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Bikes You Should Know: Triumph Bonneville

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Bikes You Should Know appears weekly as part of Two Wheel Tuesdays. Since Hooniverse primarily caters to automotive enthusiasts, this column focuses on historically or culturally significant motorcycles that are likely to interest a non-riding audience.


The classic Triumph Bonneville was available (in some form) almost continually for thirty years. Throughout the 1960s, the Bonneville was perhaps the most iconic, widely desired motorcycle in the world. By the ‘Seventies, it had been eclipsed by both foreign competition and by bigger, faster Triumphs. But its amazing balance of ride, handling, power and size were too good for it to die without a fight. It remains a magic formula for riding enjoyment.

THE BACKSTORY

The 1937 5T, the genesis for all Triumph twins. The Bonneville wouldn't arrive for another 21 years.

The 1937 Speed Twin, the genesis for all Triumph twins. The Bonneville wouldn’t arrive for another 21 years.

In 1937, famous Triumph engineer Edward Turner designed the company’s first twin-cylinder motorcycle, the 500cc Speed Twin. It was a clear improvement over the single-cylinder motorcycles popular at the time and it was an instant success. It established the vertical, transverse twin motor as the design for which Triumph would be most renowned.

Over the years, the Speed Twin was improved and enlarged. By the mid 1950s, Triumph was offering a 650cc flagship called the Thunderbird (Marlon Brando’s Johnny in The Wild One famously rode a Thunderbird) and a swingarm-framed sports model called the Tiger 110.

In 1956, the company installed a highly modified Tiger motor into a cigar-shaped streamliner and took it to the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, where it set a new motorcycle speed record. One of the modifications to the motor was the use of dual carburetors, in place of the Thunderbird’s single mixer.

In late 1958 (actually after Triumph’s 1959 catalog was printed), Triumph introduced a hotter-spec version of the Tiger, complete with their dual carb head, which had been available as a factory racing kit. In honor of their land speed record, they called the new bike the Bonneville. The Tiger was called the T110 because it was warranted to hit 110 MPH. The new Bonneville was designated the T120.

The motorcycle in the lede photo is the 63rd Bonneville built, assembled on the second day of production.

WHAT HAPPENED

The “Bonnie” would rule the motorcycling world for many years and stay in production until 1988, though its heyday was the 1960s. There were bikes with more racing success, a slightly faster top speed, or higher total production numbers (some years). But the Bonneville was the most consistently popular, most well-respected motorcycle, year-in and year-out, in more parts of the world than any other machine. The Thunderbird, Tiger and various other Triumph twins stayed in production, but the twin-carb Bonnie always sat at the top of the heap.

The Bonneville was so strong an icon, it almost couldn’t die. As the British motorcycle industry was collapsing in the mid-1970s, workers at Meriden (Triumph’s home factory), were told they were going to lose their jobs, as production of Triumph twins was scheduled move ten miles away to the former BSA plant in Small Heath. The “Meriden men” brazenly undertook a sit-in strike rather than lose their jobs building Triumphs. After 18 months, a government-brokered settlement was reached and the workers were given control of the Triumph factory, tooling and intellectual property. They and the Bonneville soldiered on. Even after the factory was sold off, a few Bonnies were built as a boutique product with mostly European running gear. Then, in 1988, it was over.

As the new millennium dawned, a completely new chapter was added to the Bonneville name’s mystique. A totally new Triumph brand introduced a retro homage to the original Meriden Bonnie in 2001. Like today’s Dodge Challenger and Chevy Camaro, it has nothing mechanically in common with its namesake, but it serves to keep the name alive.

TRIUMPH BONNEVILLE TIMELINE:

1959–1962 T120 Bonneville — twin carb, hot-rodded version of the existing 650cc Tiger. “Pre-unit” engine; engine and transmission are separate housings.
1963–1970 Unit construction motor; transmission and engine are now housed in a single, conjoined set of castings.
1971 Completely new OIF (“oil in frame”) chassis introduced, largely shared with BSA twins. 650cc with four speed transmission.
1972 5-speed transmission introduced.
1973 Engine enlarged to 750cc, disc front brake. Re-designated T140.
1974 Production halted due to factory strike.
1975–1979 Production of the 750cc, 5-speed OIF T140 continues with minor tweaks along the way such as different carbs, rear disc, electronic ignition.
1980–1983 Electric starting now available. Triumph Motorcycles Ltd. declares bankruptcy in late August ’83.
1984 No motorcycles produced. Developer John Bloor purchases the remnants of the company.
1985–1988 Spare parts maker Les Harris builds 1,300 Triumphs under license from Bloor.
1989–1990 No Triumphs produced.
1991–2000 The new Triumph Motorcycles Ltd. manufactures a line of liquid-cooled three and four cylinder motorcycles (but no Bonnie).
2001–Present Bloor’s factory produces a line completely new air-cooled twin bearing the name Bonneville in 790cc and 865cc capacities.
The most modern version of the classic Bonneville was this 750cc, electric start model from the early '80s.

