decision. On the Saturday, he saw an advertisement for a job with Frank Mussett, the Victorian Triumph distributor. Laing offered the job on Monday but was too late – Phil had already been injected with British steroids and stayed with Mussetts from ’73 to ‘78.
The Frank Mussett story is another feature in itself. Frank, as was the manner of the day, competed in just about every class of motorcycle sport (including the IoM in 1939) and, while a champion, proved to be an eccentric boss.
In 1979, Phil decamped to England, visited a number of Triumph businesses, and decided that he could probably go into business himself when he returned to Australia. He decided that the name “Union Jack” would tell the story of what he intended to do.
Meanwhile, back on the international stage…
Phil’s engagement with Triumph coincided with the most tumultuous period of the manufacturer’s history. Triumph’s lack of development and England’s flawed view of how the motorcycle industry would develop saw Triumph collapse and its workers take over the factory at Meriden.
According to Phil, the early Meriden co-op bikes were good but a poor decision in making Bonnevilles for the American market out-of-season tied up the co-op’s capital and, from late ’81, the quality of the bikes declined.
Here’s a scoop: the potential buyers of Triumph included John Bloor (the rest is history), Les Harris and, surprisingly, Royal Enfield.
Bloor won but, while he was hatching his plans for Hinckley, he licensed the Triumph name to Les Harris who, over a period of eight years, produced 11,026 Bonnevilles and Tigers.
After a fairly major false start in Australia, Harris eventually appointed Phil as the Victorian and Tasmanian (later SA) distributor of Harris Triumphs. Perhaps less important than the bikes themselves was access to Triumph spares. Harris spares is still the major supplier of Phil’s spares stock. Phil likes them because they’re as good as original.
“They’re not reverse-engineered. They don’t have a physical copy of the part and work backwards. Harris has the original drawings and manufactures parts on this basis,” he said.
Les Harris died on February 17, 2009, but the company survives and prospers. It’s not, of course, Phil’s only source of pre -’88 parts. When Meriden Triumph was sold up and the major factory buildings bulldozed, the receivers eventually noticed that there was another building in Meriden full of spares. It’s now known as the Velocette Motorcycle Company and has a parts inventory at least as big as the Harris concern.
Such is the affection for early Triumphs, many other small manufacturers have become involved and it’s possible still to produce a brand-new, Triumph T140 entirely from spare parts.
According to Phil, the same is almost true of the pre-71 bikes.
“The only things you can’t get new now for a ’69 Bonnie is the frame and the oil tank,” he said.
Phil has an interest in Indians and Vincents as well as Triumphs. He owns a few Vincents and has been involved in the building of around eight “Vincatis”, Vincent engines in the chassis of Ducati GT750s. He’s active in the Indian Owner’s Club and he’s currently building perhaps the world’s third “Vindian”, a Vincent engine in an Indian chassis. His first love, though, remains with Triumph.
“The pre-’88 bikes are still practical, useful units and fun to ride. They haven’t been overtaken by the performance of modern traffic and, unlike many later-model Triumphs and Japanese bikes, parts are plentiful and inexpensive. If you look after your pre-’88 Triumph, it will provide a long service life and the bits that do eventually wear out will be both cheap to replace and available.”
Phil also has an interesting take on his role as a keeper of Triumph knowledge.
“One of my early mentors told me to keep everything I had learned about Triumphs to myself. He told me that if I gave away information, I’d never make any money.
“I’ve thought about this over the years and decided the opposite is probably true. I know a lot about pre-’88 Triumphs now and I’ve found that I haven’t been disadvantaged by sharing that knowledge.
“I’m happy to give the necessary advice because I’ve found that those who ask will buy parts from me anyway. When I’ve moved locations over the years, customers have followed me. Yes, they want parts, but they also know I’ll help them in any way I can to achieve their objectives.”
Union Jack is now a one-man operation and Phil will only see customers face-to-face by appointment. The 2Wheels appointment stretched from half-an-hour to two hours because his telephone rang every five minutes from customers all over Australia seeking parts. He was able to fill every single order from existing stock.
You can call Phil on (03)94996428 or visit the business website on www.unionjack.com.au. Phil will send parts COD anywhere in Australia but, best of all, you can talk to him first and make sure they’re exactly the parts you need.
The White Helmets
Among Phil Pilgrim’s million stories is one about the White Helmets, the Royal Signals Motorcycle Display Team. The team originated in 1927 and today it consists of 30 active servicemen and women who do stunt and precision riding to promote army life.
2Wheels staff saw them performing on the Isle of Man during the TT in 2011 and couldn’t believe they were doing it on what looked like vintage Triumphs.
Phil told us that the original bikes were supplied by the Meriden Motorcycle workers co-operative but that Les Harris, a devoted nationalist, had refurbished the bikes every 18 months.
Wear and tear got to the original fleet and Les eventually built 40 new Tigers specifically for the White Helmets at his own cost.
The Crustys might be more spectacular to look at but if you have to bet on precision riding, put your money on the White Helmets.
The pre-Hinckley Triumphs were among the fastest bikes of their day. In the 1970 Castrol Six-Hour race, a Bonneville (with Len Atlee and Brian Hindle riding) won the race, four laps ahead of Craig Brown on a Honda CB750. A Bonnie also came third in the Unlimited class with Jack Ahern and Graham Beeson behind the bars.
Other bikes in the 1970 event included Kawasaki Mack 111s and Yamaha XS650s
Massively overpowered by the emerging Japanese, Bonnies continued to race and as an example of how strong the engines were, 2Wheels climbed on a Peter Stevens-entry Bonneville at the end of an early ‘70s race and rode it 1000km back to Melbourne down the Hume Highway. It didn’t miss a beat.
Guy Allan (courtesy Australian M/cycle News) 2015