Test Ride: Triumph Bonneville

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Ah England. The land of riding on the left, green meadows (sans sheep and cows) and old trees.

Words: Rob Harris   Photos: Rob Harris

With Triumph finally succumbing to public pressure by remaking their most famous parallel twin – the Bonneville, it seemed only appropriate to go and ride the thing on home ground. Besides, a trip to England seemed well bloody overdue, and the waiting list to test one here in Canada seemed a tad long.

So it was, that I found myself in an unusually sunny and warm England for a couple of weeks, with a mandate to catch up with old friends, family and those glorious twisty roads … oh, and doing it all on the Bonnie, of course.

I should point out at this stage that I’m a bit of a parallel twin fan. My first bike was a Honda CB200, my present bike is a Yamaha XS650 and one of my current faves being Kawasaki’s retro-styled W650. There’s something about that 360 degree crank (pistons up and down together) that appeals to me beyond all this modern state of the art technology.

With that said, I was a bit surprised when I first rode the Bonnie to find out how smooth it was. Granted, there’s a balance shaft, but where were at least some of the vibes .. the character? In fact after day one I was, well, disappointed. The Bonnie was proving to be sooo user friendly. So much so, that I was finding it a tad boring. The engine produced gobs of torque, which meant that you could stick it in top gear and stay there all day long. The chassis was rock solid, never giving an inch in any corner.

With roads like this, everything changes ..

Things changed, however, come day two, as I hit the hills and dales of central Wales, away from the tedious “A” roads and motorways of the day before. As the roads got gnarly, tight, and rollercoaster-like, the large spread of torque meant that I could spend more time concentrating on the road than the gearbox. Taking a corner at high speed was simply a matter of sliding my arse just off the seat, knee out, followed by a glorious tractor-like pull of torque, as the throttle was wound open past the corner’s apex. The footpeg would only touch down during the more heroic cornering manoeuvres, distinguished by an audible scrape and a nudge of the footrest, rather than any unnerving flexing or ‘skipping out’ of wheels.

I found that even though the Bonnie has no screen, I could sustain a top speed of 120 Km/h without feeling like I was fighting a losing battle against Mr. Wind and his evil sidekick, Noisy Bastard. Whenever that other evil, Mrs Ohh-shit-I-gotta-stop-quick rears her ugly mug, the single disc brake up front, although not spectacular, never left me wanting or left my trousers smelling. The rear brake is a good balance as well – not too keen that it locks up all the time, but then not too shite that it does sod all either.

Bench seat is more comfortable than it first appears.

Comfort -wise, the bench-like seat initially feels like it’s gonna be another pain number, as it gives very little. And oddly it does just that, only very mildly and then doesn’t get any worse. The result is that only after a week of pretty solid riding did my arse finally go beyond the pain barrier, making any further riding a distinctly time limited and not too enjoyable experience. I also found that its flatness allowed me to slide back and hook my feet on the rear pegs, offering another riding position that proved useful at speed and providing an alternative pressure zone for me derriere.

Suspension-wise, the Bonnie is supported by conventional telescopics up front and twin shocks to the rear. Although not state of the art, they proved to be a good compromise, being soft enough not to jar your back, yet hard enough not to wallow at speed.

When I did have the occasion to use the Bonnie’s box I was pleasantly surprised to find it as slick as a slick thing on a very slick (and slippery) day. It almost negates the need for a clutch at all and has a very light action to boot – even though it’s cable operated.

By this time I was riding with an old friend, Jim Hewitt, who had a Honda Hornet 600 (a naked CBR600F3), who was not only eager to have a go on the Bonnie, but I was eager to have a go on his Hornet. There’s nothing like a high revving four to focus your mind on just how torquey the Bonnie really is. With its power and torque coming in at 7,000 rpm plus, the Hornet likes, no, needs to be revved. It’s a hoot when you do it, but I was going up and down the box in every corner and every time I wanted to accelerate or pass something. Fun yes, but in a very different way.

Long inlet manifolds, bluing pipe, extra head to cylinder bracing and .. what’s that tube next to the spark plug then?

The only time the Bonnie didn’t seem too happy was at idle. It’s a warm blooded beast and didn’t like warming up from cold and then, even when warm, had the tendency to need the idle high otherwise it would invariably stall out. However, I took a quick ride on a friend’s when I got back to Canada, and it seemed more settled and co-operative at idle speeds, so it could just have been my tester.

