Triumph’s Bonneville: Sunday cruiser or hipster throwback? Most articles I’ve read about the British firm’s modern remake of their once-famous roadster suggests that I should be comparing it to Moto Guzzi’s V7, Harley Davidson’s 883 Sportster and Kawasaki’s W800 – all classic naked designs evoking an era of mechanical simplicity and wind-in-your-hair motoring. The marketing suggests it’s designed purely for posing outside bike cafes on Sunday afternoons, or for trundling through the country lanes and remembering what bikes used to be like before they got all modern and plasticky.
In my usual contrarian way, I think both groups are wrong, and that it’s actually a misunderstood, under-appreciated, genuinely good all-rounder.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t get it at first either, and that the reason my Dad bought his when he returned to biking was because it most closely resembled, both in appearance and riding position, the bikes he used to ride thirty years ago. Triumph certainly don’t get spendy on any fancy parts, and the specs aren’t anything particularly impressive.
The 865cc 360-degree parallel-twin engine maxes out at ~67bhp, the old-school steel-tube chassis bulks up the 230kg kerb weight, and the suspension is unadjustable, aside from the stepped preload adjustment on the two rear shocks. Braking duties are handled by a single fixed disk and two-pot sliding caliper up front, and single-pot on the rear, with no ABS option. Brake hoses are braided steel as standard, which is a nice surprise not usually seen on bikes of this price point, but that’s Triumph for you.
The Bonneville is available in a few different flavours, and the engine itself then re-used in the America and Speedmaster cruiser lines. The vanilla Bonneville comes with narrow 17″ cast wheels and a speedometer, the T100 gets 19″ front and 18″ rear spoked wheels and a tachometer as standard to bulk out the dashboard, and the Thruxton then adds clip-ons, a rear cowl and a small fly screen to top out the model range.
I’ve ridden the T100 in full-dress touring form – it’s what my Dad rides to work, to north Wales, and to the Alps – much of it two-up, loaded with luggage, a giant touring screen with an additional spoiler, a big set of crash bars and the biggest, most comfy seat I’ve seen this side of a K1600GTL. It’s done more than 50,000 miles since 2009 and has had numerous modifications and upgrades, only some of which I have space to list here.
The big problem is that all of this extra stuff adds a lot of weight, and Triumph have repeated the same mistake they made on the Tiger by keeping the same braking setup on the bike with the larger wheel, reducing effectiveness dramatically. The larger wheel also increases the rake and trail, resulting in a more relaxed riding position, and the extra weight of the spoked wheels over the cast aluminium blunts acceleration and steering. Two up, the T100 comes across as dangerously under-braked and under-powered. The 1″ bars mean that the only heated grips you can fit have the diameter of a tennis ball, and hefting the 230kg+ on to the centre stand is enough to put your back out, no matter how practiced your technique. As mentioned previously on this site, I’ve been encouraging him for a while now to chop off all the accessories and relent to the advertising by retiring it to the odd sunday pub trundle.
That’s the T100. Well, last weekend, in my pursuit to find a new bike for my fiancé, I took out a standard cast-wheel Bonneville and absolutely flew through the Surrey hills on it. And boy, what a difference a set of wheels makes.
It’s also amazing what a set of slightly louder exhausts makes. Dad’s Bonneville sounds like a sewing machine at low revs and gets very wheezy as you approach the redline at 8,000 RPM. Triumph’s demo bike had their stock-looking high-flow silencers fitted, which make the bike sound like a spitfire is flying overhead, without being deafening. Cracking the throttle wide open at low speeds in 3rd doesn’t fling you forwards like an R1200GS would, but it does make one of the best noises I’ve ever heard. You can keep your Ducati Panigale – no bike I’ve ever ridden or seen ridden sounds this good. It was almost enough to sell me on the Triumph right there.
What sold me the rest of the way was how the Bonneville handles when shorn of its over-sized, weighty, spoked wheels. Narrow tyres (110/80 and 130/80 respectively) make for extremely quick turn-in, and the riding position is surprisingly far forward, making you feel like you’re dragging the rest of the bike behind you. This makes placing the bike on the road very easy, and allows you to carve perfect lines through sweeping bends with relative ease. I pushed the Bonneville hard to find out how much room to grow Rosa would have on the Bonnie, and rode it like I’d have ridden my Street Triple R. Only in the nastiest, bumpiest corners did the budget suspension give up and begin to flop around, necessitating some corrective action.
Ridden like this every day I’d invest in an upgrade, and also a steering damper. Should your speeds creep much above the national speed limit (on closed roads, of course) you’ll find the handlebars threatening to break into a tank-slapper with alarming regularity over bumps. The engine will be approaching its limit by then, of course, it’s true forte being in smooth torque at low revs, regardless of the gear you’re in. There are only five to choose from, but they slick through neatly and accurately, and you could honestly ride around in top all day if you were taking it easy.
