'ICON' is an over-used word, Triumph said at the launch of the T120 Bonneville, before using it to describe the bike we were about to ride. It's okay, because this one really was an icon, they said.
It is over-used, and not a very satisfactory description for any motorcycle, but I take the point. It’s not anything to do with the Bonneville Salt Flats, as they predictably tried to persuade journalists. It’s just that, as traditional bikes go, what has more credibility and authenticity than a machine that still looks so much like it did in 1959? The Bonneville looked this way before traditional was even traditional. A new wave of modern-classic machines has grown around it, but it was the same back when that look was just modern. Retro bike? It invented retro bikes. Got a beard and turn-ups? It invented you.
That’s probably going a bit far but it’s true to say that the Bonneville was here before anyone put a barbershop and tattooist at a bike show, with the most recent stretch of continuous production dating back to 2001.
Without no big updates for several years, the Bonneville had somehow found itself in danger of getting left behind by its own scene. Hence a whole new Bonneville range for 2016, with liquid-cooled engines.
With this one – the T120 - Triumph has aimed specifically to preserve the look of the original 1959 model of the same name. So the parallel-twin engine retains a similar shape in profile, leaving big enough gaps through the frame to stick a hand in.
The throttle bodies look like carburettors. The cylinders have machined fins that aid cooling efficiency according to Triumph, so the radiator can be smaller, tucked behind the front wheel like a shadow, with barely a hose in sight.
The brushed aluminium engine cases have inspection covers, which are real. And it’s covered in chrome, unless you go for the T120 Black, which has matt black everywhere instead. That's the one I rode, with 'Matt Graphite' bodywork.
The exhaust has two skins, so from the side it looks like a simple peashooter, while a hidden section diverts through a catalytic converter.
It’s not a bad job.
Unlike the Thruxtons, which have the 'high power' variant of the 1200 engine, the T120 has the 'high torque' version. It still makes less peak torque, with 77.4lbft instead of 82.6, but it makes it quite a lot lower in the range, right down at 3,100rpm compared to 4,950.
Peak power is 80hp at 6,550rpm compared to the Thruxton's 97hp at 6,750. Both machines red-line at 7,000rpm.
So what you in fact get is not so much high torque as a big wallop of it as soon as you open the throttle, snapping the bike suddenly forward like it's been hit from behind by a truck.
With so much low down, there isn't really a pressing need to push to the red line. I found the engine most likeable at about 5,000rpm, where it's getting nearer peak power but still feels completely unstressed, eager and effortless, and capable of good progress.
I’m not an expert on 1959 Bonnevilles but I’m going to go out on a limb and say they didn’t have a button on the left-hand handlebar with an ‘i’ on it, nor one on the right with an ‘m’. The ‘i’ button is to select what information you want to see on the digital insert in the twin-dial dash. It includes current and average fuel consumption, range to empty and a gear indicator.
The ‘m’ button indicates the presence of a very un-1959-ish electronics package. The new Bonneville T120 has ABS as standard (of course) along with traction control, which can be switched off, and two riding modes, Road and Rain. With peak torque so low in the range, traction control is probably a good idea, likely to save a few people from a moment of clumsiness exiting a damp corner. According to Triumph it’s to ‘optimise the class-leading torque’ which is another way of saying the same thing.
Rain mode will be helpful for the same reason. It offers the same peak power but delivers less torque in response to a given throttle input. The T120 doesn’t by any means have an aggressive throttle response in Road - the drive comes in smoothly as you roll on – but the torque is always ready, so there’s no harm in a mode that tolerates a less precise wrist movement. Switching modes is a simple business of pressing that button. If you’re rolling, you have to close the throttle and pull in the clutch to finalise the choice. You also have to pull in the clutch to start the T120, even in neutral.
There’s a third button I will gamble wasn’t on a 1959 model, for the latest version’s heated grips, located on the collar of the left-hand grip itself. They’re standard equipment on the new T120, as they clearly should be on all bikes, and they’re pretty good. There’s only two levels but that’s all you need. The launch ride in Portugal was cold enough for a jumper and thermal lining under my leather jacket. I was in summer gloves and found level two too hot, but enjoyed the rest of the ride on level one.