Its high altitude, desolate location and expansive, blinding salt surface provide the ultimate horsepower test, imbuing it with the nickname, the “Great White Dyno.” There may be no place in motorsports more rugged, revered and unforgiving than the Bonneville Salt Flats.
In the postwar era, Bonneville drew some of the world’s bravest drivers and most ambitious engineering projects, all straining to set new records. Among them, independent tuners gave Meriden, England-based Triumph the outright motorcycle land speed record for 14 years, from 1956 to 1970. Commemorating this, the company introduced the T120 Bonneville model as its new range-leading 650cc twin in 1959, a brilliant bit of alchemy that far eclipsed Pontiac’s efforts to add luster to its big V8 sleds.
The Bonneville bike was a hotrod street version of Triumph’s perennial parallel twin. Featuring twin Amal carburetors in place of the previous single unit, along with a hotter cam and higher-compression pistons, gave the Bonnie a top-end kick that made it the company’s best performer until the arrival of the 750cc 1968 T150 Trident triple. In time, the Bonneville likewise grew to 750cc and included such upgrades as disc brakes, but by 1983 it was all over.
Triumph’s Band-Aid solutions to outdated engineering didn’t remotely answer Japan’s new, ground-up designs. And so the Bonneville, whose engineering roots dated to the 1938 Speed Twin, was finally history. Actually Triumph was history too, until Englishman John Bloor launched a line of modern bikes in 1991. But that’s another story….
Californian John Ireland has known Bonnevilles for over 50 years. At 14 he started as a mechanic, and later worked at Bill Robertson Jr.’s dealership in Hollywood, servicing Bonnevilles and other models. Years later he became a Triumph dealer in his own right, and figures he’s worked on thousands of Triumphs by now. “The Bonneville used the same platform as other Triumph twins, but the engine specs and color schemes were different,” he says. “The ‘68 was candy-apple red and the ‘69 was Olympic Flame with a silver scallop – two of the best looking designs.”
Ireland describes the Bonnevilles as reliable enough when properly fettled. “The Bonneville is not frail, and will last as well as anything else if it’s set up right,” he notes. “However, due to the twin carbs, valve adjustments are harder and synchronizing the carbs is also a hassle. Also, due to the poor design of the metals, the carb slides wear, causing erratic idling and stumbling at low revs.” (Fortunately, a modern Amal replacement eliminates this problem.)
In history, context is everything. Ireland reaches into his memory vault to illustrate what star magnets Triumphs and Bonneville were in the 1960s. “Kenny Rogers had a 1968 Bonneville, with a four-inch fork extension, a banana seat and megaphones,” he recalls. “And Ann-Margaret had an electric starter put on her 1968 Daytona – along with Flamingo Pink paint!”
Ad agency Chief Creative Officer Scott Young has owned a half-dozen Bonnevilles, from 1968 to 1976 models. “The Bonneville was a high-performance model comparable to the Norton Atlas and BSA Rocket Gold Star, but it was much better-looking in my opinion,” he offers. “The proportions were so right. The teardrop tanks are classic and beautiful, almost always two-tone with nice striping. And the stock ‘peashooter’ exhaust system sounds great – not real loud but there’s a voice to it. My favorite is the gold-and-ivory ’64 livery.”
Young’s company, EH+Y, created Triumph’s national advertising in the early 2000s. “The original Bonneville is pretty light compared to modern bikes,” he says. “They come off the line well and are quite ‘flickable.’ Although adequately quick, they are better for around town and short rides; riding them cross-country, you’d be more likely to have a breakdown.” Young also likes the Bonneville’s investment potential. “Of the Big Three (Triumph, BSA and Norton), the Triumphs win in terms of value,” he adds. “Thanks to their popularity and strong pricing, at a big auction you’ll have maybe 35 Bonnevllles and (single-carb) TR6s compared to just a few Nortons and BSAs. That’s why, for me, the Bonneville stands tall among British bikes.”