The original was the iconic, classic, British bike. Tim Luckhurst finds the new version does not disappoint

Engine: 790cc air-cooled DOHC parallel twin
Maximum power: 61 bhp @ 7,300rpm
Maximum torque: 60 Nm @ 7,200rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, chain final drive.
Brakes: front single 310mm disc, rear single 255mm disc.
Weight: 205kg
Seat height: 775mm
Tank capacity: 16.6 litres
Price: £4,999

There is a class of middle-aged, born-again rider for whom the return to motorcycling is mainly a matter of style. They recall heading out to the Hawkwind gig on their very own silver machine and yearn to repeat the experience. The Yellow Pages television advertisement in which James Nesbitt and chums wax lyrical about motorcycles they once owned or craved and then frantically seek rider training was made for these folk. Very often they congregate at Harley-Davidson dealerships to drool over the sculpted chrome and sheer retro loveliness of machines such as the XL883 Sportster.

This is not a bad thing. I am rare among motorcycle journalists in having, until recently, owned a Sportster. They are pretty, fun and infinitely customisable. If your objective on buying a first bike is to ride gently, mainly in town, and treat it more as a lifestyle accessory than a regular means of transport, the little Harley- Davidson is a good investment. It attracts envious glances wherever you park it and retains a surprising proportion of its new price when you decide to trade up. But there is an all-British alternative that looks as good and offers rather more in terms of performance.

The Triumph Bonneville is two motorbikes. The original was a 650cc, then 750cc, twin built between 1959 and 1983. Its appearance defined an era, but its technology did a lot to explain why the British motorcycling industry died. The new Triumph Bonneville, launched in 2001, goes a long way towards revealing why it has been revived. The styling is pleasingly similar to the iconic original, but the modern 790cc parallel-twin engine has attained a wholly new stage of evolution.

I've reviewed Bonneville-derived Triumphs, including the Thruxton and the Scrambler. But, until this year, I had not tested the basic Bonneville. I recently rode one between Edinburgh and St Mary's Loch in the Scottish Borders, covering a route that included rush-hour urban riding, motorway, broad, open A-roads, and tightly winding B-roads.

This is a very laid-back motorcycle. An upright seating position affords excellent forward vision in traffic and, although the bike is heavy for its size, the weight is all low down, giving the modern Bonnie assured handling. It winds through traffic jams and the steering is pleasingly light even at very low speed. Then you hit open road, and the practicality of a modern 61bhp engine reveals itself.

By sportsbike standards, the Bonneville is a dawdler, but not by the standards of its own market segment. The classic parallel twin engine (both pistons rise and fall together) delivers 90 per cent of its peak torque at just 3,500rpm. This equals a lot of midrange heft. Between 50mph and 70mph in top gear, overtaking capacity is excellent. Tyres and brakes are good enough for quick progress down country lanes.

Wind protection is non-existent so, while the Bonneville can exceed 100mph, it is not an experience to indulge for longer than a few seconds at a time. Instrumentation is basic, in keeping with the retro image. But the fuel tank is sensibly sized and, while only a romantic would contemplate imitating the Triumph-mounted trek described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Bonneville is suitable for 100-mile journeys in dry weather.

Is it better than a Sportster? It depends what you want. The US machine is beautifully made, impressively reliable and guaranteed to wow your friends. But I suspect the Bonneville has slightly greater potential to let its owner grow in skills and experience. On one of these, a novice or born-again motorcyclist can make the transition from tentative first steps to relatively advanced handling.

For many returnees entranced by the concept of motorcycling but less enthralled by the reality, the contrast will sound insignificant. Milwaukee and Hinckley both produce gorgeous lifestyle motorcycles on which the nostalgic rapture of a sunlit cruise can be enjoyed to the hilt. But just as Britain and the US once competed to produce defining rock music for the boomer generation, now Harley-Davidson and Triumph compete to build authentic retro motorcycles. The US range is larger, but competition is healthy.

Search for used cars

Comments