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Triumph Bonneville at 50 (2009) Motorcycle Review

One of the longest production runs in motorcycle history is extended this year as the Triumph Bonneville turns fifty. Steeped in tradition, the integrity of the Triumph roadster is not a thing to be trifled with where purists are concerned. Yet, on its silver anniversary, the Bonnie has received a significant going-over that may find a broader appeal among an audience that had never before seriously considered the English bike. Exactly who is in that audience, remains to be seen.

triumph bonneville at 50Fifty can be such an awkward age. Though he might be at the very height of his intellectual power, social influence and business involvements, (what American writer Tom Wolfe calls a “man in full”) the male of the species, at 50, sees decline, perhaps not on this horizon, but certainly on the next. At 50, a man is susceptible to behaving badly while making dramatic statements about his vigour. He may well buy a flashy red convertible, flirt with scandalous abandon, or invade Iraq. Nor are women at 50 spared this angst: fitness clubs teem with urban metamorphics who, in torments of age-related anxieties, over-exercise their bodies into stringy rawhide strips. Indeed, Madonna’s outward-bound husband, Guy Ritchie, reported that making love to the gaunt 50-something Diva was like “cuddling up to a piece of gristle.” How charming.

For most men and women though, 50 is a time for caution, not reckless exuberance. It’s a demarcation line from which the future is thoughtfully pondered and energies are marshalled for those “quality of life” experiences that a person heretofore has had neither the time nor the wherewithal to pursue. At 50, the Bonneville has arrived at that point too and its direction going forward is pleasantly middle-of-the-road. 

This icon of misspent youth, this black-jacketed child of the hoodlum-infested Fifties, is no longer a rebel without a cause, but a more demure roadster targeted for 2009 to meet the needs of … well, it’s not entirely clear whose needs it’s intended to meet. There’s a certain vagueness about all that. In conversation with Triumph factory executives who presented this year’s Bonneville and, its snazzier derivative, the Bonneville SE during a press function in New Orleans, the phrase “new motorcyclists” was bandied about, although no one new-rider-type was specifically articulated. That’s not entirely true. There was mention of “younger riders attracted to retro-cool,” but there’s a case of Kraft dinner sitting on the betting table that says Y-Gens don’t have a huge impact on the Big Ticket bottom line. Even if there is the odd individual from that grouping with a penchant for quirk, kitsch or contrary tastes, that rare individual would likely pony up for the Real McCoy, something genuinely retro, like a Meriden Triumph or a 40-year-old Vespa. 

Time for the qualifying statement: the changes wrought unto the Bonneville all make for a friendlier bike, one that’s more “accessible” as they like to say these days. There’s simply no question of that. The riding position is noticeably more upright and relaxed with the advent of narrower diameter bars that draw closer to the rider by a significant margin. Mounting the new Bonneville and then immediately after, for comparison’s sake, sampling last year’s T100 demonstrated the extent to which the new bars affect the riding experience—the leverage is remarkable and completely natural in terms of feel. triumph bonneville at 50

Let’s stop this bus for roll call. There are three Bonnevilles for model year 2009: the new simply-named Bonneville, the more expensive Bonneville SE extrapolation, and the T100 which returns from last year retaining classic features such as wire wheels and peashooter pipes. It too is fuel-injected this year, as are all Triumph’s so-called Modern Classics—the Bonnevilles, and Scrambler and Thruxton models—which boosts the English fleet to 23 units boasting EFI. 

Bringing the T100 into the discussion at this moment does take the focus off the new Bonnevilles, but perhaps it’s a good point of departure for a very brief history recap. 

Fifty years have now passed since the Bonneville’s debut as the T120 in 1959. Named to commemorate the exploits of wild-eyed Texas boy Johnny Allen who pushed a methanol-fueled Triumph 650cc Twin streamliner to 214 mph on Utah’s Salt flats, the T120 Bonneville’s alphanumeric nomenclature also referred to its potential top speed as a production model: 120 miles per hour. It’s now well-documented how the Bonneville went on to acquire cult status via the conduit of race accomplishments, private owner satisfaction and the ever-important celebrity appearance—ubiquitously cited are the impacts of Triumph placements in The Great Escape and The Wild One, while often forgotten is Clint Eastwood’s Bonneville-mounted chase scene in 1968’s Coogan’s Bluff. As motorcycle moments on film go, very few eclipse this performance.

Continuously produced motorcycles with the Bonneville’s longevity are few and far between. Its cousin, Harley-Davidson’s Sportster, is among the peerage, though it must be noted that the Bonneville basically entered a dormant period in 1983, with the closure of the original factory—located in the sleepy English village of Meriden—and the year 2001, when the current marque holder John Bloor and his team rejuvenated the Bonneville, blending authentic styling with a 790cc parallel Twin. 

