Updated: May 14, 2021
This is: an autobiography, a short course in modern social history, and mostly a half-century of the passion I've had for a special machine. If it's too long for you, well then at least check out the pictures!
In 1959 Triumph Engineering launched the new 650cc Triumph Bonneville T120. I was 7 years old and I thought it was the most beautiful motorcycle I'd ever seen. The name Bonneville came from the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. When I was a kid, that's where all the hot vehicles were sent to set land-speed records going in a straight line. The first Bonnie's 120 designation was because this bike achieved 120 miles per hour there.
By the time I reached puberty, in the mid-60's, the Bonneville had only gotten better looking, and a little more reliable. I came to realize that owning one of these would someday be the key to being popular and sought-after by women. Just read the first paragraph of the ad above for proof!
And not only that, but every entertainment idol I had as a kid had one of these beauties. Here is just a sample:
I mean, these guys just proved that I was right about what this motorcycle could do for me!
So in 1969 I finally got my driver's license at age 17. That meant I sorta knew how to drive a car (I lived in Manhattan and was the first person in my lineage to even have a driver's license). And no sooner did I have a license - Then Came Bronson!
Here was cool Jim Bronson riding around the country on his Harley Sportster (without a helmet) saving or educating people everywhere, for an hour every Wednesday night. That was clearly my calling as well.
But I certainly didn't know how to drive a motorcycle with that mysterious device called a manual transmission! To the rescue came our wonderfully kind neighbor Mr. Barish (I'm ashamed to say I don't remember his first name). He owned a 160cc Honda Dream, and he kept it in the basement garage under our building. He actually loaned me a set of keys and told me I could ride it around the garage as much as I wanted (underground City garages are pretty big) and figure out how to handle that clutch and those gears. Here was that beauty:
I spent hours after school riding and stalling that ugly thing up and down the aisles of our garage. Eventually I had to give the garage guy a few dollars to look the other way. Fortunately the Honda wasn't too noisy. With a lot of trial and error, and my new girlfriend Ellen Kaplan looking on (see, the spell was working already!), I started and stopped hundreds of times, eventually even getting into second gear. It finally clicked! I gave Mr. Barish back his keys and went looking for my Bonneville. Rude awakening for a 17 year-old whose only income was as a part-time sales clerk in Macy's: they were expensive! And I had to have a motorcycle. By this point I had figured out they were more than sexy - they were fun. So I settled for a brand new 1970 250cc Yamaha that I bought from Cam-Rod Motorcycles on West 52nd Street:
I found out what it felt like to really ride a motorcycle - not in the basement of a garage, but for real. There was absolutely no other feeling like it. My very first ride was from my apartment on East 19th street in Manhattan to visit my girlfriend Ellen at her summer bungalow at Rockaway Beach in Queens. I remember being very scared out-bound, but in heaven on the way back!
Years later I got a pilot's license and owned two Cessnas over a ten year period. Flying never felt as good as motorcycling. And you can see how cool I was in my US Army surplus T-shirt, belt and boots plus my white jeans! You can also see the hole in my left pants leg and my right elbow. Plus the missing right front turn signal and mirror - all the results of my first crash. Hey, I was only 18.
But the stars kept buying those real Bonnevilles. None of them were buying little two-stroke Japanese bikes.
I got a summer job making emergency motorcycle deliveries to and from film companies in NYC. It was very exciting. In the evenings I rode out to Far Rockaway to be with Ellen - still smitten with me, no doubt due to the motorcycle (which her mother wouldn't let her ride on).
I went away to college at Syracuse University. And of course I took the motorcycle up there with me since I couldn't bear to be without it AND Ellen. Freshmen weren't allowed to park a vehicle on campus, so I kept it in my dorm room (we had BIG elevators). My roommate Jim Alkon was not delighted, but he was a good sport about it.
The next summer I foolishly thought my little 250 could make it to Canada with me and my friend Josh Jofen on the back (plus our gear). Nope! We ended up hanging out in Montreal for a week while a local motorcycle shop overhauled the engine. It was time to get a bigger bike!
