First published May 31st, 2006
Above is a modern-day Triumph Bonneville motorcycle. Technologically, it owes little to the original 650cc T120 model, first produced in 1959. The 1969 Bonneville is regarded as the classic model and whilst the engineering has moved on, much of the 60's styling has been carefully preserved in the modern machine. The Bonneville is still manufactured by Triumph Motorcycles Ltd, a privately-owned British company.
The "Bonnie's" formula for success was its spartan simplicity and outstanding performance, and of course the evocative Bonneville name itself, in honour of the Texan racer Johnny Allen's high-speed runs in the "Texas Cigar" streamliner at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the mid-1950s. The Texas Cigar was a methanol-fuelled motorcycle with a streamlined body shell and a 650cc twin-cylinder Triumph engine. It achieved over 214 mph in timed runs, though the FIM - the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme - didn't ratify Allen's speed as a world record because there were no approved observers present. The production Bonneville T120 didn't quite manage the 120 mph top speed its name suggested, but it could reach more than 110 mph.
The Triumph Bonneville's celebrity status as the "World's Fastest Motorcycle" was boosted at various times by showbiz appearances. Stuntman Evel Knievel used a Bonneville TT Special for his attempt to jump over the fountain at Caesar's Palace casino in Las Vegas in 1988. In the movie 'Coogan's Bluff' Clint Eastwood rode a Bonneville in a chase scene (through what is popularly assumed to be New York's Central Park but is in fact Cloisters, north of Central Park by about 3 miles). Richard Gere co-starred with a 750cc T140E Bonnie in 'An Officer and a Gentleman'. Other Triumph riders in movies are Marlon Brando (The Wild One - a 1950 Thunderbird 6T), Steve McQueen (The Great Escape - a 650cc Triumph Trophy TR6), 'The Fonz' (Happy Days - various Triumphs and other bikes), and Ann Margret (The Swinger - Tiger T100).
The origins of the Triumph Bonneville
The first Triumph motorcycle was known as the 'No. 1', a converted bicycle fitted with a Belgian-made 2.25bhp Minerva engine on the front tube. At the time (1902) internal combustion technology was more advanced in continental Europe than it was in the UK, and Mauritz Schulte, the designer (and co-owner of the Triumph Cycle Company), happened to be a perfectionist. The Minerva was felt to be the best engine for the purpose.
The Triumph Cycle Company had been founded in 1885 by Siegfried Bettmann, originally a sewing machine salesman from Nuremburg and who'd been so impressed with the craze for bicycles in Victorian Britain that he'd moved there from Germany to set up his own firm, selling bicycles made in Birmingham by William Andrews. 'Triumph' was chosen as the company name because it could be understood throughout Europe. Schulte, also from Nuremburg, joined Bettmann in 1887 and bicycle production began in 1889, in Coventry.
In 1905 Triumph introduced the Model 3HP, with a 363cc single cylinder side-valve engine designed and manufactured in-house. By 1908 the engine was displacing 476cc and a Triumph won the Isle of Man TT, with all their eight bikes completing the race, underlining the company's focus on reliability. The Type A followed, and from late 1914 onwards the pedal-less Type H - nicknamed the 'Trusty' because of its reliability - was being produced for the British Government to equip army dispatch riders at the war front.
The immediate post-war years were not spectacularly successful for Triumph. To diversify, the company began to produce cars - a 1.4 litre saloon from the old Hillman factory in Coventry. The 550cc Type SD motorcycle was followed by the 500cc Ricardo ('Riccy'), and then the simpler and cheaper Model P was introduced in an attempt to generate income in the face of the Great Depression.
In 1932 the ailing Triumph company sold its motorcycle division to the wealthy Jack Sangster and the newly-formed Triumph Engineering Company Ltd took on a new lease of life. The 'Tiger' range of singles was upgraded and in 1937 the legendary 498cc Speed Twin (T100) was introduced. The T100 impressed the American flat track racing community during the late 1930s and after World War II the Works Manager, Edward Turner, began to look at the US market.
Triumph now produced three bikes: the Tiger 100, the Speed Twin, and the smaller 'touring' 349cc 3T. Additions to the range were made at the end of the 1940s: the off-road 500cc Trophy and the big-bore 649cc Thunderbird twin. The 149cc OHV Terrier appeared in 1953 and the 199cc Tiger Cub in 1954, a year which also saw the introduction of the Tiger 110 - a 'sports' bike developed from the Thunderbird.
