I'd like to think that I was a witness to the birth of the modern version of Triumph's classic Bonneville. It happened in an Auckland restaurant in the late 1990s, rather than at the Hinckley factory.
Triumph's New Zealand distributor, Ian Beckhaus, suddenly halted my conversation with the factory's export manager, Ross Clifford, about why the brand should honour its heritage and build a parallel twin-powered Bonneville model by producing the photo of then-new Kawasaki W650.
Click photo at left to view gallery.
Just slap a Triumph badge on this thing, Beckhaus urged Clifford, and it'll double your sales in this market.
When the 21st century version of the Bonneville duly appeared three years later in 2001, that's exactly what happened: a virtual doubling of Triumph's New Zealand sales, rather than any blatant plagiarism of Kawasaki's work. Instead of taking the latter dishonest route, Triumph built its own good, honest motorcycle instead, albeit one that lacked the elegant aesthetics of the original Bonneville's Edward Turner-designed engine and one that delivered its modest power in such a gentle fashion that it wouldn't frighten anyone.
However, the first made-in-Hinckley Bonneville did get the basics right: the styling mimicked the original right down to the pea shooter exhaust mufflers, and it didn't leak oil, break down, or vibrate light bulb filaments loose like the bike it was paying homage to. Born-again boomer-age bikers consequently flocked to the new parallel-twin like it was a free Leonard Cohen concert.
Meanwhile, thanks in some part to the success of the Bonneville, Beckhaus has continued his long run as Triumph's most successful export market distributor, Clifford has gone on to secure a cushier job with less travel at Victory/Indian, and I continue to enjoy the odd drink with either picking up the bar tab. There's just one thing wrong with the tale of the born-again Bonneville: the resurrected bike should have been better.
Triumph did correct some of the bike's sins in 2009 with an engine upgrade that expanded cubic capacity from 790cc to 865cc.
With the extra cee-cees came more thump at the bottom end of the rev range matched by more power up top, but the Bonneville remains a mild ride. The soft performance of the single-disc front brake was exorcised at the same time, courtesy of a master cylinder that delivers more bite at the caliper and more feel for available traction at the lever.
The Bonneville now has a braking system perfect for a buyer demographic that includes riders returning to riding and those who never stopped but who want a more user-friendly mount than their previous ride.
However, some warts are still glaringly obvious when you make a closer inspection of a Bonneville: notably the silly positioning of the ignition key behind the left-side front indicator and rear wheel chain tension adjusters that look like they're made out of recycled tin cans.
Perhaps such she'll-be-right engineering of some minor components is crucial to the ability of the Bonneville range to offer outstanding value. Certainly the $14,490 tag attached to this black T100 model (two-tone: $14,990) is one of its most attractive features, especially because the model comes equipped with tasty chrome-plated wire-spoked wheels, rubber gaiters for the front forks, and the retro appeal of the classic pea-shooter mufflers. The latter were replaced on the test bike by a full Arrow 2-into-2 exhaust system, a $2995 option. The new exhaust plumbing certainly added to the powertrain's emotive appeal, delivering new sonics that were more evocative of the baritone sounds of the original Bonneville.
They also increased performance by adding a few more horses to the engine's under-stressed output and removing a couple of kilograms from the mass of the bike.
The Bonneville's easy handling is another of its most attractive attributes. It rolls into corners on its narrow tyres with the lightest of nudges on the bars, and the suspension may be basic, but it delivers one of the best rides in the retro streetbike segment. Unlike some other homage-twins (such as the Harley Sportster and Moto Guzzi V7) , the Bonneville's stock suspension doesn't cry out for immediate remediation.
The bike certainly suits Ted just as it comes. Ted's a 60-something retired successful businessman who I met recently at a rest area atop Mount Messenger in Taranaki, who spends his days clocking up 50,000km a year aboard a Hinckley Bonneville. Each year he trades one Bonny in for another. Ted's definitely someone who helped Triumph overtake former market leader Harley-Davidson in sales of 600+cc motorcycles during the first five months of 2012. For him, there simply isn't a better bike on the market.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 865cc air-cooled ohv pushrod parallel twin, stoked by electronic fuel injection to develop 50kW (67.4bhp) at 7500rpm and 68Nm at 5800rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed sequential gearbox, chain final drive.
Frame: Steel-tube twin cradle frame and square-section steel rear swingarm; 41mm unadjustable Kayaba front forks with 120mm of travel, Twin preload-adjustable Kayaba rear with 106mm of travel.
Price: $14,490 (as tested: $17,485)
Hot: Chugging parallel-twin engine gentle on fuel if used discreetly; easy flickable steering the dynamic highlight, brake set-up won't trouble emerging rider skill-sets.
Not: A 1960 Honda C50 Cub has chain tension adjusters of similar quality; ignition key positioning at front of bike makes it vulnerable to damage.
- © Fairfax NZ News