There are many famous bikes, ranging from the Hayabusa, to the Royal Enfield Bullet. But few bikes have the kind of history of the Triumph Bonneville. The prestigious lineage of the bike can be traced back to 1886, when Siegfried Bettmann founded the Triumph Cycle Company. When the first Bonneville was produced, it led the way for other British bike brands and went on to become one of the most successful models of all time.
The Bonneville owes its creation to the 1937 Triumph Speed Twin, designed by Edward Turner. The 500cc bike was the first true vertical twin and served as a blueprint for future classic British motorbikes. Public demand for more power increased every year and in 1949, Turner upgraded the bike to become the 1950 6T Thunderbird.
During the 1950s, Triumph racked up a number of victories on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the US. For example, in 1955, Johnny Allen rode his Triumph streamliner to 193.30 mph, setting the record for the world’s fastest motorbike. The next year, he outdid his record and came in at 214.17 mph. Birth Of The Bonnie
Bolstered by this success, Triumph introduced the Bonneville in 1959. Based on the Triumph Tiger T110 and designated the T120, It was Turner’s last design before he retired. It had a 649cc parallel-twin engine that gave it the distinction of being the fastest motorbike in the world at the time.
However, Triumph miscalculated the US market. The Bonneville had a clunky headlight and valanced fenders, making it more suited to changeable British weather. America wanted a stripped down bike, so Triumph tweaked the 1960 version to be more appealing.
Mainstream success and competition
This slight misstep didn’t prevent the Bonneville from seeing mainstream success. In 1967, Triumph sold an estimated 28,000 T120s in the US. The bike was upgraded in 1971 by getting a new frame which contained the engine oil instead of using a separate tank. Yet this proved to be a costly decision because the frame was too tall for many riders to touch the ground properly. The production line needed to be shut down for weeks while the blueprints were updated. When the new frames arrived, it turned out the engines couldn’t be installed as there wasn’t enough room.
As the 1970s wore on, Triumph faced competition from abroad. With the introduction of Japanese models like the Kawasaki 500, the Bonneville was no longer the fastest bike on the streets. Despite this, the Bonneville soldiered on as a 750 until 1983. The Bonneville became a symbol of the old British motorcycle industry.
British developer John Bloor bought what was left of Triumph and had an idea for a new bike. In the years leading up to its creation, he licensed the rights of the classic 750 Bonneville to a supplier called Les Harris. From 1985 to 1988, Harris produced 1255 Les Harris Bonneville’s in Devon.
While this was going on, Bloor had been working on a new line of bikes at a factory in Hinckley. The engines were of a modular design and it took until 2001 to introduce the first modern Bonneville.
The story of the Triumph Bonneville has its highs and lows. But the bike has survived after all these years and continues to be a testament to what the British motorcycle industry can achieve.