Born May 1, 1927, in Coryell County, Texas, George W. “Jack” Wilson became one of the world's best-known Triumph tuners and retailers. Bikes and engines built by the clever, wisecracking Texan won hundreds of races and held scores of national and international speed records.
Wilson’s experience with Triumph began soon after his discharge from the U.S. Army, where he honed his mechanical skills on Indian V-twins and learned practical and theoretical engineering. In 1949, he landed his first job at Roy Stone's new Triumph dealership in central Texas. Two years later he moved on to Pete Dalio's Triumph-Indian shop in Fort Worth, where his love of drag racing was encouraged.
"Pete didn't mind that I raced, but he warned me that he didn't employ losers," Wilson recalled in a 1997 Triumph News interview.
Wilson's half-century of building record-setting speed machines began in 1954 when his friend, J.H. "Stormy" Mangham, an airline pilot, constructed a streamliner aimed at toppling the 1951 180-mph world motorcycle record set by the German NSU team. Wilson worked his engine magic on a standard Thunderbird unit, developing it steadily over time. Set up initially to run on gasoline, the T-Bird then burned methanol and finally a 60 percent load of nitromethane, which at the time was just beginning to enter dragracing circles.
The engine's internals and careful assembly showcased Wilson's classic American hot-rodder innovation. He combined the latest Triumph factory speed parts, particularly camshafts, tappets, and gearsets, with a broad array of parts from various sources, including modified Harley K-model valves, Cadillac V8 shell-type main bearings on the connecting rod big-ends, and a 30-lb billet crankshaft machined from Natralloy. It all added up to 100 horsepower on the dyno, according to Wilson.
In 1956, Wilson's nitro-fueled 650cc Thunderbird engine-powered fellow Texan Johnny Allen to a 214.40 mph world absolute speed record for motorcycle on the Bonneville Salt Flats. This feat inspired Triumph to name their 1959 model the Bonneville. Wilson’s expertise and assistance also helped U.S. racing stars Gary Nixon, Buddy Elmore, Rusty Bradley, Jess Thomas, Jon Minonno, and Mike Kidd, among others.
After Allen set the iconic 1956 world record with the Thunderbird engine, Wilson built up a 200cc Tiger Cub single using the same streamliner chassis and shell with similar tuning. In this configuration the machine ran 136 mph at the Salt Flats. In 1958 Jack then installed a very trick 500cc Triumph twin and with 18-year-old Jess Thomas (another Texan) at the controls, the machine clocked an average of 212.28 mph-a new world record for unblown, streamlined 500cc motorcycles running on nitro. That record stood for 50 years.
A rigid-framed Thunderbird built by Wilson gained a fearsome reputation among Harley, Indian, BSA and Vincent riders in the Dallas area. But the more power he extracted from its engine, the more crankshafts failed as a result. This led Wilson to experiment with crankshaft balance factors and he soon became an expert in balancing British twins. Over the years the data he collected was supplied to the Triumph factory in Britain, which used it to improve their stock engines.
In 1963, with financial backing from then-retired Dalio, Wilson opened the now-famous Big D Cycle Center in Oak Cliff, Texas. He acquired a water-brake engine dynamometer through Triumph's Western U.S. distributor, and used it to prepare competition engines of all types.
By 1965, Wilson's concentration had switched primarily to roadrace machines, and for the next five years Triumph enlisted him to support its California riders at Daytona. During this period his dealership was selling more than 100 new Triumphs per year.
Twin- and three-cylinder machines built by Wilson’s Big D shop and ridden by Jon Minonno were a regular threat in Western Eastern Roadracing Association (WERA) competition and at Daytona's Battle of the Twins class during the 1970s and early 1980s.
Wilson pioneered turbocharging on motorcycles in 1975 and at 48 years old he put on the leathers and piloted a Trident to a partially streamlined 1,000cc record of over 190 mph. His Triumphs continued to compete at Bonneville through the 1990s, when they evolved into the Team Texas Triumph effort. He also continued selling Triumphs at Big D Cycles, taking on the new Hinckley-built lineup while servicing and restoring vintage Meriden-built machines.
Jack Wilson died May 7, 2000, and was survived by his wife of 49 years, Catherine, two sons and two daughters, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Wilson was inducted in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001.