The Triumph Bonneville was an iconic motorcycle named after the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, where the Triumph company made many successful attempts at the world motorcycle speed records. The original Bonneville was a 650cc parallel twin motorcycle which came off the production lines in 1958 and soared into the public consciousness during the 60’s. The Bonneville performed excellently on the race track, but it was the motorcycle’s unique aesthetic qualities and celebrity associations that helped it to achieve legendary status.
The Bonneville entered the realm of motorcycle lore in the 1950’s and 60’s, when A-list actors such as Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando and James Dean were spotted riding the mythical vehicle, both on and off-screen. Today, the Bonneville represents vintage design, integrity and performance. However, to tell the complete story of the Bonneville, we have to start in the 19th century when a young German engineer by the name of Siegfried Bettmann moved to Coventry, England, and started the Triumph Cycle Company in 1886.
In 1902, the first Triumph motorcycle is produced. The archaic motorcycle was powered by a single-cylinder 2.2hp Minerva engine fitted onto a traditional bicycle frame. By 1907, the company had moved to a larger location on Priory Street, Coventry, which allowed production to reach 1,000 vehicles annually. The subsequent Triumph motorcycle was powered by a 450cc 3.5bhp engine.
By 1914, the company was producing 4,000 vehicles annually, but after the outbreak of WW1, production became focused on the allied war effort. The 1915 Model H motorcycle is considered to be the first ever true motorcycle (not fitted with pedals). Approximately 30,000 of the 499cc air-cooled, single cylinder bikes were used by the allies during WW1.
By 1927, the 500,000 sq ft Triumph factory was producing 30,000 vehicles per year and after the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, the company once again focused its production on the allied war effort. Fast forward to the early 1950’s and the world’s first ‘superbike’ is born: the Triumph Thunderbird. In 1954, Marlon Brando rode his 650cc Thunderbird 6T in the hit movie The Wild One.
The birth of an icon
Before the launch of the Bonneville T120 in 1958, Triumph motorcycles were primarily known for their great performance on race tracks, but everything soon changed. Triumph had been dominating the world land speed records for the past two decades – the 1956 record of 214.17 mph (set on the Utah Salt Flats) would only be bested by yet another Triumph machine in 1962! In order to cash in on this notoriety, the Bonneville was released.
The vehicle featured a 649cc two-cylinder engine, twin 1 3/16 inch Amal carburetors and an inlet camshaft. The vehicle was appropriately equipped for riding in the notoriously grim British weather, but the American market had different requirements (they wanted a sportier aesthetic and better performance). In the 1960’s, the Bonneville received significant upgrades in both performance and looks. In addition to upgrades to the gearbox and engine, new bracing was introduced at the steering head and swinging arm to combat high speed wobbles.
In 1963, Steve Mcqueen rides the iconic Bonneville T120 in The Great Escape, and 3 years later a vehicle powered by two Triumph 650cc motors records an astounding 245.6 mph record on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In addition to receiving praise from cultural icons, the Bonneville was also highly regarded by the Rock ‘n’ Roll community in London during the 1960’s. London’s famous Ace Café, frequented by motorcyclists and rockers, would always have an abundance of Bonneville T120s visible outside the premises.
By 1967, Triumph undoubtedly managed to infiltrate the American market as 28,700 units were sold stateside. The year after, the entire world watched in awe (and horror) as motorcycle daredevil, Evel Knievel, attempted to jump the fountain at Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas while riding a Bonneville. The closing years of the 1960’s marked the peak of the motorcycle’s notoriety.
Trials and tribulations
Despite unfathomable successes in the 1960’s, the 1970’s were marred with struggle and discontent. In 1973, the workers at the Triumph factory went on strike, protesting against a government-sponsored merge with another motorcycle manufacturing company. As a result, production was severely diminished over the next two years.
In 1975 the Meridan Worker’s Cooperative was formed and production continued, but the writing was on the wall. Due to changes in the UK economy, the new T140 Bonneville was prohibitively expense for the British market and sales dwindled. Things worsened as Meridan began to face ferocious competition from foreign motorcycle manufacturers and soon, the Triumph Bonneville was no longer the fastest bike on the road. Production of the Bonneville ceased in 1983 when Meridan went finally into liquidation. It appeared that the Bonneville would be fondly remembered as an icon relic from the Rock ‘n’ Roll era, until it was brought back to life in 2000.
In 1990, Triumph returned to a new factory in Hinckley, Leicestershire, and one decade later, the Bonneville was reborn. Featuring a retro aesthetic, the new Bonneville was kitted out with a 790cc 360 degree crank parallel twin engine for its launch at the Munich Motorcycle Show in September 2000. A year after the release of the 790 Bonneville, the T100 Centennial Edition was released to commemorate 100 years of the Triumph brand, although only a limited number of units were released before a fire broke out at the Triumph factory, halting production.
Finally, the Bonneville T100 was released alongside its companion, the deathly T100 Black. Both models have the iconic style of the T120, but are lighter and benefit from modern engineering. Key features include a 900cc parallel twin engine with improved fuel economy, a longer rear suspension unit and cartridge front forks for comfortable riding, and custom Pirelli Phantom Sportscomp tires with a deeper tread for improved handling and durability. Today, the Bonnevilles from Triumph's Modern Classics line have become very popular within the aftermarket parts industry. Owners are able to customize their Bonneville with a wide selection of custom parts from a variety of reputable companies, such as the Roland Sands Design 2-UP Enzo Classic Step Seat.
Perfect for long-distance adventures or apocalyptic rides into the abyss, the T100 offers comfortable riding, exemplary performance and vintage flare.