Sole Survivor 

Triumph Bonneville T140

Iconic end of a national treasure…and I watched it all happen

We’re going back in time again, circa 1981, when things were different. At least, for anyone who was riding motorcycles back then. Call it an uncomplicated time; filled with musical favorites and clear priorities for those carving out their niche. Wanting to keep some independence yet own the road weapon of my dreams, motorcycles made perfect financial sense. Hero status for pennies on the super car dollar. Still holding up well all these decades later, that positive ratio adds a rare bonus of two-wheel adventure. Forming and growing as the miles passed, a desire to journal those exciting superbikes became important to me. Some, clearly more exciting than others, and I’m not exactly okay with that. 

Not that I didn’t keep an open mind. Forty-plus years ago and no doubt passed on by the old hands I rode with, news of TriCity Cycles Fall Open House and Bonneville demo ride was very interesting to me. Located on Grand Avenue which slashes across town into West Phoenix, we flash by Mr. Lucky’s and soon into TriCity’s open carpark. I’d barely removed my Bell Star when a Vincent riding couple pulled onto Grand, then flipped around to boom towards town. Shadow or Rapide? Never seeing one and probably not knowing the difference, it was no doubt there to promote the British way. Already looking to unload my Honda twincam, I wondered if the Bonnie’s old school cool could sway me? Spoken of by the old timers in hushed tones, yet always -confusingly- delivered in the past tense. With a Guzzi V7 in the fall of seventy-seven this writer was stepping into motorcycling just as the English were stepping out. Norton, BSA…just a memory. One of many impressionable 1980’s riders the Brit-bike scene was littered with red flags. Representing the once proud British motorcycle industry, only Triumph’s T140ES remained to claim them.

(First issue T140V from 1974 shows the basic Bonneville platform – slab tank, airbox/side covers, polished fenders and a sports-bend bar. Raking near the top in handling and roadholding, its dated design was taxed when pushed beyond its mechanical comfort zone. Example: European and Japanese 900cc models could sustain 90-mph for years before rebuild. In my opinion, this was the engineering benchmark Triumph failed to establish. Looking both elegant and elemental, period brochure shows Lockheed disc/178mm rear drum, rubber mounted carbs on splayed manifolds and 12v alternator charging)       

(1973 T140V USA in red with peanut tank and high-rise bars. Also sold in other markets, including the UK. US rider got one choice. 1977 ‘kick-start’ advert ran in popular US mags. Most were not impressed, but the T140 did get a matching rear disc one year before. 1978 brought new colors, old message) 

Arranged in single file formation, it was the first (and only) time I’d seen a new T140ES. Almost instantly I knew it’d never happen – laughingly dismissing the Triumph’s thumbs up, Fonzie-issue seating and cheezy single front disc. Correctly promoted as a simple machine, my unfamiliarity with the brand caused more reluctance, but it sure was pretty. Some melting happened while gazing across smoky hues of silver-blue and glistening chrome…like a portal to the past parked in a rakish, almost defiant stance. Snapped out of my trance by a sales dude no older than me, the (poor) decision to pass on a ride was made with the best of intentions. Honestly? I didn’t like the Bonneville enough to buy one in 1981, and I haven’t come close since. Later, while addressing the Triumph-shaped hole in my research, a more complete study of T140 production revealed the machine in a game changing way. Too damn bad US westerners like me were only shown the cowboy side of Triumph’s two-sided coin.

(The two sides of Bonneville – one more appealing to this Yankee. Still? Classy black and copper T140ES US was built after May 1980 with electric start. The system tested admirably, and those who know claim it works well. This is a very nice motorcycle. 1981 Royal Wedding sports all the E/S updates; improved oil sealing, Bing CV carbs, electronic ignition and electric start. Differences include black painted drive line, plated/painted bodywork with special insignias. US made Morris mags and Marzocchi shocks add street cred. I’d paddle across the Atlantic in a raft for those triple Lockheeds)          

Back in the now, an informal poll of several US born-and-raised veterans revealed not one of them had tried any of the 80s T140’s either. Many believed (then) that the Bonnie’s glow was extinguished a decade earlier, citing Yamaha’s R5 and the CB450 Honda as two ways to build a better parallel twin. As it always had been, the T140’s vertical-split case holds geared-together exhaust and intake cams flanking a single throw crankshaft – pushing the pistons up together and counter-weighted by a large central flywheel. On the left, a power take off for the primary/clutch, oil pump and 12v alternator locating opposite. Identifying features of the post-80 emission (E) twin include parallel (instead of splayed) inlets, PVC valves and M.k. II Concentrics choked together. Electronic ignition, electric start and various small improvements solidly modernized these last editions and this effort by the souls at Meriden made the Bonneville T140 better. Mostly. Due to supply issues, components from Bing, Veglia and Marzocchi became standard equipment.

