Triumphantly curvaceous: the Sophie Dahl of bikes

The Triumph Rocket III looks like a cartoonist's image of a motorbike but, as Tim Luckhurst discovered, this beast is a very serious contender
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The man responsible for styling the Triumph Rocket III doubles as a cartoonist for Motorcycle News. My first impression on seeing the much anticipated machine was that John Mockett had brought too much of his caricaturist's sensibility to the project. The Rocket is a refined version of how a small boy imagines a motorcycle. Engine, tyres and exhausts are simply vast. The back wheel is broader than anything ever fitted to a motorcycle. At rest the machine resembles a brontosaurus raised on steroids.

The man responsible for styling the Triumph Rocket III doubles as a cartoonist for Motorcycle News. My first impression on seeing the much anticipated machine was that John Mockett had brought too much of his caricaturist's sensibility to the project. The Rocket is a refined version of how a small boy imagines a motorcycle. Engine, tyres and exhausts are simply vast. The back wheel is broader than anything ever fitted to a motorcycle. At rest the machine resembles a brontosaurus raised on steroids.

But that is absolutely intentional. Triumph's objective is to seize the pinnacle of the American cruiser market by making existing muscle bikes look puny. Riding a Rocket in California last week I concluded that they know their market very well indeed.

The Rocket III turns heads and loosens jaws on High Street USA. In its target market it is not considered excessive. A banker in the wine-making city of Sonoma told me: "That, Sir, is the Sophie Dahl of motorcycles. It is big and it is utterly beautiful."

Earlier, lost in nearby Petaluma, I pulled up at the 7/11 to ask directions. Within seconds a crowd had gathered. "Some bike," said the trucker leaning from his cab. "Shit. That's cool," added his mate. The clinching vote came from the man in the Harley-Davidson T-shirt. "How much does it retail for?" he asked, his hands caressing the fuel tank.

If the reactions of others muted my doubts about the immodest scale of the Rocket, then riding it destroyed them. Part of the thrill lies in sheer power. Opening the throttle wide felt like being launched by a catapult. The 2,294cc three-cylinder engine delivers 140bhp and oceans of torque.

But the surprise is that the Rocket is delightfully manageable. Over 90 per cent of its power is available between 2,000 and 6,000rpm. The flexibility of a slick, five-speed box is astonishing. Third gear takes the Rocket from 20mph to illegal speeds in the blink of an eye.

Over 150 miles of twisting California roads, I encountered nothing with which the Rocket was not sublimely happy. The brakes meet sports bike specification. The suspension was custom-built for Triumph by Japanese specialists Kayaba. In combination, they deliver a level of agility that mocks the Rocket's size and weight. Going from existing cruisers to the Rocket feels as I imagine it might have felt to fly a Spitfire after a biplane.

Among the journalists invited to the Rocket's launch were several with racing credentials. They pushed it into corners at frantic speeds and emerged singing its praises. The ground clearance is lower than on sports machines. Footrests were introduced to tarmac and, in one case, snapped off, but the Rocket held its line.

Few owners will treat the bike that harshly. Many will reserve their Rockets for polishing and Sunday excursions. That is a crying shame. The Rocket deserves to be ridden, not revered. A low centre of gravity makes it easy to manoeuvre even at walking pace and delivers spectacular handling. The Rocket will only reveal its full potential when it is ridden across continents and pushed hard on twisting roads.

Over the last decade several impressive machines have emerged from the Triumph factory at Hinckley in Leicestershire. Designs including the Bonneville, Daytona, Trophy, Speed Triple and Tiger have spread awareness that there is a serious British maker of stylish machines. The Rocket III takes Triumph beyond respectability. It is a bike with which larger manufacturers will be obliged to compete. It is a very long time since a British motorcycle set standards around the world. The Rocket does that. It also means that Triumph possess an engine around which a range of new bikes may be developed.

This is not bad for a company that, despite its historic name, is really the new kid on the block. The modern Triumph emerged from the collapse of the Meriden workers' co-operative when owner John Bloor bought the rights from the receiver in 1983. It produced its first model in 1991. Output is now expected to exceed 35,000, of which 5,000 will be Rocket IIIs. Bloor, a miner's son who made his fortune as a house-builder, owns 95 per cent of the shares in Triumph. The Rocket looks set to present him with a classic problem of success.

Demand is likely to exceed supply. Some 1,500 Rockets were ordered in the US before customers could even ride the machine. British buyers appear as keen to get their hands on the 250 reserved for them. Rarity may enhance desirability. Making customers wait is a trick Harley Davidson have used. But Triumph is a minnow. There is a bit of spare capacity at Hinckley, but should Triumph hurry to increase production? Will new facilities be required? When was the last time it was possible to ask questions like that of an entirely British motorcycle manufacturer?

* For first riding impressions of the Rocket III from independent.co.uk's sister site in the South Africa, click here.

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