The omega of the classic Bonneville was this 750cc, electric start model from the early ’80s.

WHY IT’S SIGNIFICANT

Few motorcycles stay in production as long as the Bonneville. Few names are as well known. Even fewer live on for so many years after the original has walked into history. Imagine rolling the Ford Mustang,  Jag E-Type, and Mercedes W111 into one big ball — that’s what the Bonneville is to motorcycling.

 

Today's "Hinkley" Bonneville is a clean-sheet design unrelated to the classic model. A 2009 Bonneville side-by-side with the original 1958 version demonstrates the difference in shape and scale.

Today’s “Hinkley” Bonneville is a clean-sheet design unrelated to the classic model. A 2009 Bonneville side-by-side with the original 1959 model demonstrates the difference in shape and scale.

Image Sources:
Bonhams Auctions
Motorcycle Classics Magazine
Walneck’s Classic Cycle TraderTotalMotorcycle.com

  • jeepjeff

    Those are pretty sweet. I'm putting these in the "dream bike" category. Yeah, I'm a total hipster sucker for that style of naked bike, but these look like an achievable dream bike for when I've got more experience as a rider.

    And, as always, thanks, Tanshanomi. Great article. These are just the perfect thing for me right now.

    • Number_Six

      Beautiful standard bikes pre-date hipsterism, so no need to excuse the dream.

      • jeepjeff

        But I'm a millenial. I like wearing plaid shirts. I have long, carefully ignored hair and an ever changing beard (sometimes it's long, sometimes it's stubbly, sometimes I get it in my head to carve it into funny shapes, like mutton chops).

        So, yes, the bike pre-dates hipsters coming in and ruining everything, but I don't.

        • "Ruining everything" has been a part of the history of Bonnevilles and beards long before millennials came along.

          <img src="https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5223/5547900877_d10592052d.jpg"&gt;

          • jeepjeff

            That guy has to be British or Australian. I'm pretty sure you can't register those for road use in the USA without a Harley V-Twin powering it.

            • spotty

              given the shape of those handlebars and the all pervading brown-ness going on, my guess would be new zealand

              (no offence to my kiwi bretheren, eh bro)

              • jeepjeff

                I'm not sure whether New Zealanders should be offended or relieved that I left them off my list.

  • I worked in a British motorcycle shop in San Francisco back in the '90s, the first dot-com boom. I knew zilch about them, but my pal put me on the front counter and tasked me with overhauling the parts supply bins, which had a bad case of used (but maybe we should hold on to it!) parts infection.

    After a summer I really knew my Dzus Clips from my Zener Diodes. The fun part, though was being really sweet and accommodating to the customers who had obviously been addicted to Brit bikes since the '70s, and somewhat less than transparent with the highly polished golden children who bought classic Brit bikes as a lifestyle accessory. Good times.

    I can't even tell a T-100 from a TR-6 these days.

  • scroggzilla

    After his stint with Triumph, Edward Turner went to work for Daimler, where he designed their 'baby' hemi V8.

    [youtube bXvgzQ0AxnM http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXvgzQ0AxnM youtube]

  • Slow_Joe_Crow

    It's worth mentioning that the pre-unit Bonnevilles had notoriously bad handling due to a weak frame leading to hybrids like the Triton. Enterprising back street heroes took the powerful and easily tuned Triumph engines and put them in other maker's frames with better handling. While the Triumph in a Norton Featherbed (Triton) was the best known, Tribsa (BSA), Tristar (BSA Gold Star) and Trifield (Royal Enfield) were also common. Ultimately some shops started making their own frames for Triumph engines like the Rickman Metisse, Redline, Harris, North and others.
    Triumph also borrowed from the aftermarket since the OIF design was a copy of the American Trackmaster racing frame.