Talking of warming up, the choke is retro-like positioned at the carbs, which makes it a tad awkward to fine tune. And now since we’re talking about carbs, they use a throttle position sensor (which must work because there’s no noticeable flat spots) and two very long (retro again?) inlet manifolds.

Well that all brings me very nicely to the retro look of the Bonneville. Triumph claim that the new Bonneville is not intended to be a reproduction of the original (except with modern technology). Rather, it’s what they perceive the Bonneville would have evolved into, had the original Triumph not gone belly up some twenty years ago. With that in mind then, they’ve done a pretty good job.

Look at that bloody crankcase! Longer than a model’s legs and twice as hairy. Eh?

The motor is still air cooled (although there’s a sizeable oil cooler up front) and it retains that very British 360 crank layout. Although it’s now pretty much vibration free (some vibes do appear when you get above 130 Km/h in top), thanks to well engineered balancer shafts. The motor is also of larger capacity than the original 650, sweeping a total of 790 cc, and instead of pushrods, now boasts up-to-date double overhead camshafts.

One thing that does seem a bit odd though, is the massiveness of the crankcases. They must be about 50% longer than any other crankcase I’ve ever seen! Just what do they have in there that requires so much room?

Although Triumph claim a dry weight of 205 Kg, the bike feels heavier which loses that “nippy” quality you might expect from a twin but adds a certain amount of stability and grace in return – (maybe that extra crankcase space is filled with lead).

The yellow stuff is oil seed rape. Quite spectacular in May.

Of course, by delving into what must be the most famous of Triumphs gone by, the new Bonnie has received a good chunk of criticism from the classic crowd. For starters, those “peashooter” pipes have a bend in their line which does take away from the overall classic appearance. They’re also way too quiet. Although a set of “off-road” pipes are available, Mr. Tate reliably informs me that a pair of vice grips and a twisting action, applied to the sticky-out bits at the end of the pipes, will remove only the very end baffling, resulting in a more pleasing, but not too intrusive exhaust note.

Then there’s no tach, which I didn’t really miss but it’s useful to have and would only add to the classic look up front. And finally, the fenders are painted instead of chromed. In my opinion they still look good but I’d like to see how some chrome jobbies would look.

But there’s also plenty of retro cues too, like the blacked-out cylinders and silver head combination (with triangulated fins), the heat sinks at the pipes where they come out of the head (which also turned an authentic shade of blue), the teardrop tank, bench style seat, pressed chromed wheel rims, etc., etc., etc. They’ve even retained the triangulated crankcase cover, although it now hides the balancer shafts instead of the camshafts of old and in place of the old Zenor Diode at the lower triple clamp there’s a modern regulator/rectifier unit – very cute.

The powder coated frame apparently takes its geometry from the ’69 Bonnie and true to the era, is a duplex cradle type (two down tubes sweeping under the motor). It also incorporates additional bracing from the headstock to the top of the motor, effectively adding a cross brace when you take the solidly mounted motor into consideration.

At the end of my trip, I took my sister for a quick ride into the Yorkshire Dales. Two-up pushes the Bonnie slightly out of its charm envelope, although it can cope well with the additional weight (sorry sis – no implication intended). Since there’s nothing at the rear for the passenger to hold on to, they tend to sit further forward and cram the rider’s area. There is a sissy (sissy – sister .. get it?) bar option which would help and also doubles up as a mounting point for bungees (which are also lacking from the original).

Overall, the Bonneville wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting bags of character with the inevitable quirks. I found a more subdued kind of character but with a smoothness and general allroundability that translated into a fun blast through the twisties yet very capable at eating up the highway miles too.

Well done Mr. Triumph, can I have some more?


Next week we’re posting a short article on how Kawasaki’s W650 shapes in in comparison to the new Bonneville, with surprising results!

Bike

Triumph Bonneville

MSL

$9,995.00

Displacement

790 cc

Engine type

Inline dohc twin, air/oil cooled

Carburetion

Twin, with throttle position sensor and electric heaters

Final drive

5 speed, chain drive

Tires, front

100/90 R 19

Tires, rear

130/80 R 17

Brakes, front

Single 310 mm discs with two-piston calipers

Brakes, rear

Single 255 mm disc with two-piston caliper

Seat height

775 mm (30.5″)

Wheelbase

1493 mm (58.8″)

Dry weight

205 Kg (451 lbs) (claimed)

Canadian colours

Red/Silver, Green/Silver

 

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