SAN DIEGO, CA.—Cruisers are on their way out. Well, at least traditional Harley-clone cruisers, which have been part of the motorcycling scene for more than three decades. Need proof? Just peruse any of the Japanese manufacturers’ websites and take a look at the current crop of low-slung low riders sporting skirted fenders. The selection is meagre.
In fact, Honda has no current cruiser models in its line-up aside from the new Rebel, which is unconventional by cruiser standards. Rewind about a decade and factor in different engine displacements, and the company had more than a dozen to choose from.
However, not all is lost if you prefer feet-forward freeway frolicking (say that five times fast! – Ed.). Over the last few years we’ve seen a new crop of cruisers appear, which are lighter, more capable, more powerful, and way prettier than the cruisers of yesteryear. Many come from companies you’d never expect would produce such a bike. Ducati has the Diavel, and Moto Guzzi has the MGX-21. Some modern cruisers take no visual cues from American-made V-twins, like the Kawasaki Vulcan S or the aforementioned Honda Rebel.
Triumph makes the Rocket III, which is a monster of a cruiser with a 2.3-litre triple that the company rightfully claims is “the world’s biggest production motorcycle engine.” But it’s a big, cumbersome machine that’s more in line with cruisers of the past, at least in terms of handling, and to some extent, styling.
You can find another, more contemporary cruiser in Triumph’s line-up (though they insist on calling it a custom), and it didn’t have to borrow from American motorcycle design for inspiration. Rather, the company tapped into its own history for styling cues, as well as the custom culture of the 1950s. The result is the stunningly stylish Bonneville Bobber. But despite its appealing lines, you can’t ride two up on it, nor can you carry a passenger on its more sinister-looking sibling, the Bobber Black. And if you like to polish chrome when you’re not riding, well, there is none to speak of on either of those Bobbers.
Enter the Speedmaster. It’s a more lavishly finished British custom that’s based on the Bobber platform. It gets the Bobber Black’s 16-inch front wheel (19-inch on the Bobber) and fat 130/90 front tire, but it retains the Bobber’s 41-mm KYB cartridge fork instead of the Black’s burlier 47-mm Showa fork. The Speedmaster’s rims are, however, finished in chrome. Other styling touches include chrome and brushed aluminum highlights, and two-tone paint is available for $500 above the Speedmaster’s $14,950 starting price (the same price as the Bobber Black). Our testers were adorned with the two-tone paint, and I often found myself looking down at the gas tank and admiring the hand-painted pinstripes; you can see the slightly different spacing between the pinstripe gaps, confirming they were applied freehand without a template or silkscreen – a very nice touch, I thought.
The Speedmaster also has a larger 12-litre gas tank, as opposed to 9 litres for the two Bobbers. Other markets get a headlight with a bright LED daytime running lamp, but due to Transport Canada’s reluctance to homologate practical new technologies, we don’t get it here — the LED bits are there, but the main headlight must stay on. The front brake uses the twin-disc setup from the Black, with Brembo twin-piston calipers, as opposed to the single-disc Nissin setup on the Bobber.
Aside from the shiny chrome bits and available two-tone paint, the Speedmaster’s biggest change is the addition of a pillion seat. To accommodate the added weight of a passenger, rear preload is adjustable via an easily accessible lever, and the shock now has a dual-rate spring. If, however, you prefer the styling of the Speedmaster to either of the Bobbers but insist on riding alone, the passenger seat, grab rail and passenger footpegs are all removable for that solo look. You selfish bastard.
Just like the two Bobbers, a 1,200 cc High Torque liquid-cooled parallel twin with a 270-degree firing order powers the Speedmaster, and it is identically tuned for a fat midrange. It produces 76 horsepower with a broad spread of torque that peaks at 78 lb.-ft.
A wide handlebar pulls back to provide an upright riding position, and footpegs are forward mounted. Seat height is 705 mm (27.8 inches), which is 15 mm taller than on the Bobbers, but it’s still an easy reach to the ground for most people. The forward-mounted pegs are not my preferred setup, and the riding position they impose contributed to a slightly sore backside after about an hour in the saddle. (You sure it was the bike, Costa? – Ed.) The mid-mounted footpegs of the Bobber are a direct retrofit (at a cost, of course) for those who don’t have a foot-forward inclination.
The mechanically-assisted clutch is surprisingly light, and a gentle nudge at the shifter finds first gear; subsequent gear changes are equally light. As I’d noted on the Bobber, gearing is tall, and you have to slip the clutch noticeably to get the bike moving. The engine’s torquey character, however, makes stalling a rarity (I did stall once). Gearing is tall enough that back roads were handled mostly in fourth and fifth gears, with sixth only engaged on the highway at speeds above 110 km/h while the engine loped along at 2,700 rpm.
Despite the Speedmaster’s fat front tire, steering remains light and neutral with very little effort needed to maintain a lean. Although the added leverage of a wide handlebar often induces some weave at speed on some bikes, this bike is rock-steady in a straight line. Cornering clearance is a bit better than typical foot-forward cruisers, but not as good as sportier cruisers like the Diavel.
The engine produces a rich exhaust note and the twin lunges the bike forward with force from relatively low revs in the four lower gears, though power does flatten out as engine speed reaches its upper limit. The broad powerband does make shifting almost redundant on twisty roads. According to my seat-of-the-pants dyno, the Speedmaster feels about as powerful as a Sportster 1200, but the British bike is a much lighter-handling machine. The twin-disc setup, which includes ABS, is much stronger with lighter lever effort than the Bobber’s single-disc front brake.
As with its Bobber brethren, the Speedmaster is mostly about the styling, though it has also been made more practical with its larger fuel tank and with the addition of passenger seating. And like all other Bonneville models, the Speedmaster can be personalised via two available dealer-installed “Inspiration” kits (prices not yet available), which include a pre-selected assembly of accessories.
The Highway kit includes an adjustable windshield, waxed cotton and leather saddlebags, a touring seat, a passenger backrest and an engine guard. The Maverick kit includes a brown quilted seat, a flatter, lower handlebar, black Vance & Hines exhaust system, and a grab-rail removal kit with rear fender finisher.
The Cruiser is dead! Long live the Cruiser!
I think there’s a new cruiser movement on the way, and it will likely break away from the tired old copy of the American “biker’s bike” cliché (not talking Harleys or Indians here, they’re the originals). The Triumph Speedmaster has elements of those bikes — mainly the riding position and low seat — but with a distinct Brit-bike character that should appeal to older riders who grew up around the originals decades ago, and to younger riders who want to ride those classics today.