2005 Triumph Rocket III - Too Much Fun
October 01, 2004
Photography by Kevin Wing
"Oh...my...God." That's the typical response coming from riders getting off the new Triumph. It doesn't really matter if the tester is a cruiserphile, a road racer, a touring rider...a vintage nut. It's all the same when it comes to the Rocket III. "This bike is too fun!"
The declaration "too fun" may seem subjective, but it's actually a near-perfect description of this bike's phenomenal torque output. At 2300cc you'd expect an adrenal goose, and the Triumph delivers. Like a rainy-day run on a wooden rollercoaster or a date with a Victoria's Secret model, a ride on the Rocket III is an experience that exceeds everyday expectation. It's such fun to uncork 141 foot-pounds of grunt right off the light, in fact, that you might wonder how much fun is healthy. And then, as you hurtle along, shifting through the gears in a torque-curve plateau large enough to build condos on, you'll know. This is way too much fun.
The long-anticipated Rocket III Triumph, with outrageous capacity and styling to match, is finally ready for action. Yes, it's hulking. Some think it's an eyesore. But no one-we repeat, no one-can call the Rocket short on character. Almost absurdly its own thing, this is a motorcycle with its own drummer. Heck, it's a motorcycle with its own band!
The standout feature of this new motorcycle is undeniably its massive three-cylinder mill, which boasts pistons similar in size to those found in a Dodge Viper. The engine's exterior dimension and finish is a bit automotivesque as well, but Triumph stylists made it work, punctuating the huge cast-alloy cases with chrome accents, and, well, building a bike around it that was brutish enough to provide a bit of balance. The fuel-injected triple bursts to life easily and settles into a rather delicate whir, reminiscent of BMW's K75 series, so popular here in the '80s and '90s. This bike is many things a V-twin cruiser is not, beginning with the no-bark, all-bite sound. A slew of aftermarket pipes is inevitable, of course, so one can make the Triumph sound truly evil.
The torque produced by the 2300cc engine is not only profound, it's very well managed. Our Dyno run revealed a max of 141 foot-pounds at 2500 rpm, but torque comes on right off throttle, reaching 140 foot-pounds quickly and remaining in peak range for another 1500 rpm. Conveniently, this is the range of rpm where most street riding is done, so the Rocket III pilot is always in the grunt, at least until the motor is wound above 5000 rpm where horsepower becomes the name of the game (132.4 at 6250 rpm). This bike hurtles, for sure. Keep in mind that's 30 more horsies than the Rocket's next-in-displacement heavyweight contender, the Vulcan 2000, dishes out-thanks to the Triumph's late-breaking redline of 6250 rpm, compared to the Kawasaki's 4750 rpm cutoff. While power might not be comparable between these bikes, weight is: the Triumph, full of fluids, tips the scale at 802 pounds, while the Vulcan weighs in at 820. Another Rocket challenger, the venerable Yamaha V-Max, may be much lighter in stature and displacement, but it is one of only a couple of cruisers on the market today that come close to the Triumph in performance. Here's how it lays out on the drag strip: Triumph is king, by a shred, at 11.55 seconds at 118 mph compared to the Max's last recorded run with us of 11.62 at 116.9. For reference, the V2K gave us a 12.43 at 104.2. The VTX and Valkyrie models run mid-12s as well, while Harley's V-Rod gives the Rocket good chase with an 11.88 at 113.8.
There are two times you'll want to be sure you're holding on to the Triumph with both hands. The first, when you lift off from low rpm and the bike's torque combines with a somewhat abrupt throttle response and a bit of drivetrain lash to snap your giggling head back (or into your passenger's helmet). The second instance you'll want a firm grip is when you hit any ruts at high speed, since the bike's taut rear suspension has a tendency to kick your butt right out of the seat! On the level, the bike does run stiff all around-a necessity, really, for its combination of weight, power and low profile. The chassis is supported by stout 43mm upside-down forks and twin rear shocks, which are adjustable for preload only. While the bike's rigidity can jiggle your fillings in certain situations, it's actually a benefit in smooth, long corners, where the Triumph hooks up solidly and tracks a line without the disconcerting wallow or hinging many cruisers of this size suffer.
