Johnny Allen and his Triumph Streamliner – History
Before Johnny Allen’s run of 214.40mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1956, it had been a long dry spell for U.S. motorcycle land speed racers—33 years, in fact. That was until the Texan Allen rode a Triumph-powered streamliner to a new motorcycle world land speed record on September 6, 1956.
The last time a U.S. rider held the record was November 5, 1923! On that date in the Roaring Twenties, Claude Temple rode a British Anzani to a speed of 108.75 mph. Temple beat Gene Walker’s speed of 103.77 mph, set aboard an Indian, which had stood since 1920.
The month before Allen’s 1956 run, Wilhelm Herz was the motorcycle world land-speed record holder; he posted a 211 mph aboard a supercharged German NSU called the Delphin III. Allen had set a new record in 1955–over 192 mph–but it was not recognized by the Federation Internationale Motorcycliste (FIM) because the event was run under American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) rules, which the (FIM) refused to recognize.
That record was recognized by the AMA as a national speed record, but world record status still was not recognized by FIM in 1956. No matter, Triumph touted it as a new world record and, for that matter, so did most of the rest of the world.
The tiff over Allen’s record went so far as to lead Triumph to take legal action against the FIM in 1957 in order to force it to recognize Allen’s achievement—but they lost. Things got so bad that in 1960 the FIM banned Triumph from FIM sanctioned competition for two years.
Ironically, Bill Johnson’s 1962 speed of 224.57 mph was recognized by the FIM even though that record was set while the Triumph competition ban was still in place, and Johnson’s Dudek/Colman nitro burning streamliner was powered by a Triumph engine.
Johnson’s record stood until 1975, according to the FIM, even though another Triumph powered machine, the Gyronaut X-1, ridden by Bob Leppan, pushed the record to 245.67 mph in 1966 under AMA rules.
By today’s world speed record standards (376.363 mph), Allen’s record average two-way speed of 214.400mph through a measured mile (214.17 through the measured kilometer) might seem fairly tame, until you look at the amazing technical achievement it actually was, even by today’s standards.
About Johnny Allen’s Triumph Steamliner
Allen’s streamliner, which came to be known as the “Texas Cee-gar,” was powered by a lone twin-cylinder 650cc Triumph Thunderbird engine, which, unlike many of the top contenders for world records even back then, was neither supercharged nor turbocharged.
That’s right—it was not a double-engine, supercharged or turbocharged, specially-built one-off factory-supported fire-breather, but, rather a single, normally aspirated engine built entirely with performance parts anyone could purchase from Triumph.
The miracle-workers in charge of building and tuning that remarkable engine were Jack Wilson who was then the service manager at Pete Dalio’s Fort Worth, TX Triumph shop and Dalio himself. Tuned to run on a mixture of 80 percent methanol and 20 percent nitromethane, fed to the stock bore and stroke cylinders via twin 1⅜ inch Amal GP carburetors, Wilson could coax between 80 and 100 hp out of the vertical twin.
The otherwise stock Thunderbird head was fettled to accommodate oversized valves and had to only handle a surprisingly mild 8.5:1 compression ratio. Triumph standard Q cams and racing lifers were used along with Lodge racing spark plugs and a Lucas magneto to provide the juice. A pair of short zoomie pipes only long enough to clear the bodywork comprised the exhaust system. The final drive ratio was 2.33:1 with power going through a four speed gearbox.
The 15 foot long streamlined body was the brainchild of J.H. “Stormy” Mangham, an American Airlines pilot. Mangham designed and perfected the shell design without any wind tunnel testing. With a wheelbase of nine feet four inches, the ‘liner weighed only 320 pounds with the engine aboard. Inside the shell, a 12 foot long chassis fabricated of .75 inch OD chrome-moly tubing melds with the engine/transmission cradle from a stock Thunderbird to allow direct mounting. Just aft of the front wheel, two bread-making tins filled with lead were fitted to keep the front end down at speed.
The front and rear wheels were standard Triumph items fitted with discs over the spokes, mounting special construction Dunlop high speed tires. Controls in the cockpit were surprisingly similar in layout to a standard motorcycle. In addition to the stock Triumph drum brake at the rear wheel hub, a pair of parachutes were built into the rear of the machine for emergency deployment—but they never had to be used in an emergency. One of the chutes was 28 inches in diameter and Allen would deploy that one once the machine slowed to under 100 mph, but the larger 48 inch diameter chute was not used.
At the time of the record runs, Johnny Allen was 27 years old, with 8 years of Class C motorcycle racing experience. Allen’s compact 145 pound frame was perfect for the cramped quarters of the ‘liner’s open-top cockpit.
Allen described his strategy on those record runs in the November, 1956 issue of Cycle magazine. “I entered the traps at 6,500 rpms. The tach continued to climb and I started getting anxious to see the other marker. The marker and 7,000 rpm showed up at the same time. The run back was the same—6,500 into the trap, 7,000 out. It’s a pretty wild ride with that wind tearing at your head, and when you shut off, the Triumph seems to go faster.”
As big as Allen’s record was, it was not the only record set by Triumph machines that week. Then 16 year-old Jess Thomas, also of Fort Worth, Texas set a new AMA Class C record of 128.91 mph on a Triumph Tiger 100, Allen’s 650cc record also counted for records in the 750cc and 1,000cc classes and Allen set records in the Class A 30.5 ci and 40 ci divisions.
In late 2014, Triumph announced the release of a limited special edition Bonneville—designated the T214—to commemorate Allen’s record. Had the weather and track conditions cooperated in 2015 it might have hit showrooms in time to coincide with Triumph celebrating having set a new motorcycle speed record with what was then called the Triumph Castrol Rocket. The complete loss of racing at Bonneville in 2015 due to wet conditions and bad weather has pushed the record attempt into 2016.
As this is written, Triumph has just announced the postponement of its world record land speed attempt due to unsatisfactory surface conditions at Bonneville after several bouts of rain. When the course conditions permit, there may be another motorcycle world speed record credited to the Triumph brand with the U.K.’s Guy Martin–an Isle of Man TT icon–at the controls.
Johnny Allen Motorcycle World Land Speed Record History – Photo Gallery