Stories of Motorcycle Design:

The Bonneville TT

I designed it as a replacement for the 1972 Bonneville. It became a triple instead.

I had always considered the Triumph Bonneville to be the most handsome motorcycle ever made. But something awful happend to it in1971 and I was asked to bring it back to its former glory.

This is that story.

Can you see what happened?
1972 Bonneville
1968-70 Bonneville

Over the years, the Triumph Bonneville had evolved into a very handsome machine indeed.  Look at how the parts worked together. It was a motorcycle made "The English way."

Stainless steel fenders were supported by the curious but very British black fender stays.  Headlights were beautiful teardrops. English engines were air cooled with big fins and sweeping exhaust pipes.

The Triumph Bonneville of 1968-70 represented the high point in British motorcycle design.

We were expecting the 1971 Bonneville to have 750cc with a 5 speed gearbox shifting on the left side. Surely it would have disc brakes.  Maybe an electric starter?


What we got instead was a new frame that raised the seat 3” making it virtually impossible for anyone less than 6 feet tall to hold it up.  

Gone were the traditional English fenders, the mufflers, and side covers. The designers of the new Bonneville had abandoned their English heritage. It was as if they wanted it to be more Japanese-like.

There were problems regarding reliability too and American riders stayed away.

The famous Bonneville had been redesigned and its classic British qualities were lost. 

American Desert racer, Al Rogers at his induction into the TrailBlazers Hall of Fame, 2009, summed it up saying:

"The 1971 oil-in-frame never did feel right"

How could this have happened?

I was asked to return its good looks but at the same time, take it into the future. This is the story of my attempt in 1972 to salvage what was left of the classic Triumph Bonneville.

I called it the Bonneville TT

We must begin with a little history 

The Triumph Engineering Company was begun in England in1936 by motorcyclists with a passion to build great motorcycles.

Edward Turner was the flamboyant design-engineer responsible for the 500cc (30 cu in) Speed Twin of 1937 which is considered to be the father of the Bonneville. Jack Wickes, known as Turner’s “Pencil”, was the company’s chief designer. Besides designing the motorcycles, Jack is credited with designing the famous Triumph logo:

It didn’t hurt their image when Bob Dylan wore a Triumph T-shirt on his 1965 album.

1940 Speed Twin Ad

Anthony Wickes, Jack Wickes' and his family, along with Edward Turner's daughters were all at the 50th Anniversary of the Bonneville in England in the summer of 2009.
Don Brown, the man behind the Hurricane project, later told me of a conversation he had with Edward Turner at E.T.'s (Apparently, friends called him E.T) favorite restaurant in the UK, after dinner, over a brandy. When Don asked him what his philosophy of design was, E.T. responded with these few words:

"I like to keep it slender and light of weight actually and in appearance as well. Also I try very hard to keep everything in balance and with symmetry."

His philosophy worked because, by the mid1960s, the Bonneville was considered to be the finest motorcycle in the world.

By the late 1960s, Triumph had become part of Birmingham Small Arms, a conglomerate of various manufacturers (including BSA motorcycles).   The original founding “motorcyclist / engineers” of Triumph were beginning to retire and be replaced by generic "professional" businessmen, engineers and accountants, most of whom did not ride at all. These new leaders assumed responsibility for perpetuating the legendary motorcycle mark.

Unfortunately, oil did not flow in their veins. Money did.  The new guard spent more money than they had. So they got the British government to bail them out.

Umberslade Hall

Flush with government funding, in 1968, they secured an old country mansion called Umberslade Hall as a place for creativity. Hundreds of new, government supported positions quickly filled the Hall. They wanted "product".  And they got product... from product designers.  Jack Wickes could only watch as his beautiful Bonneville lost its identity.

Meanwhile in the USA...
The new, 1971 Bonneville was not well received. Jack Redmond, newly appointed Market Product Planning Director of Triumph was aware of my previous involvement in redesigning the BSA Rocket 3. In November, 1971, Jack called to discuss redesigning the "just redesigned" 1971 Bonneville. 

“Instead of having big demand for them”, he said “Dealers are having to sell the new Bonnevilles ”

Triumph was in trouble.

When Jack called, I was finishing my new fairing, the Windjammer
Jack was worried and suggested a number of solutions.  The one he seemed to have most confidence in was the chopper conversion being made in LA. Apparently, Triumph of Burbank was selling as many of these monstrosities as they could convert. I think Jack was hoping I would be inspired.
High frame Bonnevilles converted by Triumph of Burbank
I had other plans.  In America, Triumph had been made famous by Gene Romero on his TT Flat tracker:
This contemporary painting by Tom Fritz called "Knowin' What's What" captures the feeling of the era.

I would use the American TT bike for inspiration

1970: Romero Triumph TT 1972: Vetter Triumph Bonneville TT

Gene Romero won the AMA Grand National Championship in 1970 riding a Triumph Bonneville. Triumph never looked better to Americans than when ridden by Gene Romero. I would redesign the Bonneville, closely associating it with Gene's TT racer.

It would be a TT bike for the street.

Vetter Sketch of 1971

You can see in this sketch of December, 1971, a few days after Jack called, that I had already decided to incorporate the splayed air filters that were so dominant on Gene's TT bike. I thought they were really cool.

You might find it interesting that this is about the best I can do in the way of drawing. Really, it is only a sketch. But from it, I could visualize what I would make. I have come to know many of the famous designers of our era and it turns out that most cannot do "quick sketches." Quick sketches are all I can do.
I think quick sketches like these exhibit more "life and spirit" than more polished drawings.

For example, Ogle was a famous product design firm in England of the period that was responsible for the first design of Trident and Rocket 3. This is one of their sketches:

Ogle sketch of 1960s

I could never produce such a finished sketch. For one reason, I don't have the talent. But I wouldn't want to, either. Can you see the difference in feeling? The Ogle refined sketch is quiet and still. My quick sketch is alive and flashy. What do you want in your motorcycle?

I sketch just enough to know what to do. Then I go to my shop and make it for real. The next chapter: Making it Real.
Posted March 15, 2009

updated Oct 7, 11

Chapter 1: Origins of the Vetter Bonneville TT
Chapter 2: Making it Real
Chapter 3: The Bonneville TT in England 2009