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60 Greatest Bikes: Triumph T120 Bonneville

Published: 16 March 2015

Updated: 16 March 2015

The Triumph Bonneville T120 is such an enduring legend that it's had three separate production runs, over three generations, by three different companies. More than 250,000 of the original 649cc parallel twins (capable of 110mph in 1959) were built between 1959 and 1975 before the larger capacity T140 was introduced. After Triumph went into liquidation in 1983 limited numbers of the bikes were produced under licence by Racing Spares between 1985 and 1988, and John Bloor's Triumph re-invented the Bonneville in 2001 with a completely new design based heavily on the styling cues of the original. The bike is still made today.


  • Year: 1959
  • Manufacturer: Triumph
  • Model: T120 Bonneville
  • Claim to fame: The most famous Triumph ever made, the T120 was also the bike Steve McQueen rode in The Great Escape
  • Did you know?: The bike took its name from the famous salt flats where a Triumph-powered streamliner set a new (unofficial) land speed record for bikes in 1956 (214mph)

Roy Shilling has owned more Triumphs than he can remember but guesses it's between 30 and 40. He's been a member of the Triumph Owners Motorcycle Club for 36 years and President for the last four. He owned a T120 Bonneville TT Special for 15 years.

“When it was first released in 1959, the Bonneville was basically a Tiger 110 with a twin-carb cylinder head and a different paint job. A lot of the components were identical. Triumph only made about 1,800 of those original bikes and they didn't actually sell very well in America, which was the market they were largely built for. The Americans didn't like the orange colour and Triumph was still trying to sell surplus original bikes by the time the Duplex model came out in 1960.

The Duplex was made from 1960-1962 and it became the model to have for a while but there was a resurgence of interest in the 1959 model about eight or nine years ago. When we had a big celebration to mark 50 years of the Bonneville in 2009 we had 12 or 13 original 1959 models. Those bikes reach between £12,000 and £15,000 now. But there was a small batch of about 13 Thruxton Bonnevilles built for the 1959 Thruxton 500 race and those are changing hands now for about £25,000.

“There certainly wasn't much on the road in 1959 that was faster than a T120 Bonneville. For me, the 1970 model is the one to have because it had benefitted from all the Triumph Thruxton racing years and had all the right parts as a standard machine. I had a 1966 T120 TT Special for about 15 years but I sold it after it threw me down the road and put me off work for six months! It was an evil bike to ride on the road because it was purely built for American flat-tack racing. It had 11:1 compression pistons, totally unsilenced exhausts, and a 17-tooth gearbox sprocket - it accelerated like you wouldn't believe! I changed it to T120R spec so it was road legal with standard pipes with silencers and that softened it off a bit so it actually became quite a good road bike.

“I think the new Hinckley Bonnevilles are marvellous and a lot of owners who have joined our club with one of those have then seen the old Bonnevilles and decided to get one of those too.

“We know over 200 original 1959 Triumph Bonnevilles are still in existence and complete from that original production run of 1,800 and I'm sure some more will come out of the woodwork in time.”


To mark 60 years of publication, we are proud to prompt maybe the most controversial debate yet!
Between now and the end of the year we will keep the argument, over which of these bikes is the best that we've seen over our sixty years, raging and we want you to get involved. Cast your vote, send in tales and pictures as you make a case for your personal favourite.
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