Letter From Leicestershire
By Shawn Downey
“Dude. Dude. Check this out, man!” yells my cohort, as he dislocates my shoulder with emphatic tugs on my arm. “I just gotta buy something. This is like experiencing Christmas, my birthday, the Fourth of July, Taco Tuesday and a 30 minute Blue Light Special simultaneously! Okay, okay, which one should I buy?”
Performing my best Beavis and Butthead impersonation, I answer, “Uhhhhhhh, I dunna know.”
My companion continues to badger my wife and me, as we casually stroll through a Triumph Auto Jumble (translation: motorcycle auction, English style) in Leicestershire, England. Turning his attention to my wife in hopes of getting a more legitimate answer, he swells, “Ya think this one? Like, do I look like Brando on this T-Bird?”
“Pre or post ‘The Wild One’?” replies my wife, as she cuffs him in the head.
The increasing retro-bike market, in conjunction with the resurgence of the Triumph factory, has propelled the popularity of the Triumph motorcycle to new heights. Auctions, swap meets and rallies with a Triumph theme are commonplace. Terms such as “Bonnies”, “Pre-unit Twins”
and “Triples” no longer produce visions of 1950s’ sci-fi comic book genetics. People recognize them for what they are: telltales of Triumph evolution.
This evolution has created quite a bit of confusion as to which model to purchase and for how much. My friend is a prime example of this confusion. Being that classic bikes are a rarity on the street today, he lost all reasonable faculties at the overwhelming sight of so many Triumphs parked under one roof. He whipped himself into a buying frenzy. This often results in overpaying for a recently polished classic motorcycle that needs some serious attention. I have seen this frenzy many a time, and I have even been a victim once or twice. Or maybe three times. Okay, four. But that’s it. I swear.
How do you avoid the frenzy? Uhhhhhhh, I dunna know. I just told you I have been a victim as well. I do know that the Bonneville was the most popular Triumph motorcycle from 1963 to 1971. The American version, of course. Why? Well, in 1956, Johnny Allen set the World Land Speed record on the Salt Flats of Utah. He rode a modified Triumph Thunderbird 649cc engine to 214.4 miles per hour. That engine became the famed Bonneville engine in 1959.
In 1963, the superior design of the unit engine construction arrived. Pre-unit was a non-integrated engine/gear box/transmission unit. A twin contact breaker coil ignition and stronger frame also appeared on the Bonneville. Reliability is what we’re talking about here–Maytag reliability. Well, when compared to previous standards.
There were changes over the Bonneville’s eight year reign. The colors changed; 1966 saw twelve volt electrics and fork gaitors; 1967 brought the advent of better handling through frame stabilization, and 1968 models had noticeable twin leading shoe front brakes. But the overall styling of these models remained the same–a styling created for the American market. The shape of the gas tank, the reach to the bars, the raw, throaty sounding twin engine and the dislocated knee if one did not follow through completely on the kick starter did not change.
These Bonnevilles have surpassed their original popularity here in the United States and abroad. England remembers the fervor these hot rodding motorcycles produced, and England wants them back. I stood in awe as rat Bonnevilles commanded 3,000 pounds ($4,500). In San Francisco, rat Bonnevilles can go for $2,500. Here in the midwest, I’ve seen them go for $1,150. And you thought the only great thing about living in Minnesota was the weather.
Watch out for the frenzy. But if you do frenzy, frenzy for a 1963 to 1971 Bonneville. You won’t be sorry.