Thursday, January 1, 2009

20,000 Mile Bonneville Review

It used to be, back in the 1960s that the Triumph Bonneville, a 650cc parallel twin motorcycle was one of the most desirable machines any red blooded young man (man!) could own. It held the unofficial world speed record at the Utah salt flats and was made famous in film as the motorcycle that rebels loved to own and ride. It was totally cool, like this 1969 T-120 whose gorgeous image I found on the British vintage bike website. However the Bonnevilles from that era vibrated like hell, they tended to leak oil and their electrical systems failed with dismal regularity. The Lucas electrics were known as "Lucas, Prince of darkness" owing to their propensity for failure leaving riders in the lurch....They were a beautiful design originating in the 1930s from the board of Edward Turner, assembled with too little care, poor engineering detail and not enough capital investment. Later models that got more precisely milled cranks suffered from far less vibration and owners who took the time to smooth the edges of the vertical crankcases suffered minimal oil leaks, they say. I never owned an original Bonnie because even in those days I wanted, yes a cool bike, but I wanted one that was at least minimally reliable for my sole means of transport. I rode Italian twins, Morini, MV Agusta, Benelli and eventually when I overcame my disdain for Japanese niceness I rode a Yamaha 500 single, cool possibly because even in 1980 the SR 500 still eschewed an electric start and I learned firsthand how to start a big single. I was an old school rider, a nerd, but even I found Bonnevilles too much trouble to own. Until now:Even for a commuter bike I wanted something small, simple and reliable in the Florida Keys for my 25 mile commute and occasional forays further afield. I wanted something old school and I thought a Vespa 250 might work, so I rode the red one pictured in the banner at the top of the blog for 10,000 miles over the course of ten months. After it's horrid, unreliable modern electrics, too old school for me, crapped out for the last time I decided it had to go in favor of a more reliable machine. I expect to put 18,000 miles a year on a motorcycle as two wheels are my main means of transport. I drive the car if I need to haul a lot of stuff or its cold or I'm not feeling well. Otherwise it's the Bonneville every single day. This particular model of Bonneville is no longer made, modern needs require fuel injection and modern tastes have scrapped the wire wheels and "peashooter" exhausts, though the engine now used in the 2009 series remains the same 865cc mill. If you want the classic look you can only get it with the heavily chromed "upgraded" (ie: more costly!) T100 version. The basic Bonneville these days comes with alloy wheels (nice because they are tubeless) and modern cone exhausts, shown in this picture from hell for leather magazine. It's not so different but....different enough! I've found the Bonneville to be about perfect for my daily use, it's been vice free and easy to enjoy. The maintenance intervals are set at 12,000 miles which boils down to once a year more or less and in between the motorcycle only needs oil changes, every six thousand miles at which point it takes four quarts (liters) of synthetic and a clean filter. The tires last 8,000 and 12,000 miles respectively rear and front and the final drive chain has been remarkably easy to take care of. I hadn't wanted to go back to a final drive chain motorcycle but I bought a $35 gadget from England that drips oil on the chain as I ride. My friend Bruce calls it an oil flinging tool but my chain is doing great with it.It's called a Loobman and its just a collection of rubber tubes that send droplets of oil to the sprocket and that lubricates the chain. I wash the chain every thousand miles with kerosene and a stiff brush and squeeze the Loobman bottle every time I feel like it and the chain lasts about 3,000 miles between minor adjustments. I pretty much know when the chain needs a quick tightening as the motorbike snatches in low gear around town. The five speed gearbox is light and easy to use, and I'm adding an aftermarket tachometer next month that the Hanukkah fairy just brought me. It takes 89 grade (US) gasoline which yields between between 43 and 48 miles to the gallon, and I hit reserve around 135 miles on the odometer:The bike cost me exactly $8,000 out the door in October 2007, from Pure Triumph in Fort Lauderdale which included the optional center stand ($250) and the rubber tank pads ($65). I also paid for optional gaiters on the front forks as I prefer to keep the suspension out of the crud and salt air:Old timers of all ages often sidle up and ask what year the Triumph is and embark on their own happy memories of struggling with leaky electrically unreliable Bonnevilles of decades past, and they seem unimpressed when I tell them my modern 900 is vibration free, reliable and doesn't leak a drop of oil (except for that which I spray on the final drive chain). I like the modern Triumph because it looks the part of a real motorcycle, like the machines of my youth, but it goes like a new machine which it is. I love that light clutch, and the motorcycle's ability to pull from 40 miles per hour in top gear.Call me prejudiced but if I see a motorcycle without luggage it doesn't spell "daily rider" to me, so naturally I threw on an ugly but very functional top case that gives me locking weatherproof storage:At $80 that was a bargain, and because it is a perfect square there's no wasted space inside with compound curves, like those fancier Italian top boxes. Another bargain was the $15 cargo net I use to keep things secured to the seat, things that don't fit in the box or the saddlebags (though I also have added a proper helmet lock visible to the right of the picture below):The Triumph fabric panniers come with mounting hardware at $250. In some ways I'd like detachable hard bags which would be more weatherproof and secure like the top case, but the fabric bags are actually more practical in some respects:I keep them sprayed with silicon waterproofing and when I stop to put on the waterproof clothing I carry in them I cover them with their built in plastic rain covers as well. Being fabric they yield a little and make for a little extra room, they are lightweight and easy to remove when I don't need to ride with them. To do that I have to remove the seat, and though the saddle looks just like the original Bonnevilles' it's a pain in the butt as the twin screws that hold it in place have a habit of falling out. Plus they are awkward to realign when installing the seat. As you can see in the picture below I've lost one screw and will have to get another set to watch them come undone and fall into the road...I've found some persistent rust patches on the mirror stems and the front fender bracket:Though my regimen of frequent fresh water washes seems to be keeping the rest of the chrome and alloy corrosion quite free. On the subject, critics of the modern Bonneville despise the exhaust system's "kink" which was added in front of the muffler to increase ground clearance:It doesn't bother me, but then again I'm not bothered by the flange that runs around the edge of the tank (visible in the picture further up the page) which is supposed to be a "period detail" from a 1960s or 1970s bike but which drives some fusspots crazy. These would be the people who think my Parabellum windshield ($250) is just another overly practical addition to a motorcycle that many owners like to keep as a Sunday rider. They're welcome to as Triumph offers a whole book of fancy add-ons to make the Bonneville anything you want, cafe racer, custom bobber you name it they have it. For me, my Bonneville is my workhorse which makes my commute a pleasure and gives me the chance to enjoy the open road every day of the year:I like the Triumph's simplicity, its good looks and it's all round capability. I've ridden at 80 mph sustained on the freeway very comfortably, I've taken it on the dirt and the gravel, and it's easy to ride around town though at almost 500 pounds it's heavier than it looks. With just 60 horsepower from the eight valve engine it's decidedly under stressed so I have high hopes that it will be happily turning over 100,000 miles (160,000 kms) in 2013. Here's hoping....