TRIUMPH T120 BONNEVILLE
If there's one classic bike which everyone can recognise then it's the iconic Bonneville. But surely a late-1960s T120 is a cliche too far for Ace Tester Miles, a man famed for his idiosyncratic classic choices?
If there's one classic bike which everyone can recognise then it's the iconic Bonneville. But surely a late 1960s T120 is a cliche too far for Ace Tester Miles, a man famed for his idiosyncratic classic choices?
There's really nothing I can tell you about atriumph Bonneville that you don't already know. They've been around for so long that it's possible that cavemen rode Meriden twins; certainly, Neanderthals seem to have worked on most of them at some point. Mainstay of the British motorcycle industry and so iconic that pretty much any classically styled vertical twin cylinder bike will be likened to a Bonnie; even Yamaha's XS650 and the Kawasaki W800 are flattered by the association.
Does the Tl 20 deserve this elevated reputation? Or did Triumph somehow fluke their way into the minds and souls of generations clad in leather, helped along by some brilliant marketing? There's only one way to find out!
In the interests of fairness, I should probably share with you my slight bias against most things Meriden. I usually plant my flag in the 'over rated' category. Thus if this Bonnie can win me over then it's a fine motorcycle indeed! However, buoyed by the general gloriousness of a TR5 I recently reviewed, my usual frostiness has thawed a little. And what better example of Meriden's finest son to try than a late 60s Tl 20?
This bike, spending nearly all its life locally to me, is from the era that perhaps best represents the model, the 1965 70 machines. The early bikes were criticised for some handling irregularities, but by the mid 1960s Triumph had gone to the shorter and stiffer unit engine construction, allowing significant frame modifications that resulted in a faster, more agile machine. Further developments included coil ignition replacing the magneto, suspension and electrical upgrades plus a brilliant 8" 2Is front brake.
The resultant machines for the latter part of the Sixties were undoubtedly among the quickest, most glamorous motorcycles around. The three decades old, basic engine design was near the apogee of its long development. It was neither too large to become excessively vibratory and unreliable, but big enough to compete with the best of the competition on paper at least.
This actual Bonnie, a 1969 four speed UK 650, is therefore amongst the last of this lauded batch and so is highly prized (and suitably priced). The 1970s saw Triumph adopt the vertiginous oil in frame concept and, in an effort to keep the ageing twin relevant in a fast changing marketplace, stretch it to 750, add an extra gear and fit heavy disc brakes. These mods arguably added nothing to the overall package; extra weight, complexity and vibration bringing little of worth to the riding experience. This then is surely the best Bonnie to help convince me and change my mind. Possibly. I dislike Triumphs. Regarding the Triumph, basking in the sun with light reflecting off the perfectly proportioned silencers and the candy red paint almost seeming to glow, it becomes easier to understand why Triumphs in general, and Bonnevilles in particular, enjoy such a wide fanbase. The proportions are just about perfect and the pushrod twin engine would surely be a finalist in the 'best looking motor ever made' contest. The British contemporaries would have been BSA'S slightly lumpen A65, complete with 'power egg' motor, and the hideous looking fastback Commando; another dragon in need of slaying at a future date. Neither could hold a
candle to the cute T120, then or now.
Triumph themselves were also attempting to flog their new triples at the very moment this beauty rolled off the production line, but it would take a re style for the Tridents to become palatable to the mass market, with the T150 looking remarkably like a three cylinder version of a Sixties Bonneville! No wonder then, our hypothetical young Turk's eyes would be drawn to the 650cc twin in the showroom. But looks alone wouldn't be enough. Our hero also needed to know his £387 choice would also perform.
And perform it could. High compression pistons, lumpy camshafts and twin carburettors boosted claimed power to around 50bhp. While slightly down on the best from the opposition, the proven (if ancient) engine was a lusty thing and eager to rev. And although the larger 750cc Commando made five or six more horses, the extra weight the Norton carried somewhat negated the advantage. With a fighting weight of 370Ib, compared with an extra 45 or so on the Commando and the astonishing hundredweight of the portly triples, the sprightly Triumph was feted as the one to have if you wanted to get somewhere in a hurry. Considering the motorcycle as a classic, my rather more geriatric requirements are of a different, more pragmatic nature. Will it be comfortable, reliable and easy to start? Can I get it on and off the stand? Previously unridden for several years, this particular machine has a couple of nods towards modernism, namely Boyer electronic ignition and a curious mix of carburettor parts. He'd even changed the oil. Proud owner passed me a box with 'the old carbs' in it. Yet the Concentrics on the bike already looked old, apart from the float bowls, Hmmm ...
I charged the battery, splashed in some fresh petrol, syphoned from the mower and barely two seasons old; thank heavens for snake oil. The tyres appear to be replicas of the originals but carved from solid pieces of coal, such are their hardness. I made a mental note to proceed cautiously, assuming the engine would run at all. I turned the key, a coil ignition novelty, and things lit up! Tickling the carbs produced the usual smelly glove and, lacking any other task that would delay actually riding the thing, I gave it a wallop on the kickstart, more in hope than expectation. But fire up it did, ►
Here's a thing, despite my ingrained prejudice against triumphs, I've always grudgingly admired their ease of starting. Even a vaguely in tune twin will fire first or second kick, affording the Triumph rider a brief smile as he rides past the sweaty Gold Star owner cursing the singular silence.
