Let’s get straight to the heart of this story. Triumph are aiming for the T120 Bonneville to be the biggest seller in the Bonneville range which, in turn, will account for anywhere between 25% and 30% of all motorcycles sold by the Hinckley, England, factory. Fifty engineers – a huge number of staff by Triumph’s standards – have worked for over four and a half years bringing this motorcycle to market. In short, it is a machine which Triumph had to get right.

The T120 Bonneville is an extremely complicated motorcycle not so much in terms of the engineering, which is quite straightforward, but rather because of the highly complex marketing demands made of the bike. The Bonneville heritage is immensely valuable but it also looms threateningly over any machine carrying the iconic name. These pressures are so important to the motorcycle that’s it worth looking at them in some detail before discussing the Bonneville in more practical terms.

2016 Triumph T120
The 2016 Triumph T120 has a motor that will pull hard from nothing and take you up to 90 mph as fast as you’d want to go.

First, let’s kill one myth which seems to be growing by the day. The story which is currently spreading like a successful ‘flu virus is that Triumph’s 900cc Street Twin is a cheap, underpowered or beginner’s Bonneville and that the real thing has to be the full fat, big boys’ 1200. Rarely, in the motorcycling world, has there been such a major misunderstanding of a motorcycle.

The truth is that the Street Twin is so radically different from the Bonneville that it could almost be made by a different manufacturer. In fact, if you were coming from one of the great Meriden classics, like a ’68 Bonnie, it is strongly arguable that the bike with which you would most empathize is the Street Twin because it rides like the best classic bike ever made, anywhere in the galaxy. So, don’t think of the Street Twin as being a little, or heaven forbid even an inferior, Bonnie but rather the machine most like a 2016 incarnation of a classic motorcycle.

However, customers were demanding a “real” Bonneville with a big, hairy-chested engine, big brakes and B-I-G attitude ’cos big always has to be better. Grrrrrr…

The problem with this story is that the Street Twin is the authentic replacement for a classic Bonnie. The new T120 is far more of a modern substitute for a Mk. III electric start Norton Commando – and saying that has probably earned me a lifetime ban from any other Triumph activity!

Eight-Valve 1200cc Engine

I make this observation on the basis that the big, somewhat lumpy, power surge which is the hallmark of a crisp 850 Commando is replicated, albeit in a thoroughly modern and sophisticated way, by the 1200cc, eight-valve, 79 horsepower Bonneville motor. By contrast, the Street Twin is truly the grandchild of Doug Hele’s Bonneville.

The important thing to remember is that the new Bonnie is not aimed at fat, bald, old wrinklies like me. In the same way that 30-somethings like to buy t-shirts bearing pre-faded logos of the iconic old companies, complete with synthetically added sweat stains, so these good folk know exactly what a modern incarnation of a Bonneville should be – and this is precisely what Triumph have provided.

I can give you a wonderful example of this. Triumph have gone to an inordinate amount of trouble to make the twin fuel injectors look like Amal Monobloc carburetors. The young journalists at the launch were in awe at the care Triumph have taken to make genuine fake Monoblocs whilst I, as the sole representative of those who had suffered with the original (expletive deleted) awful Amals, cowered in a corner with my hands covering my face. Fake Monoblocs! Aarrrggghh!!! Why not keep TVs which show only black and white pictures, and make everyone use manual typewriters? We had those too back in the day.

But, and I need to reiterate this, the vast majority of customers know what they want a 2016 Bonnie to be – and they have been given just what they have asked for.

That Triumph understand their market so well is reflected in the fact that the majority of Bonnevilles sold will be in urban cool black – and even cooler matte black.

For this article, my editor specifically and explicitly forbade me from riding one of the really attractive Bonnevilles – the Cranberry and Silver looks stunning – and ordered me to concentrate on the urban cool Black edition. There was a certain irony in this edict for two reasons. First, the only time I have been really cool is when I crashed a Husqvarna army ski bike into a snow drift and it took Husky staff 20 minutes to dig me out. I really was authentically cool then!

2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 Black
A little adjustment to the rear suspension preload settings and handling vastly improved.

Second, my wife spends 10% of her time persuading me not to look like a 10 quarts a day moonshine drinker whenever we are seen out in public together.

Looking either intentionally cool, or authentically high fashion grunge, are both skills which have completely passed me by.

So, to the bike. At the heart of all the Bonnevilles, from the Street Twin to the Thruxton R, is an eight valve, air-water cooled Twin. I have deliberately hyphenated the two methods of cooling, to stress that the archetypal splayed cylinder head and heavily finned cylinder barrel are not cosmetic styling affectations but play a significant part in controlling the engine’s temperature. The liquid cooling part is undertaken by a modest radiator, tucked away between the bike’s twin down tubes. It is so small and neat that it looks not much bigger than an oil cooler. Hard core, Meriden Bonnie acolytes will sneer at the radiator but it is essential to allow the motor to be built to the ultra-tight tolerances which Euro 4 demands.

