Thirty years ago the notion of a modern Norton and Triumph competing to be Britain’s best café racer was unimaginable.
Sure, in the 1950s and 60s the pair, either individually or married into a Triton – the ultimate café racer of the day – ruled the roost. But by the late 80s British bikes lived on only in the memory of old men or as relics in the club scene or classic magazines. Instead, for the majority of motorcyclists, the ‘here and now’ on two wheels then was exclusively Japanese, Italian or, less so, German and American.
How times have changed. Resurgent Hinckley Triumph may have been selling bikes since 1991 but only recently have they been recognised as one of the most dynamic and fastest growing of all motorcycle manufacturers. What’s more, 2016, after a couple of years in the doldrums due largely to the credit crunch, saw the John Bloor-owned concern back to its brilliant best.
This year has not only seen new, updated and now Euro4-compliant versions of its class-leading Speed Triple super-naked and impressive, three-cylinder adventure bike, the 1200 Tiger Explorer – it’s also witnessed the launch of an all-new version of its most famous machine of all – the Bonneville. The new retro roadster, which is available in three guises, novice-friendly Street Twin, classic roadster T120 and café racer Thruxton, has so far received almost unanimous universal acclaim and is already proving a best seller. But it’s the top-spec R version of the Thruxton that has many dribbling most and has truly taken a resurgent Triumph into new territory.
With uprated Öhlins suspension, modern, switchable engine modes and enhanced detailing and cosmetic touches including retro-style tank straps and ‘Monza’ filler cap, the 96bhp R is a more stirring and involving ride than any Bonneville before it.
Norton was bought and brought back from US ownership by East Midlands businessman Stuart Garner in 2009, and in the years since has gone from little more than an assortment of legal documents and a part-built prototype to, today, a truly impressive production facility on the edge of Donington Park where up to 20 retro-style 961 twins are hand-built every week, mostly for export.
In addition, the firm’s racing ambitions are finally bearing fruit with a seventh in this year’s Superbike TT with the Aprilia V4-powered SG5. That machine is now the inspiration for an all-new, in-house V4 powered £40,000 road-going superbike set to be unveiled at the NEC Show in November.
Both firms then, are not just increasingly successful but are arguably in stronger positions than ever with bikes that are the envy of the world. So, to find out, not necessarily which is best but what you get with each, what their strengths and weaknesses are, we decided to take their latest and greatest classic British café racers on a ride of discovery through England’s ‘green and pleasant’.