Writing about bikes for 20 years. Published in dozens of titles on five continents. Mildly obsessed with discovering how things work.
Triumph Bonneville – a modern British classic. Made in Thailand.
National identities are closely tied to both the imagery used by motorcycle brands and the feelings they evoke. If you want to conjure a vision of America, a Harley-Davidson is right up there with star-spangled cowboy boots. Triumphs are as British as a cream tea. Ducatis are the epitome of Italian passion. But the reality isn’t quite that simple.
These days, companies are increasingly setting up manufacturing or assembly plants all over the world. There’s a multitude of reasons for that, but all are tied to the goal of getting a competitive advantage or to staying on a level playing field with rivals that have already made the move.
Most recently, and notably, we’ve seen the news that Triumph is to move almost all its production to its three factories in Thailand. The famous Hinckley base, home to the firm since its revival under the guidance of John Bloor in the 1990s, will remain a key element of the company’s structure but its focus will shift to R&D and engineering, with production slimmed down to a bare minimum. Just the highest-spec bikes, like Triumph’s limited edition ‘TFC’ (Triumph Factory Custom) models, will be made in the UK in future. At the moment, that means the Rocket 3 TFC, Bobber TFC and Thruxton TFC, but with each of those models restricted to a limited run of 750 examples –the Rocket and Thruxton are already sold out – more TFC machines will be emerging soon. Even so, Hinckley’s future output will be down to around 4500 bikes per year, less than a tenth of the firm’s overall output.
Explaining the switch of tack, Triumph’s CEO Nick Bloor said: “We are now preparing for Triumph’s next wave of strategic growth. We want to maximise the growth opportunity for the brand globally, particularly in the Asian markets. This is why we are increasing our design resources here in the UK, and focusing our mass production capabilities in Thailand.
“There will still be manufacturing capability in the UK but the role of our facility in Hinckley will be reconfigured to enable us to create a more flexible and high-value capability.”
Some Ducatis, including Scramblers, are made in Thailand as well as Italy
Inevitably, Triumph’s move to foreign production means that most of the firm’s oh-so-British bikes will actually emerge from Thailand and the hands of a Thai workforce, but that’s already been the case for a lot of Triumphs in recent years.
Looking at data from the Office of National Statistics, UK motorcycle production has taken a nosedive over the last few years, returning to levels not seen since Triumph was revived in the early 90s. After diminishing to almost zero in the late 1980s – in 1989 and 1990 fewer than 1000 bikes were made in the UK – the industry here ramped up spectacularly to a peak in 2006 when nearly 40,000 bikes were manufactured here. Almost all were Triumphs, of course.
By then, Triumph had already been operating a wholly British-owned plant in Thailand for four years, but its initial focus had been on manufacturing components that were sent to the UK for assembly. The firm’s second Thai plant (an even bigger one called Factory 4 – the first two were the UK bases in Hinckley), first began making complete machines in 2006 and production in the UK has been declining ever since. ‘Factory 5’, which is larger still, opened in Thailand in 2007. Combined, Triumph’s three Thai plants cover an area of around 104,000m2. The main UK facility is 30,000m2.
The result saw UK bike manufacturing – measured for all companies – decline from the 2006 peak. It dropped under 30,000 per year by 2009, slid below 20,000 by 2013 and in 2017 fell to less than 10,000. So while Triumph is making more bikes than ever before, fewer are coming from the UK factory. Are they still British? Well, the company is wholly British-owned, the bikes are British-designed and the headquarters are British, so it depends on your definitions. And remember, even when the lions’ share were being assembled here, many of the components were already being manufactured outside this country.
Why? Of course, it comes down to practicality and economics. Staff costs vary hugely from one part of the world to another, and in Thailand wages, and the cost of living, are relatively low – where an average annual salary in the UK is about £30,000, in Thailand it’s less than £5000.
But it’s far more complicated than a simple matter of wage bills. Myriad details like import and export duties for different countries, proximity of components suppliers and costs of shipping to major export markets will all go into deciding where a bike is made.
