Triumph's Founder

As we all know it is the centenary of the founding of the Triumph Motor Company this year, so I thought it appropriate to try and find out a bit more about the founder, Siegfried Bettmann.

Details regarding car production, models, and their design have been well documented elsewhere, so I thought I would try and find out a bit more background. And for this I am indebted to various online sources used to compile this article, despite some of the information not always tallying.

Siegfried was born on 18th April 1863 in Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany, the son of Meyer Bettmann, a timber merchant, and his wife Sofie Weil. Siegfried then decided to move to England in 1883, eventually settling in Coventry.

Siegfried initially found work with Kelly & Co compiling foreign directories for their publications. After 6 months he obtained a job with the White Sewing Machine Company, as a translator and worked as the company’s sales representative for northern Europe but was laid off in 1885. The company made bicycles, sewing machines, roller skates, and a multitude of other things. Fluent in several languages he perfected his English and founded S. Bettmann & Co. and started selling bicycles by the name “Triumph” from premises initially in London with financial backing from George Sawyer who became Chairman.

In 1886 Siegfried seeking a more general name, the company became known as The Triumph Cycle Company and began producing the first Triumph branded bicycles in 1889, having on 12th February 1887 registered as The New Triumph Company Ltd with funding from the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company. The name was then changed back to the Triumph Cycle Company in June. In that year Siegfried was joined by a native from Papenburg named Johann Moritz Schulte. As a partner, Schulte encouraged Siegfried to transform Triumph into a manufacturing company. Then in 1888 Siegfried purchased a site in Coventry using money lent by his and Schulte’s families. The works construction being eventually completed in 1894. Another company in which Siegfried had an interest was Robert Bunting and Sons, also founded in 1887 in Sheffield. They manufactured steel profiles, tools, machinery, roller, wire drawers, and parts like rims, guards, and spokes. Presumably they were one of Siegfried’s suppliers, as Siegfried is mentioned as being a Director in 1897, perhaps to guarantee supply and quality for his own company?

In 1891 Siegfried was recorded as a bicycle maker and employer, living as a visitor at 12 Rothesay Terrace Coventry in the house of Marks Baum and his family, who aged 62, was born in Germany but a British subject, being a Watchmaker. Another visitor living there was Moritz Schulte, aged 32, born in Germany but a naturalised subject, also shown as a bicycle maker and employer.

Siegfried became a naturalised British subject on 9th March 1895, then residing at The Craven Arms Hotel, Coventry and married his wife Annie (nee Meyrick) known as Millie in July 1895 in Shifnal, Shropshire. Annie was born in Shifnal, so presumably her or her parents still lived there at the time.

In 1901, then aged 37, Siegfried was living at St Nicholas Street Coventry, and shown as the Managing Director of Cycle Works. He was living with his wife Annie, aged 36, together with his mother-in-law and other relatives.

In 1902 the company diversified into manufacturing motorcycles at their works in Much Park Street. The first Triumph motorcycle produced in 1902 was a strengthened bicycle with the 2.25 hp Minerva engine. 

In 1903 motorcycle production started at the company’s German subsidiary. In its early years the Nuremberg factory produced models with the same 499 cc and 545 cc Minerva four-stroke engines as its sister plant in Coventry. Once the business grew, the purchased engines were replaced with those of their own manufacture. In 1907 the company expanded into a new seven storey factory in Priory Street, Coventry, on the premises of a former mill.

Siegfried lived at Elm Bank, Stoke Park, from 1905 until his death. He clearly became involved in Politics, as he had become a city councillor in about 1907 and Ramsey McDonald – Britain’s Prime Minister – twice visited him in 1925.

Fascinatingly, in view of later post war Triumph history, Siegfried acquired Charles Friswell’s interest in The Standard Motor Company with a C. J. Brand esq. Friswell had been Chairman but Siegfried then took over as the Chairman of the Standard Motor Company.

