Hitting the sweet spot

Hitting the sweet spot is one of the few clichés with which I can really empathize. It’s that special moment when you know that God is in heaven and that things have gone right – not just well, or good, but absolutely right.

The expression comes from tennis and describes the moment when the racket hits the ball in just the perfect place and the player places the shot exactly where they want it to be. You might not agree with lobbing to the baseline or net but, as the point is won, you do have to stand back in admiration and agree that it was done flawlessly.

Triumph has hit the same sort of sweet spot in terms of making a motorcycle that is definitively perfect for its intended market place. As a Superbike rider, you might think the Street Twin is grossly underpowered – but you would be wrong to think of it as dull.

The 2016 Triumph Street Twin is one seriously handsome motorcycle.

If you are custom cruiser fan, you could say that the Bonnie is a bit of a plain Jane. Clearly it isn’t a real classic bike – as witnessed by the fact that none of the test bikes broke down and there were no pools of oil under them when we stopped for lunch either!

However, the 2016 Triumph Street Twin is a very clever motorcycle that pulls off a rather smart trick. First, it is an authentic classic – but with all the benefits of 21st century engineering.

It’s also retro-chic in the manner of those blokes you see on the ads who have forgotten how to shave and seem to be looking permanently into the distance, trying to find the man bag they left on the designer park bench when they were having a skinny latte with their supermodel girlfriend. It will also be the bike that launches a zillion custom bikes in the next twelve months because it is crying out to be modified.

So, what is the Street Twin and why is it so important to Triumph?

First, it is vastly Triumph’s biggest ever engineering project and has cost an immense amount of money. The bikes have also consumed a colossal amount of engineering time and effort, and this is very demanding for a company of Triumph’s size. The Bonneville range has been four years in gestation and has taken the full-time efforts of 50 engineers in the design team alone. Add to this the production engineers and the staff designing the 150 accessories that go with the bike and it becomes readily apparent that this was a motorcycle Triumph had to get right: being merely very good wasn’t going to be an option.

The Street Twin ($8,700) is the first bike in what will be the all new Bonneville family. It is the smallest capacity machine in the five bike lineup, but it is wrong to think of the Street Twin as an entry-level machine – a baby Bonneville for those who can’t afford the real thing. It definitely isn’t!

One of the problems with the project is that the old T100 has been such an immense success for Triumph, selling more than 141,000 units. I have never much liked it, wanting something edgier from my motorcycling, but T100 owners worship the bike – as do Triumph dealers.

So, the first target was twofold and challenging. The new bike has to keep existing Bonneville owners in the fold, while simultaneously giving them enough reasons to want to upgrade to the latest offering.

The other problem is almost counterintuitive. The Bonneville name goes all the way back to 1958 – arguably, in fact, to Mike Hailwood and Dan Shorey’s win in the Thruxton 500 long distance race of June that year. On the way, it was a Bonnie that did the first 100 mph lap of the TT by a road legal production bike and became Steve McQueen’s favorite sportbike. You simply can’t mention Bonneville without an avalanche of history tumbling down around you.

All this meant that there was a lot of pressure on the design team to make a motorcycle that was honest – not just a plastic imitation of the great-grandchild of the original Bonnie, like some fake, faded T-shirt with artificial sweat stains, but a real, authentic, genuine item.

Clearly, the bike had to be a Parallel Twin. You could hardly have a four-cylinder Bonnie; otherwise, classic wrinklies like me would have marched over to Hinckley and burnt the factory down. Equally clearly, the engine needed to be compliant with all current and predicted emissions regulations. Triumph’s solution to all these demands really is a lovely thing.

First, the new motor looks drop-dead gorgeous. It’s not a 1958 Bonnie, but any proud grandparent would look at the widely splayed exhaust ports, with their finned clamps, and the motor’s handsome angular lines and beam with pride. “Oh yes,” they would coo, “that’s my lovely little lad, and doesn’t he look just like his grandad?” Which, of course, is completely and wholly true, because he does.

However, beneath the family good looks lies a very modern engine. The key thing is that the new motor is partially water-cooled. This is essential so the engine can be built to very tight tolerances to meet the regulators’ demands. However, it is also genuinely air-cooled as well, so the radiator can be small and unobtrusive.

