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Triumph Bonneville History– Icons Never Die

Introduced in 1959, few motorcycles can claim a past quite like the legendary Triumph Bonneville. Discover the history of the Bonneville and its lineage through to the present Triumph modern classic range….

In 1978, my father, an original Meriden Triumph employee decided that at the age of 39, it was time to stop being bossed around in menial jobs, and time to start being the all-knowing, all-seeing omnipotent smart arse that did the bossing; he trained to become a teacher. 

That in itself isn’t all that remarkable, an unforgettable occasion aside from one thing; he’d convinced my mother that commuting from the Midlands to Liverpool and back each week, only really worked if he did it on a bike. That’s some superstar level of manipulation right there, and it worked.

A short trip to a local dealer later, and CAC 726T was his – a beautiful candy apple red & black export model spec Triumph Bonneville T140V/E (it was produced in February 1978, which meant it was a mixture of the T140V & E). I was seven years old. Forty years later, I still remember that time, purely because of the Bonnie. (In fact, you can read about my first experience of a Bonnie here).

Dad was a badass. The Bonnie represented everything that was cool; the style, noise and even smell was just an overload of my seven-year-old senses, I can still to this day remember the ticking noises as the headers cooled down, and leaving a large portion of flesh from my fingers on one of the header pipes after touching it because I was fascinated by the blueing.

I remember him coming home in his brand-new leathers – flared leather trousers, jacket to match, both fitted with a red satin-style lining, a black Kiwi full-face helmet, under which he wore his Reactolite Rapide sunglasses. Dad was more than a badass, he was a god, certainly someone to be revered, and being built like a brick sh!te house only reinforced that.

That Triumph Bonneville changed my life forever, and it’s still in the family.

Triumph Bonneville
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Dad’s Bonneville

Triumph Bonneville – Early Days

Bonneville – of course the name derives from the famous salt flats, on which even today, speed record attempts are frequent. Triumph wanted something to give the impression of speed, of their ability to produce powerful bikes, to show that ‘speed’ was their game and they were masters of it.

Essentially, the name commemorated the 1956 world speed record of 214mph of Johnny Allen, set using a Triumph ‘streamliner’, which gave birth to the “World’s Fastest Motorcycle” tag, and it sold.

The Bonneville name first found a home in 1959, when Triumph took a Tiger 110, gave it a little more power thanks to the upgraded Amal monobloc carbs (optional for the T110) and a high-performance inlet cam. It’s said that the Bonnie was the inspiration behind the Harley Sportster – something small, with decent power that didn’t feel like an overweight, bloated cruiser, but the reality is that the smaller Sportster preceded the Bonnie by around two years.

It retained the ‘pre-unit’ construction and 650cc capacity, but the tweaks were good enough to see 115mph (ish) in standard form, which at that time was an incredible speed. (Let’s not forget that this was before disc brakes, ‘proper’ suspension and decent rubber had made their way on to bikes). This first incarnation kept the Triumph nomenclature, and was known as the T120, as a reference to the 120mph top speed.

Pre-unit Construction

The pre-unit construction is effectively two separate components, consisting of the engine, and the gearbox. It came about because although ‘unit’ constructions were available (Singer Motors LTD offered a full unit construction as far back as 1911), they were generally deemed to be more unreliable, and more expensive to manufacture.

Incorporating a gearbox within the crankcase meant that the castings would be reaching the limit of what was possible, while retaining enough strength to be oil tight, and rigid. The smaller castings allowed for easier manufacturing, they were stiffer, and less prone to warpage (which of course, means oil loss – something that many of the manufacturers of the ‘60s & ‘70s never really cured).

Better still, the fact that there were two entirely separate oiling systems made it easier for production, both in terms of design and manufacture.

It was a simple solution (albeit rather messy) to a larger problem.

Triumph Bonneville T120

The T120 was the first official Bonnie, produced between 1959 – 1974, originally by Triumph Engineering, and in the latter part of its life, by NVT – Norton Villiers Triumph.