The important thing is that the heat exchanger is honest. It’s not covered up, or disguised, but is simply very neat. There’s almost no external plumbing on the engine and so, with a bit of goodwill, you can pretend that there is no liquid cooling at all if you are so inclined. The great big, and very traditional, Bonnie exhaust clamps confirm what you already want to know. Doug Hele designed this engine after work at Meriden – but only in the same way that James Bond really did drive his Aston Martin off a cliff and land precisely on the baddie’s truck. Yes, the engine is theater – but it’s honest theater and I love it.

Twin 310mm Discs
Twin 310mm discs with Nissin calipers are deliberately detuned.

However, once you are under the skin there is some clever engineering. First, the engine is both smooth and yet still extremely anthropomorphic. Twin, gear driven counter balancers spin in the opposite direction to the crank for full primary balance and the 270 degree firing order cancels out secondary vibration. The new retro fans might think that they want a ’68 Bonneville but they conveniently forget that bits dropped off everywhere and those thick, hollow handlebar grips were the only thing stopping the rider from a good dose of white finger disease.

Now here’s where things get really clever. Although there is no vibration as such, you can still feel the power impulses of the bike in the background so there is that very strong, organic link with the bike. It’s things like this which make me so impressed with the job Triumph have done. With the Bonneville range they have hit the two, very elusive targets of being authentically classic whilst still completely modern. There’s nothing fake about the T120 and this is what I like most about it.

The engine is a now a whopping 1200cc thanks to an increase in the bore size to 97.6mm. The bigger bore has necessitated a new cylinder head but this is still single overhead cam to keep the engine short and neat. The re-worked engine now makes 54% more torque than the outgoing T100, at a tractor like 3500 rpm. You could pull a trailer load of Harleys with this bike!

The gearbox is a lovely, light, sweet six speeder and is helped by a Torque Assist clutch mechanism. This system gives a very light feel at the handlebar – it’s almost like riding a 125 or 250 – because there are only three springs on the clutch. You will be able to ride all day and the clutch will never cause any fatigue.

Heated Grips
Heated grips? Yes please…

At the same time, control is excellent. I want to stress this point because the T120 will be used in a wide variety of situations from urban commuting to long distance touring. On the day I rode the Bonnie, it rained and was cold. Yes, I know – Portugal in the rain? The weather gods must have known I was coming…

On one section of the test route, I ended up in the center of a small town, stopped, uphill, on wet cobble stones, at a pedestrian crossing. The Bonnie was as calm and helpful as a 50cc scooter, as I just trickled in the power and eased the clutch home. Now that really is seriously good, real world engineering.

On the road, the motor will pull hard from nothing and whizzes up to 90mph as fast you want to go. As for top speed – I don’t know and don’t much care either. I guess that with 79 horsepower on tap, something past 120mph will be about right – so you can easily have your license suspended and have a few mph left to ensure a jail sentence too.

Much has been said about the evils of Euro 4 but things are not turning out as the Eurocrats intended. Noise levels are now measured on acceleration and this means that the standard exhaust note can be made to sound really lovely.

Triumph’s Vince and Hines accessory exhausts are truly, appallingly dreadful. They make a discordant racket which completely ruins the bike and the din they make is going to get the non-motorcycling public up in arms. Why Triumph think that this is a smart idea is completely beyond me.

I need to make one more comment about the exhaust because it shows what a thoughtful bike this is. The pipes are double walled. Apparently, cool people don’t like blued pipes or black pipes which go grey. However, Triumph have also done some clever laser cutting on the inside of the pipes so that there is a completely innocuous link to the very well hidden catalyser. What a lovely example of having your cake – in terms of looks – and eating it – with Euro 4 compliance.

One of the pleasures of being on a Triumph launch is that senior staff wander around and will talk to you very openly. The informal conversations I had with Felipe Lopez, the chassis engineer for the Bonneville project, were fascinating – not only in terms of engineering but also the way that the demands of the market place can sometimes contradict what is best for the rider.

2016 Triumph T120
The 2016 Triumph T120 is engineered for the real world, built to perform rain or shine.

First, let me say that I have ridden with Felipe and he is ferociously fast on the road and so really does know what he is talking about in terms of handling. Now, here’s where things get interesting. The T120 has 18-inch wheels because Triumph’s market research indicates that customers must have 18-inch wheels so that the bike looks like a Meriden Bonnie. The snag is that 18-inch wheels are heavier than 17-inch rims and therefore have a significantly greater gyroscopic force. This makes the bike harder to turn. Note the adverb harder – not hard.

The market also demanded twin discs. Of these, more later. This meant that the T120 front wheel assembly, including the larger tire, is 28% heavier than the Street Twin and so, once more, the bigger bike isn’t quite as smooth at the initiation of the turn.

