In our current, wonderfully politically correct society all opinions are valid and worthwhile regardless of when or how they are expressed. Even so, some views do carry just a shade more weight than others.
For example, opinions vary as to which was the greatest of all Triumph Bonnevilles but if the father of the unit construction Bonnie, Doug Hele, says that the best of all was the 1968 model you have to sit up straight and pay attention.
These were Doug’s words to me when we were chatting about Bonnevilles at his lovely Warwickshire home, a long time after his retirement as Triumph’s Chief Development Engineer.
“By 1968, we had introduced the last of the chassis changes so the Bonneville handled really well – up to racing standards. Right off the showroom floor there wasn’t a road legal bike in the world which handled as well as a Bonneville.
“The engine was fully developed too and didn’t have a flaw. A standard engine, straight off the production line, produced around 46hp and reliably too. This was enough power for 110mph plus performance.
“The four-speed gearbox was good too, as was the clutch.
“Quality control was excellent and the bikes were well built.
“Finally, I don’t think we ever made a more handsome motorcycle than the 1968 Bonneville.”
It’s not only Hele and his development team who feel like this about his creation. Ask any of the workers from the old Triumph factory at Meriden which was the best bike they ever made and, nine times out of ten, they will become misty eyed remembering the 1968 Bonneville.
Hele was the key reason that the ’68 Bonnie is so good and, to understand the bike, you have to understand the man. First, his flaws. You will now read that he was one of the greatest motorcycle designers of all time. This is flattering – and I only wish that it was true. Unfortunately, the accolade is inaccurate. None of Hele’s designs were ground breaking or significant. However, he was one of the finest development engineers ever to work in the motorcycle industry.
Doug’s strength was an innate, God given ability to understand how the whole motorcycle functioned. Yes, he could arrive at solutions on paper because Doug was a trained, professional engineer. However, his gift was that he could sense the interaction between the chassis and engine in a way which is analogous to the feel of an artist or chef who knows precisely what colors or spices are necessary to achieve a perfect result.
Doug’s work was aided tremendously by Triumph’s Chief Test Rider, Percy Tait. Again, history is beginning to become distorted when Tait is considered to be merely a talented test rider. In fact, he was far more than this. Any rider who can lead 15 times World Champion Giacomo Agostini in a Grand Prix as Tait did in the 1969 Belgian GP, is somewhat more than merely competent.
Had he relinquished his job at Triumph and committed himself wholly to GP racing then Tait would have been a strong World Championship contender.
This is what Hele himself thought of his Chief Test Rider, “Percy was a wonderful test rider – wonderful. He could ride a bike right up to the limits of its performance, and beyond, and still not crash it. He could also do the same thing over and over again which was a wonderful skill for a test rider.
“He had strong opinions too and needed to be convinced by argument and example that an idea worked. I encouraged this. All the team was encouraged to express their opinions and offer their ideas. It was a very happy team and we worked together well.”
So, the greatest of all the Bonnevilles come from 1968, 1969 and 1970 during which time this iconic motorcycle remained largely unchanged. The lineage of the 1968 Bonneville could be traced back, in a very direct line, to the 1948 Triumph Thunderbird which was built to satisfy the American market’s desire for brute horsepower. The Thunderbird grew into the even faster Tiger 110 and then, in 1958, the factory fitted a hotter camshaft and a twin port, splayed head. A legend was born: the first T120 Bonneville.
Under the direction of Chief Development Engineer Frank Barker, Triumph pursued a policy of chasing power almost at the cost of everything else. Edward Turner, the dictatorial head of Triumph, was at his peak in terms of understanding his customer base and he rightly considered that as long as the Americans could buy a blisteringly fast bike then the sales would continue to rise. He was right – but only up to a point.
1962 saw the introduction of a unit construction engine. The motor was neater but, in truth, very little was new – and the handling remained as questionable as ever.
The big breakthrough came in 1963 when Doug Hele joined Triumph from Norton. Hele was a passionate advocate of the “whole motorcycle” concept where every part of the machine was integrated, to contribute to the bike functioning at its optimum level. Hele also had a lot of experience making British Parallel Twins work as whole motorcycles because he had been the driving force behind the Norton Domiracers – Norton’s push-rod Twin engine, housed in a modified Norton Manx chassis.
Hele completely redesigned the Bonneville frame and made many improvements to the already well-developed motor. The result was a lithe, superb handling bike with a genuine 100mph plus instantly available – and the looks to go with it.