Although Triumph did make some minor alterations in the first few years, such as dropping the traditional headlamp nacelle*(believing that it didn’t look sporty enough) and changing the frame for a duplex construction (which itself needed updating shortly after), the T120 remained pretty much unchanged for the first four years of production, certainly in engineering terms, but for 1963, Triumph rolled out an updated & upgraded Bonnie. 

The new Bonnie was of unit construction, meaning that the engine and gearbox were as one, which amongst other things, meant compactness, which in itself had the benefit of being stiffer. Triumph maximised this by adding additional bracing on the frame, mainly at the swingarm and headstock.

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1964 Bonneville 120R

As the model rolled through the years, Triumph kept introducing minor changes such as improved front forks, combined with a slight change in the headstock angle, sharpening the steering and giving the bike a sportier feel.

The final upgrade for the T120 came about when Triumph started producing the oil-in-frame versions, rather than a separate tank.

Growing Up with The Bonnie

I’ve mentioned just what a profound effect that my dad’s Bonnie had on me, but as I’m working through these different memories, it has struck me just how popular the Bonnie was; nearly everyone within the group of friends of my dad and brother, had a Bonnie.

There was the chocolate brown ‘Bournville’, the blue one, the ratty one, the LOUD one, the fast one … these were the performance bike to have, and they were commonplace in my world. They were special, without being specialised. 

Even today, three of those original Bonnie owners from the 70s and early 80s still own a Bonnie.

The 60s Bonnie

When Triumph switched over to a unit construction, and swapped from the duplex frame to a single downtube (the duplex frame had problems with cracking, which led to extra bracing being used to counter the problem, only for the bracing to make the vibrations worse), the sales numbers rocketed, especially over the pond. The Americans couldn’t get enough of them; 6,300 machines sold in 1963, but just four years later, that number had rocketed to nearly 29,000.

The Bonnie was the King of Cool, and that’s perhaps best personified by the King of Cool himself, Steve McQueen.

McQueen is legendary (well, for everything really) in the Triumph world, although it’s the bike scene in the Great Escape that really made his name with the wider world. McQueen loved his bikes, in particular his 1963 Bonnie that had been modified by another bike legend, Bud Ekins.

His Bonnie was part ‘Desert Sled’, part off-roader, and you can see the life that it’s led; this isn’t some superstar’s weekend toy, this is pure utility. It’s had the life beaten out of it, and looks so much better for it.

Steve McQueens desert sled
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Steve McQueen’s Desert Sled

Back in 2016, the modified Bonnie that belonged to McQueen and shown above, with the title (registration document) in the name of Solar Productions (McQueen’s production company) went up for auction at Bonhams in Las Vegas, it sold for £84,608. 

Triumph Bonneville Thruxton

In 1964, Triumph unveiled their new model at the Earl’s Court Show; the limited edition 650cc Bonneville Thruxton, a factory-modified Bonnie racer.

Although it took until ’64 to release an official model, Triumph had been taking production bikes from the assembly line since the late ‘50s, and modifying them to compete in the long-distance race held at Thruxton each year, it was only when the race took on more significance that Triumph made a specific model for long-distance production racing.

Triumph Bonneville Thruxton
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Bonneville Thruxton

Initially, Triumph intended on building 50 Thruxton racers, but in actual fact, only 49 were built from the off; as if by magic, the 50thcylinder head and carbs vanished from the line without a trace. Obviously someone went home with a faster Bonnie that night. 

The Thruxton was around 10% more expensive than the standard Bonnie, but for that, you were getting a pretty heavily-modified Bonnie, including tweaks to the valve gear and lubrication system, revised steering geometry and fork damping, dropped handlebars, rearsets and a racing seat.

The exhaust system was also modified for performance and ground clearance. An Avonaire fairing came as an optional extra.

In 1969, Malcolm Uphill won the IoM Production TT race on a Bonnie, with a race average of 99.99mph, and recorded the first ever 100+mph lap by a production bike, just squeaking through at 100.37mph. The Bonnie was truly the performance bike of the day.

