Bonneville: 57 years of inspiration

Evolution, not revolution

When the first Speed Twins rolled off the Triumph production line in the late 1930s, they marked a watershed for the industry.

Here was a bike that, perhaps unintentionally, provided the perfect platform for the marque’s fans to truly make motorcycles their own.

Fast forward to a post war world and the advent of the Bonneville in 1959 when, for the first time, a bike was born that was ideally suited for modification. It was as if Triumph had created the perfect motorcycle for either the aficionado or the most demanding of pedants.

The T120R and its descendants looked fantastic out of the box, but the desire to personalise them further was, and still is, the clarion cry of riders as they took delivery of their first Bonnies and began either the simplest or most complex of personalisation processes.

Today’s new Bonnevilles have taken that selection process forward through the development and delivery of Inspiration Kits for the Street Twin, the Thruxton and the Bonneville T120.

The personalisation packages came as no surprise to Triumph historian Lindsay Brooke, author of three books on the marque, who insists the manufacturer’s tacit encouragement of customisation has always put it at the forefront of individuality in the industry.

“Google the phrase ‘Triumph Bonnie accessories’ and you get page after page of items all designed to make the bike the rider’s own. The latest Inspiration Kits have only made it even more accessible,” he said.

It’s been that way since the 1950s when Triumph’s two distributors in America allowed them to solicit a wide range of add-ons from the growing aftermarket, a trend that continued with the rebirth of the Bonnie in 2001.

If you went to Mars in 1965 and came back today and saw the 2015 Bonnie, you’d recognise it instantly

Lindsay Brooke

“It’s a bike with a sporting heart and a beautiful form. It actively encourages owner engagement and involvement. All the Bonnevilles, from Meriden and Hinckley alike, cry out ‘make me your own’, but equally look great untouched,” he said.

“Inexpensive changes can transform the Bonnie’s character,” noted Brooke, who has owned 15 Triumphs through the years. “Move the foot pegs forward to make it more like a Bobber; move them rearward and you have a street-tracker or café racer feel. Same with handlebars: clip-ons, flat-track bars or ape hangers can easily be swapped out to tailor the motorcycle to your tastes.”

The automotive technology writer, whose daily ride is a 2007 Bonnie personalised with T100, Thruxton and aftermarket bits, believes Triumph’s willingness to be flexible is a big part of the model’s success: “For example my dealer was happy to deliver my Bonnie with a Thruxton fender fitted. Same thing with the exhaust system – the part’s interchangeability lets you build a customised bike right on the showroom floor.”

Sticking to a tried and tested formula allows both the factory and the aftermarket to always keep up with the demands of expectant Bonneville customisers – a commercial strategy hailed as ‘brilliant’ by Brooke in these straightened times.

“If you went to Mars in 1965 and came back today and saw the 2015 Bonnie, you’d recognise it instantly. It hasn’t lost its mojo because Triumph has kept it simple and affordable, which means riders still have money left over to modify it if they want to,” he said.

“When bikes change model every year, the aftermarket can struggle to keep pace. With the Bonneville, the detail of accessories might change slightly, but not to the extent that the cost of reinventing your ride becomes prohibitive.”

A glance through sepia-tinted photo albums shows that even the earliest motorcyclists had an eye for modifying their rides.

“Anyone with a basic set of tools and mechanical aptitude can change the headlight shape or add 10-inch rise handlebars as soon as that package arrives through the post.

“The basic platform is so versatile that I can build a café racer today and then swap it back to a Bobber a few weeks later, so it changes with my mood and riding style.”

The appeal of the iconic Bonneville is enduring. Drop a mid to late 60s example in amongst 70 other machines at a show and it will lead you to the gathering crowd.

Brooke said: “People are drawn to them because they are one of the few bikes where the manufacturer got it right from the very outset. The Bonnie is a bike for any era and is equally at home in the 21st century, even though it used to be a fire-breathing bike in the 50s and 60s.

“Bonnie owners do want to go faster, but they are primarily interested in riding a high-quality, proven and reliable bike that you really wouldn’t want to change in any way.”