It may seem like the Triumph Bonneville has been around forever, but every legend has to start somewhere. In Triumph’s case, the year was 1958. Triumphs were already incredibly popular in America in the 50s, but what Americans wanted was more power—not new styling, or the Tigress scooter that Triumph head Edward Turner wanted everyone to want.
So, Meriden took a Tiger T110 and tweaked it. The engineers added a stronger, forged one-piece crankshaft, bolt-on flywheel, splayed-port cylinder head, and Amal twin carburetors. At the time, Triumph testing showed that these improvements cranked out 48.8 horsepower. As moto historian Ian Falloon wrote in The Complete Book of Classic and Modern Triumph Motorcycles, 1937 To Today, Turner truly thought producing this bike would bankrupt Triumph—but under immense pressure, he released it anyway as a 1959 model.
In hindsight, of course, we know how this story eventually turned out. All you have to do is walk into any modern Triumph dealer to see that Turner was clearly not correct about the doomed nature of the Bonneville project. It’s a good reminder that indeed, no one knows what they’re doing all the time.
Gallery: 1959 Triumph T120 Bonneville
The 1959 T120 Bonneville initially only came in one colorway: Tangerine Orange and Gray. It wasn’t quite as unpopular as Turner had feared the entire bike would be, but at the time, early bikes that sold did so in spite of that color choice. In fact, plenty of 1959 models in this colorway sat at dealers and were resold as 1960 models, simply because riders at the time hated that paint. Triumph introduced a Royal Blue colorway before the model year was over, and rolled that one into 1960, and it went over much better with the public.
In 2021, of course, those once-hated 1959 T120 Bonnevilles in Tangerine Orange are now extremely collectible, because that’s how the world works. This particular bike has a matching numbers engine, numbered 0244650. It’s been in a museum for several years, and has been completely restored in a period-correct manner. It’s a star bike in the upcoming Mecum Las Vegas 2021 auction, which goes from April 28 through May 1. If you’re interested, this rare and desirable machine is lot number R236.