Thursday, January 15, 2009

50 YEARS OF BONNIE

It seems almost incomprehensible that the old girl turned 50 this year, but Bonnie, who slipped out of sight for a few years, is yet running wild on the streets, and although she's gained a bit of weight (and haven't we all), her wasp waist still turns heads.

Conceived to tame the hunger from the American market for bigger and faster motorcycles, the addition of a twin-carburettor cylinder head to the Tiger 110 model proved to be a resounding success. The timing was perfect; Texan Johnny Allen had just taken (in 1956) his streamlined T110-powered cigar to the Salt Flats of Bonneville, and claimed the World Motorcycle Speed Record at 214 mph. The machine was unsupercharged, and used a surprising number of 'standard' components - including the engine, gearbox, and wheels, although it drank a bit of nitromethane to compensate for the thin air of Utah's high desert.

Edward Turner, Managing Director of Triumph, certainly knew how to capitalize on a bit of free press, and after a publicity tour in England for Allen's streamliner (see it on BBC TV!) christened his new design after the location of this latest triumph. True, he did a bit of legal tippy-toes to keep lawyers from General Motors from scotching the whole project, but the name stuck fast, entirely eclipsing the now-humbled Tiger from which it sprang.

There were other changes within the Bonneville; the legendary E3134 racing camshafts, higher compression pistons, a stronger clutch, and a few other details, giving a theoretical top speed of 120mph (hence the official 'T120' designation) but the twin carb addition was enough to completely differentiate the new model from anything else in the Triumph lineup.

And line up they did; when introduced in 1958 at the Earl's Court Show, there was a great clamor for the machine at home, before it ever reached its intended target, the USA. Britain was still under the edict 'Export or Die', as the country was hobbled by debt from WW2, and needed import cash from abroad, or else. Thus, locals had to wait seemingly forever to see the T120 they had paid a deposit for, while in the US, we were buying them as fast as they were hauled off the boat.

1958 was the very peak of motorcycle sales/production in England, and no Cassandras could see then that the very economic recovery which Triumph were creating in England would prove its ultimate downfall. Motorcycles make excellent commuter and even family vehicles in times of financial duress - great gas mileage, compact size, easy buy-in price - and since the economic crash of 1929, bikes and sidecar sales were mostly for utilitarian purposes. Only the wealthy could afford hot-rod sporting machines of little transport value, at least when transporting a family sidecar. But, as the global economy blossomed in the late 1950's, everyone wanted a car to haul the family around, drive to work, take trips. Motorcycles as utilitarian tools were doomed in the Developed nations, although booms in small utility motorcycles occur in every country like clockwork, once a little money begins to flow; places like Vietnam and Thailand are literally overrun with mopeds and small motorbikes, and it is the Honda Cub which prevails, like the cockroach.

But for quite a few years, the Bonneville was THE glamour machine, and acquitted itself very well in all sorts of venues, from converted military airfields like Thruxton, to the harsh desert sands of Southern California. Some would argue that the Norton 650ss was a better race bike, or the BSA Gold Star was the better dirt bike, but as an all-arounder, it was hard to beat a 404lb motorcycle with 42hp and nimble handling. Yes, you might well encounter weaves at very high speed, but victories in scores of production and endurance races in the 1950's thru 70's should silence critics of Triumph handling forever. They handle just fine, thank you.

The first major change to the T120 came in 1962, when the engine was totally redesigned to follow its smaller brother the T100 into unit-construction, making for a more compact power unit and slightly shorter chassis. The 'look' changed too, gaining a lean yet graceful stance. Power hovered around the same figure for the entire 650cc production series (1959 - 1974). Detail changes included the shape and size of the petrol tank (it tended to get smaller until '73), the shape of the chrome 'Triumph' badge from the early 'mouth organ' to the later 'eyebrow' design, and the design of wheel hubs and brakes. The 1960s were the 'classic' years of the Bonnie, when the look became entrenched in our consciousness, and many consider the 1969 and 1970 models the very best.

1969 was arguably the Bonnie's finest year; Malcolm Uphill became the first rider to lap the Isle of Man at 100mph on a production machine, in the Production TT, and T120 riders were also 3rd, 5th, and 6th. Further victories were scored in the Barcelona 24-hr, Swedish GP, and Thruxton 500-mile GP, with Bonnies taking 2nd, 5th, 6th, and 7th places - a sweep.

The Swinging 60's were a period of great profitability and success at Triumph, and their Board were not immune to the temptations of the era. What I am trying to say is, they must have been on drugs to redesign the chassis for the 1971 model, the first oil-in-frame Triumph. The concept was sound, but the execution was troublesome from the very beginning. Cash was shovelled into Umberslade Hall, the new design center for the now-merged BSA/Triumph concern, which assumed control of all drawings for a 'new' range of badge-engineered Tribsas.