With 900cc in the toy box, there was no need to tune the engine to the ragged edge. Rather, Triumph could go for a single, overhead cam design but with a unique form of eccentric cam to open the eight valves. The end result is only 55 horsepower at 5,900 rpm, but don’t let this lead you astray. It’s a very torquey motor, making 59 lb-ft of torque at a mere 3,230 rpm, so in real-world riding there is plenty of practical, usable power.

Using a SOHC design also makes the engine short – if you wanted to play fantasy engine building, you could almost pretend that it is a classic push-rod motor – and this allows the fuel tank to be low in the chassis, making the bike feel lighter than its already svelte 437 pound (198 kg) dry weight. Mass centralization is just as important for a retro bike as it is for a MotoGP machine, and the bike really does feel very manageable.

The clever part is that the bits you don't need to see are tucked away. Take the dreaded catalyzer as one example. Unless you are a journalist poking around on a launch, you will never find the cat, it is hidden so well beneath the engine.

However, you will see the lovely, brushed stainless twin exhausts. They look and sound absolutely gorgeous, emitting a throaty rumble that would grace any 1960s sporting Twin. Yet, the exhausts are completely legal because of the way that exhaust noise levels are now measured, with the bike being tested under acceleration. Done this way, the torquey low-revving Triumph can get away with making the sort of tenor music it should produce, rather than being choked down to some sibilant rustling.

Triumph proudly revealed its Vance & Hines scrambler exhaust option to the world press, and we were supposed to stand back in awe and admiration. Well, I didn’t for sure. Instead of the authentic and delightful classic snarl the Street Twin makes as standard, there is a deafening, not to say discordant, racket that is 101% certain to alienate the general public.

Putting exhausts like this on a road bike is a pointless exercise undertaken only by those who look at themselves in the morning and wonder: “Is that all I’ve got to offer the world? I can’t ride to an even half-decent level, so I’ll just annoy everyone by making the most possible noise for the least valid reason.” Why Triumph is officially supporting the alienation of the non-motorcycling population is a complete mystery to me.

This being 2015, the bike must have fuel injection and Triumph has absolutely nailed this with perfect fueling from tickover all the way to when the rev limiter kicks in at 7,000 rpm.

The 84.6 x 80mm bore and stroke suits the engine perfectly. The cam profile, which Triumph spent an inordinate amount of time developing, is right on the money for its intended purpose.

The nasty, tooth-loosening vibes of the good old days – and they really were bad – have been designed out by using a 270-degree firing configuration and twin counter balancers. This is conventional, modern engineering.

But here’s where the plot gets really interesting. Triumph has done much better than just ordinary, sound engineering. The motor does vibrate – but from the firing impulses. You can actually feel the bangs, albeit discreetly and in the background. They are a joy for anyone who really does believe in the two-wheeled horse and wants to feel its heart beating. I loved feeling the motor talking to me.

In real-world situations the power is ideal for its intended purpose, with plenty of surge right from the moment the throttle is opened. The clutch is sweet and light too, with no grabbiness, and the gearbox is positive with five ideally spaced ratios. In fact, the whole package is so user friendly that you could teach a new rider the first stages in the art of motorcycling.

Like the powerplant, the chassis is much cleverer than it looks. It’s a steel, twin shock design, but with bracing tubes in front and behind the engine. This gives a taut, tight, modern feel that is very comfortable for another market sector Triumph is trying to attract – the sport rider tired of battling with 175 hp and the constant danger of having his license suspended.

The front forks are excellent, but if I owned a Street Twin the first change I would make is to put some quality aftermarket rear shocks on the bike because the standard Kayabas are only OK, nothing more.

The front brake looks incredibly modest with a single, 310mm disc gripped by a Nissin two-piston floating caliper with ABS. Regardless of how it looks on paper, this is a seriously good anchor and you will never need more power – no matter if the Street Twin is fully loaded and carrying luggage. The rear brake sort of works, and is clearly there for legal reasons, but it isn’t much more than of decorative value.

