When is a Bobber not a bobber? According to some – it seems to be when it’s embraced the new wave cafe-custom scene so closely that a handful of aficionados are up in arms over the idea of a factory-built custom, and the temerity of using the word “bobber” to describe something built by a manufacturer. Meanwhile, back on planet Get-a-Grip the rest of us have just been keen to get a test ride on what might just be Triumph’s most important new Bonneville to-date, which would make it one of their most important bikes of the past decade.
So, what’s the big deal about the name? We’ll, if you’re an old-school custom purist, a ‘bobber’ is a style of custom harking back to post-war America where ex-servicemen stripped Harleys, Indians and Triumphs back to basics, often on the cheap, leaving a hard-tail frame with shortened (bobbed) or removed fenders, with little left to get in the way of out-right bad-ass speed and attitude. Back in the day, Triumph had a 500cc bike called the Speed Twin, which was pretty much a bobber out of the crate, and this is part of the inspiration behind their new take on their latest Bonneville. Beside that, bobbers are back, with the custom scene building them in droves, and the competition in the US have been building bobber-style bikes for years, so Triumph are simply doing something that makes complete sense to them, returning to a space in a market where they used to play and win. And why not?
Getting all hot under the collar about the name of a bike, or the idea of a “hard-tail look” that hides sophisticated suspension seems a bit pointless in 2016, where we all want to have our cake and eat it – and we expect technology to do the heavy lifting for us, whether it’s digital film with analogue soul or home-baked artisan food that’s gluten-free and uses sugar alternatives. What the bike is called might be up for argument, (if you can really be arsed) but by calling the new model what it actually appears to be should help punters navigate better between the different Bonneville models much more easily than if they’d called it the Speed Twin (along side Street Twin, Speed Triple, etc) so I think everyone’s just gonna have to get over it. On another note, I don’t see much point in complaining about a new bike unless you’re in the market for buying one, or at least until you’re ridden one.
Ross & I were fortunate enough to get to do exactly that. Joining the first group of writers & riders outside the factory to ride the new Bonneville in Madrid was something we’d very much been looking forward to, with the sheen taken off ever-so-slightly by the December date and the need to layer-up, despite the promise of Spanish sunshine. While the pics show us bathed in sunshine, our days started and ended in heavy fog that chilled us to the bone, but the bit in between was glorious in every way.
Before we get going, back to the comment at the start. Is this Triumph’s most important new bike of the decade? Well, it could be. It’s fair to say that even Triumph have been blown away by the response to the new water-cooled Bonneville range of Euro-4 compliant bikes. Not only did their aim to retain the original model’s heritage go down very well, but the bikes themselves took on the last 15 years of Triumph’s success in building sports and adventure bikes that handled brilliantly with storming engines, and transported that know-how almost invisibly into their retro range of twins, and it took everyone by pleasant surprise. Sales of the 1200cc T120 & Thruxton and the 900cc Street Twin have gone through the roof, while the press couldn’t find anything bad to say about any of the bikes. It’s been a bit of a bike-media love-in, backed by global sales growth in a whole new category of bike.
But while Triumph are keen to rekindle the Bonneville heritage and reclaim the new wave retro-motorcycle category as their own, with scramblers, street bikes and cafe racers, there is another massive area on non-adventure/non-sports bike sales to conquer – that of the cruiser and bobber, dominated for decades by American brands and backed by huge US domestic sales, translated successfully around the world into a phenomenon beyond categories and directly to brand kudos. In the past, motorcycle manufacturers have tried to take H-D on with big muscle cruisers, like Triumph’s own Rocket III with it’s bonkers 2200cc engine, or V-Twin Japanese-built lookalikes. Some worked well, but few made a real dent. Only recently have Harley come under pressure from the likes of Indian, who have positioned themselves as an equally-original US heritage brand.
Arguably, the only other challenger to the heyday of the American stripped-back badass bobber, made infamous by early Hollywood, is the original Triumph Bobber, championed by riders even before Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando put them on the silver screen. If Triumph have got this bike right, riders looking for brand authenticity would now have a choice between Harley-Davidson, Indian and Triumph, for a proper, authentic old-school heritage bike with timeless character.
