Triumph Bonneville Bobber Test: So Cool, So Comfortable

First ride in Spain on Triumph’s outrageously styled new Bonneville Bobber

Triumph’s all-new Bonneville Bobber is a stylistic and dynamic tour de force from a company which makes bikes that are quite unlike anything else in the marketplace, especially those powered by three-cylinder engines. But the Bobber isn’t another triple – instead, it’s the latest member of the British manufacturer’s massively expanded, thoroughly re-engineered, born-again-one-more-time Bonneville parallel-twin range. 

It’s a modern British take on a Yankee-style hot rod that’s cool-looking, capable and competent, as the chance to be one of the first group of journalists to ride it through the streets of Madrid, the capital of Spain, and out into the surrounding hills on a sunny winter day’s press launch, adequately proved.

The Bobber was the forerunner of today’s Custom bikes

For those not au fait with this iconic piece of two-wheeled Americana, the Bobber was the forerunner of today’s Custom bikes, initially concocted in the late Forties and early Fifties by GI’s returning home from war. To do so, they invariably used a Harley-Davidson or Indian as the basis – but also vintage-era Triumph twins of the Marlon Brando/Wild One pre-Bonneville generation. As more and more war veterans were demobbed, the massive shortage of civilian machines ramped up prices, leading them to acquire now-unwanted military dispatch bikes which they then ‘bobbed’ by cutting back the rear fender, aka mudguard – hence the term ‘bobtail’ – as well as stripping off other unwanted parts to make the result as light as possible for street racing. 

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Going from a dead stop to flat out as fast as possible was the bobber’s mantra, as practiced in the illegal street drags staged throughout the USA back then. There were plenty of uncompleted freeways comprising Eisenhower’s fledgling Interstate Highway System where you could drag race pretty safely – often for big money in side bets – before the freeways got completed and such racing got commercialised, after they built special drag strips to take it off the streets. So a Bobber represented a minimalist approach to bike building that was made for go, not show, hence anything that didn’t constitute a necessity was deleted. Kind of like on the latest variant of the ten-strong Triumph Bonneville family

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The Bobber later mutated into the Chopper in the Sixties – but that’s another story, though it’s worth noting that in today’s America the garish, raked-out custom Choppers that were all the rage a decade ago before the advent of sub-prime mortgages, are now so very yesterday, with the clone manufacturers who built them mostly gone to the wall, leaving the more minimalist and far more rideable Bobber-style Customs to enjoy a resurgence. Hence one of Harley’s recent best-sellers has been the Bobber-style Forty Eight, and while the Indian Scout, Moto Guzzi V9 Bobber and Yamaha XV950 Bolt are also firmly in its firing line, Triumph’s authentically styled new Bobber launched at Milan’s EICMA Show last month and in dealer showrooms from February onwards arguably encapsulates better than any of them the minimalist styling ethos, muscular stance and purposeful attitude of a period bobber. It’s available in four colours, all with the same black-painted all-new tubular steel frame, with the Jet Black base model costing GBP10,500 including 20% UK tax, the Ironstone (a light matt grey) and Morello Red an extra GBP125, and the two-tone Competition Green and Frozen Silver with hand-painted striping 300 quid more than the black-is-beautiful version.

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Really comfortable on a 130-mile/200 km day’s ride

Bobbers didn’t much happen in Britain first time around in the late 1940s – function mattered back then, not form, at a time when motorcycles were mostly viewed as basic transportation. That makes Triumph’s decision to bring the Bobber concept to a global market in 2017 with a bike that’s been under development for almost four years, more building a present-day British factory Custom with a transatlantic retro slant, than history recreated. The result looks fantastic in the metal, with brilliantly executed styling of a bike that will only be sold as a single-seater, and which in spite of the low 690mm default height of the seat that’ll make the Bobber accessible to riders of all heights, proved really comfortable on a 130-mile/200km day’s ride. 

