Can you find a more legendary motorcycle over the Triumph Bonneville? While most bikes from the 1950s have been largely forgotten over the last sixty one years the Bonnie has galloped ahead in terms of technology and its fan-following.
It’s one of the few motorcycles models that have managed to stay and lead the pack. Ask a non-rider to name a specific make and model, and surely the Bonneville is going to be a likely answer. And despite the fact that it’s gone from cutting-edge sports bike to retro throwback over a series of different generations, with the inevitable low points in between, it’s surely the only 61-year-old model that’s still as relevant now as it was at its launch in 1959
The Bonneville legacy started in 1955, when Triumph set a new land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, US. The record was held for 15 years, and paved the way for the new range of Triumph modern classics. The iconic motorcycle of today was born in 1959, named after the Bonneville Salt Flats, where it first created the iconic record. Over the years, Triumph Motorcycles has expanded its range of Bonneville motorcycles to offer different Bonneville models across segments, including roadsters, cafe racers, bobbers and cruisers.
While the first Bonneville hit the streets in 1959, the story hardly begins there.
The 1959 Triumph Bonneville 650 wasn’t born overnight. While the first of a long line of Bonneville’s, some would say its lineage goes back to Triumph Speed Twin of 1937-40. This 500cc machine was the first true vertical twin- designed by Edward Turner, this motorcycle served as a base for every vertical twin from Triumph.
Due to market demand for more power, Edward Turner ‘Designer for Triumph’ in 1949 decided to do a ‘bore-and-stroke-job’ on the 500. He punched the bore from 63mm to 71mm and stretched the stroke a mere 2mm, from 80mm to 82mm. The result was a 649cc road rocket called the 1950 6T Thunderbird. Next in line, in 1953, was the Tiger T110 (implying that it would do 110 mph!). Finally, in 1956, Triumph introduced the TR6 Trophy, a stripped down, off-road/competition version. But the big news for 1956 was a brand-new alloy cylinder head, the “Delta Head”. Replacing the ancient iron head, the Delta offered bigger valves, better flow, better cooling and higher compression, and while it was still designed for a single carburetor, the die had been cast. Because soon, the Delta would sprout a second carb. The biggest market for Triumph motorcycles at the time was the US, and the Americans wanted MORE POWER!!
To being WORLD’S FASTEST!
In 1955, Johnny Allen rode his Triumph-powered ‘Texas Cee-Gar ‘streamliner to 193.30 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats, setting the record for the world’s fastest motorcycle. NSU took the title briefly, but then Allen took it back in 1956, blasting across the salt at 214.17 mph, a record that would stand until 1962, to be taken by another Triumph-powered machine. Edward Turner wasted no time in cashing in on it, proudly proclaiming Triumphs “The World’s Fastest Motorcycles”.
In 1956, the new alloy ‘Delta Head’ replaced the old cast iron cylinder head, offering reduced weight, bigger valves for better flow and improved cooling, which allowed a higher compression ratio. But all with one carburetor, as in the wildly-successful Triumph TR6 and Triumph Trophy. Twin-carb conversions were already being played with however, and soon dual-carb heads were made available to racers and the public.
BIRTH OF THE BONNIE
By 1959, the pressure was just too great and Triumph released their seminal 1959 Triumph Bonneville 650, commemorating their salt flats victories. It was designated T120, continuing the Triumph custom of intimating at a top speed. At the time, Triumph Bonneville really was the fastest bikes you could buy, nothing else could touch them! On the racetrack, on the streets, they were the fastest!
By the tail end of the 1960s the Bonneville had hit its stride, racking up huge sales in the American market that it had always targeted, with Triumph dominating US bike sales in the over-500cc class, taking more than 50% of the market share by the end of the decade. But it was about to have the rug pulled from under it with the launch of Honda’s game-changing CB750 in 1969.
The 1970’s to 80’s
The tale of the British bike industry’s decline in the face of competition from Japan has been told many times, but it struck fast for Triumph and its parent, BSA, which had owned it since 1951. A redesign for the Bonneville in 1970 couldn’t stem the hemorrhaging sales, particularly as riders realized that the Japanese offerings didn’t only have a performance edge but also offered hugely better reliability, and the BSA group, including Triumph, was swallowed into Manganese Bronze Holdings, and specifically its subsidiary, Norton-Villiers to create Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) in 1972.
Although the T120 remained in production until 1973, gaining another big change with the adoption of a new frame that doubled as the oil tank in 1971, the new generation of larger, faster bikes from Japan meant it seemed to be a machine of the past.
Despite the collapse of NVT, the Bonnie managed to remain in production. Earlier in the decade, workers at the firm’s Meriden factory had staged a demonstration against plans to move Triumph production to BSA’s Birmingham plant. Having gained government backing, the workers created the Meriden Motorcycle Cooperative, supplying NVT with Bonnevilles but as a standalone operation. When NVT went under, the Meriden Motorcycle Cooperative were able to buy the rights to Triumph, becoming Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Ltd and keeping the T140 and Tiger on sale.
While Triumph managed to keep going at its Meriden plant – largely on the back of Bonneville sales – until 1983, that was the last year of production; Triumph went into receivership that summer.
John Bloor and the Resurrection of Triumph
Fortunately, John Bloor – flush with money from his successful building company – was in a position to snap up its mortal remains. Initially, his new company was called Bonneville Coventry Ltd; showing just how important the Bonneville still was.
Knowing that it would take years to realize his ambition of building a completely new range of Triumph bikes, Bloor set up a licensing deal with spare parts specialist Les Harris to allow Harris to manufacture Bonneville’s in production – albeit in small numbers – until he was ready to relaunch Triumph from the new base in Hinckley, Leicestershire, in 1990.
That would mark the end of the Bonneville for more than a decade, though. Bloor’s initial interest with the reborn Triumph brand was to reclaim the firm’s position as a credible rival to its Japanese and European competitors, and for that he needed resolutely modern machinery. In the years to come, bikes like the Daytona, Speed Triple and Trophy would do just that, but the idea of a new Bonneville was always lurking in the background.
It didn’t happen until 2001, when Triumph pre-empted the resurgence of retro-style bikes by launching the Hinckley-made Bonnie. Initially it was a 790cc twin, later growing to 865cc – first as the T100 in 2005 before all Bonneville’s gained the same motor in 2007.
Additional spin-off models proliferated as the interest in retro bikes grew, with the Hinckley Bonneville spawning the Scrambler and Thruxton as well as the Speedmaster and America cruisers and a host of special-edition versions over the years.
Did you know that First of Triumph Bonneville’s was offered in Tangerine, American customers at the time hated that color and left those beauties languishing on showroom floors. In fact, many were still available for purchase as new bikes for 1960. As a result, that color was quickly phased out in favor of a Royal Blue that was regarded as more appropriate for the time. But those 1959 Tangerine ones later became highly sought-after, despite the initial ugly duckling factor.
It’s funny to think that if things had gone just slightly differently in any way back at the beginning, we might not have sixty-one years of Bonneville experience around today. Back then, Turner was way more into the idea of Triumph scooters to challenge Vespa and Lambretta. Those, didn’t exactly work out as he’d hoped for the company.
Sixty one years after it first went on sale, the Bonnie is more convincing than ever before and even if you think there are far too many versions of the Bonneville, Triumph and Bonneville will always be inexplicably connected.