Easily missed in the countryside, just a 20-minute ride from Triumph’s home, sits a small factory whose skilled workers are passionate about perfection. The attention to detail that goes into the welts, stitching and unique soles of the iconic shoes and boots that emerge is what has made Dr. Martens a truly British icon.
Similar location aside, the two companies’ journeys towards their popularity far beyond England’s shores is almost uncanny.
Two Germans and two wars
Both Triumph and Dr. Martens were the inspiration of German men and owed, to varying degrees, some of their success to the lessons learned during and after World War II.
Martens, or Maertens as he was during his time in the German army, found the standard-issue boots too uncomfortable after an Alpine skiing injury and sought a solution. He created his own air-cushioned boot and travelled to England where a company called R Griggs Ltd took the design into larger-scale production in 1960. Dr. Maertens was anglicised to Dr. Martens, an iconic yellow stitching was added and the soles were branded ‘AirWair’.
In 1886, Triumph’s German founder, Siegfried Bettmann, created the Triumph Cycle Company, which would produce its first 2.25bhp motorcycle at its Coventry factory six years later. Bettmann, who remained in the city until his death in 1951, commissioned a memorial for the firm’s 66 employees killed in action in the First World War. He was also alive to see the effect the second wave of hostilities had on Triumph’s global standing, as American GIs returning from Europe were at the vanguard of the British bike revolution, with Bobber-style hot-rod riding to the fore.
Dedication and expertise
Dr. Martens’ small workforce has fed a growing demand for British-made goods since the firm’s launch, with generations of the same family passing on their dedication and expertise at the factory in Wollaston, Northamptonshire.
From the cutting of the leather hides to the heat-sealing welding machine that attaches the famous air-cushioned sole to the leather, the Cobb’s Lane factory – a site of footwear production since 1901 – represents business exactly as it used to be. The workforce in this traditional-feeling factory is 44; a number that has doubled since 2011. In terms of capacity, the factory can produce an amazing 70,000 pairs a year.
Now marketed as the Vintage collection, the Made in England line-up that supports the firm’s Chinese operation includes a direct replica of the first pair that rolled off the production line in 1960 and also produces exclusive limited runs using special materials.
Again the similarities are intriguing, with Triumph’s compelling DNA from a bygone era at the heart of many of the modern classic bikes, such as the Bonneville, Thruxton, Speedmaster and, of course, Bobber.
Celebrity endorsement and rebels without a cause
So what was it that propelled these British icons into the global arena? One shared theme would appear to be some of the planet’s coolest people.
For Dr. Martens, read The Who’s Pete Townshend who donned a pair on stage in homage to his working-class roots, the pick of any of the rebellious counter-culture punks right through to today’s advocates in Gwen Stefani and David Beckham.
Meanwhile, the wall at Triumph’s Visitor Experience Centre proudly showcases celebrity riders from Steve McQueen through to Bob Dylan, Elvis and yes, David Beckham.
Celebrity endorsement breeds desire, but only if the product matches their image AND is conceived and made well. So the ‘buy-once’ leather boot that lasts a decade fits the bill as well as a bike styled to look every inch a 1959 model but crammed with 2018 technology.
Since the rebellious punk era, the Doc has been a symbol of individualism and that’s no different today, with everything from classic brogues and glitter-adorned boots through to red, white and blue leather of the union flag finding their way on to the catwalk, often complementing the most unlikely items of clothing.
Boots and bikes made by and for humans
Just as at Triumph’s Hinckley factory, the Dr. Martens’ process starts and finishes with human beings making boots – and bikes – they would want to walk in, or ride.
The Dr. Martens production line is separated into four sections: the Clicking Room, where the cutting of the leather takes place; the Closing Line, where two-dimensional pieces of leather are stitched together to make a 3D upper; the Lasting Track, where heavy machinery and heat is used to pull the leather tight; and the Shoe Room, the finishing area where shoes and boots are inspected, polished and packaged ready for the customer.
It’s not all about the shoes though but also about the machinery involved in producing the sole moulds and famous PVC bouncing soles – with that iconic ‘resistant to oil, alkali, fat and petrol’ stamp. There may be heavy machinery used but just like Triumph, there isn’t anything automated about the process – a highly skilled workforce has its hands on the boot every step of the way.
The result, in both cases, is a true British icon.