In production racing trim, the bike won the 1969 Isle of Man TT at an astonishing speed of 99.99 mph in the hands of Malcolm Uphill – and the bike became a legend in its own lifetime.
The Bonnie was also subject to a steady stream of incremental, but jointly important, refinements which, little by little, got the bike to its optimum performance. Importantly, the frame was stiffened. Next, the oil tank capacity was increased to six pints in 1965 – an important change because by the mid-60s a box-stock standard would run well north of 110 mph and, used at the top end of its performance range, Bonnies ran hot.
All Triumph Twins were still following Turner’s 360-degree configuration. None of the engines carried a counter-balancer and so, whilst the 350cc and 490cc motors vibrated, the 650cc Twins were hand numbing. To avoid bits dropping off all over the place, an increasing number of ancillary parts were rubber mounted and the bikes came with thick, partially hollow handlebar grips. This was the lowest of low tech solutions to solving the vibration problem.
I prefer thin grips and a “There’ll always be an England…” with a tough, upper lip smile as a better alternative. “No pain – no gain” is very apposite when it comes to Bonneville vibration.
Where even riders like me, who insisted on using red white and blue blood and Union Jack Jim toothpaste, were getting hacked off was with the Lucas electrics. By 1968, the Bonnie was 12 volt but there was no electric starter, the Lucas Zener Diodes failed all the time and the lights were unreliable. It was now the late 1960s and Japanese bikes were everywhere, and with electric starters and lights which worked at night merely by switching them on. Yes, Bonnies were vastly more beautiful, better handling and carried hugely more kudos – but the Japanese were catching up fast.
For ’68, there was another major front fork upgrade which brought the Triumph suspension up to the standard of the world leading Ceriani design.
The engine received a host of minor mods derived from Triumph’s production racing experience but the major improvement, and it really was an important one, was a brand-new 8-inch twin leading shoe front brake. Set up correctly, this really was – and is for that matter – an excellent brake, good enough for racing. It’s rough, unpolished finish also had a rather butch, he-man look about it which chimed with Triumph’s strap line of the time: “Triumph – the Man’s Machine.”
Honda ran: “You meet the nicest people on a Honda…” and wanted everyone in a smiling, sun dappled and rain free world to ride a powered two-wheeler. By contrast, Triumph were still chasing the Marlborough smoking cowboy with his lined and weather beaten face – even though he was fast following the open ranges, Chisum Trail and the 1000 mile cattle drives into extinction.
Until the dreadful debacle of Umberslade Hall, and the cack-handed interference of the Ogle Design Company, Triumphs were not so much styled as had engineers put things on them which they thought looked good. The sporting theme was everything to Bonnevilles at the end of the 1960s, as was the influence of the American market. There was no hint of the dull, staid, sensible, “Bathtub” enclosures carried by the Triumph Thunderbirds at the start of the decade. Bonnevilles were slim, racy and dominated by function over form – and they looked all the better for it. Finished in the most beautiful Triumph color scheme of Hi-Fi scarlet and silver sheen, the ’68 series Bonnie really is a catch-your-breath looker.
So, should you own a ’68? In many ways, the answer is a complete non sequitur. If you want a Bonnie then you will be selling a kidney to own one. If you think that they are flashy, mass- produced eye candy for the masses then they will hold no attraction.
Logic will not come into the decision making – but it ought to. A 1968 Bonneville does not have a fault in terms of reliability, handling or braking power – providing the owner remembers that this is basically a pre-war design, and doesn’t try to use all of the bike’s 100mph performance on any but the rarest of occasions. With electronic ignition, the bike starts easily and is one of the few, very few, classics which is truly practical.
The 1968, 1969 and 1970 Bonnevilles are also the best value in classic motorcycling. Because Triumph production was at an all-time high in this period, a lot of Bonnevilles were made and so there are plenty of these wonderful bikes still around. $8000 will buy a really nice, useable Bonnie but why not spend another $2-3000 and get something really outstanding? Compared to a Goldie or Velocette Thruxton, this price still makes the best of Bonnevilles almost cheap.
Our thanks to Laurence Rose of Classic Motorcycles Ltd (firstname.lastname@example.org) for his help with this article.
Editor’s Note: The photos included in this article are of a 1970 Triumph Bonneville. The ’68, ’69 and ’70 are nearly identical, but not perfectly so. The design elements and performance capabilities of the ’68 are absolutely present in the pictured version, however.