Ground clearance is good by cruiser standards, and the bike's steering feel is far from vague. In tight, high-speed cornering the Triumph is occasionally more exciting than it ought to be, especially before a rider dials in a smooth throttle hand. After a run down a famously patch-worked and twisting road here in Southern California, one tester likened the Triumph to a bull in a china shop after threading a nasty section of hairpins. In normal situations, however, the suspension is not a liability, though most will find it harsh for everyday cruising. What actually makes the Rocket III seem a handful in tight corners is the bike's profound length x mass x alarming power, which, of course, equals fun once you have your wits and a learned hand. Not only does the bike require a smooth throttle application at low speeds, it also calls for a bit of muscle on the bar and a deliberate approach to corners. This isn't a flick-it-in sort of scooter, nor is it one where you make major line changes mid-corner.
Our cover model, stunt rider Thad Wolff, said about the Rocket "I was surprised at how civil the thing is, considering it's so huge. It's a lot of bike to move around, but it goes where you want it to." That, coming from someone who spent a day riding the machine to its absolute limits. Wolff had plenty of time on the brakes too, as that big wheelie on the cover was executed with a scary lack of run off. No matter what the situation, the Triumph's tandem Brembo 320mm, four-piston discs up front and the two-piston 326mm out back do an admirable job slowing the thunderous brute. The brakes never showed fade and all riders reported the setup to have good feel and overall balance.
Shaft effect on the Rocket III is minimal, and what a rider notices more often is the big three-cylinder's torque effect at stops and during low-speed throttling as it rocks the bike very subtly side-to-side. Shifting the five-speed is an easy task, though the transmission mechanisms are very industrial in feel and sound. Finding neutral is effortless. Gearing is appropriate for this monster, and it pulls long, hard strokes once out of first, which is hardly essential. As you'd assume, passing never requires a downshift...or a second thought. Just twist and go. The clutch on our test unit (even before the photo shoot) was slightly abrupt, but units we sampled at the press introduction offered more gradual actuation. Both front brake and clutch levers are adjustable, so small hands will feel at home too.
Wonder if the Rocket is a good fit for you? It's super-sized, that's for sure, but we couldn't find a rider who found the ergos uncomfortable or intimidating. The seat height is surprisingly low for one thing. At 29 inches, anyone who would consider an 800-pound cruiser is likely going to have his or her feet on the ground. The wide handlebar was on the verge of being a stretch for smaller riders, and almost everyone complained about upper body position at freeway speeds, since the semi-forward-mounted footpegs don't give you much leverage against the wind. (However, they are rearward enough to permit you to unload your weight from the seat when you're in the bumps.) If not a change of handlebar, a simple flyscreen would cure that ill. Triumph already has a couple of windshield options available for the Rocket, not to mention a horde of accessories ranging from chrome baubles to functional items like saddlebags, floorboards, backrests and a gel touring seat.
Not that we don't like the saddle just fine. Triumph scored well in the stock seat department, making friends with the huge variety of bums at our office. The pillion version of the accessory gel seat is a must though, since the standard passenger seating is not quite there, though it's wider and more well padded than most stock cruisers' backseat accommodations. Another functional downfall of many modern cruisers is the instrumentation placement, so we appreciate how the Rocket's speedo and tach cluster is mounted high on the bar right below the rider's line of sight. Gauges are exceedingly easy to read and all handlebar switches are standard issue. The round mirrors wouldn't be our first choice since they significantly limit sight area; we'd opt for a rectangular style instead. A high-frequency vibration, which kicks in at 3000 rpm, fuzzes the mirrors, but quickly moves from the handlebar to the tank and seat at about 3300 rpm. It's very subtle, however, and once you're above 3500 rpm you're going so fast your ass will be tingling anyway.
We know styling is subjective, but it's impossible not to loiter on the subject of the Rocket's motif. Everything about this bike screams uniqueness-even eccentricity -and we absolutely love it...even if we don't like it. This bike is not a black T-shirt. Not a boob job. Not another classically styled V-twin cruiser. Hallelujah.
