This Memorable Motorcycle was originally published on May 3, 2007. With the recent updates to the Bonneville line, we thought it appropriate to revisit and update the text below in advance of the forthcoming reviews of the new Street Twin, T120 and Thruxton Bonnevilles.
One of the great, the very great, icons of motorcycling is the Triumph Bonneville. Epitomizing the heart and soul of the sporting motorcycle, the first Bonneville was the apogee of hyper sports bikes in the late 1950s.
In 1958, the Bonnie was the right bike, in the right place, at the right time – and we owe its birth to the American market and, more specifically, to California.
Eleven years after the end of the Second World War, Europe was still suffering the traumas of the immense conflict, with food rationing in Britain only ending in 1954. By contrast, California was in its golden period. Thousands of fit young men were back safely from the War with smiles on their faces and dollars in their pockets. There was sun, freedom and excitement in the air.
The ’60s saw the likes of Steve McQueen (The Great Escape), Marlon Brando(The Wild One), Clint Eastwood, James Dean and Bob Dylan riding Triumphs, cementing the marques global cult status.
It is a fallacy – but one which is becoming an ever stronger myth – that American servicemen came back from Europe filled with an enthusiasm for Grand Prix style racing. In fact, they didn’t – if only because there was very little chance for them to see road racing. But what they did bring back to the States was the joie de vivre of active, wealthy, well-fed young men wanting a good time.
This customer base did not want a big, heavy, dull Harley – or, even worse, an Indian. These apostles of the rock ‘n’ roll era demanded light, fast, exciting bikes – and the one marque which ticked every box was Triumph.
Triumph’s sporting interests in America were driven, certainly in the 1950s, by the demands of their Western distributor, Johnson Motors. Bill Johnson was a close friend of Edward Turner, the supremo of supremoes, who ruled Triumph as a dictatorship. Johnson had a huge influence over Triumph factory policy and it was he who pressed Turner for ever hotter road bikes.
Triumph’s Service Manager, John Nelson, explained the pressure which the American market put on Meriden: “It was the introduction of the splayed head, twin carburetor Tiger 100 that created an almost uncontrollable demand for a similar ported 650cc version from both American coasts, and especially Rod Coates and Pete Coleman, who had been spending many hours welding up and boring out the inlet ports of the 650cc Delta (single-carb alloy) heads to make them suitable for the souped-up Thunderbirds, T110s and the new TR6s they were now tuning.”
Melling claims the 1960 Triumph Bonneville is ‘as good as classic motorcycling gets.’
Despite its name, the Bonneville, as the eponymous 650cc vertical Twin became known, had very little to do with the World Land Speed Record-breaking streamliner which whistled down the Bonneville Salt Flats at 214.7mph in 1956. The “Texas Cee-gar” was a home-built effort using a Thunderbird engine – not a high-tech factory project. The road-going Bonneville was far more of a heavily upgraded Triumph T110 featuring, for the first time, the combination of a much uprated bottom-half, hotter cams and a twin carburetor cylinder head.
As with all Edward Turner concepts, the clever bit was that the engineering was cheap and well proven, and the styling was fabulous. The Bonneville was no technical tour de force in the manner of the six-cylinder Honda CBX or a Suzuki Wankel. On the contrary, Triumph understood every part of the new Bonneville from experience with previous models, and they knew it would work from day one. Equally, and of critical importance for Turner, it was low cost and simple engineering.
Later, this would be Turner’s downfall but when Triumph engine man Frank Barker was working on the Bonneville concept in 1957, the received wisdom said keep the engineering simple and the tooling investment low if you want to make money.
Europeans and Americans had slightly different views of the new hyper sports bike. The Bonneville gave a genuine, rock solid 44 horsepower and this dominated the sales pitch to the American market. The power needs putting in perspective. A standard Manx Norton, capable of winning a Grand Prix, produced only a couple of horsepower more than a road-going Bonnie.
The Bonneville was the equivalent of getting a MotoGP bike and being able to run it, legally, down to the shopping mall.
Away from the stop lights, the Bonnie was simply incredible. It didn’t just destroy Harleys; it reduced their owners to nervous wrecks. To be king of the stoplight drag strip you had to have a Bonnie.
At least 60% of all Triumph production during the ’60s was exported, supporting Mellling’s claim that U.S. sales were instrumental to the Bonneville’s success.
In theory, Triumph’s new Twin could manage 120 mph – hence its T120 factory designation. However, to do this speed a Bonnie needed a lot of help in terms of meticulous engine preparation and ideal conditions. What was certain was that a Bonneville would run up to 100-plus mph, regularly and reliably, straight out of the box – anywhere and anytime. These speeds were, again, Grand Prix territory.
Not only was the new motor quick, it was a significant improvement over the old T110 engine. The very first Bonneville was officially launched at the 1958 Earls Court Motorcycle Show, at the time the world’s premier bike show, and featured a brand-new, one piece crank rather than the earlier, three piece, pressed design. This was a big improvement but was still affordable by Triumph who were riding on the crest of a sales wave.
The four-speed gearbox was excellent too and was complemented by a first-class clutch. Ignition was by a reliable magneto, which was ideally suited to competition use.
There was a new, full width front hub and a whole catalogue of options aimed at racing. If a Triumph dealer had a quick rider, and a good relationship with the factory then racing camshafts, cam followers, exhausts, close-ratio gears, a one-gallon oil tank and many more extras were available so that the new bike could be made completely race ready. In fact, Mike Hailwood and Dan Shorey rode the, then unnamed, new bike to victory in the prestigious Thruxton 500-mile race in June of 1958.
The bike was also light at only 430 pounds, which further helped its outstanding performance. What irked Europeans was that most of Triumph’s efforts had gone into the motor. Frank Barker was a good engine man but cared little for chassis development, so the handling and braking of the new Triumph was distinctly marginal. Pressed hard, it was often a lot more demanding than just marginal and the Bonnie soon developed a reputation for biting the hard-riding Europeans, who put much store on cornering ability.
Matters were improved significantly when the 1960 model had a three degree-steeper steering head angle. This gave the Bonnie much quicker steering but the frame still flexed to a disconcerting degree and the handling was far worse than the 650cc Twins from BSA or Norton.
- The Bonneville was named after the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where Triumph and other motorcycle companies made attempts on the world motorcycle speed records.
- The Bonny could easily redline over the century mark straight out of the box.
- Mike Hailwood aboard the Triumph T120 Bonneville Thruxton Racer at Thruxton 500 mile.
- The idea to utilize the area on the top of the tank for storage space is nothing new as the Bonneville was noted for what Melling calls its 'bread slicer parcel rack.'
Two years after its launch, Turner gave the Bonnie an even raunchier look with the competition-type styling shown on our test bike. In so doing, he produced the best of the pre-unit construction Bonnevilles.
Almost 50 years on, original Bonnies are never ridden to their limit and this makes them one of the most exciting classic bikes in the world. A well restored Bonneville still has that edgy eagerness which makes it stand out as the premier sports bike of its generation. The motor revs freely, the power wallops in and it’s down the PCH to a Beach Boys’ concert. Truly, as good as classic motorcycling gets.
There is another bonus with owning an early Bonneville. For some inexplicable reason, prices do not reflect the quality of the motorcycle. To become the owner of a decent BSA Gold Star or a Velocette Venom Thruxton you will need $30,000 in your wallet. By contrast a sound, early Bonneville can still be found for $12,000 and another $10,000 will buy you the best. This is hardly a casual purchase but there is no better value in the classic bike market place.
Our thanks to Lawrence Rose, of Classic Motorcycles Ltd (firstname.lastname@example.org)