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New blast from the past: Bonnie vs. Bonnie

Published: 22 January 2017

Updated: 20 January 2017

To me, a retro bike is simply one that carries a flavour of the old in its appearance and, to be brutally honest, I don't give a fig what is going on behind the façade. ABS, traction control, ride-by-wire... the damn thing could be powered by dilithium crystals as long as it sounds and feels the part because styling only gets you so far. The key point of any bike is how it rides.

And that is the underlying philosophy with Triumph’s new Bonneville models. The guys from Hinckley have decided that when applied sympathetically, technology isn’t something to be afraid of, even on a retro bike such as the T100. But is this thinking correct?


Putting the two T100 Bonnies next to one another throws up an interesting question. Can a retro bike look outmoded? It’s a bit of a contradiction, but the odd thing is that the old bike does actually look dated against the new Bonneville. Small things such as the way the larger front wheel kicks up the nose, the low seat that sits really flat on the mudguard and even the tall bars make the air-cooled T100 appear, well, old. And not in a good way when compared to the latest interpretation of the Bonneville.

Side by side you can’t help but admit the new T100 just looks more contemporary and cleaner in its styling than the previous bike. To me, and here is where it gets really confusing, it actually appears far closer to the original 1960s Bonneville models than the other bike. So the newer bike appears more contemporary thanks to the fact it looks like an even older machine! I told you this was going to be confusing.

But it’s more than just the styling that separates these bikes; it is the attention to detail. When you look closely at the air-cooled bike it is a bit rough around the edges. The fake carbs are ugly and have a choke lever, the engine’s finish isn’t great and there are numerous small details that let it down.

The new bike, however, is hard to pick fault with as it is beautifully styled and finished. The coach lining on the tank is stunning, the seat is stitched to perfection with white highlights, the chrome is deep and I love the small details such as the Triumph branding stamped into various components such as the retro plug caps and mudguard support.

Modern motoring

A key part of the old Bonneville’s charm is its relaxed attitude, which could so easily have been lost in the transition from air to water-cooling. Yet, and I had to double check this, the new Bonnie is actually less powerful than the old one. Isn’t progress meant to see power figures increase? Not in the retro motorcycle world it seems.

To be fair, while peak power has dropped, a larger-capacity motor has seen the new Bonnie gain torque throughout its rev range and that means, back-to-back, the two engines feel very similar. The move from a 360-degree crank to a 270-degree item gives the new Bonnie a noticeably smoother motor, and the ride-by-wire throttle is far more refined and less abrupt at dispensing the power, but overall both engines perform similarly.

The air-cooled twin has more of a thumping power delivery with less refinement and a heavier clutch action, but it’s not that far behind in terms of outright performance. The new engine has that pleasing parallel-twin grumble, which although muted is still apparent, and punches harder low down while losing out slightly at the top end. So, overall, much of a muchness. The key thing is the new (Euro4-spec) water-cooled motor still delivers that feeling and vibration that Bonneville owners expect, it just does it with more refinement and that makes it a bit nicer to ride and more frugal.

Turning the clock forward

When it comes to riding position and handling these two Bonnies might as well be from different eras. Compared to the new bike, the riding position on the old Bonnie feels horrible with tall bars and high pegs. Triumph have given the water-cooled bike the same ergonomics as the T120 and, with its low pegs and flat bars, it’s extremely comfortable.

Bonnevilles have never had much in the way of ground clearance, but the new T100 is even more limited. This is a problem Triumph have brought on themselves as not only are the pegs lower, the chassis is also considerably better handling and the suspension plusher, allowing the bike to corner far faster than the old. On the previous bike the 19in front wheel gives a vague feeling in corners while the new Bonnie’s 18in front is secure and far more confidence inspiring. At last you can enjoy bends on a Bonnie at a reasonable pace, and even stop safely should you require.

One of my bugbears about the old Bonnie model has always been its brakes. The single twin-piston front caliper has a dead feeling as well as a lack of power. In the dry this is OK, but in the wet it’s not great plan. While the brake set-up on the new Bonnie is the same and does lack bite, the addition of ABS means you don’t have to be so cautious when it comes to pulling on the lever. Speaking of technology, does the Bonnie really need traction control? Not in my book, but I suppose it is nice to know it is there and if you can’t see it, what harm is it doing? Like I said, subtle technological advances are never a bad addition, even on a retro. 

While purists will always grumble about technology finding its way onto a classic model range, in Triumph’s new T100 it does it in such a way it enhances the bike without shouting about the fact it is there. The new styling is stunning, the water-cooled motor has all the Bonnie charm you would expect, the handling and comfort levels are a leap ahead and, behind the scenes, the clever electronics are doing their thing to make it all work together seamlessly. It may not be a true retro, but the new T100 is a great looking machine that rides beautifully and you can’t ask for much more than that.


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