From a distance the Rocket is like a cartoon come to life. It's impossible to ignore the bike's smackdown stature, humongous engine and, yes, the absurdly good-looking 240-series Metzeler rear tire. If you're looking at the right side, your eye is drawn to the trio of header pipes exiting the longitudinally mounted triple. From the left, it's that giant chrome-finish auxiliary airbox cover that garners attention. (The main box and filter is actually under the rider's seat, where channels draw in air and elaborate ducts feed it to the throttle bodies.)
It's not until you move closer that the many artsy details become evident. Check the side cuts on the shiny radiator shroud for example, and how that line is echoed in the sexy shape of the front turn-signal stems. We like the flashy fender tip, though only a few favor the crazy beak-like horn cover under the sporty dual headlights. The wheels are gorgeous on this bike, just right for the meaty tires and full fenders. The stanchion wings are another sweet addition, and we like the way the engine guard bars are as functional as they are aesthetically pleasing. Note the footpegs and shift/brake mechanisms are mounted to these bars, which feature nice detailing to hide the linkage. Of course there was no other place to mount these accommodations, since the twin-spine frame uses the engine as an integrally stressed member with no cradle tubes. We consistently yawned over two elements: the look of the rear taillight, which is efficient, but seems unimaginative, and the same-ol' mufflers on this bike. Triumph does sell silencer caps for its exhaust system, which is unusual in the sense that the bike features a single pipe on one side and dual pipes on the other. We're thinking three upswepts on one side could look pretty wicked, eh?
On the street, the Rocket commands plenty of attention. It doesn't matter if the person is riding a Harley, driving a Bentley or pushing a shopping cart, they all want to know more about it. Because of its mass, the bike is not the most efficient mount for urban commuting, and you'll find yourself suffering pangs of longing for an open lane and plenty of runoff. Hit the highway, and this bike is truly in its element. To set it up for touring is a piece of cake. It's already got the 6.6-gallon fuel tank, which affords an average 226 miles per fill up. The low-fuel light comes on very prematurely -between 105 and 120 miles-which renders it pretty much useless as the rider learns to ignore it as a functioning cue.
Needless to say, we're wildly impressed with the Rocket III. No one who's ridden the bike can deny it's a ton-o'-fun. It's one thing to build a bigger cruiser, but quite another to build a better cruiser. It's even more valuable perhaps, when you consider that this bike is no slave to style. If you're ready to break away from the herd, here's your chance. Now that Honda's Valkyrie is sadly missing from the new bike market, the Rocket III is an especially welcome alternative. Certainly it's a pricey one at $15,999. That might be $1000 less than Harley's V-Rod and a full $10K below sticker on the exclusive Honda Rune (expected to return for 2005), but it's nearly $1500 more than Kawasaki's V2K, $2500 more than base on a Honda VTX1800N, and-no kidding-$5000-plus more than you'd spend on a same-thrills Yamaha V-Max.
It's a lot to think about, isn't it? Look for a comparison of these crazy-fast muscle cruisers in the very near future...a little shuffling of the wild cards. If your checkbook is poised however, and you've been waiting all year for a Rocket III, there's certainly no need to postpone blastoff. Ten, nine, eight...the bike is more fun than you've imagined. Too much fun, to be exact.
What's In A Name?
Ironically the Rocket Three designation was first applied to the BSA A-75 variant of the Triumph designed T150 Trident.
In 1963, when the three-cylinder design was conceived, BSA was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world, and the parent company of Triumph. The companies were run as separate entities and as such free to design and build their own models. Initially management opposed the three-cylinder concept. General Manager Edward Turner, never a man to mince words, described it as "potty." However, by 1964 Turner was gone, and rumors that Honda planned to release a 4-cylinder model had been confirmed. The group knew they needed something to counter the threat and Doug Hele, Triumph's luminary development engineer, who'd penned the three cylinder design while "fooling around one night after everyone had gone home" was given the go-ahead to dust off his drawings.
