The New New Bonnevilles: A Closer Look

592C9BF9BC5047DDA8B3BCB9C228C762 The Bonneville is finally going to earn its keep. For more than a decade, it has gotten by as the backbone of the Triumph brand solely on looks and romance. Those are powerful motivators for sentimental folk like bikers, but let’s be honest, the name “Bonneville” implies speed (preposterous Pontiacs aside), and it’s a little silly to have a “214” special edition of a bike than can barely break half that speed downhill.

Bonneville and its variants have been beloved because we look good and feel good on them. They have been fun, accessible, affordable, and nostalgic without being corny or phony. (Nostalgia is safe when used as prescribed, but overuse can lead to misguided nonsense like endorsements by Zombie Steve McQueen.) The Bonneville line-up has always had a winning smile that it’s hard to say no to. Triumph have taken that strategy as far as it could go, and now they have come out with guns drawn. We’re in a whole different class now. She just walked out on the dance floor, and all we can say is, “My, how you’ve grown!”

I’m going to say what we were all thinking: thank god they didn’t fuck it up. Making major changes to something so simple and beloved is very dicey. This could have gone wrong in so many ways. But have you ever heard so much gushing over a bike nobody has even ridden yet? It’s even buzzing in non-moto circles. Did you, like me, get texts from your non-biker friends & relations asking about this?

Naturally, all the coverage is reciting the numbers & specs on these bikes, and those numbers are critical to what this line-up is about, but you can see them in any of the links above. (Although we still don’t have two key numbers: peak horsepower and MSRP.) The numbers are what will make this bike a serious competitor for the BMW RnineT, Ducati Scrambler and some Monsters, H-D Sportster 1200, Yamaha XJR 1300, and many other seriously-sporty-but-not-superbike retro-nakeds (1200cc seems to be a direct shot at H-D and Ducati. Can you imagine swiping at both of those in one punch?) We wouldn’t be adding much to the conversation repeat the specs yet again here, so instead, per our wont, we will take a close critical look at some aesthetic details and how they relate to the whole.

Let us begin by confessing: This is a gorgeous piece of machinery:

2E74F3A854CF473D9AEFD5E5D2B3D2EFWhen it’s good, British motor design is outstanding.

This is a design that is unified around speed, yes, but also elegance. The composition hangs together off the top frame line, which is tilted forward in a kinetic gesture. The proportions are compact and the curves taut. It is mature but virile. Many bikes have great design ideas in them, but it is rare that they all support a single parti so well together. The XJR1300 seems to have parts of seven different cool bikes in it. The Harley Fat Boy, on the other hand, love it or hate it, is most emphatically and unapologetically what it is.

One smart move Triumph made is making the Thruxton the king of the line-up instead of the T120. The Thruxton was always the sportier-but-its-still-not-really-sporty step-sister. It was basically the Bonnie with lower handlebars, and it looked faster than it was. Owners were practically obliged to find ways to get more zaft out of it, and of course it was also limited by its suspension. No more! It is out of the shadow of its dowdy sisters.

An important visual signal of this distinction is that the Thruxton has a different tank. The squarer, flatter more-70s, less-50s tank is distinctive, and its lower, longer proportion just make the whole machine that much leaner and meaner. They didn’t take it too far, though: those 70s tanks were square enough to lose all character. Here Triumph’s stylists used that precedent as an inspiration, not a template, and that is always the correct way to treat your historical antecedents.

Let us continue the aesthetic tour of this bike’s intimates at the tires. (Sorry – tyres.) It has sticky, sporty Pirellis, but not just any Pirellis. Did you notice that these are Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres? These were developed for the venerated and all-too-short-lived Ducati SportClassics, which were an epitome of the best that neo-retro styling can be. The new Bonnies have been compared to the SportClassics, and this choice of tyre could not be a more direct and specific allusion. It’s like finding the helmet of the last guy who died climbing this mountain and wearing it while you announce your own summit attempt. Subtle, but ballsy, Triumph.

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I would like now to contemplate the taillight, because that is indeed the kind of guy I am. The taillight on the Bonneville had always been this ugly, vexing blot on an otherwise handsome design. Like if David Niven wore a tacky plastic boutonniere on the lapel of his tuxedo. The alien-head orb taillight was an inexplicable hangover from the Legend/Thunderbird/Adventurer bikes of the 90s. No-one knows why they carried over this one design element onto an otherwise entirely new machine. It was the first thing most Bonneville owners changed, usually to a Lucas-copy. The new bikes have finally done the right thing: an updated interpretation (not copy!) of the Lucas aesthetic. Nice curve to the top, angled sides. A smart reference if you get the joke, but still sharp if you don’t. Is the LED ring light another allusion to the BSA-style bullet taillight? I choose to believe it is.

