Ride Review: Triumph Bonneville T120

When the members of the judging panel on the 2016 Pirelli SA Bike of the Year voted the Triumph Thruxton R as the winner, we braced ourselves for a storm of abuse and derision. It’s happened every year for the past three, so why would this year be any different?

However, we are made of strong stuff and one of the points about the BotY is to get people talking about bikes, no matter what they are saying; we’d rather an argument than silence.

Imagine our satisfaction, then, when U.S. website: www.motorcycles.com also voted the Thruxton R their Bike of the Year. Actually, that’s a little misleading; they voted the 2016 Bonneville platform, which includes the Thruxton R as well as the standard Thruxton, the Bonneville T120 and Street Twin 900, as their Bike of the Year but it amounts to the same thing.

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The point is; a ‘retro’ bike beat all comers to the title and that takes some doing, especially given the strength of the competition. What this means is that ‘retro’ bikes are no longer style over substance; they are no longer simply toys to look good at the pub on. These are proper motorcycles in their own right and the wholesale resemblance to motorbikes from the past is merely a damned good marketing ploy. There is a very real link between the Triumphs and the bikes that inspired them.

So far I’ve ridden – and loved – the Thruxton R and the Street Twin; two bikes with the same chassis but different capacity engines. Now, it’s time for the Bonneville T120, which is basically the roadster version of the Thruxton (or the Thruxton is the sporty version of the Bonneville, whichever way round you see them).

It would be fair to say that Triumph invented the whole retro bike scene with the first of the new Bonnevilles back in 2001. Time and tide waits for no-one, however, and the Bonnie was in danger of being left behind by the scene it begat. The 865cc parallel twin motor was underpowered and the brakes were of the ‘am-I-going-to-stop-at-all?’ variety. The style was there but the substance was not.

Now, along with the Thruxton, things have got a whole lot better for the T120.

The T120 shares a frame and engine capacity with the Thruxton, but that’s about as far as it goes. These are two completely different beasts. What can be said for both of them, however, is that they are beautiful; beautiful to look at and beautifully made and finished. If there is one area that Triumph have really nailed, it is this. The paintwork is deep and lustrous, the chrome is perfection and the finish to the alloy parts second to none. Pride of ownership is high.

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What is not immediately apparent is that the new-for-2016 Bonnevilles are liquid cooled. The engine is still unmistakeably a Triumph parallel twin, with cooling fins on the cylinder head and barrel where they always were. What is not so obvious is the small unobtrusive radiator fitted to the front downtubes of the frame. You really have to look hard to see it, and then from the front of the bike only; it is invisible from the side. It’s a very nice bit of packaging.

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Swing a leg over the T120 and the first thing that strikes you is the weight. It’s only 13kgs heavier than the Thruxton R but it feels a whole lot more. It does wear this weight very low down so it’s never a problem and, with the bike being physically small, you never feel overwhelmed. On the road, this weight equates to a supremely solid and planted bike; it almost makes every other bike seem flimsy. Of course, there’s barely a piece of plastic in sight so you just get this feeling of solidity and longevity.

The T120 loses 16bhp and 6Nm over the Thruxton which is a tad confusing as the engine in the Thruxton is called the High Power and that in the T120, the High Torque. What it actually means is that the T120 engine has been tuned to give its torque much lower in the rev range. To achieve this, it has a heavier crank and lower compression ratio and, overall, it does feel a lot lazier than and not as punchy as the engine in the Thruxton.

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But punch it does still have. It really is the most understated engine. Open the throttle at almost any revs and there is creamy smooth surge of power, helped by the uncannily smooth parallel twin engine. No Triumph I ever owned (and I’m talking about the ‘original’ Triumphs here; the ones from Meriden) was ever as smooth and it’s hats off to ‘new’ Triumph that they have retained the exact feel of the old while bringing it bang up to date in terms of vibration… or lack of!

It really is a testament to modern engineering that an engine that is nearly two and a half times bigger than the original 500cc Triumph Twin should be so smooth. Naysayers back in the day recoiled in horror as the 500 was stretched first to 650 and then 750 and boy, were they right! My 750 Bonneville buzzed like a chainsaw. Now, a 1200cc engine is as smooth as a multi-cylinder engine.

The only problem with riding the Bonneville – and I’m really fishing for something here – comes if you ride it after the Thruxton, which, let’s face it, not many of us are going to do. The brakes on the Thruxton R are simply fantastic; instant bite with so much feel. The T120’s brakes by comparison, lack that initial bite although, if one compares them with those on the outgoing Bonneville, it is like night and day.

It’s hard to see the youth of today going for the Bonneville but that’s the brilliant thing about the bike. For once a manufacturer has made a bike for the older generation; for those who remember the bike the first time around. Having said that, what a distinctive and statement-making bike for any rider.

Harry has been obsessing about motorbikes for over 45 years, riding them for 38 years and writing and talking about them for 13 years. In that time, he has ridden everything from an Aprilia to a Zundapp, from the 1920s to the 2020s. His favourites are the ones that didn’t break down and leave him stranded. While he loves the convenience of modern bikes, he likes nothing better than getting his hands dirty keeping old bikes running, just as long as it’s not by the roadside! Old enough to know better and young enough not to care, he knows you don’t stop riding when you get old, you get old when you stop riding.