Icon of Contradiction
What Price Cool? The Bonneville Goes Mainstream
By Jon Langston
photos by Riles & Nelson
(This article originally appeared in RoadBike November/December 2009. This version contains previously unpublished photos.)
The Crescent City. N’awlins. The Big Easy. As the inspiration for artists from Louis Armstrong to Willie Nelson to Tennessee Williams, the mere mention of New Orleans evokes as striking a mental impression as any other US city — imagery that is both happier and sadder, merrier and yet somehow more profound than those conjured by the newsreel memories of New York City or the glamorous fantasies of Los Angeles. New Orleans — as a city, as a lifestyle, and as a cultural icon — retains an American identity all its own.
But it’s a city of contradictions. This is the birthplace of jazz, a musical form that’s equally at home in tones of exaltation or mourning. This is a culture where funerals are observed with a parade through the streets. In New Orleans, shacks sit next-door to mansions, and only the muddy, tempestuous Mississippi River separates the joyful revelry of Bourbon Street from the washed-out squalor of the Lower Ninth Ward. This is a place where, despite the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the US government’s anemic response to the tragedy, the people have persevered.
So the Big Easy was a natural choice to host the launch of another icon: the new and improved line of Modern Classics motorcycles from Triumph. Like NOLA, the Bonneville — that classic ‘60s moto-symbol of rebellion and attitude that was only recently resurrected — has been reinvented for the new millennium. Triumph has surrendered to the times and ditched the old-school carburetor, outfitting its entire line of 865cc standards with contemporary EFI. The Brits could have stopped there, but instead decided to take advantage of the retro-inspired Bonneville’s resurgence in popularity and expand its mass-market appeal. The result?
It couldn’t be more apropos. Much like the city that hosted its launch, the new Bonneville is awash in contradictions.
Ask around the RoadBike offices and anyone’ll tell you I’m down with retro styling in pretty much all its forms, from my music to my clothes to the furniture in my apartment. So it comes as no surprise to those who know me that the classic chic of the Bonneville, and its siblings in the Modern Classics line — the T100, Scrambler, and Thruxton — are among my favorite production motorcycles. So when Jim Callahan and the folks at Triumph asked Editor Steve for a representative from this fine publication to come down to New Orleans and give the new, improved line a test ride, I was supremely grateful to be offered the opportunity.
Naturally, I accepted; my only previous visit to the Big Easy came some 10 years previous and its memories remain blissfully spotty. I hadn’t been back since the ruin of Katrina and was eager to see which, if any, of my beery recollections of the city remained standing. I can dutifully report that the French Quarter, the Garden District, and most of New Orleans was, in fact, mercifully spared, and remain much as I remember them. And while it’s true that the effects of the hurricane decimated the Lower Ninth and other neighborhoods, the rebuilding process is well under way, and the spirit of the people that still live there and toil daily to bring them back to at least livable conditions was an inspiration. But reminders are everywhere, and on the daylong test ride along the gulf coast, my colleagues and I were constantly made aware of, and continuously humbled by, both the massive devastation and the brave reconstruction that take place to this day. To paraphrase, the South is rising again.
Our ride took us east out of New Orleans on US Highway 90 toward Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a name that might sound familiar in context, for this was the epicenter of the hurricane, where the eye of the great storm crashed ashore. Many of the news reports in the immediate aftermath of Katrina emanated from here, and it was sobering as we, a line of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of brand new motorcycles, cruising comfortably toward the city on the rebuilt South Beach Boulevard. Its surface was smooth, a black ribbon along a refurbished and pristine beach. A glance to the other side of the highway, however, revealed slab after slab of concrete, with steps leading up to … nothing. Only pads remained where dozens of houses once stood. Occasionally dotting the road were enormous, brand-new homes — apparently belonging to those who had flood insurance. Even more infrequent were a few grand old beach homes, which were spared for reasons unknown. It was beautiful, and haunting. As I rode along, I couldn’t help thinking how many lives were destroyed in a short amount of time.
New And Improved?
What made Triumph icons Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando cooler than their contemporaries was the fact they didn’t try to be cool. Straightforward, honest, and the opposite of self-conscious, they were themselves — and what’s cooler than that?
To hear Triumph tell it, the new Bonneville is remarkably updated and enhanced — and very, very cool. In addition to the EFI system being added across the 865cc board, the lynchpin of the Modern Classics line gets a substantial makeover for ’09 and beyond; its 17″ front wheel loses a full inch off its predecessor, while the clipped fenders, narrower seat, and upswept megaphone pipes are meant to evoke the spirit of the ‘70s, when the original Bonneville was at the peak of its popularity. (The SE offers two-tone paint, exclusive tank badging, brushed alloy engine covers, and a nifty tach setup.)