As I wrote last time, Triumph were leagues ahead of the competition, to the point where they became complacent, and that was their downfall – when the Japanese caught up, they blew Triumph away and they never looked back.

The Bonneville T140 Era

In the early ‘70s, Triumph were beginning to realise that the Japanese were looking to steal their thunder and start offering bikes that were both fast and reliable. The 650cc Bonnie was getting a little long in the tooth, and being outperformed, something needed to change.

A capacity increase from 650cc to 750cc (actually 724cc, followed by 744cc) meant a minor increase in performance, but Triumph wanted their competition to understand that they meant business, so the new machine was labelled as the T140. Perhaps if they were being a little more truthful, it would have been something like the T116.5?

The problem was, that even with the larger engine, the Bonnie only made around 49hp, compared to some of the competition, that just wasn’t enough; the Honda 750/4 of the early seventies made around 68hp (reliably) and that really was just the start of it.

In 1975, Triumph developed an experimental one-off, nicknamed ‘The Quadrant’, a 1000cc version of a Bonnie with four-cylinders (made by machining the triple’s crankcase, barrels and cylinder head, then mating them up as one unit). Despite the increase in performance (around 125mph top speed), there was only ever one made, probably due to costs.

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A 4 cylinder Bonneville

You get the impression that over the next ten years, Triumph were clutching at straws, introducing new model designations for the slightest update:

T140V 1973

The T140V was the new breed, with the ‘V’ meaning five, as in 5-speed. The very first models shared much of the T120 componentry, including the cable-operated drum brakes. The early V’s were initially 724cc, but Triumph soon upped that to 744cc and added a front disc.

Triumph intended that the T140 was to be export only, but when they displayed it at the 1973 bike show, the crowds loved it. This led to a full UK production run, with a retail price of just £679. (I say ‘just’ but that was a lot of money back then, but when compared to today’s prices, that’s ludicrous).

T140RV 1975

The RV was the export version of the V, and essentially Triumph re-engineered the engine to swap the gear lever from the right-hand side, to the left.

T140J Silver Jubilee 1977

For the 25thanniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign (1977), Triumph wanted to mark the occasion with something special, of course it was out of a sense of patriotism, not sales. 

The J was pretty much standard Bonnie fare, just dressed in different clothing: The pinstriped paintwork features patriotic red, white and blue on a silver base. Coloured panels were applied to the wheels, while the engine covers were brightly plated, and the seat had a very distinctive blue colour.

Each machine was sold with a Certificate of Authenticity, and originally, the side panels had the sticker of ‘One of a Thousand’ applied, just beneath the Union Flag. Demand was so strong, that Triumph went on to produce another 1,400 units of the Jubilee, all for export. These had ‘Limited Edition’ applied instead of the One of a Thousand.

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Limited Edition Bonneville Silver Jubilee

T140E 1978

The E was the updated model which was emissions compliant – Emissions (those chaps at Triumph knew how to code their models … in fact, wait for the ‘ES’!). 

It featured quite a few redesigned components, including cylinder head and Amal carbs, and not long after production of the E started, it switched over to Lucas (of Joe Lucas, Prince of Darkness fame) electronic ignition.

Following up from the mechanical changes, there was new Lucas switchgear, different side panel design and passenger grab rails that incorporated a small parcel rack. (I actually remember the parcel rack vividly, thanks to a memory of my dad fighting with one in his tool shed when he tried to move it … he ended up with a black eye, the rack launched about 100ft down the garden). This was quite a significant redesign, perhaps worthy of a new model designation.

For 1980, Triumph introduced the ‘Executive’ limited edition of the E, which came with Sigma hard luggage, a Brearley-Smith ‘Sabre’ fairing, and a special two-tone paint scheme.

T140D 1979

The D was made for the U.S. market, and was initially a styling exercise based on the popular Yamaha XS650 twin. It featured black paintwork with a gold pinstripe, seven-spoke Lester magnesium-alloy wheels, and a tuned two-into-one exhaust.

T140ES ‘Electro’ 1980

The clever marketing chaps and chappess’ at Triumph really pulled it out of the bag for the ES … Electric Start.

