The new Big Easy
2009 Triumph Bonneville SE
Years produced: 2009
Claimed power: 67hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 105mph (est.)
Engine type: 865cc DOHC, air-cooled parallel twin
Weight (dry): 440lb
Price now: $8,399
It all seems a bit surreal as I head from New Orleans’ storied French Quarter into the bayou territory east of the city. I’m riding the 2009 Triumph Bonneville SE, its perfect blue and white paint gleaming and fresh in the patchy morning sun, while the rest of the world around me looks battered and worn.
The wounds of Hurricane Katrina are still painfully fresh in this area, where uprooted homes still teeter on broken foundations, waiting to be put right. Riding by a makeshift sign, threateningly spray painted with the words “U-dump, U-die,” it strikes me as both ironic and appropriate that Triumph, itself almost washed away by the storms of change, should choose New Orleans to launch its 2009 Modern Classics line.
Twenty-six years ago, Triumph was on its deathbed, its health terminally threatened following a worker blockade that shut the British company down for 18 months in 1974-1975. Reincorporated as a workers’ cooperative afterward, it was clear to anyone watching that Triumph’s best days were long behind it. The end came on August 26, 1983, when the doors of the old Triumph Meriden plant were closed forever, and the curtain fell on the Triumph legacy. Or so most people thought.
In 1991, in one of the greatest brand revivals of all time, John Bloor, a construction magnate with no real motorcycling background, relaunched Triumph. A former plasterer’s apprentice, Bloor is a gifted businessman who took on Triumph simply because it was there.
Instead of trying to relaunch the old Triumph, Bloor set his sights on creating an entirely new company, with an entirely new line of motorcycles that looked forward, not back. His first bikes hit European dealer showrooms in 1991, and they were nothing like Triumphs past. Sporting 3- and 4-cylinder liquid-cooled engines, they were modern, almost cutting-edge designs incorporating the latest technology.
Bloor’s Triumph Motorcycles Ltd. prospered, and in 1995 he brought his Triumphs to the U.S., with a new model, the 1995 Triumph Thunderbird, leading the charge. It was Bloor’s first foray into a retro-themed Triumph, and it was an immediate hit, accounting for a quarter of U.S. sales.
The Thunderbird’s success made future retro-themed Triumphs a certainty, and in 2001 Bloor introduced — or re-introduced you could say — one of the most iconic motorcycle names of all time, the Triumph Bonneville. The Triumph name has a particularly strong draw here in the U.S., a fact the new retro twin was designed to leverage. Powered by an all new DOHC, 8-valve, counter-balanced parallel twin, and endowed with styling drawn directly from Triumph’s rich past (very specifically and intentionally the 1968-1970 era), the new T100 Bonneville was a hit. Its new-era mechanicals guaranteed reliability, while its old-school styling, complete with the iconic swooping R logo on the tank, guaranteed attention.
The new T100 Bonneville spawned a complete range of retro-themed Triumphs, including the Thruxton for the café set, the Scrambler for would-be gravel road riders, and now the latest in the line, the Triumph Bonneville SE.
The Triumph Bonneville SE
Compared to the standard T100, the Triumph Bonneville SE (for “special edition”) moves the clock forward some 10 years. Where the T100 had the late Sixties firmly in its sights, the new SE harkens to 1979 and the T140D Special Edition, the first Triumph with mag wheels and electronic ignition.
The changes are more than just a set of wheels, however. Compared to the T100, the Bonneville SE boasts a lower seat height (29.5 inches versus 30.5), sportier, more upswept pipes, a shorter wheelbase (57.2 inches versus 59.1), less steering rake for quicker handling (27 degrees versus 28), slightly wider handlebars (29.4 inches versus 29.1 — they’re also about three-quarters of an inch closer to the rider and lower) and 17-inch rims front and rear, versus a 19-inch front/17-inch rear on the T100. Beyond that, the two models are essentially identical, sharing the same 67hp, 865cc, 360-degree parallel twin, the same brakes and the same instrumentation.
Perhaps the biggest change — and the one you can’t really see — is Triumph’s adoption of fuel injection. In this case, it’s actually a clever application of what used to be called throttle body injection, with fuel injection incorporated into a carburetor body. To maintain the Bonneville’s retro look, Triumph had Keihin disguise its system so it looks like a standard pair of Keihin constant velocity carburetors, complete with dummy float chambers. To the untrained eye, it’s a carbureted bike, and in this category, that’s the right look.
On the road
Our time on the new Triumph Bonneville SE was limited to a fairly sedate, approximately 100-mile roundtrip cruise from central New Orleans east to the Mississippi border and back. Our route included a mix of city streets, multi-lane city freeways and two-lane state highways, giving us an opportunity to get a pretty good feel for the new SE.