The reality, however, is that contradiction which I referred to previously. Sure, the fenders and pipes have an old-school appearance that appealed to my retro aesthetics. But in an effort to make the bike more flickable and user friendly, the 17″ front wheel, which improves handling as promised, makes the bike smaller and lighter — and it feels that way in the saddle. For a standard motorcycle that’s already on the diminutive side, this conspicuous change screams “crossover marketing strategy,” a blatant maneuver designed to attract new and women riders. I understand the motivation behind the move, but as an experienced motorcyclist, Triumph lost me here. Put it this way: Vespas are cool, too — but I’d never ride one out of town for the weekend.
And one more thing: unlike the other cosmetic changes, the new cast wheels don’t enhance the retro aesthetic of the Bonny. They don’t look ‘70s-authentic at all, and the effect clashes with the mission statement, which is what’s made the resurrected bike so popular the last few years.
New? Sure. Improved? Well, the EFI does make the engine a bit more responsive, and better handling is always welcome — but at what cost?
That isn’t to say the new Bonneville wouldn’t be ideal for new or women riders, or those of smaller stature, it certainly would. It’s light and nimble, yet stable at highway speed, and the 865cc provide plenty of giddy-up. Triumph also offers a variety of touring accessories for the Bonneville family, such as stylish leather saddlebags (in black or tan), a windscreen, and a passenger backrest. And to my eye, it’s still cooler than 90 percent of the bikes on the market. But make mine a 2008, please.
Or better yet, make mine a T100. The ‘60s-reminiscent T100 was always the speedster deluxe of the Bonny family, featuring two-tone paint and chrome engine covers, and Triumph counters its mass-market B’ville push by thankfully leaving the T100 version virtually untouched for 2009. It received the EFI treatment, but retains its 18″ spoked rims. The peashooter tailpipe and two-tone paint are also definitive touches. Standing next to the new Bonneville, the wraparound fenders and classic spokes make the T100 seem more iconic, and less desperate, than its “new and improved” sibling. It retains its cool simply by not trying so hard. Sound familiar?
Scramble And Thrux
While the Bonneville is supposedly ‘70s cool, and the T100 classically nostalgic, the Scrambler and Thruxton models — and make no mistake, these bikes are all variations on the same 865cc standard theme — embody the custom culture that helped make the Triumph name the icon that it is. Both of these Modern Classics are reminiscent of bikes that were stripped down to their bare essentials: not for fashion, but for a purpose. And both hit their mark dead-on.
The Scrambler plays on the MX, trail-riding style of guys like McQueen and Roger DeCoster, who generally took parts off their bikes before they fell off. Check out the dual high chrome sidepipes, and those multiuse tires. “Scrambler” is a perfect moniker for this motorcycle, as its design makes it ideal for scrambling around the foothills, up into the canyons, or negotiating the unpredictable streets of the city. Its matte-finish Khaki Green paint (also available in matte black) only enhances its rough-and-tumble appearance.
The Thruxton is the family’s rocker brother, with its club bars, aggressive riding position, and braided hoses. A rear seat cowl adds to the café-ready look, as does a tank-to-tail racing stripe. Of all the Modern Classics, the Thruxton seemed to have the most punch in the throttle; it was a bit more eager to jump off the line than its siblings. The riding position only added to the sensation.
The Scrambler is dialed in for more low-end grunt than its siblings, offering 59 hp at 6800 rpm but 51 ft-lbs. of torque — albeit at a low 4,750 revs. The Thruxton, meanwhile, is geared for speed, reaching 69 hp at the higher reading of 7400 rpm, but only 52 ft-lbs. at the also-higher rev line of 6,800. One more reason I like the Scrambler and Thruxton so much is obvious — both sport the original 18″ spoked front wheel. Both also feature an optional Arrow exhaust, which cranks up the ponies a notch while offering an even more distinctive note.
Modern And Classic
Just like the city that hosted the launch, Triumph’s new Modern Classics line is a good time waiting to happen. But keep in mind those contradictions. Here’s another one for you: while New Orleans is the party capital of the South, it’s also a dangerous place for tourists, boasting one of the highest crime rates of any large city in America.
