When the Meriden factory boys screwed together this US-spec Triumph Bonneville T120 in 1969 – no doubt to the strains of Bad Moon Rising and A Boy Named Sue on the radio – they little suspected that it would, almost half a century later, be revered as a classic. The idea that someone would one day painstakingly restore the thing to as-new condition, right down to the correct aluminium tie wraps and water transfers, would have had them spluttering sugary tea all over their spam sandwiches.
Back then, Triumph were churning out Bonnies for the American market by the tens of thousands. Never mind that they were obsolete technology, inferior in every objective sense to the new-fangled Hondas. They were cheap and easy to build on clapped-out tooling. And the average Yank rider rated charisma over progress any day.
It’s that charisma that inspired Triumph to build a modern day Bonneville T120 – and owner Matt Newbigging to buy this Bonnie from Graham Cousens of Restoration Cycleworks in the USA. ‘I’ve always loved the look of the Bonnie, but never had one before,’ says Matt, who also owns a Ducati 996 and a Honda NSR250. ‘It looks pure, like the archetypal motorcycle.’
So with threats of extreme violence ringing in my ears if I drop it, I turn the right hand fuel tap until it fouls the air filter casing, tickle each Amal carb until petrol dribbles onto the gearbox below, rotate the choke lever, hold the throttle open a touch and give the kickstart a long, medium-speed swing. Success: after the initial roar a few throttle blips produce a throaty, free-revving growl, and the skinny air-cooled motor is happy to tick over like a sewing machine. I say tick over: the control cables jiggle, the rev counter drive tries to escape from its mooring on the crankcase, and the forks shudder back and forth. The whole bike jangles and pulses with life.
The gearbox is still tight, so I ker-snick into first as slowly and gently as I can. The one-down, three-up, right-side lever has a two-stage action for each gear, so each shift up comes with a pause – and a chance to savour the best bit of riding a Bonnie: the instant grunt. If you’ve never tried a Triumph Bonneville T120, perhaps you’ve ridden a more modern 650 twin, such as a Kawasaki ER-6. You have? Good.
The 1969 Triumph Bonneville T120 is nothing whatsoever like that. On an ER-6 you yank the throttle, jab the gear lever and eventually the bike ends up going quite fast. A Bonnie, on the other hand, talks to you through the soles of your boots. It doesn’t tear your arms off. It just feels healthy and lusty, in a way that today’s zippy middleweight twins simply don’t. That’s because it’s a long-stroke engine: the piston has lots of leverage in turning the crank.
Period road tests claimed the 1969 Triumph Bonneville T120 could hit 110mph. This bike is still running in, but I know from other Bonnies that revving them hard just makes your eyeballs rotate backwards with the vibration. Instead, it feels best rolling on and off the throttle at legal speeds on B-roads and back lanes. It banks smoothly to modest lean angles (especially on these oe-spec Dunlop Gold Seal tyres), and generally encourages an unhurried approach. Braking hard into bends is both ill-advised and impossible, because it’s got drum brakes. So chill your restless mind and enjoy the ride.
Round town the light clutch and generous steering lock mean the Bonnie’s as good as anything modern – better, in fact, because everyone recognizes that you’re riding something old and beautiful. In that sense it’s the two-wheeled equivalent of an E-type Jag.
There is, of course, a price to pay for such a warm glow. Like all post-WW2 Brit twins, the Bonnie is a gorgeous idea marred by thrupenny-bit solutions. It’s not just the oil leaks (they’re almost impossible to stop for long), or the need for constant fettling; it’s things like the right air filter case barely clearing the oil tank, or the left chain adjuster banging into the rear brake arm return spring. Maddest of all is the horrible Lucas rear brake light switch, which is one step up from making something out of a biscuit tin. Builders such as Our Friend have re-engineered old twins to eradicate this sort of thing, and now Triumph have productionised the same kind of clean, integrated design.
But if you want an original Triumph Boneville T120, this is how they are. And this is how they make you feel, according to owner Matt: ‘I’ve spent the past month gazing at it and polishing it. Time to start riding it now!’.
1969 Triumph Bonneville T120 Specs
Engine: Pushrod 4-valve parallel twin
Bore x Stroke: 71.0 x 82.0mm
Transmission: Four speed, chain drive
Power (claimed): 49 bhp @ 6200 rpm
Torque (claimed): 40 lb.ft @ 4500 rpm
Frame: Steel tube cradle
Front suspension: Telescopic fork, no adjustment
Rear suspension: Twin shocks, adjustable preload
Front Brakes: 8in TLS drum brake
Rear Brakes: 7in SLS drum brake
Weight (claimed): 165kg (wet)
Seat Height: 775mm
Tank Size: 11.35 litres
Economy: 50mpg/100 miles