I still longed for a Bonneville, but now Yamaha had just released this Bonnie look-alike:
It was really very beautiful, had triple the horsepower of my 250, a four-stroke engine and a fairly new thing for motorcycles: a front disk brake! It was almost a Bonnie. So after putting 45,000 miles on the 250, I sold it and bought the 650.
But it wasn't a Bonnie at all. It didn't sound the same. And it vibrated terribly and was pretty uncomfortable. And it just didn't have that British panache. In the meantime, the real men kept riding those Bonnevilles.
With the help of a petition signed by most everyone in my college dorm, I convinced Ellen's mother and father, Evelyn and Lester Kaplan to let her ride with me. A bike and a cute girl at the same time - I had made it! Unfortunately, Ellen now remembers those wild and crazy halcyon days as, "been there, done that."
Needless to say the winters were rough in NY with a motorcycle as my only vehicle. So I started getting the urge for a car. I think if I had owned a Bonnie, I wouldn't have been able to give it up. But I sold the Yamaha 650 after putting only 15,000 miles on it to a US Army Paratrooper, and bought my first car, for $600 - a 1967 Dodge Dart:
This was a mistake (the car, not the jeans). I thought owning a motorcycle in NYC was difficult. But owning a car - OMG! So after a year or so of that misery, I gave it up and traded down again. This time to my first bicycle - a Deluxe Gold Mountain Sudersonic [sic] Bicycle. I named it NCC-1701 to honor a popular new TV show at the time. I had transferred from Syracuse University to Pace University in Manhattan. And the City had just closed down the old elevated West Side Highway to all but pedestrian and bicycle traffic (when a truck fell through it). So now I could commute to school and back on my bicycle with no hassle. And that ended my first period of motorcycling.
Over the next years I had no motorcycle and Triumph went out of business. The last years of production were the most beautiful of all, like this early 70's model:
I became a husband, a CPA, a homeowner, and a father - in that order. I bought five Brooks Brothers suits with the guidance of my good friend Ed. Also lots of ties and button-down shirts, cordovan wing-tipped shoes, and an attache case. After our first baby, Jennifer was born, Ellen and I even bought a station-wagon (Minivans hadn't been invented yet)!
Triumph went out of business in 1983, was briefly revived in 1985, and then went out of business again in 1988.
The Japanese company, Kawasaki, made a Bonnie-imitation that sorely tempted me:
But it wasn't the real thing and retro bikes were not in vogue at the time, so Kawasaki discontinued this beauty in the US after about two years. It's still sold overseas. Reviews are meh!
I sought my thrills elsewhere, with the first Mazda Miata in 1989, a Cessna 150 in 1990, and then a Cessna 172 in 1992. Actually, of those three vehicles, the Miata came closest to giving me the thrill that motorcycles did. That was a wonderful little six-speed convertible. Flying an airplane was a hoot, but it was never the visceral thrill of motorcycling.
After getting my Instrument Rating, I sold my last airplane in 1997 to pay for Jenny's college tuition. I was done with flying. So what's a man to do? It was time to buy another motorcycle. Triumph wasn't making Bonnies for US consumption anymore, even though the stars were still riding them:
So I went back to Yamaha and got myself a new 1100cc Yamaha Virago. Once again, it was no Bonneville, but the price was right. And wow, it felt so good to be "back in the saddle." As luck would have it, Triumph Motorcycles was reborn the next year and started making "Bonnevilles" once again. I was very unimpressed with this incarnation. It was not the Bonnie of the past at all. So I stuck with my Virago, uncomfortable as it was, and joined a motorcycle gang for the first time.
