Big capacity retros have been around so long that the first ones have almost turned into classics. Kawasaki’s Zephyr 1100 appeared in 1992. Yamaha’s XJR1200 (later 1300) followed in 1995. But the basic idea of the 2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 is even older than the ’69 Bonnie on the previous classic review. I’ve got a 600 Panther in my garage with the same riding position, wheelbase, seat, silencers and colour. And they were first built in 1932. So you could say that nothing on the T120 is particularly new.
Except that underneath the fake carburettors and air filters, pretend engine fins, supposedly pre-unit gearbox and 1960s silencers is a Euro 4-compliant bike with water cooling, ride-by-wire, traction control, ABS, heated grips, an LED headlight, a slipper clutch and the most absurdly relaxed engine you could imagine (more on which in a moment). The result made itself apparent as I sat at the lights in Melton Mowbray on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
The motor was making its usual pleasing thud thud, at exactly the same rate as counting to four as quickly as you can, when a guy in his 20s walked across the road. He clocked the bike, gave the thumbs up, then pointed and shouted, ‘I like that.’ Which, in a nutshell, is what this machine is for. It looks more like a motorbike than any other motorbike; it stirs some kind of ancestral memory in the general population about what is agreeable to the eye and ear.
All this happens at a casual glance. What’s more impressive – if you actually live with the 2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 for a few days – is how beautifully designed it is. Where the original Bonnie is lovely despite its rough edges, the new one doesn’t have a hair out of place. All the modern crap you don’t want to look at – radiator, header tank, catalytic converter, silencer, throttle bodies – is tucked away.
There are no extraneous cables, wires or pipes, and no hideous plastic covers. Only BMW’s R NineT is in the same class. Of course no one really believes the bike has Amal Monobloc carbs and pancake air filters… so what are these bits actually doing? Making people smile, is the answer. It’s the two-wheeled equivalent of a mock Tudor house with double glazing and solar panels. My favourite bit is the tiny heated grip button under your left thumb. Prod once for off, once for low, once for high. So simple and understated. So welcome.
But the most extraordinary thing on the 2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 is the engine, a great lolloping giant of a thing that completely disregards any notion of getting to your destination as quickly as possible. Its 270-degree firing intervals and heavy, slow-revving crank give it a delicious beat, and it’s so softly tuned that the torque feels like an almost flat line from tickover to 6000 revs (Triumph say it peaks at 77 lb.ft at 3100 rpm). You’d think that such a short rev range would make the bike fussy about gears, but it can do 30mph through villages at 2000 rpm in third, or 1500rpm in fourth. There’s a bit of emissions-related hesitancy at low rpm, but it doesn’t bother me.
Anyway, enough of that. Give a T120 a bit of open road and each gear seems to go on for ten seconds. Think being catapulted off a trebuchet, but with time slowed down so you can appreciate the momentum. It’s strangely different. At the same time, if you’re in a big hurry you suddenly find yourself astride a 1200 whose throttle is against the stop quite a lot of the time.
That’s strangely different too. In bald terms, the 2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 isn’t significantly quicker than a Yamaha MT-07. But it is significantly lazier and more assured. Ride and handling are very good. Soft springs, fine damping and grip make it stable over bumps and give a solid feel.
It’s not as agile or engaging as the lighter Street Twin, prefers a steady approach and the footrests go down too early, which can be alarming. Otherwise the chassis outperforms the engine. You’d never dream something so heavy could be good on the brakes, but it stops pretty damn sharpish, sometimes with a little ABS-permitted howl from the back tyre. The 1960s knee pads on the tank really help: give them a squeeze during a crash stop and your upper body can stay relaxed.
It’s worth pointing out that bikes like this have a fairly narrow performance envelope. Just 100 miles at faired bike speeds will leave you battered. But if your bag is more about winning admiring looks, casting your own gaze over it, spending happy hours cleaning and fitting accessories, going for short blasts, or taking longer trips at legal speeds, then the 2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 is a bit special. And you really need a go on one.
2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 Specs
Engine: DOHC 8-valve parallel twin
Bore x Stroke: 97.6 x 80.0mm
Transmission: Six speed, chain drive
Power (claimed) : 79 bhp @ 6550 rpm
Torque (claimed): 77 lb.ft @ 3100 rpm
Frame: steel tube cradle
Front: 41mm cartridge fork, no adjustment
Rear suspension: Twin shocks, adjustable preload
Front Brakes: 310mm discs, 2-pot calipers
Rear Brakes: 255mm disc, 1-pot caliper
Weight (claimed): 224kg (dry)
Seat Height: 785mm
Tank Size: 14.5 litres
Economy: 54mpg/140 miles
Electronics : ABS, TC, rain mode, heated grips
Price: £9600 otr