Attracted to the same stuff now as I was then, things might have been very different if the T140 European had been present at TriCity that day. Research in period tests fits US importer Triumph America into the timeline then, taking the show on the road and touring a fleet of US-issue 1981 T140ES models. At least in home state California and AZ, where TMA provided both the bikes I saw at TriCity, and the test unit used in Cycle World’s November, 1981 issue, This, resplendent in silver/blue and proclaimed as the best Bonnie yet. Condensing the model’s history from 1959’s first to 1982 shows the line littered with special and limited-edition models. Developed into a 750cc for 1973 and retaining 1971’s oil-in-frame feature for the remade T120, Triumph spread the T140 across a wide production spectrum – standard to custom. Due to the bike’s natural role as a handler, the Bonneville expertly played different roles for different scenes. With roots back to Edward Turner’s landmark 1930s design, the T140ES’s unit drivetrain is a physically small package; especially compared to 1973’s new wave of 750s. Each refinement laid over the original blueprint, 

Thanks to the worldwide electronic connectivity, owning a T140 is a far different proposition now than it was in 1981. Strong segments of Bonneville enthusiasts remain, quite naturally extending to T140 owners new and old. From concise DIY tuning videos and rebuilds to rallies, support is solid. Again, not following Triumph back then, the press raves earned by these late T140s gives considerable pause for thought. Sentimental editors, or solid journalism? My hunch is both, and the tests were informative. At a size disadvantage compared to contemporaies like Ducati’s 900 Darmah or the V1000 Guzzi, Triumph’s suddenly potent 1982 Bonneville Royal arrived with traffic-stopping style, electric leg, electronic ignition, Euro handlebar, and a brace of Lockheed stoppers on Morris cast wheels. Better than never, but few made it to the States.

(1982 Bonneville 750 Royal – The ultimate Meriden Trumpet? There’s good cause to agree, but only a few hundred were reportedly produced. Period testers were pleased with its modern touches, but noted the hand-built Bonnie still needed an engaged owner. Update: UK-based Triumph expert Erum Waheed reports “around 50” sent to US shores through importer TMA)    

Focusing solely on the T140 and skipping other builds like the single-carb Tiger, TSX and 8-valve TSS, research strongly suggests Triumph hoped the Bonneville’s popularity would win the day. In the end, Meriden’s T140 consisted of wholesale engineering, developments and refinements all orbiting an ancient design, and what the workforce at Meriden accomplished under dire conditions was profound. There is some truth in believing Japan’s fast, tidy, and affordable fleet the force behind Meriden’s closing, but there’s more to it. With their pocketbooks, motorcycle riders from everywhere proved to have absolutely no issue buying new, updated antiques in 1981. More than enough buyers to keep Guzzi and BMW going. Deeper, I think, was the (well-founded) fear that Triumph would swirl down the drain like Britain’s other legendary marques. Besides, who wants an orphan motorcycle? Compound a price increase due to British pound v US dollar as 1983’s final closing blow…a few filling backlog orders and tidbits cleared out of the soon to be vacant factory complex. Not happening so long ago that no one remembers, there’s volumes written on Meriden’s last days, some telling tales of foul politics and arrogance. That’s not the focus here as nothing can come from it, save for the notion that with adequate financial support and refocused on post-1969 market trends, Meriden could have survived. Or even thrived.             

Not sent to the US (again) but probably for good reason, the John Bloor/LF Harris connection added another bundle of Bonnie’s to waiting customers. Each, a small piece of history concluding for good in 1988. Going deeper into Mr. Bloor takes us into various directions, but his belief that Triumph needed a new engine in 1983 was valid. Looking back one last time, redoing to the T140’s bottom end could have bought another decade – starting in 1971/2 during the 750cc transition. As for Meriden’s well publicized prototypes and projects, the liquid-cooled Phoenix and AV/anti-vibration mounting were innovative. Sadly, history shows the bite was simply too big, and Triumph fell victim of chasing Japan. More realistic to budget for small advancements with established vendors than ground-up makeovers. Case in point? Moto Guzzi’s first liquid-cooled twin was released just two years ago!   