More spirited riding will necessitate frequent cog-swapping – not for the extra speed, but for engine braking. Relatively low compression for a modern engine helps the gorgeous exhaust note, but means that simply rolling off the throttle for tighter turns may find you gliding in at speeds far higher than you would have expected. In these instances the front brake proves surprisingly willing, mated to the smaller wheel, and the sporty geometry means that you can trail-brake deep into corners without the bike trying to stand itself back up again.
The Bonneville certainly responds well to smooth riding and a willingness to rev the twin right up to the redline. Ridden like this it proved extremely rewarding, the exhaust rasping away behind me as I wound the throttle on out of every corner. The Ducati 916 and Kawasaki ZZR400 I caught up with probably never looked so surprised in their wingmirrors as when they saw this ‘classic’ bike roaring up behind them out of a set of fast B-road bends.
Once parked up, with the air-cooled engine pinging away as it shed excess heat, I was able to note other details that made the Bonneville so desirable. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I think Triumph have really nailed it with this bike. Somehow the pressed steel swingarm and basic tube cradle frame don’t look cheap in this application, and it’s the only bike where I’ve thought I could maybe tolerate the chrome on the headlight and indicators. And before anyone starts forecasting inevitable rust on such old-fashioned parts, I have seen one last 50k with the chrome still sparkling and the steel rust-free. Even the fantastic matte paint on the engine casings still looks mint after 5 years of hard use. I can think of plenty of modern aluminium-framed bikes that couldn’t claim that.
Triumph doesn’t seem to have resorted to cheap, but merely stuck to simple. And it’s amazing how quickly the steel frame/upright engine/steel tank/single headlight/two wheels-and-a-seat combination has come to mean ‘old’, and therefore in some way ‘inferior’. Perhaps it’s because naked bikes of today are styled to look more like rejects from a Transformers movie than props from The Great Escape, but you don’t have to go back to the ’70s to find bikes that still used this tried-and-tested format. Case in point: before it became a hybrid of naked Fireblade and VFR, the CB1000 was a basic upright motorcycle, with all the sensible practicality inherent to the format.
The modern muscle bike has grown from this into the Yamaha XJR 1300, the Honda CB1300, and the Suzuki GSX1400, before evolving further into things like the Ducati Diavel and Suzuki B-King. They got too heavy, and then they got too powerful, prices crept up and up and then they were just jokes – toys for those who wanted to spend their evenings doing huge burnouts to impress their mates at the seaside bike meet.
On the other side of the equation the Harley Davidson 883 Sportster makes around 45bhp, weighs 260kg and has so little suspension travel that you’ll knock your fillings out rolling over the very next set of white lines. The Moto Guzzi V7 is heavy and equally slow and the Kawasaki W800 is a styling exercise that has gone so far in the other direction that it has ended up in the same place as the B-King – a kerbside curiosity that everyone finds very interesting, but no-one would actually buy.
Oddly enough, it’s the Americans who seem to have spotted what a little gem Triumph have lurking in their range, crowded out of the spotlight by their three-cylinder brethren. While aftermarket parts in the UK seem limited to basic luggage options, stateside you can get upgraded brakes, suspension and dramatically up-rated engines. And this isn’t niche stuff – unless you’re building a showbike, most shoppers seem to take their stock bike and tune it up beyond recognition.
I think the reason for this is that their market has gone through the sports bike craze and come out the other side unfazed, and therefore un-jaded. Here is an air-cooled bike that looks and sounds like the cruisers they grew up with, but has much better suspension, far less weight and a lot more power. It costs less, makes more power and is far more comfortable than the Harleys they would compare it to, and so they’ve flocked to them in droves, creating a diverse and healthy market for parts to customise and modify and improve with.
We seem to struggle in the UK. We seem to think that steel frames equal heavy, that air-cooled equals slow, that the classic look must equal impractical and maintenance-heavy. But the Bonneville is cheaper to service than my Street Triple, has the same 6k intervals, and will happily take a big windshield without looking completely ridiculous (try that on an MT-07). It’ll take a passenger easily, gets mid-50s fuel economy in mixed riding and will attract admiring glances from everyone as you ride by. I’ve lost track of the number of times my Dad’s bike was mistaken for an original ’60s example.
If I’d tried the Bonneville before I tried my Street Triple, I might never have made it that far; I could not believe how much fun it was to ride, and I’ve seen just how easily it can be made a master of all trades. Sure more power is always nice, and I upgrade suspension on every bike I buy, but I struggle to think of another bike that would do fun, touring and commuting so effectively for so many people if they could simply get past the idea that it’s just for posing – and get it on the centre stand.