The ergonomics of the bike are excellent – absolutely first class. The seat height is low, and completely unintimidating, but the thin saddle is very comfortable – surprisingly so. Julia LaPalme, one of my fellow journalists, was kind enough to give me some key female data – because this is another market sector Triumph is anxious to reach. Julia is 5’5” tall and has a 30-inch inseam. She could place both feet on the ground without a problem. I am five inches taller and there was still plenty of room for me, plus spare room to stretch back. Anyone up to six feet and a bit will be fine. Overall, it is a seriously thoughtful piece of design and shows the care Triumph has taken over this project.

Within a few yards of setting off, you can’t help but like the Street Twin. It’s eager to please right from the off and the bike is immediately involving. Other than lacking a tail to wag, it reminds me of my much lamented Collie bitch waiting by the back door when we were about to go for a walk.

There is a single, imitation analogue speedometer – it’s really electronic – and discreetly hidden in there is information about average fuel consumption, current fuel consumption and miles to empty. However, this is not a bike to be ridden by playing about with electronic options. A Street Twin is more to be felt, rather than commanded with a PlayStation controller.

The reality is the bike must, absolutely must, be ridden in the lovely area between 3,000 and 6,000 rpm. Below 2,500 rpm the motor is asking for a few more revs to be comfortable, and if it is buzzed hard it starts to get all grumbly and irritable. The Street Twin will manage nearly 50 mph in first gear, so it is hardly an arthritic slug, but the motor doesn’t like these revs.

At the other end of the scale, one of the Triumph test riders told me that the Street Twin would run up to 110 mph – but both he and the bike didn’t like to be there. We ambled along at 80 mph on the Spanish four-lane highways, and the world was a wonderful place to be. Effortless, involving and graceful – a true gentleman’s carriage.

The Street Twin is ludicrously light on fuel. Ridden very hard, as we did in the morning test session, the bike returned 55 mpg. In the afternoon, riding the bike as it will be used, 70 mpg was showing on the computer all the time.

For some reason I don’t fully understand, Triumph took us into the hills for some seriously spirited riding. I can report with complete honesty that if you want to ride the Street Twin like Malcolm Uphill’s 1969 Production TT-winning Bonneville, then the bike is up to the job – as the wear on my toe sliders will verify.

I rode in second gear, using the engine as a rear wheel brake, and I had a great time. But I had even more fun riding back to the hotel at a far gentler pace. With the big Twin burbling along at 3,500 rpm (or so my bum-mounted rev counter reported back to me) in third and fourth gear, the Street Twin was a lovely place to be and a wonderful reminder of why I am a motorcyclist and will be until my dying day.

In conclusion, Triumph has done a quite remarkable job with the Street Twin and have set the benchmark for this sector. It is now up to every other manufacturer to play to catch-up. And for those naughty, recidivist, classic racers like me, there is more to come from the Bonneville range with the launch of the Street Twin’s big brothers in the spring. These are good times to be a motorcyclist.

2016 Triumph Street Twin Specs

  • Engine: 900cc liquid-cooled Parallel Twin, eight-valve, SOHC with 270° crank angle
  • Bore x Stroke: 84.6 x 80mm
  • Compression Ratio: 10.55:1
  • Maximum Power: 55 horsepower @ 5,900 rpm
  • Maximum Torque: 59 lb-ft @ 3,230 rpm
  • Fueling: Multipoint sequential electronic fuel injection
  • Exhaust: Brushed two-into-two exhaust system with twin brushed silencers
  • Final Drive: O-ring chain
  • Clutch: Wet, multi-plate assist clutch
  • Transmission: Five-speed
  • Frame: Tubular steel cradle
  • Swingarm: Twin-sided, tubular steel
  • Front Suspension: Kayaba 41mm forks, 4.7 inches travel
  • Rear Suspension: Kayaba twin shocks with adjustable preload, 4.7 inches travel
  • Front Wheel: Cast aluminum alloy, multi-spoke 18 x 2.75 inches
  • Rear Wheel: Cast aluminum alloy, multi-spoke 17 x 4.25 inches
  • Front Tire: 100/90-18
  • Rear Tire: 150/70 R17
  • Front Brake: Single 310mm disc, Nissin two-piston floating caliper, ABS
  • Rear Brake: Single 255mm disc, Nissin two-piston floating caliper, ABS
  • Seat Height: 29.5 inch
  • Wheelbase: 56.7 inch
  • Rake/Trail: 25.1°/4 inch
  • Dry Weight: 437 pounds (claimed)
  • Fuel Capacity: 3.2 gallons
  • Emissions: Euro4 Standard
  • Standard Equipment: ABS, Traction Control, Ride-by-Wire, Immobilizer, USB Socket, LED rear light
  • MSRP: $8,700 (Jet Black) $8,950 (Phantom Black, Matte Black, Aluminium Silver, Cranberry Red)