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There are many other design moments to enjoy, such as the reference to the ignition points cover on the starboard engine casing, the very tidy branding graphics on the entire line-up, the tight bar-end mirrors, and of course all the quality components (e.g. brakes, forks, shocks) that signal to any connoisseur what class of bike this is. They have also placed a small brand logo in the middle of the headlamp, which everyone seems to be doing all of a sudden. Not sure what’s driving that.

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It is also commendable that Triumph are keeping and supporting (and will be shamelessly capitalizing on) one of the Bonneville class’ best features: its customizability. We will be flooded with gadgets, and surely aftermarket manufacturers will be quick to add their own.

C3BB5136001A439AB17D1DEBE1E4504BMonza, baby.

This is of course no all-out street fighter. It’s not a best, fastest, most-torque, most-horsepower anything. What it is is a very sharp, sophisticated-looking, covetable motorbike with a big enough performance envelope for any but the highest-end riders to get everything they want out of it. It is, simply, what we all always thought these bikes should be.

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It’s the Union, Jack!

triumph-twins-union-jack-key-holder-bonnie-thruxton-scrambler-thunderbird-storm-4058-p[1]The Union Jack is the sacred icon of certain sects of bikers.  Café Racers, Rockers, Hooligans, and Brit Iron Rebels.  Different denominations, they are all floggers of speed and crankcase crazies.  They have owned the symbol of empire and made it a banner of rock, punk, and junk, and they wear it on jackets, hang it in their garages, and tattoo it on their bodies.

The Union Jack is a great piece of design: beautiful, balanced, and bold.  Its powerful graphics make it equally strong as a flag of the realm and a Sex Pistols album cover.  It can be both a protest and the thing that it protests.  Bikers and rockers have done more to spread the Union Jack around the world than the Royal Navy ever did.

Soon our beloved icon may be in peril, as the Atlantic reports.  You see, every other Thursday or so, Scotland holds a referendum on whether to secede from the UK, and the white diagonal cross and blue field in the flag represent St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.  So if the Scots do succeed to secede, the Jack will represent a Union that doesn’t exist.  Read the Atlantic article for a concise background on this.

Since hating the British is second only to eating sheep entrails in the hierarchy of manliness in the Highland home of my ancestors, many people think this referendum may pass, and discussion of revising the flag is generating a lot of interest.  Since Wales is not currently represented on the flag, some people see this as an opportunity to incorporate either the Welsh red dragon flag or the yellow-on-black cross of St. David into the design.  The problem is that most of these well-intentioned attempts at inclusiveness result in just terrible design.

As bikers, we have invested enough into the Union Jack that we need to weigh in here.

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This design looks like a sickly, jaundiced version of its former healthy self.  This flag looks slightly caustic, like it could be the international warning sign for some particular kind of hazardous substance.  If you see this on the back of a tanker truck, do not shoot it with a bazooka.

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Another uses the white-over-green background of the Welsh flag.  This one looks a little less corrosive than the previous one but looks tepid and anemic compared to the current UJ.  It is half-full, like we are waiting for the rest of the image to load, and vaguely looks like it might be the flag of an obscure former British colony island in the South Pacific.

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Of all the bad designs, this one is the worst, which I call “Going into hyperspace with H. R. Pufnstuf.”  This clanking visual collision could hardly inspire loyalty or rebellion, but merely noisy annoyance.  How can a design with so much white area have absolutely no negative space?  This says neither “United” nor “Kingdom.”  It says “Agitated.”  To get a sense of what a terrible flag design this really is, imagine it actually waving in the wind.

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There is one design, however, that is truly worthy of both Queen Elizabth and Queen.  Simply replacing the blue field of St. Andrew with the black background of Wales’ St. David, a relatively subtle change, creates the bad-assingest flag since Oliver Hazard Perry hoisted “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”  The Black Jack (Hey!  What a great name for it!) is both regal and punk.  It takes the Union Jack up to 11.  It might even bring back Rock and Roll from the dead.  It is perfect.

Updating a great design is tricky, tricky work, especially one so widely beloved by such diverse people and with so much historical freight.  When the right idea comes along, it looks obvious and inevitable in retrospect, but good design is anything but inevitable.  Great design ideas are in fact few and far between.  Just look around you.  See what I mean?

Personally, I hope Scotland stays in the UK for many reasons, but if they pull out, this must be the design of the new flag of the United Kingdom of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

All you Rockers and Racers, let’s pull for the Black Jack.