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Adjustable seat

The floating aluminium seat pan surmounted by a nicely stitched foam pad is surprisingly accommodating, with zero numb-bum syndrome after a day spent sitting on it, and it’s adjustable forward and up or rearwards and down over a 30mm range, albeit only with tools. This is complimented by a simple quick-release function for the single round instrument clock that lets you adjust its angle to suit your stance. The footrests are quite far back and positioned fairly normally – though not for this style of bike, where with its slammed styling hugging the highway you’d expect they’d be further forward so you could stretch your legs out. But at 5’10”/1.80m tall I never felt cramped, nor were my knees or hips sore after my day spent bobbing around central Spain, and indeed the wide, flat handlebar delivers a really relaxed stance. It’s a nice bike to ride, letting you chill out when you want to, or carve curves when you and it both feel like it. Watch out for those low-slung footrests, though – you must be ready to slam on the brakes to slow down when you suddenly realise you’re going too fast to make the turn, because it’s physically impossible to crank ‘er over any more!

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The Swing Cage

Though the non-adjustable KYB suspension has limited travel, with the front 41mm fork offering just 90mm of wheel movement and an even more reduced 77mm from the monoshock rear, Triumph’s engineers led by its R&D chief Stuart Wood have cleverly brought two factors into play here in delivering an improbable amount of ride comfort, as well as compliance. It looks at first as if the Triumph has a traditional Bobber-style hardtail rear end that’s devoid of any suspension, until you discover the KYB monoshock nestling snugly beneath the seat in what appears to be a direct-action cantilever rear end, thanks to the cutely crafted so-called ‘swing cage’ operating the rear suspension. But the Bobber’s cleverly packaged laydown monoshock is actually worked via a linear-rate link hidden away low down which gives good control over rear wheel damping, plus Wood & Co. also went looking for a company to make them a special set of tyres for the Bobber, which would provide enhanced suspension via added flex in their specially designed sidewalls. 

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They found one close at hand in US-owned but UK-based Avon, which produces the specially-developed 19-inch front crossply and 16-inch radial rear Cobra AV71/AV72 duo equipping the Bobber’s great-looking black-rimmed wire-spoked wheels – a skinny 2.50in front and 3.50in rear. While this combo delivers relaxed, confident steering as well as excellent grip within the restrictions placed on the Bobber’s turn speed by the fact you’ll ground out the flip-up footrests at relatively minimal lean angles, what was most noticeable was the way I could feel the rear 150/80R16 tyre flexing gently beneath me as we rode over the plentiful speed-calming concrete or plastic ‘sleeping policemen’ in the streets of Madrid and surrounding towns and villages. Form herewith indeed meets function – the Bobber looks cool, but it’s also good to ride. Plus build quality is very high, as is now usual for bikes built in Triumph’s trio of Thai factories.

The KYB fork is kicked out sufficiently to deliver visual street cred in a bike with such front-loaded styling that the semi-detached looking rear wheel seems to be still riding through the last town you just left. But at a 25.8º rake it’s far from excessive, especially combined with a mere 87.9mm of trail – these are sportbike stats. Though the rangy 1510mm wheelbase calms everything down properly, the Bobber is very much at home cranking from side to side through a succession of sweeping fourth-gear turns, and thanks to its long stride is super-stable at any kind of speed. Because of its low-down cee-of gee that further helps it ride bumps well, plus the reduced contact batch of its skinny front 100/90-19 tyre, the Bobber’s also pretty nimble in rounding tighter turns in city streets or mountain hairpins. It has no right to handle as well as it does.

Retuned 1197 cc twin

Triumph’s HT/High Torque version of the new-for-2016 liquid-cooled 1197cc eight-valve T120 Bonneville 97.6 x 80mm parallel-twin engine with 270º crank and chain-driven single overhead cam, has been  adapted to play a key role in the Bobber’s rideability. This retuned version employing twin Keihin throttle bodies that as usual are cleverly disguised as carburettors, plus a new dual airbox intake system, has an ultra-flat torque curve which makes it almost irrelevant which gear you throw at the Bobber out of the six available. In fact, that’s two too many – a four-speed gearbox would be sufficient on a bike which will let you gas it wide open in top gear from just 2,300rpm upwards with zero transmission snatch, and on which 103Nm of torque is already delivered at 3,000 rpm. Peak grunt of 106Nm is obtained just a thousand revs higher, but although it makes 10% more torque at 4,500rpm than the T120 (which peaks with 105Nm at just 3,100 rpm), this then falls away beyond 5,500 revs, and there’s just 76Nm available by the time the revlimiter you have no business ever encountering in real world riding cuts in at 7,000 rpm on the ride-by-wire digital throttle.