And while the majority of the Modern Classics retain their charisma and cool, the “new” Bonneville is watered-down for the masses — but the T100, Scrambler, and Thruxton in the line more than make up the difference.RB
(Editor’s note: For a more in-depth history of the resurrection of Triumph and the Bonneville, read George Blumberg’s story in RoadBike’s April 2009 issue.)
Long Live The King
Since the Bonneville is the Moto-King of Retro Cool, I knew showing up in N’awlins with ho-hum gear just wouldn’t cut it; it was time to let les bon temps roullez. I also knew that if any duds could complement the rocker style of the Bonneville, Thruxton, and Scrambler, it was Triumph’s own line of riding apparel.
The navy blue men’s Newham jacket’s got the Queen’s colors strapping the left arm, and running vertically down the right front. A large Triumph logo in white leather is emblazoned across the back, and on the left breast, over your heart, an embroidered Union Jack patch pledges your allegiance to the iconic brand. Most importantly, the Newham is comfortable and functional as riding gear. It has plenty of pockets, a zip connector for any of Triumph’s riding pants, and a mesh inner lining. The water-repellant nylon outer feels like treated canvas and breathes well. Best of all, the elbow and shoulder pads slip right out, allowing me to wear the stylish Newham out for a night of debaucherie in the French Quarter without any fashion qualms.
My only issue with the jacket is with its wrist closures. The leather cuff with snap seals shut just fine, leaving plenty of room for gloves to tuck inside. However, if you occasionally prefer to leave your cuffs open to allow air to flow up the sleeves while riding, the Newham makes it hard on you; the extended leather strap just dangles there, its snap flapping annoyingly in the wind and sometimes settling uncomfortably (and dangerously?) between your palm and the handgrip. I wish it had another closure snap on the inside of the wrist to secure the leather strap, like the one on the inside of the Newham’s collar that keeps that strap from flapping. Furthermore, while the sleeve end has a zippered adjuster on its inner seam that travels about 8″ up the arm, unfortunately the nylon/mesh lining continues all the way down to the wrist, which prevents the sleeves from opening fully and comfortably rolling up your forearm a bit while you’re riding along. It’s not a problem, per se — but it’s definitely an inconvenience, especially in the sultry southern sun, when any sort of ventilation is appreciated. Aside from its cuffs, though, Triumph’s Newham men’s jacket is Brit cool personified; if you don’t look Ace Café-ready in this jacket, maybe it’s time to hang up your rocker goggles for good.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I generally hate riding pants. Sure, they’re functional, but usually they’re too hot, too constricting, and/or just plain ugly. I packed a pair of Triumph’s denim Kep jeans, but also threw my favorite pair of Levi’s into my duffel, just in case. The Kep jeans have a flannel lining in the butt and knees, and Velcro-attached pouches for optional kneepads (empty, the cotton pouches just bunched up, so I zipped them out). The rear pockets have a functional Velcro-shut flap. But most surprising was the way the Kep jeans felt– (totally comfortable, on or off the bike) and looked (according to my wife, totally hot). I’d never before (and haven’t since) worn riding-specific pants that looked and felt great, too. Suffice to say, the Levi’s never left my bag. One small request: Triumph, please — ditch the button fly. It’s just not practical when you’re in a hurry (and/or wearing gloves). Thanks.
Finally, if you dig my checkered three-quarter helmet in these photos, you can get your own from Fulmer. The ‘60s-influenced V2 is available in a plethora of colors, including some groovy metalflake options. It also has a variety of face shields and visors that snap right on. But be warned: this helmet’s so hot, you may end up sharing it with other riders — as I did when another journalist showed up at the same press launch with the same lid. Sorry, Aaron — but my V2 rocked.
2009 Triumph Bonneville*
LIST PRICE $7,699/SE single color $8,399 (two-tone $8,599)/T100, Thruxton, and Scrambler $8,799
ENGINE Air-cooled parallel twin
BORE X STROKE 90 x 68mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 9.2:1
FUEL SYSTEM EFI
MFR HORSEPOWER 67 @ 7500rpm
FINAL DRIVE Chain
OVERALL LENGTH 83.2″
RAKE/TRAIL 27 degrees/106mm
SEAT HEIGHT 29.1
FUEL CAPACITY 4.2 gallons
ESTIMATED MPG 47
DRY WEIGHT 440 pounds
WARRANTY Two years
2009 COLORS Black, white
(*Except where noted, specs listed are for the base Bonneville; for detailed specifications on all models, go to www.TriumphMotorcycles.co.UK/USA)