The Mild Ones

The Sportster and the Thruxton were wild ones in the 1950s and '60s. In 2004, they're mild ones. But who says there are no roles for aging stars?

In The Wild One, Lee Marvin rode a Harley-Davidson and his rival Marlon Brando rode a Triumph. The two machines mirrored the actors' characters, the Harley reflecting Marvin's brawling, in-your-face role and the Triumph illustrating Brando's brooding, sensitive one.

In '57, Harley-Davidson created the XL-model Sportster, a direct response to the powerful and agile British twins of the era, and the first recognized superbike. A year later, the imports got even more powerful when Triumph gave its Tiger T110 dual carbs and a decidedly American name: Bonneville.

The Bonneville quickly established its credentials. It was particularly effective as a production racer in Great Britain, winning the prestigious 500-mile race at the 2.36-mile Thruxton circuit. In the mid-'60s a limited number of bikes were pulled off the assembly line and finished in Triumph's race shop. Called Thruxtons, these special bikes made about 54 horsepower, and to some represented the ultimate British twin back in the day. In fact, one could argue the Thruxton was the archetypal caf racer.

Some 40 years later Triumph has bored out the current Bonneville's motor to create an 865cc parallel-twin and added hotter cams, among other upgrades. Triumph wrapped it in a steel-tube frame with steeper rake (just as it did with its '60s production racer) and reduced trail (27.0 degrees/97mm versus 29.0 degrees/117mm), and fitted it with a solo seat and clip-ons. And for the first time in almost four decades, it has called a bike a Thruxton.

For its part, Harley has equipped the '04 Sportster 1200 with hotter cams in higher-flowing Buell XB cylinder heads and installed lighter-weight pistons and con-rods that give the Sportster more top-end power and allow a higher, 6000-rpm redline. What's more, rubber engine mounts promise improved comfort by smoothing the vibration that has long been the bike's biggest annoyance.

In their day, both bikes were smaller (the original Sportster was an 883, the first Bonnie a 650), but they were also two of the most potent and capable roadsters in motorcycling. With that in mind, it seemed a fine idea to check in with these classic adversaries to see how they measure up in their modern forms, and find out how much--if at all--they still reflect the characters of the originals.

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