Triumph Bonneville: In a Class of Its Own

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Triumph Bonneville

In a Class of Its Own

Every classic motorcycle enthusiast should have the opportunity to enjoy the ride and feel of a Triumph Bonneville vintage bike. These old motorcycles, the earlier models of which were produced between 1959 and 1988, offer an experience that is in a class of its own.

Named after the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the Triumph Bonneville was originally intended to be part of the class of motorcycle that was used for setting land speed records.  Most models were designed to hit impressive speeds with their parallel-twin, four-stroke engines. Throughout the years, these motorbikes have gone through significant changes. However, any person who has a passion for the timeless vintage bike is bound to find an instant connection to the older models.

As far as classic motorcycles go, the Triumph Bonneville is in a league of its own. The first official model was the T120, which hit the production lines in 1959. This vintage bike with its 649cc, air-cooled, OHV parallel-twin engine was aimed largely at the US market where motorcyclists were on the hunt for a machine with a bit more muscle. Speed and power were the name of the game.

Initially, the T120 sported a pre-constructed engine which could reach speeds of approximately 115 mph straight off the showroom floor.  In the late 1950s, this was an impressive feat. This speed, however, caused some problems with the single downtube style frame. Unfortunately, the frame wasn’t strong enough to handle the horsepower of the engine. The 1960s brought a stronger, stiffer frame which could deal with the powerful engine without any problems.

Triumph Bonneville T120

A pair of 1969 Triumph Bonneville T120Rs at the London Motorcycle Museum
Photo By meriden.triumph CCL

The new modifications led to Triumph’s most successful year, 1967, when demand for these classic motorcycles really took off. Over 28,000 T120 motorbikes were sold during this time — an impressive number of sales for any motorcycle company during that era. After this, Triumph turned up the heat on their design. The design and manufacturing team came up with a concept where the engine oil was contained within the frame itself, instead of having to attach the tank separately. They also began working on their fully-fledged, 5-speed gear box, which eventually hit the streets in 1972.

Triumph Bonneville T120

1970 Triumph Bonneville T120 at the Cholmondeley Classic Car Show 2013
Photo By Steve Glover CCL

In 1971, the T120RV was sold in high numbers purely due to word of mouth. There was no official advertising from the manufacturers. These high sales were a testament to the quality of the bike. With such a huge following, these classic bikes were the rock stars of their time.

Triumph Bonneville Silver Jubilee

1977 Triumph Bonneville 750 Silver Jubilee at the Capesthorne Hall Classic Car Show 2013
Photo By Steve Glover CCL

The Triumph Bonneville T140 was the company’s next big hit. This second generation of the popular classic motorcycles pushed the 650cc engine to new limits. Eventually, a 750cc engine was put into production to provide even more impressive performance. The earlier models between 1973 and 1983 were rolled out when the company was declared bankrupt — any of these models were then considered “limited edition.”  Between 1985 and 1988, the T140 was taken over by Les Harris, a Devon motorcycle enthusiast. These Triumph Bonnevilles eventually became known as the Harris Bonnevilles.

Essentially, the 750cc T140 was intended to replace the 650cc T120. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Triumph Bonneville T140 went through several refinements. Electric start was probably the most impressive modification, which helped make this classic bike so popular among Triumph’s dedicated following. It is evident that there was a large amount of dedication when it came to keeping the name alive. The designers, engineers and manufacturers did whatever was necessary to push the Bonneville to new levels of excellence.

Classic Triumph Bonneville

Classic Triumph Bonneville
Photo By Olaf CCL

While many assumed that 1983 would herald the official closure of Triumph, and therefore the end of classic Bonneville style, Devon’s Les Harris proved to be a saving grace. After the takeover, the company became the success it is today — providing riders with no shortage of eye catching, highly desirable machines.

Modern Japanese bikes offer high speeds, no one can argue that. The Triumph Bonneville or its older models at least, provide something more. These classic motorcycles are stylish and built to last. There’s a reason that the T140 was the best-selling 750cc machine in its class.  Motorcycles don’t win the Motorcycle News “Machine of the Year Award” unless they absolutely deserve it. These bikes are, and probably always will be, the perfect balance between classic design and performance. No classic bike show would be complete without at least one of these legends.