When The 2002 Triumph Bonneville America Invaded The US

England invaded the U.S. with a custom-styled cruiser that isn't v-twin powered

2002 Triumph Bonneville America.
England invaded the U.S. with a custom-styled cruiser that isn't v-twin powered.Kyoichi Nakamura

This article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

You don’t exactly think “cruiser” when you think “Triumph Bonneville.” The retro-styled Bonnie, which debuted to such fanfare last spring and has become a bona fide sales hit for Triumph, is more of a sporty entry-level bike than a cruiser. Up until now, “cruiser” in Triumph-speak meant “Adventurer,” a funky-looking triple that even the Triumph folks agree was a weak attempt—though it did fit the modular scheme that helped John Bloor’s resurrected company go from zero to hero in just a decade.

All of which makes the sudden appearance of Triumph’s new-for-2002 Bonneville America such a surprise.

“It was apparent to us,” says Triumph America CEO Mike Vaughan, “that with cruisers being more than 50 percent of the U.S. market, we needed to do something there. We pretty much had all the street categories covered. We had the Adventurer, but it wasn’t doing the job.”

Triumph is betting the new Bonnie America will do the job, and not only because it was styled to appeal primarily to American cruiser customers. In fact, although the bike’s actual shaping was done by Triumph stylists in the U.K., the look those designers came up with was developed and tested here in the U.S. through exhaustive market research and a series of styling-oriented focus groups attended by actual cruiser owners.

The Bonneville America project, known within Triumph as 908MK (the standard Bonnie used the 908MD designation), officially began in October 1998, roughly a year after the standard Bonnie project had begun.

“Once the decision was made to move ahead with the MK,” Vaughan says, “we took an even closer look at the U.S. cruiser market. Some said, ‘It’s gotta be a V-twin,’ and from a pure numbers point of view that made sense. But most of us—myself included—felt strongly that it should be a Triumph [and] should reflect our heritage. The [Bonnie’s] vertical-twin was available, as we were pretty well along with the Bonnie project at the time, so we tested the concept in focus groups and found that a cruiser with a vertical-twin engine was perfectly acceptable—if it was styled right, that is.”

2002 Triumph Bonneville America
Views of the powerplant of the 2002 Triumph Bonneville America.Kyoichi Nakamura

Utilizing the Bonneville engine would be important, for the dividends its use would yield were substantial: It would give the new cruiser the “Triumph-ness” it needed, radically cut development time and save literally millions of dollars in the process. The engine wouldn’t remain in standard Bonneville-spec, however; a 270-degree crankshaft (like that on Yamaha’s European- and Japanese-market TRX850 sport-twin) was developed for thumpier engine character, while slightly shorter internal gearing and revised cam timing were integrated for more responsive low-end and midrange punch. There were aesthetic changes too; larger and more convex engine covers were engineered to give the motor a touch more physical burliness.

To house this revised engine, Triumph developed a new twin-loop steel frame, incorporating a rangier 66.2-inch wheelbase, a nonadjustable 41mm fork (raked out at a 33.3-degree angle and offering a massive 6.1 inches of trail) and a long, steel swingarm. The objective here, of course, was a combination of custom styling and ergonomics; the low, 28.8-inch seat height, forward-mount footpegs and high-rise handlebar all reflect that, as do the laydown shocks with their chromed springs, adjustable for spring-preload only. The single front disc and its 285mm rear counterpart are both gripped by Nissin calipers, which are enough to stop a bike weighing 226 kilograms dry—or 497 pounds in the language of the customer it was designed for.

So how does it work? In a word—superbly. Jump aboard and you notice that the wide handlebar is both practical and comfy. The low seat and far-forward (maybe too far-forward) footrests complete the stance. The view from the bridge is dominated by the beautifully designed “clock”—for once an appropriate term to describe the speedo, which looks like a fine nautical instrument. An also-beautiful chromed dash panel sits atop the 4.4-gallon fuel tank, while the turn signals are underslung from the handlebar.

The offbeat engine note conveys a quite different character than the standard Bonnie, though there is a bit more mechanical whirring and whizzing thanks to the engine’s 270-degree crank throw. But slip into first gear on the sweet-shifting five-speed transmission and let out the light-action clutch, and the smooth take-up and torquey engine response will have you convinced this is an easy rider, English-style. Throttle response is so smooth and precise you’ll have a tough time convincing yourself this isn’t a fuel-injected bike (which it isn’t), and the chain final drive feels as smooth as a shaft; there’s not a bit of transmission snatch.

The America’s engine delivers a loping, laid-back feel on the highway. This is a midrange-biased motor, which encourages short-shifting and frowns on frantic revving. Carburetion is spot-on, and the bike will pull away in top gear without a hiccup. Between 30 and 50 mph in fifth gear, the America is in its element—and your passenger will be too. At speeds below 80-ish mph the America offers excellent ergos thanks to the tank’s narrow rear section, which allows the rider’s knees to tuck in and not hang out in the breeze like on some chubby-in-the-middle cruisers.

The America handles better than most of its rivals, too, due to excellent compliance from the softly sprung fork and twin-shock rear end. In addition, remarkable (for a cruiser, at least) angles of lean are possible before the hero tabs on the flip-up footrests touch down. The bike goes where it’s pointed posthaste thanks to linear steering characteristics, though we’d like maybe a bit more bite from the single disc front brake. Overall, the Bonnie is one of those bikes that doesn’t really do anything wrong functionally. It feels substantial, solid and plenty competent compared to the Japanese middleweight cruisers it’s targeted against pricewise.

Triumph is upbeat about the America’s chances, especially in the United States. “We really did try to make it as un-Harley-like as we could,” Vaughan says, “and also have some connection to Triumph and its heritage. Our challenge was to make the bike fit the current genre [feet-forward ergos, low seat, custom styling], yet still have it be distinctive, be recognizable as a Triumph. For the guy or gal who doesn’t want to march in that V-twin parade, we’ve got ’em covered. It’s got credibility and a good look, and yet it doesn’t look like everything else in the parking lot. There’s plenty of motor, and we’ll offer a pile of accessories—more than we’ve ever done for a bike—when the America becomes available this fall and winter.”

After riding the America, and following its development process from first sketch to final production, we’re pretty upbeat as well. The Bonnie America is not only unique and handsomely styled, it also packs excellent performance and, at just $7999, is reasonably priced.

Pretty good for a bike nobody expected.