Launched in 1959 as "The Best Motorcycle in the World," the Triumph Bonneville was named to recognize Texas dealer Big D Cycles and project leader Stormy Mangham’s world-record achievements on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Wendover, Utah.
It was in 1955 that flat tracker Johnny Allen rode his way into the history books on the motorcycle Stormy and company called the “Devils Arrow.” The motorcycle was powered by a Jack Wilson tuned 650 cc twin-cylinder Triumph engine and fuelled by methanol in a unique 'streamliner' fairing. The team achieved a two-way average speed of 193.3 mph (311 kph).
In 1956 the record was broken by the German manufacturer NSU. Just 33 days later, the Texas team would return with the redesigned and renamed “Texas Ceegar” and regain the record with an average speed of 214.17 mph (344kph). The team’s latest creation would become the first 200 mph Triumph. The speed was ratified as a record by the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) but was not recognized by the world authority, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM). Although the FIM refused to accept the achievement as a world record, Triumph gained an unprecedented amount of publicity from the legal dispute that followed. Triumph would become known for building ‘The World’s Fastest Motorcycles,’ a title the organization would hold until 1970.
It was during this time that Edward Turner’s most significant contribution to the Triumph product line was released and named in honor of the accomplishments of the group of Texans – the Bonneville T120.
For years, American buyers had been modifying their T110s with the “Delta Head,” a factory accessory that allowed for the mounting of an additional carburetor. The Bonneville T120 became Triumph’s first 649cc twin-carbureted, parallel twin engine. Turner was inspired by this and developed the motorcycle so quickly that it was not even included in the 1959 Triumph catalogue.
The ride of choice among Hollywood celebrities both past and present, the Bonneville was featured in some of the most successful films of the 1960s. In 1963, Steve McQueen rode a Bud Ekins’ desert-modified Triumph Bonneville racer in the film The Great Escape. In the movie, McQueen’s stunt double Bud Ekins performed the most famous motorcycle jump in movie history while trying to escape a German POW camp. Later the Bonneville was featured in hits including Stay Away Joe with Elvis Presley and Clint Eastwood’s Coogan’s Bluff.
The Bonneville’s most famous moment came when daredevil Evel Knievel made his historic jump over the Caesar’s Palace fountains on a Bonneville T120TT on New Year’s Eve, 1967. Knievel said the Triumph Bonneville 650 was the best motorcycle he had ever jumped on.
Following John Bloor’s purchase of the company and subsequent reemergence of the Triumph brand, the all-new Triumph Bonneville 790 made its debut in 2001. The motorcycle strongly resembled the earlier models in style and basic configuration but was modernized with current engineering.
In 2008, all models were produced with electronic fuel injection (EFI) to meet government regulated emissions standards, but to preserve the vintage Bonneville style, the motorcycle featured redesigned throttle bodies made to resemble the carburetors of the classics.
The Triumph Bonneville continues to attract the attention of motorcycle enthusiasts who appreciate the classic vintage style but enjoy the luxuries of today’s technology. Ultimate Motorcycling states, “Triumph has done well by the Bonneville name, taking the upright classic and recasting it as a friendly do-it-all motorcycle for the 21st century.”
Watch as Triumph riders make the annual pilgrimage back to the Bonneville Salt Flats.