If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 23 March 2010


I went for a test-ride on a Triumph Bonneville today. It was fine in the morning, so of course like an idiot I opted to do some stuff around the house. By the time I was ready to go to the bike shop, it was drizzling. Nevertheless, I am an optimist, and put on my leather jacket over my jeans and trainers, and set off. By the time I was at the bike shop it was pouring down and I was soaked. But the owner had kindly got the bike ready for me, so I had to go ahead. Not the ideal conditions for a thorough and wide-ranging test of a bike's capabilities.

The bike on test was a newish Bonneville SE. This is the version with a lower seat and more shiny bits, specificaly aimed at middle-aged returnees and lady riders, who found the original Bonnie a bit big. Sure enough, it was very low to the ground, but quite pretty and well-proportioned. I was putting on my helmet ready to set off when I realised that the bike had been left running. It was so quiet I could not hear the exhaust, even ten feet away. Bad start - I like a proper exhaust.

There are two points of view on modern Triumphs.

The first is that a philanthropic businessman, John Bloor, stepped in to save a British icon which was about to go bust, and developed the product range from the leaky, unreliable rubbish that British bikes used to be into a modern range of leak-free, reliable, world-beating classics. Ride the flag, keep the faith, British iron is best, and by buying a Bonneville or Thruxton (ah, the power of those names) you were buying a slice of British Heritage.

The second is that Triumph were already bust, and an entrepreneur simply bought the name, and used it to paint a historic gloss over a range of good, if not world-beating, bikes. The Bonneville, Thruxton and Scrambler are cynical attempts to create a pastiche of the originals, and do not deserve the hallowed name of Triumph. Worse still, the names of iconic performance bikes were being used to sell bland, low-spec entry-level machines which crudely mimicked the originals to people who cared more about the image than the actual bike.

I have to admit that I was of the latter persuasion. I was never a big fan of Triumphs, even back in the day, so I approached this test-ride with a bit of a negative expectation. It needed to be good to convince me.

It was. To be sure, it lacked power compared with a sports 900, although I was clear in my mind that the power I needed was 'enough' rather than 'more than yours'. There was certainly enough power to make the ride interesting, although I didn't need to reposition my eyeballs afterwards. The bike was light, for one thing, which is a major advantage after the 300kg Pan, and in the old journalist's cliché, 'all the controls fell easily to hand'. It really was very comfortable, and I felt I could go for miles on it. Even on narrow roads, with heavy goods lorries and mud and puddles and a rain-bespattered visor, it felt completely planted and secure, and the handling was sharp and stable. I was completely at home on it within two miles.

I can see why these bikes are popular with new riders and long-time returners. They are unthreatening, for sure, but what's so bad about that? I suppose the worst criticism is that they are bland, but I didn't find it bland. I found it predictable and user-friendly, and I can live with that. I could see myself climbing aboard, with a tent and a couple of saddlebags full of spare clothes, and setting off for the far side of Europe. There we have the difference between the Bonnie and the Sportster - all down to riding position, I suppose.

When I got back to the dealership, there was a slightly older Bonnie sitting there, a standard model in silver, with a normal seat height, some useful modifications (better exhausts, rear-set footrests) and at a price that seemed affordable. By the time they had done a few things to it for me, serviced, tested and taxed it, the difference between that and the part-ex price of the Pan was fairly modest.

I pick it up at the beginning of next month.


  1. My uncles and grandfather, all experts in one way or another (two were motorcycle journalists and the other sold them), all bought Japanese as soon as they became available in the UK during the sixties, and stuck with them. I don't think they ever felt nostalgic about British bikes for a moment. I particularly remember one of my uncles getting a Honda 400 four when they came out and breathing a sigh of relief that the days of burning oil and broken ankles was over.

  2. First off, congratulations - reckon the best bike purchases of all are the impulse ones where it just feels right from the off!

    It's an interesting piece, too: especially as, objectively, I wouldn't disagree with anything you've written here about the bike. I found it easy to ride, both physically and ergonomically - comfortable, user-friendly and surprisingly competent at all kinds of road speeds. Mechanically, it's an admirably straightforward design, and aesthetically it very much looks the part, too (although Lord alone knows why teal blue was ever a colour option).

    Basically, it does everything it needs to and it does it well: on those grounds it's simply a good all-round bike. To be totally fair, it did come between a GSXR1000 and a GSXR600, so not exactly a level playing field for comparison...but that's where it stopped, for me. The indefinable "it" factor just wasn't there, and it didn't do anything special enough to overcome that other than look traditionally British - which, of course, may well be enough to make it pretty special in the eye of the beholder. I'm genuinely curious: did you find it has more character than that, or is it more that it hits all the practical requirements and looks cool?

    Anyway, regardless of that, I hope you and it will enjoy a far more passionate (oo-er, missus) relationship than the bond of respect with the Pan!