One recent example is the trade war between the EU and the USA, which has seen tit-for-tat tariffs imposed on a variety of goods. Motorcycles were picked out in particular for import tariffs when brought from the USA to Europe, probably because Harley-Davidson is such an iconic American brand. In response, the firm decided to move much of its production for European markets out of the USA, notifying investors in 2018 that:
Harley-Davidson will be implementing a plan to shift production of motorcycles for EU destinations from the U.S. to its international facilities to avoid the tariff burden. Harley-Davidson expects ramping-up production in international plants will require incremental investment and could take at least 9 to 18 months to be fully complete.
Even that last term – ‘made’ – isn’t as simple as it sounds. If a bike is bolted together in Italy but all its components were manufactured elsewhere, is it Italian?
The normal vision of a motorcycle production line, with dozens of part-built bikes progressing from station to station as more components are bolted on until the finished machine roars into life, is really an assembly line, and only the last stage of manufacture. Before that, parts have to be cast, extruded, forged or rolled from raw materials, welded together into sub-assemblies or machined into finished components, and many of those jobs have traditionally happened off-site for many bike firms. And that’s before we even get to the issue of components supplied by other brands – perhaps Bosch for the electronics, Ohlins, Showa or Sachs for the suspension, Brembo or Nissin for brakes. Not to mention tyres, clutches, hoses, even nuts and bolts that are all going to be externally made. The list is almost endless, and many of those pieces may well be made up from smaller components sourced all over the world.
Yamaha’s XSR700. Japanese? Nope. Made in France.
While all the above means that almost any bike is a multinational effort, their eventual nationality is defined by the location of the factory where the finished product rolled out.
Here’s a list of some of the UK’s main makes and models including their country of manufacture – some may surprise you.
GL1800 Gold Wing: Japan
CRF1100L Africa Twin: Japan
CBX500 Rebel: Thailand
Super Cub 125: Thailand
MSX125 Grom: Thailand
Forza 300: Thailand
Forza 125: Thailand
Tracer 900: Japan
Tracer 700: Japan
XT1200Z Super Tenere: Japan
Tenere 700: France
XMAX 400: France
XMAX 300: Indonesia
Ninja H2: Japan
Ninja ZX-10R: Japan
Ninja ZX-6R: Japan
Ninja 650: Thailand
Ninja 400: Thailand
Ninja 1000SX: Japan
Ninja H2 SX: Japan
Versys 1000: Japan
Versys 650: Thailand
Z H2: Japan
Vulcan S: Thailand
V-Strom 1050: Japan
V-Strom 650: Japan
V-Strom 250: China
Burgman 400: Japan
Burgman 200: Thailand
Thruxton TFC: UK
Rocket 3 TFC: UK
Bobber TFC: UK
Daytona Moto2 765: UK
Street Triple: Thailand
Speed Triple: UK
Rocket 3: Thailand
Tiger 900: Thailand
Tiger 1200: UK
Speed Twin: Thailand
Scrambler 1200: Thailand
Street Twin: Thailand
Bonneville T100: Thailand
Bonneville T120: Thailand
Bonneville Bobber: Thailand
Bonneville Speedmaster: Thailand
Hypermotard 950: Italy and Thailand
Monster 797: Italy and Thailand
Monster 821: Italy
Monster 1200: Italy and Thailand
Streetfighter V4: Italy
Multistrada 950: Italy and Thailand
Multistrada 1260: Italy
Multistrada 1260 Enduro: Italy
Panigale V2: Italy and Thailand
Panigale V4: Italy
Panigale V4R: Italy
Superleggera V4: Italy
Supersport: Italy and Thailand
Scrambler 1100 : Italy and Thailand
Scrambler Full Throttle: Italy and Thailand
Scrambler Cafe Racer: Italy and Thailand
Scrambler Desert Sled: Italy and Thailand
Scrambler Icon: Italy and Thailand
Scrambler Sixty2: Italy and Thailand
K1600B/GT/GTL/Grand America: Germany
R nineT: Germany
R1250GS/GS Adventure: Germany
F850GS/GS Adventure: Germany
C650 Sport: Germany
C evolution: Germany
Your bike’s VIN might reveal where it was made. The 11th character is sometimes a factory code – here it’s ‘K’ for Honda’s Kumamoto plant in Japan.