So, what do Triumph have to do to get it right, what could go wrong, and have they pulled it off? Let’s talk about the bike.
On initial inspection it’s pretty clear that this bike is as well built as all the other new Bonnies, especially the bigger 1200cc bikes, with tough-looking machined and cast metal, finished to a very high standard that we’d expect to survive plenty of UK winters and salty roads. What’s really impresses is the way all the cabling, sensors and electronics are completely hidden from all angles, with channels built into chassis parts to keep them from view. Despite traction control, ABS, massive catalytic converters, fuel injection and water cooling, apart from the neat radiator it’s all pretty much invisible. The bike looks like it should cost north of it’s ten thousand, five-hundred British pounds. Cheap it’s not, but it looks to be worth every penny, and it compares very favourably with all the competition.
The Bobber isn’t a chopped-up T120 or Truxton, it’s all new, but not only does it have a completely new chassis it really benefits from being a single-seater by design, because the rear cage (hard-tail look) that supports the rear wheel can be given quality suspension without having to allow for everything from a 50kg solo rider to two large mates on a pie-seeking adventure ride. I doubt we’ll see a dual-seat option that would fit this setup and not look bizarre anyway – but that’s just part of what defines the Bobber.
Cards on the table – I am not a big fan of bobbers by design. My roots are more dirt bike and street bike. I’ve never quite got my head around the idea of a grown man’s backside floating magically over an exposed rear wheel, and I’m not a fan of riding anywhere with my feet forward. I prefer to ride bolt upright and tip hard into turns on wide bars with my elbows up, or I’d rather be leaning over the tank pushing with my palms on the inside grip to tuck into a turn so I can try to hit the apex. But… There was something about the glint in Stuart Wood’s eye, one of the chief engineers behind this bike’s development, when he said, “just ride it”. Not only that, some of Triumph’s chief testers who regularly clock up 100,000 miles a year on all of Triumph’s bikes have proclaimed that this is the one they’d spend their own money on. It certainly prompted some high expectations.
Getting on the bike, the seat cups your arse in an unexpectedly comfortable way and the reach to the bars feels very normal for someone who rides a bike with a dirt bike stance most days. I did struggle with where to put my feet when I pulled away, but only on the first couple of stops. Anyone who’s ridden a 48 (I had one for a summer) or any H-D with mid-position foot controls might consider it quite a sporty setup. After that momentary foot-fumble I completely forgot I was on a bobber for the rest of the day. Close your eyes and forget the look, and it’s just a very comfy bike. Handling is completely neutral and undramatic. The bike simply goes where you point it, without the need to tease, wrestle or pre-plan corners. In fact it tips into turns very easily. My only complaint is that it handles so nicely you throw it around roundabouts like a supermoto and are met by the sound and sensation of your foot-peg hero-blobs decking out. Some people on the test ride loved this and by the time we’d all clocked up 100+ miles of mountain switchbacks the hero blobs had given way to re-profiling the footpegs and the exhaust was also touching down. To be fair, riding like that was optional, as it seemed perfectly possible to hit the tightest hairpins and not ground-off the pegs if you’re a bit more conscious of your body position, but when you’re with a pack of journalists, that doesn’t appear to be the most popular cornering method. If you want to ride your bobber like this, you can, but I’m expecting to see someone come up with some after-market footrests that are about an inch higher and possibly an inch back too. However, if you want to cruise, and are likely to take advantage of setting the adjustable seat to it’s lowest and furthest back position, you’ll want to put your feet exactly where Triumph have set them.