The 649cc engine was the one used by Johnny Allen in his speed record attempts at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The 1959 Triumph Bonneville T120 engine was essentially a tuned T110 with two carburettors. Dubbed by the company as "The Best Motorcycle in the World" the Bonneville was launched largely at the request of Triumph's agents in America - the company's largest market in the late 1950s and where enthusiasts were demanding extra performance.
The 1950s was a golden decade for the British motorcycling industry. Alongside Triumph were other "Great Names": BSA (which acquired the Triumph company in 1951), Norton, Ariel, AJS, Matchless, and Velocette.
Triumph from the 1960s onwards
Triumph's 1959 promotional material read "The Bonneville T120 offers the highest performance available today from a standard production motorcycle. This is the motorcycle for the really knowledgeable enthusiast who can appreciate and use the power provided." The bike was light, fast, and handled well.
The development time for the early model had been short and Triumph soon set about improving the T120. The engine and gearbox were combined into a single unit and an improved frame was introduced in 1963. The engine was later enlarged from 650cc to 725cc, then to 744cc for the Bonneville T140. The Bonneville remained a great success throughout the 1960s with 1969 - the year in which Triumph launched the Trident T150 with a three-cylinder 750cc engine - being generally regarded as the high point of classic Triumph design. With the 1970s came management changes at the BSA Group and, more significantly, Japanese competition. BSA made a loss of £8.5M in 1971.
In 1973, with the involvement of the British government, a new company was formed: Norton Villiers Triumph. Against the wishes of the workforce the company planned to move Triumph production from Meriden to the BSA factory in Birmingham. The Meriden workers staged a sit-in lasting almost two years. The situation was resolved in March 1975 when a workers' co-operative was set up to manufacture the Bonneville in 750cc form, primarily for the American market.
The co-operative didn't survive long (as is so often the case). They ran out of cash in 1983. The company was liquidated, the assets sold, and houses were built on the site of the bulldozed factory. It looked like the end of Triumph and, with it, the British motorcycle industry. But property developer and self-made millionaire John Bloor bought the Triumph name and manufacturing rights, forming Triumph Motorcycles Limited, a new, privately-owned company.
Les Harris at the Racing Spares factory in Newton Abbott, Devon, had been making parts for Triumph and for a few years from 1983 he built complete bikes under licence from Bloor, assembling up to 14 machines per week from parts left over from the original production of air-cooled Meriden Triumphs - mostly Bonnevilles and Tigers. In total, some 1,300 Harris Bonnevilles were produced, mainly from the leftovers but some components (brakes, suspension, possibly wheels and some electrical parts) were sourced from other manufacturers.
Meanwhile Bloor's company set about redesigning a new range from the ground up. Six brand new Triumph motorcycles were unveiled to the industry and press at the Cologne Show in September 1990. Technologically, they were built to compete with Japanese bikes and they were well-received - further models were added during the 1990s and by the end of the decade Triumph's production facilities were expanded with a second factory at Hinckley.
The return of the Bonneville
The big news at the start of the 21st century was the return of the Bonneville. The new Bonnie was an evocative 790cc air-cooled parallel twin which combined the look, feel, and soul of the classic late 1960s T120. Launched in 2001, it was an instant success, not only only in Europe but also in the United States. The cruiser-style Bonneville 'America' (inset) followed soon after, to cater for the US rider. Unfortunately, in 2002, key sections of Triumph's assembly lines were destroyed by fire, halting bike production for 6 months.
In a review of the 2001 Triumph Bonneville, Chuck Hawks and Steve Crocker conclude that "it's a weekend-only conveyance - no peak hour traffic, no rainy weather, just a symbol of a relaxing weekend away from work, riding up the winding Pacific Highway just to hear the sound of it and throw it from side to side."
Perhaps that's the essence of the Bonneville: relaxing, away from work. I've never owned one, so I don't really know. My bike was a Triumph Sports Cub (a sort of mini-Bonneville) in around 1966. My friend Peter Donnison owned a 250cc Honda with indicators, electric start, and 100% reliability, but it had no soul compared to my Sports Cub. Classic British motorcycles aren't the easiest to own - they leak oil and require perseverance and maintenance skills, but there's a basic attraction in their elegant simplicity, need for nurture, and natural and responsive handling on the road.
More about Triumph Motorcycles at the Triumph Owners Motor Cycle Club website.