2016 Triumph Bonneville T 120. First Impressions

2016 Triumph T 120 – first impressions

Appearance: the first thing that grabs. Or at least me. I think this is the most beautiful motorcycle being produced today.   This is as Triumph intended. The new Bonnevilles, and especially the T 120, were deliberately designed to look like a mid-1960’s version. 



I became a motorcycle enthusiast in 1962, at the age of 15. I purchased my first motorcycle in 1967. For several years I literally left fingerprints on the windows of the Triumph dealer, who always seemed to be closed when I walked by, staring with longing eyes at the beauty of each model. I friend had one when I was in college, and I have never been so filled with envy.  I could not have imagined that they would eventually create a bike that looks so similar and yet is massively superior in every way to its forebears.

My belief is that they are at the head of a coming wave – the return of motorcycles that are “pretty.” When I started, virtually all of the premium brands were rolling exhibits of colorful paint schemes and chrome everything. I remember a candy apple red Norton, the blue and white of a college friend’s new Harley, the chrome yellow of a Norton Commando, and virtually all the rest. My 1969 Honda 450 SS was a vision is silver with gold tank stripes, and a lot of chrome. My 1972 Honda 500 4 was a gorgeous metal flake dark amber gold.

Motorcycles as rolling art continued for a couple of decades, until the crash of the economy and the motorcycle market in 2006 – 2008. For various reasons, in came flat black plastic covers on almost everything.  Harley hung in there with a new state of the art painting facility in 2002 or so, and their bikes stood out from the rest with stunning paint jobs. BMWs had always been black with white pinstripes, but eventually they began to dip a toe in the colored water, although a cautious one. They introduced a blah grey, an uninspired blue, and so on. Even their version of red, like on a K1300S I had in 2002, was not all that moving. Of course I am generalizing, as my 2000 K 1300S was “lava orange.”  I loved it, and but some people thought it was grotesque.  There were, and are, colorful bikes that are beautiful, but my point is that now they are the rarities, where originally they were the majority.

Chrome wheels became an afterthought, as most bikes came with dark grey or black wheels, which were easier to clean. Chrome became a piece of trim, or went missing altogether. I think Triumph is on to something.  This bike is gorgeous, even to people who have no knowledge or interest in bikes.

Technology: This is where the new bike firmly parts company with the original, featuring items now commonplace on other brands, in some cases for years, but technologies that for the most part did not exist back then.

When most people think of Triumph, two flaws come to mind. Oil leaks and dodgy electronics. Oil leaks have not been a concern for decades, but even my 2006 Speed Triple had a weak electrical system.  I could add heated gear, but not much of it, and it would be pushing the envelope.

A Triumph enthusiast back in the day would not know what to do with an USB port under the seat to charge your phone. And a fake burglar alarm that puts out a flashing red light at intervals on the instrument panel. Later, there will be an accessory burglar alarm to make it real.

LED head light and tail light! Really?  A gear indicator in the instrument panel.

Standard heated grips (on the T 120), as well as ABS brakes, two engine modes, and traction control that can be turned off or on? Really?  This is a Triumph?

It has a 6 speed transmission, and some sort of techno-trickery to make the clutch pull light enough that you can pull it back with one finger. Literally.

Dual disk brakes on the front. Many road tests on many bikes claim that one disc is sufficient for that model, but the lack of symmetry always claws at my sense of what is right. I prefer the pair.

A ten thousand mile service interval! A couple of decades ago that mileage was usually an indication that a full engine rebuild would be on the agenda. Soon.  My Honda 450 snapped its cam chain and ate itself to ruin. At 19,000 miles.  This new Triumph will be about ready for its second oil change at that point.

One technological throwback to days or yore is tubes in the tires, as Triumph has not yet figure out how to make spoked chrome wheels that can accept tubeless tires, although others have.

Another throwback that I welcome, and that surprised me, is a steel fuel tank. This allows the use of a magnetic tank bag. I LOVE using a tank bag, although I realize many people hate them. My only issue now is that the bike is so gorgeous I want to leave the tank bag off. There are solutions to this dilemma, or will be soon from the aftermarket – probably a small rack on the back.