I have very little to say about the brakes. They did what I expected them too, but some journos asked about 4-pot upgrades and double discs. I’m ok with 2-fingered braking instead of one, and never had an issue with stopping or braking hard into corners. My one complaint would be something that is probably inherent to ALL bobbers. My poor plums… Riding around in 3-4 degrees C at 90mph on the motorway on a tractor-style floating bobber seat leaves your family jewels seriously exposed to the elements, and even with my kevlar lined Rokker Iron jeans my nuts were so cold they started to ache. Triumph had fitted heated grips to every test bike (cheers chaps) and the profile of the grips and subtle switching was well noted, but I wish they’d extended the warmth to my underpants. Maybe that’s something for the next inspiration kit?
What I have plenty to say about is the engine. Having properly test-ridden the T120, the Thruxton R, and now being lucky enough to own a Thruxton, all with the same 1200cc water-cooled twin, I think this might be the best configuration and tune yet. All the engines are the same displacement, but they feel quite different. The T120 “High Torque” engine is smooth and predictable, with the kind of positive power delivery that is reassuringly fast without ever causing your butt-cheeks to over-clench. It’s quick and strong, rather than fast. The Thruxton’s “Hi Power” 1200 feels raw, edgy and powerful, with a proper kick in the pants when you crack open the throttle in Sport mode, and a sweet double-pop on the overrun, felling very analogue and mechanical. Any fly-by-wire sensations of past bikes I’ve ridden is long-forgetten. Both these bikes feel proper. …But the Bobber is another beast altogether, and I’m not sure why. It’s the same HT engine as the T120, but with a twin airbox, shorter pipes and bobber tune, the bike seems to deliver the edgy analogue punch of the Thruxton, but with peak torque in the same sweet spot as the T120, and it’s a very pleasurable combination. I’ve looked at the numbers, and on paper the Thruxton is more powerful and should be a “better” engine overall, but I think the bobber has made the best use of Triumph’s big twin. If T120s came tuned this way, they’d be selling a few less Thruxtons – in fact I wouldn’t mind a map labelled ‘Bobber’ on my new Thruxton.
All in all I have two answers to the question, when is a Bobber not a bobber? The headline didn’t really come from the argument over whether or not a pretend hard-tailed, factory-built, single-seat custom should have Bobber scrawled on the side-panel, it was more of a reference to the fact that this bike is just a very good bike, and the shape and silhouette is simply a matter of taste, rather than anything else. Ride one with your eyes shut and you wouldn’t think you were on a bobber at all. I’d be happy with any bike that rode like this one, and I can genuinely see why some people think this is Triumph’s best Bonneville so far.
There are loads of other features and bits to tell you about, like the adjustable seat, moveable clock, inspiration kit parts, V&H pipes, colour options, etc, but I’ll leave that to the pros and the catalogue. Let’s just say that like the rest of the Bonnie range, if there are things about this bike you want to change, you already can.
On a personal level, I’m a Thruxton kinda guy, but I do acknowledge that foot-forward cruising has a very useful place, not just in looking cool through built-up areas, but t’s actually a great way to be seated on a bike over serious distances. One long cold day through very twisty roads punctuated by fast motorways stints and plenty of roundabouts left me feeling unusually un-cramped. If I had to ride the whole length of California’s Highway One I’d rather be on a Bobber than a Thruxton, and it does change the way you ride. Less time looking at the apex means more time enjoying the scenery and perhaps we all need a bit more of that. You could say bobbers give a more ‘mindful’ ride, allowing you to enjoy where you are now, instead of thinking where you want to be next. The best thing about Triumph’s new Bobber is that you can ride this one both ways – hard and fast, or chilled (although not my plums, please) and laid-back.
As for the row about the calling it a Bobber, I for one can’t be arsed to entertain it any further. If some people think that a bike is only a bobber if was built before 1940, or has a hard tail, or was hand built in a shed by a man in a cloth cap, then so be it. Opinions are just opinions. There is no proper ownership of the word, and to me the name just spells out what Triumph have chosen to build. The other 99% of the biking population won’t give a monkeys and nor should they, because those who can build their own bobber, or wish to preserve the heritage of an original, will do so, and are are not looking to buy a new factory bike from anyone. On a personal level, I like the bike and I don’t care what it’s called. If Triumph don’t sell these by the shed-load I will eat my non-heated underpants.