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What a Triumph: Bonneville T120 55th birthday

2014-08-11 13:01

Dave Fall

GOOD LOOKING PIECE OF KIT: The bike that is! My 1969 T120R Triumph Bonneville just back from the paint shop with new livery. The Bonneville model celebrates its 55th birthday later in 2014. Image: Dave Fall

CAPE TOWN - In my previous column in August 2014 it gave me pleasure to tell Wheels24 readers all about Mini that was celebrating its 55th birthday. While watching the lively Community Shield Cup Final between Arsenal and Manchester City (3-0 to Arsenal), at my favourite watering hole over the weekend it was Jaco the barman who reckoned one of the Triumph bikes had been launched around the same time as the Mini.

It seems you have to get up early to beat old Jaco on matters motoring.


Perfectly correct, the immortal 650cc ‘T120 Bonnie’ was Triumph’s first commercially made vertical twin, dual-carbed motorcycle shown at the Earl’s Court Motorcycle Show in 1959 (there was Ernie Lyons’ 500cc Grand Prix TT winning machine, but that’s another story).

That ‘Bonnie’ name, incidentally, came from an American-made machine specially developed to break land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flat in the US, achieving 344km/h in the capable hands of one Johnny Allen.

The pre-unit construction (separate gearbox) ‘Bonnie’ was the bike much sought after by the leather-clad, ton-up boys of the day in the UK – a term that denoted that your motorcycle could truly exceed 160km/h. Sales, at the height of the early-60s boom where around 1 000 machines being built at the Meriden factory in the Midlands town of Coventry, saw ticket prices of just R5 130 (£285). Rather good value, I think you’ll agree.


If the standard ‘Bonnie’ wasn’t fast enough the real motorcycle enthusiast could specify the by now unit-construction (gearbox and motor combined) Thruxton Bonneville version. Not that many were ordered with only a few dozen being built and sold around 1965.

Clip-on handlebars, a ‘bacon-slicer’ front brake and a top speed some 15km/h quicker over a standard ‘Bonnie’  – but offering amazing acceleration – perfect for beating your mate to the Ace Café in North London, a true British biker’s haunt – that’s still open every night to this very day.

Exported to many countries around the globe – including South Africa – meant that the one seen in the picture alongside found it’s way to Natal (that’s the writer seen alongside, by the way). Fed up with the standard Bonnie claret and silver livery I decided to repaint the fuel tank, oil tank and tool box of my American-style 120R Bonnie – a bike that cost R975 in late 1969 and bought from well-known British bike dealer Jack’s Motors in Johannesburg.

Often touted as the only real ‘classic’ Bonnie to own, that particular bike proved reliable and stayed in the Fall family for many years.


I once remember having the misfortune to ‘melt’ a piston after hammering the bike back from Durban to Pietermaritzburg on a particularly hot day but spare parts were easily available and removing the head and barrel revealed only superficial damage. It was straightforward enough to have the bike back on the road the following weekend. Moral of the story: if you are going to thrash a bike at least put both petrol taps on!

Today, some 35 years later I still ride a bike – albeit a BMW single – completely devoid of soul; press the start button on the handlebars and it fires up first time, no matter how long it’s been standing.

Thinking back to the Bonnie, a single prod on the kick start (no electric starter) was all that was needed to get things moving. Drum brakes (twin leading shoe up front, at least), the narrowest of tyres and rather dim lights all around.

Did we really ride at such alarming speeds back then, and with the wife or girlfriend on the pillion?  Yep, we sure did.

1969 Triumph Bonneville T120R
650cc/air-cooled vertical twin/twin carbs
39kW at 7 100rpm
Frame: Duplex
Weight: 178kg
Top speed: 177km/h
Price: R975 (in 1969)

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