The Men Behind the 2016 Triumph Street Twin

It’s rare to be given access to the key players at a new bike launch, and even then, the circumstances are invariably contrived, with some PR hitman standing guard in case there is an unauthorized comment.

Triumph is different. I sat down with Miles Perkins, head of Brand Management for the Bonneville range, and Stuart Wood, Triumph’s chief engineer, for 45 minutes of truly entertaining gossip about the new Street Twin – most of it on the record and some bits not. Here are just a few of the highlights.

Miles Perkins: I had been doing marketing work for Triumph through my previous employers, and Triumph asked me to come and look at a prototype model of a new bike. It was the Bonneville, and I thought wow! I’ve got to have one.

Then I thought wow again – I really want that bike now – like today.

The third thought was how to get a job with Triumph to sell this bike. I just had to get this job.

Then I had another thought, and this was the hardest: How do I get my wife to move from London to Hinckley?

Stuart Wood: If there were any envelopes left to doodle on, I suppose we began looking at the idea of a new Bonneville about four years ago – but it was much looser than this. We’re always looking at ways to improve all the bikes we make, but everyone knew that the Bonneville was going to be a big project.

About three and a half years ago, we started to get things more or less pointing in the right direction, but it’s important to say that no big project just begins at 9 a.m. on such a day – it doesn’t work like this. It’s much more fluid at the start.

At about three-and-a-bit years, we had a fairly clear idea of the bike. You have to remember that you can’t have one team designing the engine and then turn round to the chassis team and say, “Go on, make it fit.”

Everyone has to work together in a very integrated way. The team leaders bought into the project 100% right from the start.

The Bonneville was particularly challenging because we were designing five very individual bikes simultaneously.

Again, it’s a very, very loose figure, but I guess we had around 50 engineers working on the project full-time.

Finally, the Bonneville carries a huge amount of weight at Triumph so there was this added pressure. I always tell my young engineers to have aspiration. Engineering is not about compromise but optimization. More than anything else, the Bonneville had to be absolutely brilliant engineering.

Miles Perkins: Engineers are never satisfied, but when I started working on the project two-and-a-half years ago, I just loved how clever the bike is. If you live with it day in and day out, you get to know the attention to detail and it’s fantastic.

Stuart Wood: The aesthetics are key to this motorcycle, so we spent a lot of time and effort making sure that the things you needed to see you could see and the things you didn’t need to see were out of the way.

(Stuart bounces up – he never gets up any other way – and jabs at the Bonneville’s radiator.)

See that radiator? Have you any idea how many different solutions there were as to where to put the radiator? But it had to go there, where it’s not so much out of sight but out of mind. You could almost think it’s an oil cooler it’s so neat.

No one was satisfied until that radiator was absolutely right – no compromise on anything, aesthetics or engineering.

Mikes Perkins: For me, the attraction was just how big a job this was and could be. We weren’t just selling a bike but a whole lifestyle. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t got the job.

Stuart Wood: A key thread was honesty with the bike. It had to be what it was, not some imitation, and we weren’t going to compromise. Look at those cylinder head bolts.

(Stuart tends to hover several feet in the air when he gets excited, but it was easy to see the two external bolts he was referring to.)

You’ll recognize them from the first Bonnie. Look at that lovely vertical finning. Doesn’t it look great?

(I agree that it does).

You know, to get those two M10 bolts to work in terms of aesthetics and engineering we had to redesign the whole cam cover – and no one would ever know. You see what you need to see so that you can appreciate and enjoy – and what you don’t need to see goes into the background.

That’s why I am so proud of the Bonneville. It’s not my bike or Miles’ because it has been a huge, totally committed effort from every single person involved, and so yes, I look at the bike and I am very proud of what we have achieved.