Keeping their respective trademark designs, as opposed to the Japanese practice of several new engines a year – for years – attracted many buyers to European hardware. Me included, which ironically was one of the reasons I became interested in the T140 to begin with. Just picture it…cut across horizontally with three or even four mains, gear primary, and enough room inside for 1977’s planned-in-advance 900cc Bonneville ThunderTwin. Wrap it up in those impeccably snazzy European threads – black trimmed with gold, and don’t forget the Lockheeds, With little else changed the T140 could almost live up to its name; slotted historically next to the R75, V7 Sport, Duke 750 and other period greyhounds. If only. Being driven to this fantasy by a motorcycle that was already very good, it’s easy to conclude the Bonneville T140 is the best bike I never had. Nolan Woodbury       

LF Harris Bonneville 1985-1988

USA riders face great distances between major cities, the landscape turning increasingly more remote running westbound…and down. Less is not more and capacity is a priority – more fuel to climb lofty peaks and run flat out through the desert. Reliable power being needed to make proper time forced the world’s moto-engineers to produce over built, under stressed motorcycles. The best, and only kind for those not interested in walking across the Sonoran.

Could the last, newest T140 Bonnevilles from Les Harris routinely pull this duty? I’ve no doubts many Triumphs have traveled coast to coast through the States, but less certain how many of them arrived without a story to tell. Speaking of those, only two post-Meriden writings were used for researching this article: Roy Bacon’s ‘T140 Bonneville and Derivatives’ (ISBN 1 85648 305 3) and Frank Westworth’s Harris Bonneville review published at BikeSocial. I consider the latter an extension of the period road tests/brochures I’ve collected, due to Frank’s considerable experience. It’s all rather positive (coming from a Norton fan) and laid out plainly, the tale starting in 1983 with developer John Bloor passing on the Meriden property, and instead buying the rights and contents of the factory. Wanting more details, an agreement between parts specialist LF Harris and Bloor happens, granting the family rights to build new Bonnies and single-carb Tigers from Meriden stocks. As Westworth accurately points out, the Harris (built in the current Devon factory from 1985 to 1988) was a curious mix of neat new components and dated technology.

(Harris T140 Bonneville looks more buttoned-up – smart, sexy and yes, quite serious. Not sold in the USA, both ‘Classic’ and Standard versions were built, some mixing components. Detail photos (from H&H Auctions) highlight a strong European influence, including the all-Italian fork, wheels, shocks and calipers. It is my guess the rotors are 4-bolt Lockheeds. Adding to the retro look, both Classic and Standard fit polished fenders. Photo: Mecum)   

In addition to those previously mentioned supply issues, Meriden’s sacked tooling inspired Harris to shop for a grocery list of cycle parts sourced from Paioli, Radaelli, Magura and Brembo. Even Lafranconi exhausts, which, according to Westworth “Not only look OK and work well, but sweep up more than the earlier devices, thus allowing more ground clearance because the centrestand can rest higher. This is good, because the bike is a true fling-around machine. Really.” Also new, Frank considers the Amal Concentric carbs on his test bike ‘decent’ but criticized the decision to not fit Meriden’s stronger TSS style bottom end and 1980’s electric starter. Frank’s article will give a more complete understanding, including a conclusion that puts the Harris Bonneville among those rare, appreciating machines more than happy to be ridden. As intended. NW      

1988 Harris Triumph Bonneville

Engine: 744cc, OHV parallel twin w/twin gear-driven camshafts
Bore x stroke: 76 x 82mm
Transmission: Chain primary, 5-speed
Chassis/frame: Full duplex steel cradle, oil-bearing
Suspensions: Paioli 38mm fork/twin shocks
Brakes: 3 x 260mm iron rotors w/Brembo 2p calipers
Wheels: Radaelli spoke – 100/90/19″ (f) 110/90/18″ (r)
Weight: 420-lb
Top speed: 105-mph

Triumph T140 Gallery

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