Retro Redux: Steve McQueen Bonneville Tribute Headlines IMS New York Show

Reader Contribution by Jeff Alexander
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2012 Triumph Bonneville Steve McQueen SE capitalizes on McQueen’s enduring appeal and strong connection to the Triumph brand. Photo: Kyoicchi Nakamura. 

Ton up boys and Ace Café men welcomed Triumph’s highly-anticipated Steve McQueen Bonneville Tribute at Progressive’s New York International Motorcycle Show. Paying homage to the legendary actor and racer who helped cement Triumph’s status as a cultural icon, Triumph will be offering just 300 units for sale in the U.S. when it hits the market in June. 

Developed in cooperation with McQueen’s son, Chad, Triumph hopes to carry on its rich tradition with a retro rider that recalls its glory days in the competitive world of motorcycles. “We’re very proud of the fact that McQueen made a conscious choice to use and promote Triumph. We stayed in constant contact with his son. and the feedback has been very positive,” said Triumph Customer Relations Manager Peter Carleo. 

The 865cc fuel injected parallel twin takes style cues from McQueen’s TR6 that lit up movie screens in The Great Escape. The legendary jump scene inspired generations of new riders and aspiring racers worked to emulate McQueen’s fearlessness on the track. Available only in khaki matte green with simple console appointments, the bike aims to make a statement with less. Built on the Bonneville T100’s platform, the military-styled McQueen model feels lighter and more nimble. “We wanted to stay in touch with our heritage while modernizing it. There’s definitely a growing market of buyers craving their old machines while new riders wanting something different that stands out. All our bikes are assembled by hand and that’s a big difference,” said Carleo. The McQueen limited edition model will retail for under $10,000 and 1,100 units will be available worldwide. 

Manufactures are beginning to respond to the niche market of buyers seeking retro rides. Progressive’s International Motorcycle Show is best known for giving manufacturers the opportunity to unveil their newest, cutting edge designs to buyers hungry for the next big thing. Companies gather to present their latest riding accessories while industry representatives convene to discuss industry trends. 

The show also welcomed custom builders competing for prize money as they showcased their one-off builds to great acclaim. This year’s show attracted a growing audience of vintage motorcycle enthusiasts, and the trend of custom builders paying homage to timeless designs met with great audience appreciation. Fans of sport bikes happily conversed with vintage owners as each traded anecdotes of what made their respective machines so special. 

Dennis Harrold of TT Cycles exhibited his board tracker tribute bike, the Tri Flyer, and noted the crowds surrounding retro-styled rides. “Take a look. Companies are responding to the niche market of vintage machines, but you do have to realize a lot of time and money goes into developing a new bike to look like an old one.”

The Tri Flyer from TT Cycles. Photo courtesy TT Cycles 

Harrold recalled when Kawasaki tapped into the burgeoning retro market with its W650 back in 1999. The bike paid tribute to Triumph’s legendary ’60s Bonneville, but it was only available in U.S. markets for two years and Kawasaki ceased producing it in 2007. Today, the bike enjoys a steady fan base of buyers seeking out its retro style and Japanese reliability. 

Harrold’s Tri Flyer started as a 1970 Triumph 650 T120R. He handmade the gas and oil tanks and ultimately wanted to embrace and pay homage to the board track bikes that thrilled audiences. “Board tracking used to be a very big thing until some high-profile fatal crashes raised attention to the risks involved. Board tracking slowly died after that.”

Weighing a mere 350 pounds, the Tri Flyer cranks out 46 horses with a redline of 10,000rpm, sports a 4-inch-under Springer front end and dual Amal concentric 900 Series carburetors are mated to the fully-rebuilt 650 engine. “Our customer base are 40-50-year-old riders who are rediscovering British bikes. When we build, we try to give back to the customer as many original, usable parts in case they want to go back and restore the bike. At the same time, we make our bikes safe and functional. We straighten out the driveline and make sure it handles properly. We build our bikes to ride,” said Harrold. He prices the Tri Flyer at $18,000.

Prices of classic bikes continue to climb, while new enthusiasts have discovered the reliability of vintage Japanese models. The Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club (VJMC) greeted visitors with its display of yesteryear’s machines that dominated and forever changed the industry. VJMC member William Jordan reflected on the growing trend of young riders who have embraced the machines that gave British twins a scare. “I think it started with affordability. It fits a unique style; they’re reliable and easy to work on. Older guys get nostalgic and young guys want to learn. Just keeping them running makes you feel proud,” he said. Jordan’s 1974 Honda CB450 K-7 drew more than a few second looks. “The time to buy is when you find them. I’ve noticed that people are looking to pay for a bike’s originality and patina in comparison to fully-restored ones.”

He said classic Brit bikes will always have a strong market, despite reliability being stuff of legend. “Why do Brits drink warm beer? Because Lucas designed their refrigerators,” laughed Jordan. 

In conjunction with the demand for retro rides comes the café racer boom. The moniker stems from young Brit riders craving speed and simplicity. As raced from café to café, they traded ideas on how to increase speed, decrease weight, and strip the bike of non-essentials. Many had to make do with limited funds to customize their bikes and some utilized non-traditional materials to develop highly-personalized, one-of-a-kind bikes. 

Royal Enfield is in the midst of developing a production café racer model, tentatively scheduled for an October debut. “We know café racers all started in England back in the late 1950s. We’ve been making that kind of styled bike for decades and this bike will really satisfy the craze for these rides that’s going on,” said Enfield Dealer Developer Ron Greene.

Royal Enfield Cafe Racer

While all phases of the proposed bike have yet to be completed, Greene believes it will be well-received and estimates Royal Enfield will import 100 examples to U.S. in its introductory year. He believes the bike will cost from $7,995 to $8,495. “They’re always developments and constant changes going on. We won’t know what our café racer model will finally look like until we pry open the crate,” said Greene.

Royal Enfield has been an industry stalwart, but riders have gravitated to other namesakes that offered more power with modern features. Greene boasted that Enfield is the longest-running company to never have gone out of business. “We started back in 1901 and never went under. We worked to keep our uniqueness and I think people recognize this. People today call our bikes retro, but in my era, they were just cool.”

Responding to customer demands for updated designs, Royal Enfield made the leap to fuel injection in 2009 and also added electronic ignition, but its standard 500cc engine produces only 27 horses. “We looked into customer needs. We sell 80,000 cycles a year in India and it really suits that demographic because bikes out there are a necessity. Ours get 75 miles to the gallon and satisfies their needs for economy because gas is very expensive out there.”

Royal Enfield’s flagship 2012 Bullet model features a single-cylinder, 4-stroke 500cc that makes 27 horsepower at 5,250rpm. Greene said gas filled shock absorbers aim to improve handling and fuel injection modernizes, while the overall feel preserves the company’s heritage. “Some things are not just fashionable. They’re timeless,” said Greene.

Progressive’s International Motorcycle Show showed an increased appreciation for classic bikes, while highlighting the growing demands for reliable, retro machines. Carleo said manufacturers have to carefully balance tasteful styles with modern appointments to evolve in a competitive market. “We were careful in our developments to keep our bikes as nostalgic as possible, and the draw for the McQueen bike has been very strong so far. Part of our success has been the fact that our bikes are known for being fast and people caught on quickly to that. We addressed previous reliability issues and if the trend for retro bikes continues, we could see a Brando edition for all we know.” — Reported by Jeff Alexander

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