Starting From Scratch
Triumph's product-planning group didn't originally set out to simply "build a new-generation Bonneville," as many will likely assume when the Bonnie makes its world debut this September at Munich's Intermot show (and its U.S. debut at California's Del Mar Fairgrounds on October 7-8). The team's initial goal when the 908MD project officially launched in early 1997 was more open-ended: To develop an "entry-level machine of medium to large displacement"-somewhere between 700cc and 800cc. The "entry-level" component of that formula is significant because, as things stand for the 2000 model year, only two bikes in Triumph's line-the Adventurer and Legend TT-could be considered even close to true "entry-level" products, and they're really too large (physically and displacement-wise) for that niche. With the United States and world markets changing so dramatically, and with hordes of new and re-entry riders joining the motorcycling ranks, it was considered vital that Triumph have a competitive player in that category.
In fact, the decision to head in a classic-styling/vertical-twin direction-the Bonneville direction-came only after Triumph product-planners researched and considered a range of styling and engine treatments, primarily custom-styled, V-twin-powered bikes, which account for a staggering 90 percent of the midrange twin market. So what pulled Triumph toward the classic Bonneville direction in the face of such powerful V-twin market numbers? "Triumph's heritage," says Clifford. "Though a V-twin was the obvious option," he told me, "we decided to develop a parallel engine layout due to the 'heritage' aspect."
Of course, "heritage" can be a touchy subject where Triumph is concerned, especially among Brit-bike traditionalists, some of whom consider the "new" company to be as "Triumph" as Honda is, say, Harley-Davidson. Clifford and Vaughan understand the sometimes tricky ground they tread when they use the word. Still, they do use it, and rightly so. After all, Meriden "memories" and thousands of vintage Triumphs are all the motorcycling world would have if Bloor hadn't secured the Triumph name in '83, spent the better part of seven years figuring out the level of technology and investment it would take to compete in the modern motorcycle market, and launched a brand-new bike manufacturer in 1990-one that now produces more than 24,000 motorcycles annually (from three per day in 1990 to more than 125 per day nowadays in an all-new and very high-tech factory).
It's not the old Triumph, but it's Triumph all the same.
Once the decision was made to go with a vertical-twin engine, the development team was fairly certain of the styling direction it needed to follow, though dealer and internal company research was done to test the team's gut feelings. Clifford says the feedback was both instant and unanimous. "With a vertical engine in the mix," he told me, "the styling of the machine simply had to be 'Classic Bonneville.' " The decision-making process used to arrive at this point was typical Triumph-and smart: Do what will work best for the lineup, not what might be historically warm-'n'-fuzzy. The fact that the two usually differing paths ended up sharing common ground is likely to be significant for classic bike fans worldwide.
But the question begs-and it's one I asked Clifford during one of my U.K. trips: Why not build the Bonnie earlier? "If we'd done the Bonneville when we first launched the company," he told me, "we'd have likely been pigeonholed as a manufacturer that could only copy things. Doing a twin was so...expected. But more importantly, we needed to build a solid base for Triumph, and that meant developing an entire lineup of bikes, which our modular concept (three-cylinder 900s and four-cylinder 1200s) helped us establish. Building a twin in those initial years would have restricted our model range. Also, we first needed to develop a dealer network, and in several countries. This base would set the stage for our nonmodular projects, the TT600 and now the Bonneville."
Triumph was off and running.