He cemented his political interests when he became Mayor of Coventry from 1913-1914, the first non-British subject to have the position. Not only was he a prominent businessman but he also supported local community ventures. Siegfried was President of the Godiva Harriers and a photo was taken in 1913 at The Priory Assembly buildings to celebrate his mayoralty with him in the centre of the group. The cup in front of him is the Bettmann trophy that he gave to the club. Siegfried was President of the Harriers for some time, helping the members in several ways, including health insurance and employment.

His success enabled him to become, President of the Coventry Liberal Association, a Freemason, a founder member of the Coventry Chamber of Commerce and a Justice of the Peace.

In 1914 he established the Annie Bettmann Foundation with his wife, to help young people between the ages of 18 and 40 who wished to start a business. Preference was given to ex-servicemen and the fund – which is still in existence today – was extended subsequently to include grants for further education. However, the outbreak of war and the anti- German feeling which came with it saw some turn against him, despite him being a naturalised British citizen. Siegfried was forced to register with the Home Office as a German born immigrant, and within weeks he was ousted both from the board at Triumph and from his masonic lodge. He appointed English Directors to the Board at Triumph, replacing himself and two fellow Germans, and even the Cycle Manufacturers Union which he had founded, tried to expel him. By November 1914 a relatively small but vociferous group caused him to resign as Mayor. He was offered the post of Deputy Major but after a few days he received a letter from the town clerk asking him to withdraw, “due to the poisonous agitation of a noisy minority.” He resigned on the 9th of November 1914.

 “The war broke out and broke many lives, and amongst these was my life as far as public action was concerned” he wrote in an unpublished biography. “Persons bearing a German name were driven to despair. They were hunted out of their positions and ruined in their businesses. The veil doers and thinkers had achieved their first victory.” He reflected bitterly. 

Ironically however it was his “Trusty Triumphs” that were helping the British war effort. 

At the beginning of World War 1 the War Office called a meeting of Coventry industrialists at St. Mary’s Hall and asked them to put their resources at the disposal of the military. 

Just two weeks after Britain had declared war on Germany, Siegfried received a telephone call from Capt. C.V. Holbrook of the Army Service Corps (whom in 1933 became Triumph’s Managing Director) with an order for 100 Triumph Motorcycles for the B.E.F., who were soon depart for France. Despite it being a Saturday afternoon Siegfried and his staff worked non-stop to create the required motorcycles. By Sunday evening the100 motorcycles were delivered to the Coventry railway station in time for the evening train. 

The British Army subsequently placed large orders for the Triumph 550cc model H, and by 1918 Triumph was Britain’s largest motorcycle manufacturer having sold 30,000 motorbikes to the military during the war.

During the war Siegfried arranged for the empty Whitley Abbey house to be used by Belgian refugees and supported the Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund, personally donating £250. Considering the way in which he had been treated this seems a magnanimous gesture.

In 1919 Johann Schulte retired and Col. Holbrook was appointed Manager. In 1921 Siegfried further diversified into car production, possibly at the instigation of Holbrook. He bought the Dawson Car Company and their Clay Lane premises, which had started in 1919, to later produce the Triumph 10/20 from April 1923-1926. 

His benevolence continued when in 1921 he commissioned a Triumph and Gloria memorial, sited in Coventry’s London Road cemetery, dedicated to the 66 employees of the Triumph Company killed in action during the First World War.

In 1927 he developed the Triumph Super 7 and in 1933 the Super 8 which sold well until 1934. When the great depression hit in 1929 Triumph sold its German subsidiary as a separately independently owned company, which became part of the Triumph Adler Company. Confusion between motorcycles produced by the Coventry and Nuremberg Triumph companies led to the latter’s products being renamed “Orial” for certain export markets. However, in the 1920s there was already an Orial motorcycle maker in Lyon, France, so the Nuremberg motorcycles were renamed again as “TWN”, standing for Triumph Werke Nürnberg. 

In 1931 the company name changed to Triumph Company. The bicycle business was sold against Siegfried’s wishes to Coventry Bicycle in 1932. In 1933 Siegfried was ousted as Managing Director giving the job to Claude Holbrook, with Siegfried remaining as Deputy Chairman of the board until he retired in 1934 at the age of 71. 