One thing I do find amusing. It is now common to have an ambient temperature read-out on the instrument display.  Almost all BMW motorcycles have this, and with Teutonic exactness, they read in tenths of a degree!  The technology for this is now readily available, and the instruments of our Fiat show the same snowflake warning a BMW motorcycle does, at the same temperature of 37 degrees.  Triumph seems to say “That’s ridiculous. The real measure of cold must include whether or not it is raining and how much the speed affects wind chill. Feel cold? Put on more gear!  Too warm?  Remove a layer!” 

It occurs to me that the Germans might soon introduce a modified gauge with techno trickery that allows for wind chill and humidity to give you an even clearer indication of why you feel cold.

Performance: This is not the fastest bike I have owned by some measure.  On the other hand, it will stomp on the original.  Now 1200cc of water-cooled and fuel injected propulsion, it has been tuned for torque, and it makes usable power from low speeds. The surge in 3rd gear, even while under break-in instructions, is very impressive.  The Thruxton R arriving in a couple of days has been tuned for more power higher in the rev range.  On the T 120 it is turning over at a calm 3,000 rpm at an indicated 70mph, and only 4,000 rpm at 80mph.  (They did say to vary the speed while breaking it in, officer)

Handling: The front forks are not adjustable, which is unfortunate, but probably a cost-saving measure. The rear shocks are the old type with 5 settings accessed by moving the stop up a stepped ramp.  You used to do this with a large C clamp that usually slipped and bloodied your knuckles, scratched paint, or both. Now it is done with a 5mm Allen key, supplied with the bike. Still not cutting edge by a long shot, but probably fine for my intended use.

On the road, the geometry seems set up for solid handling at higher speeds. I did find that it is not particularly happy with 10mph or 15mph curves, however. Perhaps I will get better at these with practice.  My Speed Triple would turn sharply if you merely contemplated a change of direction. Fortunately, I don’t encounter corners that slow and sharp all that often.

One thing that does aid handling at any sort of reasonable speed is the narrowness of the rear of the tank. It is easy to cock your hips in the direction of the turn, as there is an inch or more of air between your knees and the sides of the tank, even with the rubber knee pads on the tank.

Ergonomics: Wow.  I had forgotten that it is possible to have mirrors that allow you to see what it happening behind the bike. Another exaggeration, but the quest for a 1960’s look also brought chrome mirrors on stalks.  Probably an aerodynamic disaster, but they do work as – er – mirrors.

Dealership experience:   Have to admit my experience would not be everyone’s. I worked for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group for ten years, and Triumph of Seattle was spun off of that. I know and have worked with almost all of the employees, and I am on good terms with both the former and current owners. In fact, I was invited to breakfast by the former owner at a diner near T of S, and afterward we walked over and were stunned by the new T 120, the first one either of us had seen.  When I wanted to purchase (the next day) I was able to skip the sales department and just sit down with the owner.   From experience, I knew what he would offer as a trade for my Speed Triple, and what the various costs would be. His numbers were about $35 less than mine, so for a $12,000 list price bike I was pretty close.  “Negotiations” took 5 minutes.

When the bike arrived, after an agonizing wait, I rode my Speed Triple in for the swap and was introduced to Andy. Andy patiently went through the new buyer walk through, and was very thorough. I was impressed by a couple of details. For one, the bike came with a full fuel tank.   Not a big deal, but attention to detail works wonders.  Secondly, a ‘pigtail’ for a battery charger had been installed and zip tied to a frame rail so it is virtually invisible. Another nice detail.

As we were talking I peeled off a couple of clear warning decals on the tank. Once outside I went back to get my gear, and the two friends who were with me were impressed with the zeal Andy showed in polishing away every shred of decal glue from the tank.  Then we took the picture they take of bike sold with the new owner – a customer service detail I tried in vain (for almost fourteen years!) to install as a 100% commitment from the dealership for every customer.  I don’t know if Andy gets the commission from this sale or not, but I would certainly direct others to him.

In the next few months I will probably purchase new brackets for the Ventura double bag system I kept from the old bike, assuming Ventura can figure out how to mount them inauspiciously. Other than that, for the first time in many motorcycles I have purchased or ridden, I don’t want to make any changes at all.

I will probably also further refine my analysis of the bike, and I may post further information down the road a few thousand miles.

But for now, as I said to my wife after the first day or riding: “This may not be the perfect bike for everyone, but it is probably the perfect bike for me.”

And – it is gorgeous!  


Copyright 2016                   David Preston

About david

I am a 73 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020) and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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