The results of their mammoth ineptitude was a 3 month stretch when no motorcycles were produced, and the fully-paid workforce passed the days playing chess on packing cases! The new computer-generated frame was touted as the future of motorcycle design, which it was, but the 'Future' always comes with growing pains, and nobody seemed to notice that the new seat height of 32" destroyed much of the grace and nimble feel of the original Bonnie. There was also the small matter that the engine would not fit into the frame as drawn. Three frame changes during the year were necessary, by which time (July 31st, 1971) the official deficit of the company was £25m.

1973 brought the 750cc T140 Bonneville, which had little extra power but quite a bit more oomph in the midrange, all in an idential chassis. The T120 ran beside it for two more years, although given the option of a larger engine, buyers voted with their pocketbooks. Still, the calamity which was the BSA Group meant that urgent financial action was necessary, and in stepped Dennis Poore to merge his existing motorcycle concerns with Triumph (letting BSA fall into the void), thus Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT Ltd.) was born.

But NVT's relationship with the Bonneville was short-lived; on Fri. Sep 14 1973, the practical decision was taken by NVT to close the Meriden factory where Triumph had made every Bonnie, and move production to Kitts Green, under a rationalization of production with their other lines. To a man, the shocked Triumph workers seized the Meriden factory, closing out management completely until Mar. 6 1975. Negotiations with a sympathetic Labour government brought life in the form of loans to the newly created Meriden Co-op, which began making the Bonneville again immediately, now with a left-foot shift, in accord with US laws.

The Meriden Co-op struggled along until 1983, introducing model changes annually, including an electric start in '80, disc brakes, 5 speed gearboxes, even an 8-valve cylinder head based on the Weslake aftermarket design, the 'TSS' model, the workers' swan song. With no real money to develop the range, and dwindling sales from an ancient design, the end was at hand.

John Bloor purchased the Triumph name, and what he could of the original Meriden factory in 1984, and production moved to Newton Abbot, with L.F. Harris Ltd making the 'old style' Bonnie under license from Mr. Bloor. It took almost two years for another Bonnie to roll out of the new factory, and the design was much as Edward Turner had laid down on paper, a continuation of the last Meriden machines. These 'Harris' Bonnevilles were produced for the emerging 'classics' market, in small numbers, and with few changes barring the use of Paoli Italian forks. Production of Turner's Bonneville ceased in 1988.

But Bloor had much bigger plans, which didn't include the 50 year old engine design. Using his personal fortune, he purchased land in Hinckley to create a new factory, and invested an estimated £60m creating a wholly new Triumph line of modern layout and performance. The fruit of his investment was born in 1989 with a totally new range of three and four-cylinder dohc machines. With a modern approach and a new factory, Triumph managed to thrive in a difficult market by making canny choices, and choosing its battles wisely. Reputedly, 13 years elapsed from that initial investment before a profit was realized - such are the deep pockets necessary these days to create a successful new motorcycle line.

In 2000, after a gap of 12 years, a new Bonneville was launched, with styling harking back to the 1960s models, but with a new dohc 800cc twin-cylinder engine, and of course a completely modern chassis. 9 years later, it remains one of Triumph's most popular models, as like the original, it's a good all-rounder, and a comfortably sized machine.

Happy 50th birthday, Bonnie!

2 comments:

Charles said...

Paul,

Beautiful write-up of a beautiful bike. The photo of the Ceegar was great, but slightly incomplete without mention of Jack Wilson, the man who made it go go go so fast.

nice write up of Jack here - http://www.ntnoa.org/Wilson.htm

info about the current state of the cee-gar - http://www.saveourstreamliner.com/

and finally, Big D is back in business keeping the old brit iron alive. Keith Martin, Jack's last "student" finally sold off his modern Trump shop, and resurrected the Big D brand - http://www.bigdcycle.com/index.htm

All that said? I'll stick with a Norton. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

Mark here (vmccspint section website designer - we also met at Brooklands 100 years old - last year) I was just analyzing our monthly site stats and once again the vintageagent blog (as it does each month) came up high in the list of referrers. Your daily traffic must be phenomenal!

Anyway as I do at such times, I often look at some of the popular links and read a couple of recent posts (enjoyed the board racers post recently BTW) and on your front page just read the sad post about your good friend...Given what we get up to over here on summer weekends (with throttles only registering one position - wide open) albeit on private land, I was moved to pass on condolances to you and his family who I hope (like ours do, will in time take consolation in the fact that he was probably doing what he most enjoyed at the time).

Sincere regards and keep up the excellent blog - hope to see you back in Blighty some time.

Mark