T140AV 1981

After much glad-handing and back-slapping, Triumph knew they were on to something with their designation of models, so we have the ‘AV’ or ‘Anti-Vibration’ model.

Essentially, Triumph fitted rubber anti-vibe bushings, although they do say that the balancing of the crankshaft was also revised. As daft (and as simple) as it seems, the bushes worked, and the bikes were initially snapped up for Police use. 

T140LE 1981

Just 250 of the LE’s were made, to celebrate the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer to Princes Charles. Similar to the Jubilee, it was a regular Bonnie, with shinier paintwork.

T140W TSS

The TSS was a whole new departure for Triumph, the bike looked radically different to what had gone before it, and it featured a lot of changes.

The ‘W’ suffix related to Weslake Engineering, on which the new TSS’ cylinder head (eight valves) was based. It also had a revised crankshaft design (to help with vibration), electric starting, a new 4-gallon tank, twin front brake discs, Marzocchi rear dampers and allow wheels.

Other T140s

Of course there were other smaller changes, the following list is from the Triumph Bonneville Wikipedia page:

  • T140V: The initial model of the T140. The ‘V’ indicated a five-speed gearbox. Produced between 1972 and 1978.
  • T140RV: Export version of T140V.
  • T140J: Limited edition of 1,000 each (plus 400 for Commonwealth export) of the T140V in USA and UK specification, produced to commemorate the 1977 Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II.
  • T140E: The letter ‘E’ stood for emissions, enabling export to the USA market. This model featured redesigned Amal carburetors soon replaced by, Lucas electronic ignition to meet emission regulations.
  • T140D: Limited edition. T140D offered with Lester, later Morris, cast wheels in black/gold scheme only. The US version had a special siamesed exhaust system unique to this model. The ‘D’ stood for Daytona Beach, USA, where the model was conceived.
  • T140ES: Electric start or ‘Electro’ Bonneville.
  • T140AV: Anti-vibration engine mountings.
  • T140LE: Limited Edition. 250 ‘Royal’ Bonnevilles were built to commemorate the 1981 marriage of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles.
  • T140W TSS: The Triumph T140W TSS. Introduced in 1982. Eight-valve cylinder head and revised crankshaft to reduce vibration. The TSS stood for ‘Triumph Super Sports’.
  • T140TSX: A custom-styled T140, the Triumph T140 TSX featured Morris cast wheels, the rear being 16-inch diameter, stepped seat and special finish.
  • Harris T140: Built under license 1985 to 1988 by Les Harris after the Meriden factory closed and featuring significantly more Italian and German component parts.

The Hinckley Era

It has to be said, Bloor’s ownership of Triumph Motorcycles was met with some scepticism; people generally assuming that he’d bought it as his own plaything, that he may ‘knock out’ the odd model or two, but it really wasn’t going to amount to much – a rich man’s trainset.

Everyone assumed that it would be a niche market. Who wants to buy a twin-cylinder, unreliable bike that was based on a twenty year old design, with barely enough horsepower to be fun?

However, what many people missed was Bloor’s love of the marque, and his propensity to make money. Bloor licensed the Triumph brand while he made preparations, which not only helped to keep the marque alive, but it also allowed him the time to work through the process properly, so that when he was finally ready to go, he did it without cutting corners.

After investing around £80m into the relaunch and infrastructure, Triumph opened their brand-new, state of the art factory in 1991.

Around the time that Bloor was looking to manufacture the bikes, I was working for a well-known motorcycle tuning company, one of the guys there was in the process of buying a brand-new Kawasaki GPZ1000RX from our local dealer, of which my middle brother happened to work at.

The delivery of the bike was delayed by a week or two, without any real reason as to why, although I later found out that Triumph had ‘borrowed’ the RX so as they could strip the engine, see the internals and take some measurements.

As to how much that process influenced their engineering philosophy, no one will really know, but if you’re going to compete with the Japanese, you may as well see what they have, up close and personal.

