Brando, Eastwood, and the godfather of cool himself, Steve McQueen. What’d these icons have in common? They all rode a Triumph Bonneville on screen. Hell, McQueen rode a Bonneville off-screen too. If you know bikes, especially British bikes, then you know the Bonneville. Her friends call her Bonnie and her fans stretch back more than 50 years. But beyond silver screen street cred, the Bonneville is a fantastic motorcycle and one of our absolute favorites.
Starting in 1959, Bonnie got her name from one of our favorite places: the Bonneville Salt Flats. Triumph had just snapped up a land speed record, so to celebrate, they released a motorcycle with performance that, in its day, more than lived up to its namesake. Starting with a 650cc parallel twin and a four speed gearbox, the early T120 Bonneville set a surprising performance standard unheard of on such an accessible motorcycle. Coming standard with the otherwise optional hot carbs off the Tiger and an aggressive cam, the Bonneville was capable of 115 mph out of the crate. Over the years, that throaty motor grew to 750cc and various upgrades to the brakes, gearbox and suspension made the Bonneville better and better.
In all her variations, the Bonneville is a great package. The torque and zip of the parallel twin, mated to a lightweight, well-mannered chassis gives the Bonnie character in spades. It’s not as bumbly as a v-twin or as clinical as the inline fours. The Bonneville is a bike with an extra helping of soul. The engine growl says everything. “Ride me.” Sure, it’s buzzy. It’s English, so it’ll always be dripping from somewhere. That’s all just character though. Fundamentally, the Bonneville is a motorcycle of distinction — classic fun for the discerning rider.
In 1969, Honda changed motorcycles forever with the introduction of the CB750. It was the birth of the superbike and the inline four cylinder remains the paragon of high performance street bikes to this day. Though the Bonneville continued to evolve, and continued to sell very well on the Queen’s island, it’s place in motorcycling as a whole shifted. No longer the performance standard, I like to think that the Bonneville became a bike of a more discerning character. It didn’t evolve, it endured — if only to remind a new generation what a standard motorcycle should be. And while the worldwide sales numbers didn’t reward the Triumph herself, Japan sold a lot of Hondas and Yamahas with parallel twins aboard — British style with Japanese engineering. Perhaps that’s the best of both worlds. Where would today’s Cafe Racer scene be without the XS650 or the CB450? What is that they say about the sincerest form of flattery? I think there will always be a place for the Bonneville and bikes like her.
When the original Meriden Triumph closed for good in 1983. It should have been the end of the Bonneville. While some purists probably insist that’s the case, the Bonnie lives on today. Starting in 2001 by what’s usually called “Hinckley” Triumph, the reborn marque brought the bike back from the past. While the look and design of the modern Bonneville ties closely to the original, it’s all new engineering. An all-new, 790cc counter-balanced parallel twin gave the new Bonnie plenty of grunt and is, in my opinion, one of the best looking motors available on a bike today. Now expanded to 865cc, the new Bonneville switched from carbs to EFI in 2008, but still houses the throttle bodies inside empty carburetors to preserve its classic looks. Opinions in the shop are split. Some say it’s cheating. Others think it’s ingenious. I fall into the latter camp.
The new Bonneville is an utter joy to ride. It’s everything a modern classic ought to be. The throaty motor moves the bike and rider along confidently. Even with standard gearing, there’s so much torque there, the new Bonneville might as well be a three speed. You just about don’t need second or fourth. The brakes are fantastic. It’s comfortable, but not over-built. It’s also still small. Sat next to other 900cc cruisers, the Bonneville remains compact, which is a big part of why it’s so fun to ride. She’s not a cruiser, actually, even though that’s what many will use her for these days. Rather, she’s a standard. She’s the sport bike of yesteryear. Swap for side pipes and she’s a Scrambler. Drop the bars and bump the seat, and she’s a Thruxton — Triumph’s factory cafe racer and in my opinion, one of the best looking bikes you can buy right now. The modern bike is worthy of her namesake and her heritage, and we love seeing them come by the shop.
History aside, we have quite the connection to the Bonneville both old and new here at BlueCat Motors. Gorgeous examples come through the shop fairly often. Ryan has owned his oil-in-frame monster for more than 20 years now. Both Rob and I count the modern Bonneville as one of the only contemporary motorcycles we’d spend our own money on. I’ll take a Thruxton, thank you very much. In a world dominated by American v-twins and screaming sport bikes, it’s comforting that this bike, this ONE bike remains — reminding us of what English motorcycles used to be. They’re showing up more and more in the custom scene, and that’s all fine by us. Old or new, you can’t go far wrong with a Bonneville. She’ll always be sexy, and just like Steve, she’ll always be impossibly cool.