Hele chose the three cylinder design because he felt it would be smoother, more powerful and more reliable than the British twins that were then the most popular motorcycles in the world. By 1965 the prototype triple was up and running. With its three cylinders arranged transversely the triple produced 58 horsepower at 7250 rpm, an outstanding figure for the day.
The new bike, arguably the first SuperBike, although no one had yet come up with that term, employed much existing architecture, which should have minimized the time it took to take the new bike from drawing board to showroom. For a variety of reasons it didn't, and the use of dated technology had serious repercussions when the bike finally did hit the sales floor in September of 1968. Fast it was, and decent handling, but it came with drum brakes, a four-speed gearbox and no electric starter. Additionally, it still used pushrods to open its valves rather than the expected overhead cams. The slab-sided styling which had been contracted out to the OGLE Design house also left something to be desired, especially the "Ray Gun" mufflers. Customers stayed away in droves.
Compounding the problem was the fact that the BSA group, understandably wanting their version of the bike to have its own identity insisted on a number of changes to the original design. Where the Trident frames had a single down tube, the Rocket Three used a duplex frame design. The Rocket engine was also inclined in the frame, as opposed to the Trident, which carried its engine vertically. This necessitated the use of different engine castings, and a separate assembly line. The changes added substantially to the cost of the bikes, putting them out of reach of all but the wealthiest enthusiasts.
One month after the release of the stillborn Trident/Rocket Three lineup the other shoe dropped. In October of 1968, Honda released its overhead cam, CB750/4, complete with 5-speed gearbox, front disc brake and electric start, fundamentally changing motorcycling forever. Over the next few years the Trident/Rocket Three underwent a series of redesigns, eventually becoming what it should have been from the start. For BSA, though, it was too little, too late. Although the Trident version would stay in production until 1975, eventually selling 45,000 units, BSA would be belly up by 1972, having sold just 7000 Rocket Threes. -Mark Zimmerman
2005 Triumph Rocket III
Designation: Rocket III
Suggested base price: $15,999
Standard colors: Black, red
Standard warranty: 24 months, unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 10,000 miles
Engine & Drive Train
Type: Liquid-cooled, inline longitudinal triple
Valve arrangement: DOHC, two intake, two exhaust valves per cylinder
Displacement, bore x stroke: 2294cc, 101.6 x 94.3mm
Compression ratio: 8.7:1
Carburetion: EFI, three 56mm throttle bodies
Minimum fuel grade: 89 octane
Transmission: Wet, multi-plate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Shaft
Wheels: Cast alloy, five spoke, 17 x 3.5 front, 16 x 7.5 rear
Front tire: 150/80R-17 Metzeler ME880 tubeless radial
Rear tire: 240/50R-16 Metzeler ME880 tubeless radial
Front suspension: 43mm stanchions, inverted; 4.7 in. travel
Rear suspension: Two dampers, adjustable for preload, 4.1 in. travel
Front brake: Two four-piston calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: Two-piston caliper, 316mm disc
Fuel capacity: 6.6 gal.
Handlebar width: 37.8 in.
Electrical & Instrumentation
Battery: 12v, 18AH
Forward lighting: Dual, 5.2-inch headlights
Taillight: Single-bulb taillight, license light
Instruments: Mechanical speed, tachometer, LCD odometer/dual tripmeters, lights for low fuel, high beam, turn signals, neutral, oil pressure
Fuel mileage: 33.1-35.3 mpg; 33.9-mpg average
Average range: 226 miles
60-80 top-gear acceleration: 3.28 sec.
Quarter-mile acceleration: 11.55 sec @ 118 mph
It doesn't look very inviting, but the pillion setup on the Triumph is actually a cut above its large-displacement cruiser competitors. Really, it's the peg placement that makes a difference; instead of an uncomfortable gyno-position for your legs, the Triumph lets your feet rest low and forward enough to feel natural. The seat is wide, though very hard and in need of replacement. An easy fix, however, compared to most arrangements, which require relocation of the pegs or floorboards to be truly inviting. -Jamie Elvidge