During its lengthy history, there have been various incarnations, yet the 1969 version is often considered the brightest and the best and was even enshrined in the Franklin Mint Collection, though that honour may be dubious. In the minds of purists however, the revered Bonnie entered an era of regrettable change in the 1970s, including an oil-carrying frame. Whatever slagging the 1970s models may take in these quarters, it should be said that the tighter, more rigid frame architecture of that era—specifically the 1971 Bonneville—was highly regarded by teams still campaigning Triumphs in roadrace competition. The 1971 bike, the T120RV was actually a limited production run, exported to fulfil homologation standards. It’s to this era, the 1970s, that the new Bonnevilles speak most directly. 

triumph bonneville at 50SIGNIFICANT CHANGES ABOUND, most of which have been made with ease-of-operation in mind. The new Bonneville is, in a word, smaller. With a seat height of just 740mm (29.1 inches), the rider sits down nearly as low as his cruiser-mounted counterpart. With his feet firmly planted on the ground, the desired effect is compliance, which is expedited through the fitment of 17-inch wheels versus the T100’s 19-inch front/17-inch rear combination. These seven-spoke wheels are cast alloy bearing Metzler rubber and a single 310mm brake disc. The reference to 1970s influences notwithstanding, Triumph first introduced alloy wheels early in the 1980s, probably with the hideous 1981 Bonneville TSX Executive; a rather forgettable touring foray with stubby megaphone pipes and king ‘n’ queen seat. This effort was vaguely Japanese in appearance and in some ways so too is the new Bonneville. Perhaps that has to do with the mag wheels and the mildly reshaped tank, which is now slightly humped to accommodate the EFI system’s fuel pump residing beneath. Point of fact: the reshaped tank appeared with last year’s T100. The reason for its early arrival was likely to familiarize riders with the new appearance before the wholesale changes of 2009.

The rear suspension travel has also been shortened for the sake of an overall lower presentation. Shortened from 106mm (4.17 in.) to 100mm, which seems very little in the grand scheme, but in concert with the smaller wheels and a saddle that has been resculpted with less padding (Triumph calls it “firm” padding) the new Bonneville has essentially acquired a more compact static presence. In motion, those changes yield an agreeable nimble quality that requires no great commitment on the part of the rider to enjoy. 

The foreshortened rear shocks, adjusted to the second softest position, the factory pre-set, cope with all but the most pronounced road discouragements, such as the rough sections that appear on approaches to bridge decks. The T100, in comparison, feels top-heavy and handcuffed, albeit more substantial, while carrying nearly nine kilograms (19 lbs.) more unsprung weight—the 09’s new cast wheels are considerably lighter, and its rear fender has also been cut back as a weight saving measure and as a styling revision. 

triumph bonneville at 50This fender was derived from the Thruxton, as was the new exhaust. The visual result is a matter of personal preference, but individual upgraders may take keen interest in the relationship Triumph has forged with Arrow exhaust, which now produces a line of accessory pipes for all the Modern Classics. Sound and fury are the main objectives with these components: while the Arrow exhaust note is a lustier bark, Triumph claims no significant performance increase aside from a 60 per cent weight savings over stock.

Though it’s quite capable of reaching triple-digit speeds before the 41mm Kayaba forks and unfaired front section succumb to the inevitable battering of wind and force, the new Bonneville’s most appropriate environment is the city. As an around-town rider it’s graced with agility and superb ergonomics, augmented by an adjustable clutch lever, a range of accessory seats and, of course, the direct fuel delivery of EFI—which has been disguised to look exactly like last year’s twin carburetors. The only “tell” is the lack of a choke lever and the presence of a system check light in the speedo housing.

Both the T100 and the ’09 Bonnevilles share an 865cc air-cooled Twin that is said to produce 67 bhp at 7,500 rpm and 51 ft/lbs. torque at 5,800 rpm. This performance is rippy in-town but not entirely crisp in top gear at highway speeds, and the engine revolution status can be confirmed only on the SE variant, which features a tachometer as part of its speciality package that also includes a two-tone colour scheme, satin engine cases and a chrome tank badge. The price is reflected thusly: $8,699 for the standard Bonneville, $9,399 for the SE.

IN STRICTLY HISTORICAL TERMS, the current Triumph Motorcycles company cannot validly claim ownership of the Bonneville legacy—a careful observer during the mid-nineties may have even detected an unspoken reluctance on the part of new Triumph people to identify with the products of bygone years when the more urgent task at hand was the regeneration of the Bloor holding and the production of a modular line of triples that was far more sport-oriented than anything to ever roll out of a Triumph factory. That mission has now been accomplished: its Sprint, Speed and Tigers grow increasingly aggressive with each passing model year, its Daytona 675 sportbike openly challenges the superb Japanese inline fours, and the cruiser family is sound. These technical and marketing homeruns allow Triumph the latitude to indulge nostalgia, to expand the Modern Classics and celebrate the Bonneville in ways that may not have been conceivable when John Bloor first took the reins of bankrupt and deceased Triumph in 1990. Birthday celebration plans for the historic Bonneville model may not be overly elaborate or boisterous but they do include a limited run of 650 numbered T100 anniversary edition machines.

So, if at first blush it appears as though the 2009 Bonneville is a case of playing fast and loose with history for the sake of engaging a broader audience—one that may or may not have any emotional investment in the Triumph legacy—the more accurate picture is that there is simply a more diversified Bonnie line to choose from.

by John Campbell


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