When it comes to the wonderful, wide world of transportation, it is arguable that none have a history as extensive as the Triumph Bonneville. Developed at a time when British bikes were at the top of their game, the Bonneville was designed to appeal to the American buying public.
After experiencing unbelievable highs, unimaginable lows, and all points in between, the Bonnie continues down the long and winding road, adding to its rich history that spans well over 60 years.
Born Into Greatness
At the time of its inception, the fastest motorcycle in the world was credited to Triumph. Their newest model would be named after the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, placing the bike in position to dominate sales in America.
Though touted to offer “the highest known performance of any standard motorcycle sold anywhere in the world,” the T120 Bonneville 650’s 1959 release was met with less than winning sales.
Not offering much in the way of change from its inspiration, the Tiger T110, the T120 was able to muster up some of the power and speed that Americans were yearning for by way of the parallel-twin OHV 650 cc engine and two monobloc carburetors. This new Triumph with a pre-unit construction did pack a punch, and it was capable of reaching upwards of 120 mph, making anyone hard-pressed to find a quicker ride.
While it might seem like the Bonneville would be riding the gravy train into the hearts of its intended audience, issues were facing the new model that had to be hammered out over the next few years in order to corner the American market.
The bike’s body failed to keep up with the power the engine brought to the table. Coupled with America’s desire for a sleeker, sportier appearance, an immediate rework to the body was in order.
During its first dozen or so years, the Bonneville underwent a couple of different chassis designs. Another significant change came about when the pre-unit construction was changed to a unit design. This made the T120 lighter, sleeker, and more powerful. By the late 1960s - early 1970s, the Bonneville hit its stride and reached the peak of its popularity.
Trying to keep up with the ever-changing times, the T120 brought in a new frame that housed the bike’s oil supply. However, this was still not enough to save the Bonneville from falling victim to a slump in sales in favor of the Japanese motorcycles that were flooding the American market.
Bigger Is Better?
The makers at Triumph knew that the only way to retain the interest of their intended market was to offer them more speed and power. In 1973, the T140 came with a newly redesigned 5-speed transmission 750 cc engine.
Unfortunately for Triumph, the T120 had 46 hp, and the new “improved” T140 only brought three more ponies to the party, coming in at 49 hp. This was a far cry from competitors’ bikes like Kawasaki and Honda that were working with almost 70 hp.
Changes and modifications continued, including the addition of an electric-powered start, but it looked like the Bonneville had reached the end of the rode in 1983 when Triumph was sold to businessman John Bloor.
Bloor initially intended for the Bonnie to make a resounding comeback, even going so far as to rename the company Bonneville Coventry Ltd tentatively. Yet, this comeback was to be years and years in the making. In the meantime, Bloor allowed parts specialist Les Harris to lease the factory and have license to produce the Bonnie. The Bonnevilles produced during this time were few and far between, as it’s said, Harris virtually crafted these bikes by hand.
In 1988, Harris’s lease ended, and Bloor began constructing Triumph’s brand new, state-of-the-art factory that would open in 1991. And for nearly a decade, the Bonneville was silent.
Rising Up from the Ashes
Following its hiatus, the Triumph Bonneville made a comeback in 2001 with a 790 cc twin engine that would eventually morph into an 865 cc in ‘05. The bike’s look offered riders the retro appearance from the traditional Bonnie while providing a ride complete with the technological advancements of the time. These factors have helped keep the bike traveling down the path to greatness decades after its initial resurgence.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
Possibly one reason the Bonneville cemented itself as a living legend for so long is due to the attention it was given by the world’s rich and famous. From musicians to stars of both the big and small screen, from world-class athletes to royalty, many of the elite class showed their love for bikes by riding one that tended to carry a price tag that matched their budget.
This public display of affection given to the Bonnie was noticeably offered by the likes of:
- Richard Gere
- David Beckham
- Hugh Laurie
- Prince Harry
- Prince William
- Tom Cruise
- Norman Reedus
While the list is far from exhaustive, it’s clear that society’s upper echelon had a love affair with this blue-blood of bikes.
The Triumph Bonneville: An Icon for the Ages
The Triumph Bonneville is arguably the most iconic motorcycle of all time. A full six decades, multiple generations, and countless limited additions after making its debut, this bike continues to prove that its legendary status is well-deserved.
There is absolutely no denying that the Triumph Bonneville will go down in history as one of the most beloved bikes ever to ride the wind, making it an icon for the ages.