The company was re-organised in 1934 after a loss-making report in August, the company changing its name to Triumph Motor Company; with production including the Southern Cross, Ten, and Gloria ranges. 

In April 1935 the Gloria Works was purchased. By 1936 the company had continued financial problems and the Triumph motorcycle business was sold off to Jack Sangster of Ariel Motorcycles on 22.01.1936 to become Triumph Engineering Co Ltd. Sangster however appointed Siegfried as Chairman until he left on friendly terms in 1939, with another war looming.

The Triumph Motor Company lasted only 5 years after Siegfried’s departure when the receivers were called in.

After retiring Siegfried spent his final years with his wife at their home, Elm Bank, North Avenue, Stoke Park, Coventry, his wife Millie dying on 17th February 1941 at Upton, Wirral, Merseyside. She is buried in St Andrews Churchyard, Shifnal, Shropshire, the town where she was born. Siegfried had commissioned with his wife, a reclining sculpture called “Pax” by George Ehrlich for the garden of rest at Canley Crematorium, but it wasn’t installed until 1945, no doubt due to the war.

Siegfried died on the 23rd of September 1951 aged 88, but his name and legacy live on, and a plaque has been unveiled in his memory in Cathedral Square, in the shadow of the chapel of industry where Triumph’s sprawling Priory Street works once stood. He is buried in Canley Garden Cemetery and Crematorium, Cannon Hill Road, Coventry. Surprisingly I couldn’t find a photograph of his gravestone.

In 1952 his Victorian home, Elm Bank, constructed in the 1870s was donated to the Coventry Education Committee and was used as a teacher’s club and resources centre until it moved in 1974. In 2015 a blue plaque was erected by the Coventry Society that marks the property as the home of Siegfried Bettmann. In 2018 the property was bought by developers from Coventry City Council and has been converted into a gated development of 14 lavish unique apartments, bungalows, and mews houses. Some of the work to the listed building has been sympathetically done. One of the most interesting apartments is partly formed from Siegfried’s billiards room and has an original frieze still in place, being protected while building work was underway. The frieze consists of a series of eight oil paintings on canvas by the artist Oscar Mancine of the Birmingham School and are in the style of Sir Edward Coley Burn-Jones.

Siegfried’s 1951 obituary reads as follows: “Started penniless, left £145,000. Mr Siegfried Bettmann J.P. Elm Bank, Stoke Park, Coventry, when he arrived in Britain in the days of the penny-farthing bicycle, he was friendless and practically penniless. He founded the Triumph Cycle Company, and was a pioneer of the British Motorcycle industry, former President of the British Cycle and Motorcycle Manufacturer’s Union, and Mayor of Coventry 1913-14, died September 23rd last, aged 88 years, leaving £145,204, 13s 7d, gross, £142,368 4s 5d net value. He left a portrait of himself, painted by C.D. Ward, the presentation album given to him on his 70th birthday, the badge and chain of office presented to his late wife by the ladies of Coventry when she was Mayoress of the city of Coventry, the address given to him by the Triumph men upon him assuming the Mayoralty of Coventry, his old Sevres vase, and such of his books manuscripts and typescripts, as have not been distributed to his personal friends, to Coventry Corporation.”

£145,300 has a 2023 monetary value of £5.8 million. His pen and journal can now be seen on display at the Coventry Motor Museum.

He certainly appears to have been a self-made man and supportive of the local community, despite the apparent unjustified prejudice during wartime. 

We will never know if the demise of the Triumph Motor Company five years after he left was due in part or in whole to Siegfried leaving, the harsh economic times, mismanagement by his successors, or an overcrowded market. Possibly a little of all? 

However, in view of Siegfried’s origins, it seems appropriate to me that the copyright for the Triumph car marque is currently also owned by another company also originating from Bavaria, namely BMW.

Trevor Sherwood