Hinckley Bonnevilles

The Hinckley Bonnies consist of 2 twin cylinder engines, one a 900cc and the other the 1200cc, used in a variety of different motorcycles carrying the Bonneville badge.

Triumph Bonneville T120

If you want the modern version of the original Triumph Bonneville, something that starts at the push of a button and doesn’t leak oil all over the garage floor, the T120 is for you.

It’s silhouette leaves no doubt as to its heritage yet it has beautifully evolved and sits proudly at the top of the Triumph modern classics range.

The Triumph Bonneville T100

This is the 900cc version of the modern day Bonnie. Less power but still distinctly a Bonnie.

The Others

As well as the 2 Bonnies above there are several other motorcycles that use the same engines and so are considered Bonneville variants.

The Triumph Bonneville Bobber became the fastest selling Bonnie ever on its release in 2017. It was followed a few years later by the Speedmaster, a 2 seater version of the Bobber but with a larger tank in response to the American market demands.

The last motorcycle in the Bonneville range is the Thruxton RS, a Cafe Racer with the engine mapped for more top end giving it the performance to match the looks.

Although not strictly part of the Bonnie family both the popular Triumph Scrambler and the Speed Twin are available with either the 900 cc or the 1200 cc Bonneville engine.

The Bonneville Legend Lives On

John Bloor, Triumph Motorcycles … like the Phoenix from the ashes, Triumph has risen again, and in spectacular style. Honestly speaking, if someone had said 30+ years ago that Bloor would transform the manufacturer into a world-beating brand, there’s a chance that a few smirks, snorts and sniggers would have passed your lips, they certainly did mine (but I was just a spotty youth with sawdust between my ears).

Bloor has taken the legend, particularly the Bonneville, and made it exactly what it should be, all the while retaining an eye to the past, while making it modern, desirable, and more importantly, reliable. I’m a huge fan of what the factory has achieved, I believe that they’ve hit the market just right with their range of bikes – there’s something for everyone really, and they all look to be a quality product, with the brand behind them.

When you buy a Triumph, you’re buying into a lifestyle, and while you could say the same about many of the manufacturers, there’s few that actually deliver that reality. Of course, Harley-Davidson perhaps are the greatest proponents of that ethos, but they don’t have the reliability, and let’s be honest, a big slice of the Harley-shaped cake is all about marketing … darts, playing cards, shot glasses … better known as tat.

Triumph Bonneville Infograph

Triumph Bonneville infographic showing key moments in the Bonneville's history
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The history of the Triumph Bonneville
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Triumph Thunderbird 1600 (Hinckley 2009) | Timeless 2 Wheels

Sunday 25th of September 2022

[…] which no small feat or something to be sneered at. A great improvement over the smaller 865cc Bonnie engine that graced Triumph’s other cruiser type […]

Robert W Anderson

Tuesday 19th of July 2022

It started for me in 1968 when I purchased a new 1968 Honda S90. I rode that bike a little over a year. I went to British motorcycles in 1970. I met a person who would become a friend of mine, and his dad had a brand new Triumph T120 Bonneville. I still remember that motorcycle. The man's dad passed away and his son own's it now. I have had a few Triumph motorcycle's, and I have a new 2022 Triumph T 120 Bonneville in Cordovan Red and Silver Ice. I have had this motorcycle for 8 months now, and I love the classic styling and detailing that this motorcycle has. I don't keep it in the garage and it is kept inside the house. I really enjoyed reading your article very much.

Malcolm Leaver

Wednesday 8th of July 2020

So really interesting,it must have taken a lot of research and time to enable you to produce this article. Having lived through the period of Triumphs I have never owned one but did 'collect' an early one being a Blue Thunderbird for an office friend after he had run out out of petrol travelling to work! I had been riding a 197cc James Commando at the time so you can imagine the feeling on riding the Thunderbird[Sprung Hub Model] back,the noise/power etc was 'frightening'. Looking forward to reading other reports. Many Thanks,Malcolm Leaver

JB

Tuesday 7th of July 2020

Hi, thanks for this great article. Do you have a favorite model? What do you think of the T140D from 1979?