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here are few motorcycles as iconic as the Triumph Bonneville. Within the motorcycling community, there are many model designations rife with meaning—VFR, GSX-R, Tuono, Fireblade, etc.—but to the general population, those are mostly random letters and meaningless words. Talk up your Super Duke at your next neighborhood barbecue, and the reaction will be polite disinterest at best. Mention your Triumph Bonneville, however, and someone will surely mention Steve McQueen, Bob Dylan, or some other icon of style and culture. Bonnevilles have context and cultural cachet like few other machines. But that’s not the main reason motorcyclists are so drawn to them. For the motorcyclist, style isn’t enough to create an icon. The Bonneville has imprinted on the motorcyclist’s mind because of its past history of performance, for the way it taps into a nostalgic image of cycling, and for simply being a fine motorcycle to ride.

You could always do serious things on a Bonneville (hill climbs, desert races, speed records), but you could also casually throw a leg over one and run to the shops. And you still can.

Here are three versions of motorcycling’s beloved Bonneville: the classic, a custom heartbreaker, and the modern interpretation that proves the retro bike label is only a label.

The Classic: Triumph Bonneville

classic Triumph Bonneville
A 1967 Bonneville, resplendent in aubergine and gold, lurking in the shadows of an old industrial building in middle of nowhere Ohio. This particular bike has not left the author’s imagination since he snapped this photo several years ago.Seth Richards

The classic Triumph Bonneville presents one of the most romantic visions of motorcycling. One conjures images of riding through bucolic lanes lined with low stone walls covered in encroaching lichen, of glancing down at the passing reflection of a cool gray sky on a rain-dappled chrome gas cap. The slim athleticism of the tank wearing its garden gate badge like a Victoria Cross, the rubber knee pads, the slender seat with white-piped edges as correct as a pick-stitched lapel, the upright twin cylinders barely filling the void between tank and bottom end—there’s never been a more proportional, pleasing, see-it-once-and-it’s-ingrained-in-your-mind-forever motorcycle.

The Bonneville's roots can be traced back to the Triumph 500. In 1959, the single-carb T110 650 was given a second carb for added performance and the Bonneville was born. By naming the bike for the salt flats, Triumph was taking a straight aim at the American marketplace, where it found immediate success. And Americans who can't leave well enough alone, raced them, chopped them, and reimagined them with garish psychedelic paint schemes.

The Bonneville gives off a jocularity and a level-headedness that—though perhaps a projection of the rider’s impression of the people who built it—nevertheless becomes a part of its functionality. Whereas Italian machines would feel out of place but under perfect sunny skies, the Bonneville seems right at home vibrating its way across damp pavement, propelling a swirl of fallen leaves in its wake as the rider’s knees are enveloped in steam wafting from road-sprayed header pipes.

Part of the enduring romance of the Bonneville is its very British-ness—or at least an American’s romantic vision of it. Even its shortcomings are part of its legacy (for better or worse). Its foibles are well known. Its unreliability legend. Its Lucas Electronics the bane of many a rider’s existence.

The Bonneville is a bike to be ridden, contemplated, cursed, and loved. Owning a vintage British motorcycle is a certain kind of madness. To rely on an unreliable machine may be folly, but to maintain it and look after it is to develop more than a casual bond. Only a special machine like the Bonneville is worthy of the toil and attention.

The Custom: Heiwa Dirty Pigeon

Heiwa dirty pigeon
Heiwa Dirty Pigeon.Heiwa Motorcycle

The astute reader may notice the base model for Heiwa’s Dirty Pigeon is not actually a Bonneville, but a single-carb 1971 TR6 Trophy. I couldn’t resist featuring the Dirty Pigeon in spite of the faux pas. Heiwa Motorcycle is a Hiroshima-based outfit owned and operated by Kengo Kimura, whose meticulously crafted machines are consistently recognized as some of the most well-done builds to come out of Japan. Which is saying something.

While old Triumph café racers and bobbers are a dime a dozen, Heiwa’s Dirty Pigeon is something entirely different. Like a lot of the builds coming out of Japan, it defies instant categorization, which is unsurprising considering the only thing left of the original TR6 is the motor.

Heiwa dirty pigeon
Slender silhouette.Heiwa Motorcycle

Kimura hand-built the frame and bodywork and then had it done up in a classy gray paint scheme from Six Shooter. The snaking exhaust dips behind the frame to give an uninterrupted view of Kimura’s handiwork. Leaving much of the frame exposed accentuates its unique design. The large vertical beam behind the engine and the tubes running parallel to the ground make it look architectural and distinct from recognized genres of production cycles.

The Dirty Pigeon rolls on 19-inch Avon MK2s front and rear and, frankly, I have no idea what it would feel like to ride. Who wouldn’t want to jump on the kickstarter and see what happens?

Heiwa Dirty Pigeon
Check out the unique handlebar mount.Heiwa Motorcycle

The Cutting-Edge: Triumph Bonneville Range

Triumph Bonneville Range
Triumph Bonnevilles in Lisbon, Portugal.Triumph Motorcycles

When Hinckley Triumph introduced the new Bonneville in 2001, motorcyclists were at once taken with its nostalgic design and uneasy with the tension between the old and the new. At the time, it was inevitable that the new bike would be judged in light of its predecessor, so purists looked askance at modern elements like—horror of horrors—an oil cooler. In general, though, the Bonneville was a hit from day one.

Now, “retro bikes,” “modern classics,” “post-authentic bikes,” or whatever you want to call them, have pretty much inundated the market and are no longer a curiosity. In fact, bikes like the Bonneville are less about evoking the past than they are about preserving timeless design from here on out. They almost represent a standard form from which other categories of cycles deviate; they’re the barometer for judging change—both in the way they change over the decades, and in the way other bikes change in relation to them.

The modern Bonneville lineup—which includes the 900cc Street range (Street Twin, Street Scrambler, Street Cup, and T100), and the 1,200cc range (T120, Bobber, Speedmaster, and Thruxton)—have redefined how we think of the retro bike. Swing a leg over the Thruxton R, for instance, and "retro" isn't the first thing that comes to mind.

The latest generation of 1,200cc models, in particular, is free from the self-conscious nostalgia that plagued the first Hinckley Bonnie in 2001. Yes, those carb-looking things are actually throttle bodies and the liquid-cooled engine has cooling fins, but none of it seems forced or superficial. Why shouldn’t throttle bodies be right out in the open and look pretty? It’s not about deception, it’s about inspiring pride of ownership, of creating links to the past that suggest the universality of what made the original Bonneville so good in the first place. None of it is about pretending it’s still 1965.

By being willing to adapt with the times and use modern tech like ride by wire, ABS, and traction control, Triumph has refused to make a monolith of the Bonneville. It’s honored the original’s spirit but hasn’t made specific mechanical attributes so sacred that it’s become beholden to tradition and old technology. The original Bonnie’s 360-degree crank was such a big part of the experience, but in 2018 the modern version’s 270-degree crank is more suitable to provide the character that the counterbalanced engine requires. Giving the bikes modern tech (and reliability) is the best way to honor the original Bonneville’s legacy of performance.

The modern Triumph Bonneville range is timeless because it doesn’t let the past weigh too heavily on the present. Triumph has decided building damn good motorcycles is more important than just making them look a certain way.

Long live the Bonneville.