Although the differences on paper between the SE and the T100 seem too close to really mean much, on the road the new SE feels quicker and lighter (it is, but only by a claimed 11 pounds) than the T100. Part of that is up to the new wheels and tires, which account for most if not all of the SE’s lower weight. Importantly, that savings is all in unsprung weight, resulting in better suspension control. Throw in reduced steering rake and a smaller front tire for quicker turn in, and the SE is a decidedly sportier proposition than the T100.
Yet while it may be sportier, there’s nothing extreme about the Triumph Bonneville SE. Clutch action is light, smooth and linear, nicely complementing the bike’s easy-shifting 5-speed transmission, a unit that’s decidedly more precise than the 4-speed gear boxes of 40 years ago. False neutrals and missed shifts are a thing of the past, and good gear spacing takes great advantage of the 865cc twin’s claimed 51ft/lb of torque, which starts coming on strong at about 2,500rpm and keeps on till about 6,000rpm, right where you want it most.
On the road the SE is smooth and comfortable, the 41mm Kayaba forks soaking up bumps easily and with no discernable flex. And while other testers thought the rear suspension too stiff, I found it perfectly acceptable. While it’s a bit harsh on really rutted surfaces, it absorbs smaller bumps nicely, the rear wheel always firmly rooted to the road. For my money it fits the bike’s personality, and I think anything softer would be out of character.
Controls are simple and logically laid out, with a speedo and tach set in a small black panel with four warning lights (turn signals, high beam, oil pressure and neutral), although the light for the turn signals is hard to see in full sun; most every rider in our group got caught off guard by an errant signal still blinking. Clutch and brake levers fall readily to hand, and now include 4-position adjustment for reach, a particularly useful feature for those with short fingers.
This is a great bike to ride easy, and an easy bike to ride at the speeds most of us go. Top speed is only around 105mph, but frankly, it runs out of serious grunt at much over 85mph. But at anything below that, it has ample power. Take-off from a stop is strong, and mid-speed, 60mph passing is excellent, a quick downshift to fourth gear necessary only when the road rises or space is tight. Otherwise, it’s just a simple case of rolling on the throttle and moving on. In real terms, the Bonneville SE probably has all the power 90 percent of us really need or really use.
Rolling back into the parking garage of our hotel in New Orleans, our ride cut short by the threat of torrential rain, it struck me how much I was enjoying the Bonneville SE. Relatively light, great ergonomics, an eager and smooth parallel twin (thank the dual counter balancers for that), and great looking, it’s a bike that makes you smile when you ride, and want to ride more. Fortunately for me, at least one other rider in our group felt the same way, and as everyone else headed off to the spa and lunch, we headed back out on the road, right where the new Triumph Bonneville SE belongs.
Five great retro rides: The Modern Classics line
Since reviving the Bonneville name in 2001, Bloor and crew have patiently and methodically moved forward, building a new range of machines that carefully mix the best attributes of new technology — ease of maintenance and reliability — with the best attributes of traditional styling — elegance and simplicity.
Four bikes join the new Triumph Bonneville SE as part of Triumph’s Modern Classics line, including the Triumph T100 ($8,799), the sporting Triumph Thruxton ($8,799), the more randy Triumph Scrambler ($8,499), and the new “standard” Triumph Bonneville ($7,699), all of them developed from the original Triumph T100.
Although we concentrated on the Bonneville SE, Triumph’s New Orleans intro also gave us a chance to sample the other bikes in the line. Our hands-down favorite was the latest version of the Thruxton, particularly with the optional Arrow exhaust system.
Specially made for Triumph and available on all but the T100, the stainless steel, Italian Arrow exhausts transform these bikes. Where the standard Thruxton sounds muted, almost straining to really make itself heard, the Arrow-equipped bike emits a lovely, soul-satisfying growl that, while not as rich as an old T120 running hollow mufflers, is also a lot more neighborly. It’s easy to run quiet, but it sounds so great it’s hard not to run up the rpms just to drop the throttle and listen to the engine bark on the over-run.
The Scrambler we rode also had the Arrow exhaust, and like the Thruxton it was a hoot. With the Scrambler’s 270-degree (versus 360 on the other engines) firing interval the Arrow gives more of a guttural wail, and frankly it felt like an entirely different machine from the standard Scrambler we rode last year (July/August 2008), pretty much erasing our major misgivings (not enough power, too quiet) about the bike.
The standard Bonneville doesn’t lose much to the SE. Sure, it’s only available in single colors and doesn’t have the metal tank badges, and it comes sans tachometer, but beyond that it’s basically the same machine. At $7,699 it’s the bargain of the bunch, and it’s as great to ride as the SE.
And of course there’s the bike that started it all, the T100. If you haven’t been around one in a while, you forget just how good looking the T100 is. From its spoke wheels to its low exhaust and two-tone paint with the traditional “mouth organ” metal logo on the tank, Triumph really got it right with this one, as evidenced by the success of the Modern Classics line.
Triumph United States