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Two riding modes

This offers two easily selectable riding modes, Road and Rain, each delivering the same full 76bhp/57kW power output at 6,100 rpm, just with a different degree of urgency via separate dedicated throttle maps. Using the sweet-shifting gearbox to keep the engine turning in the slightly fatter part of the horizontal torque curve between 3,000-5,000 rpm is the way the Bobber will invariably be ridden, with the switchable single-stage traction control on hand to keep the wheels in line. Doing so delivers a decidedly thrilling hot rod roar from the Bonneville motor’s double-skinned stainless steel twin exhausts with slash cut peashooter silencers and its signature catalyst box under the gearbox. Complying with Euro 4 requirements has once again allowed Triumph to deliver a great-sounding bike that’s replete with torque at the expense of a little outright power, which is absolutely not an issue on a chilled-out stylebike like this. In fact, sticking the 900 Street Twin motor in the Bobber rather than the more potent 1200 version Triumph has ended up using wouldn’t have significantly detracted from the bike’s appeal, at reduced cost. Or maybe that’s coming later…!

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For the Bobber’s T120 Bonnie motor has considerable reserves of performance even if at heart it’s a flexible friend spinning at just 2,500 rpm at 60mph100km/h, while 4,200rpm gives 100mph/160kmh. As well as a smooth, linear power delivery with zero vibration at any revs thanks to its twin balance shafts, this bike is ridiculously forgiving and easy to ride, with just the single Nissin two-piston front brake caliper and 310mm disc combination the only thing to watch out for in stopping a motorcycle weighing 228kg dry from any sort of speed. Though it certainly looks cooler with just the single disc, Triumph’s new stylebike is essentially underbraked. Panic stops require you to stand on the much more effective rear 255mm disc and single-piston floating caliper to haul the Bobber to a halt, aided by the reserves of engine braking still retained in the settings for the torque assist aka slipper clutch. 

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This has a really light lever action that makes riding the bike in town and/or traffic quite untiring, so your left hand won’t cramp up in the urban use I bet most Bobberists will mostly put their steed to, especially with its 9.1-litre fuel tank reducing range to little more than 100mi/160km. My fuel warning light illuminated after just 68 miles on the good-looking, very readable single round ‘clock’ which has an analogue speedo dial with a digital panel you scroll through via the I-button on the left ‘bar, accessing the gear position indicator, revcounter, odometer with twin trips, fuel level, range to empty, average and current fuel consumption, a clock, service indicator, riding mode and traction control settings. There’s no ambient temperature reading, though, which would have been nice. 

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Few people buying a Bobber will leave it in standard trim, and Triumph knows that, so there's a huge range of more than 150 accessories in the company’s aftermarket catalogue developed specifically for this model, so you can get the Bobber exactly how you'd like it. There’s a variety of luggage options that will make this a practical traffic tool for riding to work, briefcase or tools in a side bag. Expect the Ducati Monster’s dominance of the cool commute market segment in cities like London, San Francisco, Paris or yes, Madrid to come under serious threat, especially with the Bobber’s suspension well able to handle bumpy urban surfaces, ABS fitted as standard as part of the Euro 4 compliance, and service intervals now stretched to 10,000 miles or 16,000km. That’s with lots of neat period-looking standard design cues there to be flaunted in delivering extra pride in ownership, like the battery box with stainless steel strap, effective bar end mirrors, rubber fork gaiters, cutdown front mudguard, lockable fuel cap and classic-look LED taillight. But the heated grips which Triumph thankfully fitted to the test bikes to copy with Madrid’s shivery morning winter weather are an accessory, same as the cruise control kit that’s also available. There’s even a couple of options to enhance performance, including a fully-adjustable Fox rear shock, plus a range of new Bobber exhausts from Vance and Hines that are still Euro 4 compliant. If you need help getting started in designing your own customised Bobber, Triumph has also created two so-called Inspiration Kits – a traditional-looking ‘Old School’ package with ape-hanger ’bars, and a drag racing ‘Quarter Mile’ effort instead using clipons.

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Here’s the bottom line. Triumph’s new retro stylebike will be a sold-out success around the world, and the firm’s biggest problem is going to be meeting demand for a model that’s as good to ride as it is to look at. Oh – that and deciding what to build next on this new Custom platform for the Bonneville motor, incorporating its all-new frame and dedicated engine tune. A Street Tracker, anyone?? Gotta happen… 

Photo credit: Alessio Barbanti, Paul Barshon, Friedemann Kirn and Matteo Cavadini

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