Friday, 22 June 2012

In search of a really classic Bonnie...

 My Triumph T140D 'UK Special' Bonneville

My 1979 T140D 'UK Special' Triumph Bonneville motorcycle (above) has bags of character and is always fun to ride. However, I wonder if I should at some stage replace it with what is universally acknowledged to be the best Bonneville ever produced - the Bonnie at its peak?

Triumph introduced the first Bonneville in 1958, and each year it was improved. By 1969 it had reached its peak as a superbly developed 650cc agile sports motorcycle. From the early '70s, however, under pressure from Japanese competition, Triumph redesigned the bike with a new frame (incorporating the engine oil in the widened downtube and so known as Oil-In-Frame or OIF) and with an increase of capacity of the ageing engine to 750cc. The early OIF Bonnies were not a success, lacking the looks of the pre-OIF machines and suffering unreliability in the new frame and more vibration from the larger capacity engine.

Through the 1970s the Meriden factory gradually improved the OIF Bonneville, curing the frame and vibration problems, and by the time my bike left the factory in 1979 they'd got it right. Electronic ignition replaced the old 'points' giving easier starting and maintenance-free ignition timing, hydraulic disc brakes instead of cable-operated drums, mag alloy wheels instead of wire spoked ones, and many other technical advances. Not for nothing are these later Meriden products known as 'practical classics', a Bonneville that can be used for everyday riding without the constant maintenance required to keep a pre OIF bike in top fettle. However, there's no doubting that the last of the pre-OIF bikes is THE Bonneville to own; it looks good and while all Bonnies are appreciating in value the 1969 T120R (especially in US specification) is doing so at the fastest rate. While browsing the Internet, I came across this at a dealer in Hampshire:
1969 T120R US spec Bonneville
This is an example of the most desirable Bonneville ever; a 1969 T120R US specification model. Furthermore, this example was advertised as unrestored and completely original and with a total mileage of just 2,500. It would be technologically a step backwards from the T140D (points ignition, cable operated drum brakes instead of hydraulic discs, weaker alternator, no indicators, 4-speed instead of 5 speed gearbox, right-hand gear change), but the T140D will never be the classic a 1969 US spec T120R is. It would cost me a lot of money on top of trading in my T140D if I decided to go for it. T140 is a great bike that I know well.... should I make the change? It wouldn't be my only bike of course as I have the Freewind for mile munching and all weather riding and the C90 for local fun. It would just be something lovely to have and to bimble out on nice days. The lack of indicators is a consideration, but lots of vintage bikers manage without - not such a problem perhaps for the sort of riding these bikes do.

You can rationalise these things for ever, but only seeing and riding the bike will tell you if you could love it enough to make the change, or not. So I decided to travel down to Hampshire to see it and ride it. The Senior Railcard not only gives 33% off rail fares, but on Virgin Trains it also allows peak time travel at off peak rates, so on Wednesday I boarded a Pendelino train at Wilmslow at 06:58, arrived in London well before 09:00, and was in Hampshire soon after 10:00 where I was met by John, the dealer selling the T120.
The T120 ready for our test ride, with Chris's rather nice
Ducati in the background
At John's premises I had a good look around the bike and noticed a few problems not obvious from the photographs I'd seen. However, it was a lovely morning so I fired up the Bonnie (no harder to kick than my own bike), John mounted his Ducati, and we set off on a test ride along winding country lanes and some fast roads. The Bonnie was a delight to ride (apart from the lack of mirrors and indicators!); it pulled well and sounded lovely, but it was a bit short legged. By 50mph I was in top (4th) gear and looking for a non-existent 5th, and then 6th! Ah well, that's all part of the character of this bike. The brakes worked just fine despite being old fashioned drums, and I even got used to the right side gear change and left side foot (rear) brake pedal, instead of the the 'standard' opposite position of these controls.

Back at John's place I had a closer look at the bike. It's 43 years old and it shows; not just 'patina' (which is fine) but rust breaking through from under the paint in many places (which is not OK). It's lived in a damp leaky garage for quite few years apparently. The chrome rims were breaking through into rust, especially around the spoke holes. The seat had damage around the beading. The handlebars were slightly bent on the right hand side (so in its few miles of riding it's probably been thrown down the road at some point). The carburettors and seat were not original. The tank has been rusty inside and has been painted with a black sealant to halt the decay leaving a bubbly black surface (mine, a bike a mere 10 years younger, is mint bright metal inside). The engine fins are beginning to show oxidation.
Rust specs under the paint on the front mudguard; in a year or
two this will require replacing or expensive renovation.
So, it's a bike that's commanding a high price for originality. But it's not all original, and within a year or two the tinware will need to be treated to halt the rust and re-painted or perhaps replaced, the seat repaired or replaced, and the rims replaced or re-chromed, the bars replaced - so it'll be even less original and will be a lot of work and expense for the next owner on top of a high starting price. I think it's been in the damp garage too long and is past retaining its originality and therefore high value, which is a pity.
I told John of my concerns and he quite understood. We had a cup of tea and talked bikes for a while, and wondered whether a fully restored T120 might be more what I'm looking for as any original bike will be showing its age by now. John ran me back to the station and I was soon on my way home.

So, the T140D stays, and I had a great day out riding a lovely classic bike. And the train journey was fun, too. I'd forgotten how amazing those Pendelinos are. One hour 47 minutes Euston to Wilmslow including a stop a Crewe! It's like flying along the ground as it tilts into the bends at 125mph. The cars on the M1 looked like they were really moving - backwards!  Still, at least they were moving. I hear the M6 in Cheshire was closed (again!) that afternoon by an accident.

I saw the BBC's Andrew Marr on Waterloo station concourse this morning as well....

It was an enjoyable day, well worth the train fare. But the search for a lovely 1969 T120R US spec Bonneville continues.....


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