If your bike isn’t on the list above or it’s a model that’s made in multiple plants there are still ways to narrow down where it was made – and the key is the bike’s VIN, or Vehicle Identification Number.
In both Europe and North America, VINs have followed a similar pattern for many years, using 17-character VINS with certain letters and digits giving vital information if you know how to crack the code. When it comes to country of origin, there are two sections to look at.
The first three characters are the ‘World Manufacturer Identifier’ or WMI code, which tells you where the manufacture is based. It might well be a clue to the bike’s country of origin, but as we’ll see it’s not necessarily proof as to where it was built.
The first character of the WMI shows the region. The letters A-C are Africa, J-R are Asia, S-Z mean Europe, 1-5 mean North America, 6-7 mean Oceania and 8-9 are South America. Within those groups, certain letters and numbers, along with the second character, narrow down to specific countries. For instance, UK manufacturers will have the first letter ‘S’ and the second will be between A and M. If needed, the third character defines a specific manufacturer. As an example, Triumph’s WMI code is ‘SMT’.
You can find a pretty comprehensive list of WMI codes here.
For some companies, the WMI is enough to get a good steer on where a bike is built. For instance, Ducati Italy’s WMI is ‘ZDM’ but those made by Ducati Thailand will start ‘ML0’.
But those WMIs only actually identify the manufacturer and companies don’t necessarily build bikes in their own country. Ducati Thailand’s WMI is only different to Ducati Italy’s because it’s been set up as a company in its own right.
Triumphs, for instance, will have a seemingly British WMI (reading ‘SMT’) regardless where they were built. This can make it harder to establish exactly where the bike was made, particularly on European bikes.
In America, VIN rules mean that the 11th digit must be a ‘Plant Code’ that reveals exactly where a bike was made. Triumphs sold over there, for instance, will have a ‘J’ for bikes from Hinckley (J stands for Jacknell Road, where the factory is). If it’s a ‘T’ then the bike is from Thailand, and elsewhere you can also find Triumphs with an ‘M’ (for Manaus in Brazil) or ‘D’ for the assembly plant in Manesar, near Delhi in India.
On European VINs there’s no legal requirement for the use of a plant code, as there is in the USA, although many firms will use US-compliant VINs regardless, complete with that all-important 11th digit that reveals where the bike was made.
There are dozens of online VIN decoders that tap into databases so on inputting your VIN they can reveal where a bike was made.
Harley-Davidson might be an American icon, but the bikes aren’t necessarily built there
Although some bikes have long held strong ties to national identity – notably the likes of Triumph and Harley-Davidson – evidence from other industries suggests that brands don’t lose that identity even when production moves to another country.
Cars, for instance, have been manufactured globally for decades. Some Hondas have been built in the UK since the 1980s, as are many Nissans, but both brands remain resolutely Japanese. Hondas are also made in the USA, China, Pakistan, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Turkey, Argentina, Taiwan, the Philippines and Mexico. But ask anyone in the street – even owners of those cars – and they’ll tell you’re they’re Japanese.
Similarly, BMW cars are made in Germany, Austria, the USA, Mexico, India, South Africa, Brazil and China, but they’re still synonymous with Germanity.
The same already applies to many bikes. While most Harleys are still made in America, the firm also has plants in India and Thailand. Few Triumph riders will be aware what percentage of their bikes came from Hinckley, or whether they originated in Thailand. But at the end of the day, acceptance is down to the individual customer. Provided there’s no reduction in material or manufacturing quality, do you care where your bike was bolted together?