Preview: Triumph's 2300cc Rocket III Motorcycle

Britain builds the world's biggest, baddest power cruiser motorcycle--the 2300cc Triumph Rocket III. By Aaron P. Frank.

America, there's big, and there's really big. A 20-ounce Coke is big; the 72-ounce "Bladder Buster" from the local Stop 'n' Rob is really big. The Ford Excursion is big; the Hummer H1 is really big. In the world of motorcycles, cruiser motorcycles in particular, the new Kawasaki Vulcan 2000 is big--but the Triumph Rocket III is really big. Twenty-two hundred and ninety-four cubic centimeters big, to be exact. And with 147 foot-pounds of torque, it's also likely to be damn near the hardest accelerating production streetbike in the world (in a straight line, at least), if Triumph's press babble can be trusted. God save the queen, and don't forget the brave motorcycle road testers, too.

Why would Triumph, a characteristically reserved company whose most ferocious cruiser to date has been the mild-mannered, 790cc Speedmaster, gut-whomp us with a motorcycle that outdisplaces most automobiles on the road today? In a word: respect. Triumph very much wants to make a big splash in the American motorcycle market, and to do this it needs a big cruiser. Correction--it needs the biggest, baddest cruiser we've ever seen. More than 50 percent of all motorcycles sold in America are cruisers, the vast majority of these so-called "heavy cruisers" (over 1000cc). To make an impression saleswise on the U.S. market, you have to do it in this segment. With the Rocket III, Triumph cannonballs into the deep end.

Development of the Rocket III officially began in 1998, when Triumph Product Range Manger Ross Clifford, working closely with Triumph America, commissioned the first round of research into the American cruiser market. "The last thing we wanted," Clifford says, "was to come at it as an out-of-touch British manufacturer trying to sell the United States something it didn't want." Research showed that what America wanted (no surprise) was something big--really big. The biggest cruiser going at the time was the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500, so Triumph's first cruiser concept was designed as a 1600cc performance cruiser. Not only did it have to be big, but it was important to Clifford and the folks at Triumph that it would also be completely unique.

"From day one we wanted an individual, authentic machine that made a statement as a Triumph," Clifford says. "We were not going to make a 'me, too' cruiser." Styling was tackled by Triumph's house designer John Mockett, who also penned the T595 Daytona, the Tiger and the retro Bonneville. It was Mockett who suggested grafting the Speed Triple's bug-eyed headlights onto the Rocket III, an idea Clifford immediately endorsed. "All other cruisers are so anonymous from the front," Clifford says. "That 'face' is very important, and the Speed Triple lights make it stand out and give it a real 'ballsy' feel. That look is synonymous with Triumph."

Engine configuration was another key consideration--Clifford's initial design brief focused heavily on the engine, not only in terms of performance but also styling. An inline-triple was favored from the start--the triple is signature Triumph--but a variety of layouts were considered, including inline-fours and even a V-six. In the end, the longitudinally mounted triple won out. Across-the-frame mounting wasn't an option because of cornering-clearance issues and complications with forward controls--an oft-heard complaint from Valkyrie owners, for example. Additionally, the longitudinal layout offered the proper long-and-lean silhouette cruiser riders expect.

Mockett's first design concept, dubbed Series S1, featured an aggressive, futuristic look with dramatic bodywork, a floating rear fender, "raygun" mufflers and a highly stylized chrome tailpiece. To verify this design, Triumph organized styling clinics in Dallas and Los Angeles during summer '00 and invited consumers to comment. Response to the general concept was strong, Clifford says, but the S1 design tested poorly with consumers--especially the unorthodox rear end.

Mockett went back to the drawing board and knocked out a second concept with a more traditional rear-fender treatment, but this one also tested poorly, leading to the simplified taillight arrangement and smoother bodywork of the Series S3. More styling clinics were held, and attendees rubber-stamped this final look. Once the concept was verified and the styling was refined, the project shifted into overdrive. At the same time, other manufacturers constantly raised the displacement bar: Yamaha released the 1600cc Road Star, then Honda's VTX1800 appeared, and soon the Rocket III had grown to 2294cc to insure that Triumph would own the displacement game. The first engine was running in summer '02, and Clifford got his first ride on a prototype in the United Kingdom in autumn '02. Asked to compare the Rocket III with other cruisers on the market, Clifford, an accomplished rider himself, says there is no comparison.

"Compared with the Rocket III, the current crop of power cruisers aren't even close to the same league--it's not even the same sport," Clifford says. Clifford says that in direct acceleration comparisons, nothing can beat the Rocket III from 0-60 mph. The company claims its 0-60-mph time is quicker than even the Suzuki Hayabusa, to say nothing of king-speed cruisers such as the Honda VTX and the Harley-Davidson V-Rod.

"Acceleration is awesome," Clifford says. "The weight distribution and geometry make fast launches a piece of cake, making it one of the fastest bikes to 100 mph we've ever tested. My first ride on a prototype had no speedo, just a tach with markings indicating speed in top gear. At first I thought it wasn't that quick, until I realized I was traveling 135 mph and it was still pulling hard in top gear!"

More surprising, Clifford says, is how easy it is to ride the Rocket III. The bike's ergonomics were benchmarked against the company's own Bonneville America to insure that the radical styling did not compromise real-world ridability; Clifford actually calls the bike "agile." Both the seat height and center of gravity of the Rocket III are actually lower than that of Honda's Valkyrie, Triumph claims. And the bike drips with character, Clifford says, "A few weeks back we ran an open-piped version, which was just an aural overdose--imagine the sound and feel of two and a half open-piped Speed Triples!"

Big promises for a really big bike--whether it will all add up to huge sales numbers remains to be seen, though Clifford says Triumph is off to a good start. "Interest worldwide has been amazing so far," he says. "In the United Kingdom, for example, we sold the first year's build without any of the public even seeing the bike in the flesh. At first, demand for the bike will by far outstrip supply." Clifford says that depositors come from every corner of the market: Harley riders, Bonneville riders, even YZF-R1 and Ducati owners have laid down cash for one.

Ready to trade your own R1 for an R3? The first of these road rockets is expected to arrive in America this June. Pricing has been finalized: Expect to pay $15,990 when bikes go on sale here in the summer of '04. That's a small price to pay if Triumph actually delivers up the biggest, baddest, nastiest power cruiser on earth. It's big, remember?

"Show me the accessories!" That's the first line out of every American cruiser buyer's mouth. Triumph plans to please 'em by introducing an extensive line of accessories alongside the Rocket III when it appears in dealerships next summer. Optional goodies run the gamut from pipes and other performance parts to touring equipment such as saddlebags and windscreens as well as acres of chrome styling pieces, of course. And if that isn't enough, Triumph will also offer custom paint options--orange with tribal graphics (shown here) or two flame jobs: one red, one black.

This is an accessorized version with the Tribal orange paint and sporting oriented touches.
Triumph plans plenty of accessories, including touring amenities (above) and unique paint like the Tribal scheme and the deflector fairing below.
Mockett's Rocket: Triumph designer John Mockett drew up three concepts to validate the final styling and design of the Rocket III. His first attempt, the S1 (top two images), was the most adventurous, featuring a floating rear fender and a modular taillight housing/subframe; the second concept, dubbed the S2 (third from top), featured traditional cruiser styling; while the S3 (bottom) incorporated custom cues. To test these designs, Triumph invited potential consumers to attend styling clinics held in Texas and California in 2000 and asked them to comment. Consumers vetoed both the S1 and S2, and selected the S3 as the basis for the final Rocket III production bike. Call it design by customer, not committee.