Triumph Bonneville

Classic symmetry

The Bonnie

The new model Bonnevilles coming out of Hinckley are a good bike, they are also Triumph's bestseller, but appearance wise they could have been better. They are pretty close but they lack that purity of line and perfectly balanced visual proportions of the old Meriden bike. It's this visual purity that has, more than anything else, won this bike countless fans over the decades and is still winning them today. The tank is perfect, the seat blends in with it beautifully, the header pipes follow the line of the down tubes and the mufflers that make Triumph bikes recognizable anywhere, are slightly upswept to make a superbly proportioned package. And then there's the engine in all its British glory. One of the best looking engines made. Visual correctness, for want of a better description, is something that goes directly to the roots of passion and passion describes the emotion that enthusiasts feel when they look at the Bonnie.

The tank and engine are a feast for the eyes
Image: Pinterest

An early start

The Triumph Bonneville has had three separate production runs. The first two generations, by the defunct Triumph Engineering in Meriden, West Midlands, England, were 1959-1983 and 1985-1988. Siegfried Bettmann, who had emigrated from Nuremberg Germany to Coventry England in 1893, was the founder of a company registered as the New Triumph Co. Ltd. that was later to become Triumph Engineering. After first manufacturing bicycles, the company developed the first Triumph motorcycle in 1902. It was a strengthened bicycle with a 2.25 hp Minerva engine.

In 1907 the company expanded into a new factory and were producing engines of their own. In 1936 the company had financial problems however and the Triumph bicycle and motorcycle businesses were both sold. The motorcycle business was bought by Jack Sangster of Ariel Motorcycles to become Triumph Engineering Co Ltd. The modern generation is manufactured by Triumph Motorcycles in Hinckley, Leicestershire, a company founded by John Bloor in 1990 and continues to the present.

Ted Turner's Speed Twin
Image: Wikipedia

Initial doubts

The first Bonneville can trace its roots back to the 500 cc Speed Twin designed by Ted Turner in 1937. This machine was the first true vertical twin, and spawned not just every Triumph twin from then on, but many other classic British motorcycles as well. The first bike to be actually called a Bonneville was based on the company's Triumph Tiger T110 and had the Tiger's optional twin 1 3/16 Amal monobloc carburettors as standard, along with that model's high-performance inlet camshaft. Initially it was produced with a separate engine and gearbox and would top 115 mph. It began production in 1958. A unit construction model was introduced in 1963. Turner who is often cited as the creator of the Bonneville was initially against the project. He didn't like idea of fitting high performance parts to a reliable engine and thought it was doomed to failure. But the project went ahead.

Collectors have coveted the 650
Image: Mortens

The Bonneville salt flats

In 1955, Johnny Allen had ridden his Triumph-powered streamliner to 193.30 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats, setting the record for the world's fastest motorcycle. Allen improved on it in 1956, setting a speed of 214.17 mph, a record that would stand until 1962, only to be taken by another Triumph-powered machine. By 1959, the pressure was just too great and Triumph released their Triumph Bonneville 650, commemorating their salt flats victories. It was designated T120, the 120 continuing the Triumph custom of using the top speed in their model designation. Edward Turner wanted to cash in on the success at Bonneville, proudly proclaiming Triumphs to be "The World's Fastest Motorcycles". At the time, the Triumph Bonneville really was the fastest bike you could buy, nothing else came close. Only the Vincent Black Shadow was faster but it was expensive, sold in relatively small numbers and had ceased production in 1955.

Johnny Allen and crew with the Texas Ceegar at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Triumph celebrates Bonneville Land Speed records of the past with its replica streamliner and a new Bonneville T214 Special Edition road bike

The need for speed

In 1963 Triumph combined the engine and gearbox into one unit, hence the name, unit construction. It allowed Triumph to pull even more power out of the T120. It was an instant success. The speed attracted the attention of road racers in England and Europe and flat track, desert racing and scrambles competitors in the US but the performance came at a price. It stretched the 1930's design to its limits. It was horsepower against vibration. Parts broke and new things were experimented with. A steady range of improvements were made nearly every year in the pursuit of the perfect balance between performance, smoothness and reliability.

Bonnevilles gave the Harleys a hard time in US flatrack events. This is Gary Nixon

The Japanese are coming

As the 1960's closed, the Bonneville reached its peak with the 1969 and 1970 models widely considered the best of all the Bonnevilles. At this time though they were really starting to feel the presence of the Japanese competition. The DOHC Honda CB450 was just as fast and although it didn't handle nearly as well, it was cheaper and totally reliable. British bikes had developed a reputation for leaking oil, vibrating so badly that parts would fall off, dicey electrics and poor reliability. By the time Kawasaki had released the 500 triple and particularly Honda with the CB750, the choice for many became a no brainer.

Despite its good looks and handling the Bonneville didn't stack up well against the new challengers from Japan

The downfall

Although the Bonneville, like most British bikes of that era, leaked oil from new, it should be remembered that all of the tooling for the engine parts of these early bikes was done by hand without the aid of the CNC accuracy we have today. But the Bonneville's engine was based on a 1937 design and the biggest problem with the Bonneville and the British industry in general at that time, was their reluctance to invest in completely new designs and subsequently, new machinery. Old designs were continuously being re born and produced on worn out machinery in an effort to maintain profitability. It was this attitude that eventually collapsed the industry.

The 1977 Silver Jubilee Limited Edition 750 was one of the last produced
Image: nationalmcmuseum

Sheer riding pleasure

However, such is the charm of the bike that even if a new design had been produced the original bonnie would still have its legions of hardcore fans. The beautifully balanced proportions as well as the complete 'Britishness' of the engine can't be ignored and the bike was a sheer joy to ride. Its small size combined with light weight, pretty good brakes, good power and excellent handling made it something that you just wanted to keep riding.

Famous faces were seen on Bonnevilles

What might have been

The Triumph Meriden factory produced its last Bonneville in 1983. Called the T140, it was produced in a number of versions including limited editions, from 1973 until 1983 and had a 750cc engine developed from the earlier 650 cc twins, cast wheels and disc brakes front and back. After the factory went bankrupt, Les Harris licensed production of the T140 and manufactured them in limited numbers between 1985 and 1988, these machines became known as 'Harris' or 'Devon' Bonnevilles. Many wonder just what the British bike industry would have been today if names of the past like BSA, AJS, Matchless, Ariel and many other smaller companies had been able to pull something out of the bag to match the Japanese onslaught. It took John Bloor's bold move in 1990 and the now thriving limited production Norton to bring it back to life. The Bonneville though, is established as the quintessential British bike and will continue to be sought after by collectors and those that want it for the sheer riding pleasure, for many years to come.

Image: Fortheride

Written by Paul Harmon. 18-1-18
Bibliography: Wikipedia, Classic British Motorcycles

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