The final problem is that I am convinced that Triumph have chosen too soft a spring for the rear shock. On the standard, mid-point setting of the shock the T120 squatted down too much on the rear. This in turn made the rake too shallow. It also lowered the bike to a surprising degree and the hero blobs on the footrests took a real hammering.

Talking to Triumph staff who have ridden the T120 for a lot of test miles the consensus was that they increased the pre-load on the shock two notches stiffer than standard. Of course I immediately wanted my test bike set up like this, on the “monkey see, monkey do” principle.

The effect was instantly better. The bike turned quicker and more easily into corners, and the extra 0.5-inch of clearance was the difference between the hero blobs graunching down all the time and just touching down now and again.

The problem with increasing preload is that it is not a fix for a soft spring because you lose the initial part of the spring’s range. The real solution, especially if you intend touring with luggage or carrying a passenger, will be a stiffer spring – if the damping in the Kayaba shock can handle it.

2016 Triumph Bonneville T120
With an excess of 160 accessories, the 2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 is just the tip of the iceberg in stock form.

Should any of this bother you? In the real world, probably not. Journalists hammering round mountain roads are not representative of mainstream Bonneville customers – but perhaps knowing that there is a simple fix for getting the handling much better may be of some interest to those readers who want to use the T120 hard.

There is a similar story for the brakes. Customers demand twin discs because a Bonneville without them would be emasculated. The B-I-G syndrome again.

Sadly, for the legend, that’s just not true. The single disc on the Street Twin is good enough to use on the T120 even if you were riding the man bits off it – and that’s fact.

So, when the T120 was fitted with twin discs they had to be prevented from giving all the power which was available. In simple terms, if Triumph had put two Street Twin discs on the Bonnie customers would have wet themselves – even with ABS. When I pressed Felipe on this he went very quiet and changed the subject but, believe me, stick a pair of track day pads in those discs and you will never want more braking power.

I keep referring to the real world because the Bonnie is a good place to spend a real day, with real pedestrian crossings, real rain, real overtaking and real looking at the scenery. I am 5’ 10” and there is loads of room for me. The saddle would take my wife, Carol, as pillion with plenty of room for her too. The saddle has a composite foam construction – rather like a multi-rate spring – and has an initial softness followed by firmness. It’s perfect for a long day’s riding.

It’s easy to reach the floor and yet the riding position isn’t cramped – even for me, with racing-destroyed knees.

There are also good, sensible things included as standard. The heated grips work really well and what a wonderful thing it is to have a center stand – especially during the winter lay off. Triumph have done well with the bike in terms of never appearing mean with the Bonnie’s standard specification and this is very much to their credit.

The actual bike is almost the tip of the iceberg with the Bonneville experience. There are in excess of 160 accessories, all of which are Triumph approved, and you can spend your whole year’s motorcycling budget playing about with your T120 until it is absolutely perfect for you. Most of the bits are easy to fit, by you or the dealer, so you don’t need to be a whiz with a welding torch or a planishing hammer to make your Bonneville look special.

So, in summary, the Bonneville is a thoroughly practical motorcycle which you really could ride down to Sturgis and back, two-up, in a couple of days, challenge the speed limits all the way and have a great time. Equally, if you want to go for a 20 mile ride after work, whilst you detox, then the bike will not make great demands of you. I won’t comment on urban cool for all the reasons I have mentioned!

If I could have a Cranberry Red and Aluminium Silver bike, with a nice chromed carrier and maybe a top box, then I would be happy to have the T120 as my one and only road bike – although I would still tweak the rear suspension and front wheel brake pads.

2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 Black Specifications

Engine: 1200cc liquid-cooled eight-valve SOHC, 270-degree crank angle Parallel Twin

Bore x Stroke: 97.7 x 80mm

Compression Ratio: 10.0:1

Fueling: Multipoint sequential electronic fuel injection

Clutch: Wet multi-plate assist clutch

Transmission: Six-speed

Final Drive: X-ring chain

Frame: Tubular steel cradle

Front Suspension: KYB 41mm cartridge forks, 4.7-inch travel

Rear Suspension: KYB twin shocks with adjustable preload, 4.7-inch travel

Front Brakes: 310mm discs, dual Nissin twin-piston floating calipers, ABS

Rear Brake: 255mm disc, single Nissin twin-piston floating caliper, ABS

Wheels: 32 spoke, 2.75-inch x 18-inch front and 4.25 x 17-inch rear

Tires: 100/90-18 front and 150/70 R17 rear

Dry Weight: 494 pounds

Wheelbase: 56.9 in.

Rake/Trail: 25.5 degrees / 4.1 inches

Seat Height: 30.9 inches

Fuel Tank: 3.8 gallons

MSRP: $11,500

Warranty: 24 month, unlimited mileage

By Frank Melling