Joel was CPA my age who had just learned to ride. And Gregory was a crazy Greek artist who said he used to be an agent for the Greek Central Intelligence Service. Gregory inspired us to go on lots of crazy and long rides in all kinds of weather. He carried a little leather bag on his handlebars filled with lead fishing weights which he threw at cars that he felt were not treating him with respect on the roads. Here I am at another one of the many rallies we went to together:
And here's my Virago with some of my other gang members:
Yes, it had a big windscreen and saddlebags, but it also had twin disc brakes and shaft drive! And once again, a big step-up in displacement and horsepower. No more chain adjustments required. At least it was still air-cooled! You can see my carburetor balancer hanging on the wall over the front wheel. I was able to do most of the maintenance on this bike.
The following year, the prestigious Guggenheim Museum in New York City hosted a marvelous exhibit - The Art of the Motorcycle. The 100 most beautiful motorcycles in history starting with the first one - an 1868 Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede - through the present (1998). The entire spiral exhibit floor of the Guggenheim was filled with spectacular, pristine, historic motorcycles. Jenny and I went to the exhibit and this is the only picture I took that day:
That, and a few other of these pictures, was taken with my very first digital camera, so forgive the quality (it was pretty amazing at the time). Btw, you can pick up the beautiful color volume that the Guggenheim published with great photos of these historic bikes for about $12 used at Amazon, or about $200 new. Don't buy one for me though - I already have it!
Well, after putting about 40,000 miles on the Virago, I was getting pretty uncomfortable in the saddle of this "cruiser." I was then lured into the comfortable class of old man's bikes called "Tourers."
Triumph was again out of business when I picked up this 1200cc Honda Shadow Ace Tourer (a very complicated name for a motorcycle):
Again, a step-up in displacement. As far as comfort and convenience were concerned, this bike had everything: big, lockable, theft-proof hard saddlebags, a huge windscreen, shaft-drive, quiet dignified exhaust and water-cooling. It was huge, with a huge turning circle, and it was heavy. It was superbly comfortable on long rides. It had everything but a soul. I got so bored riding this bike over the next couple of years. And when the thrill is gone, what's the point? So I sold it in 2003 with only 20,000 miles on it and gave up motorcycling for the second time.
There's an unfortunate lack of photographic evidence in Part Two that my daughter Amy was also involved in the adventure. She rode with me many times, but I think she tried to avoid photographic evidence because she subconsciously knew, even back then, that she would someday be a mother to my two impressionable twin grandsons.
In 2001 Triumph was resurrected (again) and started producing a brand new water-cooled Bonnie. Gosh it was ugly. It bore a definite resemblance to the original. But nothing that would make me want to actually own one.
I always thought that if I ever came across one of the classics for sale in good condition, I would be tempted to go back to two wheel adventures. It didn't happen. But the stars kept buying them:
For the next 15 years Triumph continued to produce basically the same ugly duckling with a few improvements and variations along the way (yawn).
Then (a few months ago as I write this) they hit the mark! In mid-2016 Triumph announced the all-new 2017 900cc Triumph Bonneville T100:
Bingo! If you've read this far, you can clearly see this is the motorcycle I've been awaiting for over 50 years! Just scroll back up for a moment and compare it to the third picture in this article. Look at the "pea-shooter" tailpipes, the spoked wheels, the seat, the tank knee-pads, and the front-fork gaiters. This is it!
And if you're really interested in the new Bonnie, here's a short, excellent, unbiased, and very funny video review by Marlon Slack on YouTube:
Or if you'd just like to see how the new Bonnie makes me feel, check out this roll-out video done at the new Bonnie's Media Launch in Tasmania, Australia:
Yes, I know what you're thinking: "but Tom, it's water-cooled!" That's true, but can you even see the radiator cleverly hidden between the frame's front down tubes? And check out those real air cooling fins on the cylinder head!
This is the one I've been waiting for most of my life. No wind screen, no saddlebags, no more 10-hour rides and no more bad-weather rides. Just the occasional joy ride through the meandering, pretty roads of Western Monmouth County and environs. After all, nothing can match the sensation of twisting the throttle through the curves on a motorcycle - I've really tried.
Because in the end, there's nothing like a Triumph Bonnie to make The Great Escape!
All images not in the public domain and text contained herein copyright Tom Fisher