Battle of the British Twins: Triumph Bonneville vs. BSA Lightning
In the mid 1960s, two of the fastest bikes on the road were British
Bold, British and beautiful, the BSA Lightning and T120 Bonneville go head to head.
Photos by Robert Smith
In the mid 1960s, two of the fastest bikes on the road were British: the Triumph Bonneville and the BSA Lightning. Both were 650cc parallel twins, but in design and execution they were very different machines. So which was the better bike?
1967The harsh fluorescent lights of London’s Ace Café cast an eerie glow over a line of parked motorcycles, picking out patches of chrome and polished alloy. Though the Ace has seen its best days, it’s still a destination for “rockers,” the neon sign still a beacon over the North Circular Road, the jukebox still booming out Eddie Cochran and the thick, brown tea still served in cracked white mugs.
Mike “The Bike” Dickens swings his Triumph Bonneville into the parking lot as “Big Dave” Woolley is climbing off his BSA Lightning, engine ticking as it cools in the night air. Each 650cc bike is its maker’s flagship: the Meriden-built Bonneville is top dog in production racing and the BSA from Small Heath, Birmingham, powers race-winning sidecar outfits. Dickens catches Woolley’s eye. They know what they have to do.
Woolley prods the BSA back into life, crunches into first and swings around alongside Dickens. They stare briefly at each other, rev their engines and rip out onto the black tarmac of the “Norf Circ.” The Bonneville’s torque pulls it into a short lead, but the BSA’s freer-revving motor brings it alongside as Dickens snicks the Triumph into second. They trade wheel lengths through the gears, the BSA inching ahead as its revs build in fourth gear.
The Neasden traffic circle looms ahead. Woolley drops the Lightning through third into second, swings left into the circle, then guns the BSA back onto the straightaway. Dickens takes a tighter line and carries more speed into the turn, pulling alongside as they exit the circle. In the distance is the notorious Iron Bridge and its wicked, humped curve. It’s claimed the lives of many café racers, but Woolley and Dickens are oblivious to the danger, both hunched over their respective gas tanks, throttles wide open. May the best man win.
Well, it could have happened like that. Woolley certainly lived in London then, and he owned a BSA. Dickens, though, would have had to fly in from Canada for the hypothetical race, but he would have gladly been on the Triumph. They’re both riding together today, however, cruising the back roads of Surrey, British Columbia, for our modern-day road test comparing these signature bikes from BSA and Triumph.
The bikesAlthough BSA and Triumph were competing brands, in 1951 both makers became part of one company when Triumph owner Jack Sangster sold his company to the BSA Group. BSA was by far the bigger company, involved in auto manufacturing, machine tools and numerous other engineering activities. But the Triumph division’s abrasive managing director Edward Turner managed to keep the BSA influence to a minimum until he retired in 1964. They were maintained as distinct brands, and until the late 1960s, each division’s machines were discrete designs sharing few components, built in different factories, and sold through separate dealer networks.
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