  3. WW - I was never nostalgic for British bikes as I never owned one, and perhaps that's why the Triumph mythology has never worked on me, except in a negative way. My only ride on a Brit was on a BSA C15, and that was hardly likely to engender a lifetime's passion. Jap bikes worked and were civilised (and the Honda 400/4 is also an exceptionally pretty bike), and if they didn't handle, well, Harris or someone made a frame that did. Sad to say it, but the Brit bike industry deserved what it got.

    Endo - so we agree on everything except the 'it' factor, really. Good all-round bike, works well, competent. Of course, the 'it' thing is totally subjective, and what works for one may not work for another. For me, it just had a 'rightness' from the moment I pulled away on it. That's not to say I couldn't have improved on it with a tasty mod here or there, but the essential bike was what I wanted it to be. I've thought about this, and I think it's a lot to do with the engine. I have never, ever, felt any real passion for a four-cylinder bike. Bikes that have got my juices going have all been singles or twins. Even though the Bonnie was modestly-powered (i.e. didn't rip my arms off), it made its power in a way that I like. Ergonomially excellent, and sharp, light, precise handling on those skinny tyres. I can't say more, yet. I'll let you know when I've done a few thousand miles.

  4. You old rocker you.

  5. Heh. [combs quiff, adjusts white silk scarf and spits]

    Guilty as charged, M'Lud.

  6. Yep, I think we do agree, other than in the firestarter department. There again, I'm very much the opposite: most of the bikes I've lusted after have been multis. It's only recently that I've taken to twins at all, but would still rather have a straight four. One man's meat, etc!

    I'm pleased to see you've opted for improved exhausts, though - I couldn't believe how quiet the oem cans were! Does it need much more than that, other than a pair of long socks to roll over the top of your boots??!

    Look forward to reading more about it in these hallowed pages.

  7. I'm reminded of that old quote: V-twin character - what multis don't have, and singles have too much of. Yes, the world would be a boring place if we all thought the same.

    The demo bike had standard exhausts and was ridiculously quiet. The dealer told me he had left it running, but when I got up to it I was looking for the key - it was only the puff of smoke from the exhausts that told me it was actually running. The bike I'm getting has the Triumph accessory 'not for road use' cans on. I haven't heard them, but I'm told they are fruity without being to loud. That would suit me fine.

    Next on the list - Brylcreem, seaboot stockings and despatch rider boots, Lewis Leathers Brando jacket, silk scarf, Stadium lid with goggles, 'Leader of the Pack' on the jukebox and a glass of Vimto.

  8. Love the silver, I have a Bonneville Black but every time I see a picture of a silver Bonnie I make a resolution to paint mine silver.

  9. P.S. You are going to love the Bonnie. The bike's performance is easily increased by 30-40% with some basic modifications. The engine is quite "overbuilt" as they say.
    I agree about your note on "utility or desire". As I have never dreamed of being V. Rossi, high horsepower screamers (where the power doesn't come on till 10K RPM) do nothing for me. The Bonnie makes her torque down low, ....a great urban bike.
    The fact that it has conservative classic lines instead of the modern "transformers" look doesn't hurt either.
    To see what can be done to the Bonnie style wise, have a look at: http://www.triumphbikes.de/
    Also, if you haven't visited www.triumphrat.net you should as it is invaluable for technical and other Bonneville related considerations.
    Have a great summer.
    The Bonnie is 865 cc and considered a "starter" bike. I find this amusing. When I was a lad the Bsa & Bonneville 650's were considered to be "big" bikes.

  10. I have a silver car, and it is the most boring colour ever. Everyone and his dog has a silver car over here. But the silver Bonnie just looks 'right'. I've never owned an out-and-out sportsbike like a Blade or an R1. While I am sure it would be fun, I have never felt a burning desire to have one. I prefer bikes that have a bit of old-time character. I love my XT, as it reminds me of a cheeky puppy, always up for a bit of a laugh.

    I'm not keen on plastic at all, however good it makes riding in the rain. One of my key requirements for the new bike was nakedness. Getting at the oily bits and ease of maintenance go hand in hand for me. The Bonnie already has the TOR pipes and Norman Hyde rearsets, so a start has been made. I quite fancy the big bore kit when funds allow - but I think I will get used to it first.

    I agree totally about the engine size. (My Bonnie is the 790, by the way). When I was young, most utility bikes were 125, 175 or 250. A 350 was a 'sporting man's bike', and a 500 was the top of the performance tree. Then we had 650 and 750 twins, then fours, then sixes and the capacity just kept going up. Yes, an 'entry level' bike, a 'good first big bike' is now 800cc. I don't know what we would have made of Triumph's 2300cc monster back in 1970. I suspect we would have thought someone was joking.

  11. Ted,

    Thanks for the links to the Triumph accessories site. I have already joined up to the TriumphRAT forum and started asking questions and sticking my nose in.

    You have a good summer too.


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