With the Triumph rattling away in front of me, slowly reversing its way back into the shed, cowering from my glowering, I prepared for my first ride. It wouldn't go into gear, no matter what I tried. Eventually, my fast fading grey matter recalled that you need to free the clutch off on a triumph before starting. I stopped the bike and gently prodded the kickstart with the clutch held in. Nothing, locked solid. A firmer prod soon escalated into a full kick, at which point the plates released and my shin hammered into the footrest.
I hate Triumphs.
We started again and this time I found a gear that might enable some progress, so off we went. For sure, the clutch plates were still a bit sticky and the controls heavy, the cables dry from lack of maintenance, but yes, I did come over all a bit Hollywood as I channelled my inner James Dean. The small list of jobs began to formulate as I rode along, but generally it was a nice experience.
I quite like Triumphs.
Cables were oiled, chains were adjusted and lubricants were changed, including fork oil, of which there was none. Weird. I also looked in the box marked 'old carbs' only to find ... two brand new Amal premier bodies. Doubly weird. Stripping the carbs on the bike revealed them to essentially be the old carburettor bodies but with all the new internal from the Premiers fitted. As this made no sense whatsoever I rebuilt them with the new bodies, before balancing them and setting up as per the manual. That should help things.
The pretty Bonnie now fired up easily, idled perfectly and went up and down through the gears. I rode it on several shorter trips, gradually increasing the revs, and it all seemed well for about 300 miles. A buddy and I then embarked on a longer day trip, the perfect test for my Triumph, which was fast becoming a go to bike. Off we set and for about fifty miles I cruised along, at peace with the world, completely comfortable and safe in the knowledge that my Bonnie was a handsome, reliable classic. Why, I may even order those tyres for it.
Pulling alongside my friend on his inferior Ariel, I made the universal sign for tea and cake, confirming his attention with a simple toot on the giant Clearhooter horn. The toot became a flash, which turned into a series of small explosions and the Tl 20 suddenly lost all power! Coasting to a halt in the middle of nowhere it was soon apparent that something catastrophic had occurred. The battery had boiled, virtually every bulb had
blown and I was stranded.
I really loathe Triumphs.
Checking the fuse to find it unblown, my initial confusion changed to anger when I realised it was rated at 35A continuous. More fool me for not checking earlier. Disconnecting pretty much everything, I let the battery cool before tentatively trying again. I had some signs of life, enough to enable me to slowly limp home. While nobody likes to break down, least of all me, I have admiration for any machine that makes it home under its own steam.
I still hate Triumphs.
Up on the bench a quick check revealed zero output from the alternator and only 11.1 V from the battered battery. A deeper dive uncovered a wire to the horn with a tiny cut that shorted when the button was pushed, wrecking everything in sight due to the power station rated fuse that refused to blow. Tedious, but fixable.
One of the good things about owning a 1960s Triumph is the availability of parts and the following day saw me ride to local parts dealer Feked and pick up a replacement alternator, rotor and regulator/rectifier, all available off the shelf! Thanks guys.
I tidied the wiring a little, fitted a smaller and neater horn, then the new bits, a straightforward job. The Bonnie was fired up and immediately showed a healthy charge, job done. 300 miles since and all is well. I'm ambivalent about triumphs.
The Bonneville looks great, starts easily and runs well. Despite the massive hammering I occasionally inflict it steadfastly refuses to leak oil, a slight misting is the best I can coax out of it. The brakes are tremendous, far superior to the first generation discs that were soon to follow. It handles well (after I treated it to those new tyres) and boy, is it fast. There's a price to pay of course, in the form of vibration. The twin launches off the line like a stabbed rat and is a hoot when blasting down country lanes. At a steady 70mph plus though the vibration begins to become wearing, whereas my Venom is a picture of sophistication by comparison. But the Triumph is much quicker and, dare I say it, possibly more fun to ride.
In many ways I think it appropriate to liken old motorcycles with car brands stay with me on this. The Bonneville, with its fast if crude engine, flash appearance and ever so slightly shoddy build quality reminds me of, say, a Ford Capri. Both look great, go well, are reasonably reliable and simple to fix. But look carefully and it's easy to spot where corners have been cut.
The T120's switchgear is basic, the finish a little crude. A quick look at the left sidepanel reveals cut outs to allow the saddle to swing open. Norton or BSA would never had allowed that to happen. Despite four decades of development, Triumph had yet to cure ►
the persistent oil weeping from the exposed pushrod tubes and rocker covers, yet their competition had long since adopted enclosed tunnels and oilways for their engines. If Triumphs are likened to Fords, then a Norton would probably be more like Rover not without fault but generally built to a higher standard and less glitzy. Nortons were for gentlemen riders, whereas Triumphs the choice of impecunious flashy boy racers.
I like Triumphs.
Are Bonnevilles wholly deserving of the hero worship and the colossal price premiums they now command? No, not really. They were a mass produced (to a price) sporting twin that's really no better overall than the competition. In fact, simplifying the Triumph with a single carburettor and slightly lower state of tune probably makes for a better all round motorcycle, the largely theoretical performance loss more than offset by increase in reliability and eco omy. But that bike, the Trophy, is visibly diminished when compared to the glamourous, rip snorting, twin carb fire breather. It's like comparing a 1.6L Capri with its top of the range 3.01 variant, the same only more of it. Hollywood stars rode Bonnevilles and so can you, just accept the price and pay the man.
I... tolerate Triumphs.