Triumph Bonneville Bobber Black (2020) – Road Test

It’s easy to make assumptions about the Bonneville Bobber Black, based on its appearance. All blacked out, with a reduction in horsepower, is it more than a show-piece for bearded hipsters with their hair in top-knots? Uzair Abdul-Karrim rode one to figure it out. Pictures by Uzair and Triumph.

Idris Elba, Henry Cavill, Jessica Chastain, Lorna Maseko and Queen Rania of Jordan can probably empathise with the Bobber Black’s disposition. To be taken seriously when you’re good looking can be a challenge, and it’s a heavier burden than us peasants realise. As with the celebs above, the beauty of the Black overshadows just about all its other qualities. So, when I heard I’d be testing it, I thought ‘this bike is so pretty, it would be a bonus if it rides well’.

Profile of the Bobber Black

The Triumph Bobber, already a looker, is especially handsome in this Black edition. However, the Black has more changes to it than just a paint job. The front now sports a new 16 inch wheel (down from 19 inches) with a chunky 130 section tyre. The front suspension stanchions are thicker, at 47 mm, and Triumph added a second disc and four-pot Brembo floating calipers to the front, as opposed to the standard Bobber’s single disc and Nissin caliper. This is welcome when considering the hefty 237.5 kg dry weight. As for the Black paint colour, you have a choice of matte or gloss, and that’s it.

Bring your hooliganism

Pardon the repetition, but the bike is aesthetically outstanding, drawing awed looks from pretty much anyone. It so exquisite that it almost defies purpose and should be allowed to exist as just a thing of beauty. Although, Triumph did give their Mona Lisa a flaw, and that’s the assembly for the tail lamp, indicator and indicator/license plate holder. It’s the only cheap plastic part on the whole bike, and just doesn’t fit with how the rest of the bike was conceived and designed. As pretty as it might be, the point of a motorcycle is to be ridden.

Triumph Bonneville and jacaranda trees

From the first time you swing a leg over this bike, it reveals a depth of character that almost comes as a shock. The build quality is rock solid. It is also feature rich, with ABS, traction control, two rider modes (rain and road), an LED headlight and cruise control. The bike feels like so much more than just a styling exercise, and considering the fine attributes of the Bonneville range, that is no surprise. What I didn’t expect, was the hooligan attitude of this bike, and that’s down to what the Bobber name embodies.

What is a bobber?

The Bobber name refers to a type of modified motorcycle that gained popularity at the end of World War II. To make their motorcycles go faster, the excess parts would literally be cut from the bike. Owners got rid of the front fenders, while the actual name, ‘bobber’, comes from how they would shorten the rear fender, or ‘bob-cut’ it. These brave souls would go as far as removing the seat, and welding a tractor seat to the frame, all in the name of going faster! This is also the reason for the spectacular floating seat on the Bobber Black.

The plough seat of the Bobber Black

The bobber style gave rise to the café racers which gained popularity in the 60s. We can even view them as the progenitor of the current race replica super bikes that sit at the top of the performance bike hierarchy today. Bob-cutting a bike made it flat-track-racing ready, while remaining road legal. Back then, Triumph was popular with these modifiers, in the form of the Triumph Speed Twin, from which this Bobber draws design inspiration.

This makes the Bonneville Bobber Black different from what many expect from a retro-classic bike these days, as it is not a cruiser. I repeat, this is not a cruiser. It may not look it, to the modern eye, but this is very much a sport bike throwback to the very beginnings of the breed.

Chassis, suspension and handling

Because it’s not a cruiser, the suspension set-up is firm – pretty much sport-bike firm. In town the ride can be harsh, especially over the poor road surfaces of a city like Joburg. This is mostly due to the short-travel suspension, with the 47 mm Showa forks providing 3.5 inches of travel (90 mm), of which all of that is stiffly sprung. It is non-adjustable, with the cleverly hidden rear mono-shock being adjustable for pre-load only. The handling does go some way to making up for that, when you push the bike a bit harder.

Rear spring of the Triumph

The initial turn-in isn’t all that sharp, in large part because of the 130 section front tyre. Yet it has good feel from the front end, and holds its line well once on its side. This makes the steering feel a tad heavy, especially with quick changes of direction. But changing how you ride – to suit the bike – makes it feel much more alive. It is a muscular bike and approaching faster riding on it with a bit of aggression suits its character. What’s more is that it endures all hooliganism with uncanny composure. The brakes are also up to the job of handling abuse, although they are a bit wooden in feel. Trust them – they won’t let you down.

By the seat of your plow

The seating position is easy to get used to, but it feels a bit odd at first. It has neither the feet-forward stance of a cruiser, nor the feet-under-knees geometry of adventure bikes, motards, nakeds, and so on. It is closer to sitting on a stool, or what universal motorcycles geometry was circa 1945. The pan seat also allows for little movement, so you rely mostly on the wide bars for steering leverage rather than using the pegs or body weight transfer. It sounds and feels like it shouldn’t work, but Triumph has managed to make it handle very confidently, as is becoming a trademark of the marque.

The motorcycle seen from the rear

As an overall handling package, it is unassumingly sporty, most notably on twisty back roads, where the bike feels happiest. The long wheel-base makes hairpin corners a bit more difficult, but there is also more room for lean angle than the design would let on. It is a bit choppy over rough surfaces, but it never feels unsettled, and always gives the rider confidence to push on.

The oily bits

The motor is the familiar 1200 HT (High Torque) engine of the Bonneville T120, although with fewer horses, presumably as this state of tune suits the bike better. The 1 198cc parallel twin produces a claimed 77 hp (57 kW), which sounds rather piddly, but 106 Nm of torque backs it up, which makes the motor feel beefy indeed. I can assure you that you’ll forget about the small(ish) power figure, because it never feels lacking in grunt, offering waves of torque from the bottom of the rev range.

The heat sink of the engine

The motor also sounds tremendous, thanks to the 270 degree crankshaft, with a deep burble at the lower end to a roar that rivals any V-twin at the top end. It is a bit vibey, but I don’t say that as a criticism – it really just adds to the old-school hardcore feel of the Bobber.

It’s a very flexible motor with near perfect fueling, and is just as usable in heavy traffic as it is on a highway. Cruising at up to 140 km/h is perfectly comfortable, made easier by the one-button cruise control (just hold it down when at the desired speed, and use clutch or brake to disengage). Above those speeds the fully exposed seating position makes you very aware of how much aerodynamic drag the human torso creates. If you do push on, seeing an indicated 200 km/h is possible. Or so I’ve heard.

Practicality, or the absence thereof

The Bobber Black is many things, but practical it is not. The single seat means no passenger (obviously), but also leaves very few options for carrying luggage, because of the entire rear-end design. At 9 litres, fuel capacity is limited too. With consumption of 5.5 l/100km (18 km/litre) well within reach, the best range you’ll see before the reserve light flashes is around 140 km. If the tank size is what’s putting you off, wait for upgraded Bobber, with a 12 litre capacity. This should see range increase to above the 200 km mark.

The Bobber parked in Joburg

I guess practicality is about how you’ll use a motorcycle of this kind. As a commuter bike and weekend toy, the small tank and absence of luggage attachments don’t matter too much. As a tourer, well, it really isn’t a tourer. If you are mad enough to tour on this motorcycle, just you, the bike and a backpack, then the drawbacks won’t bother you much.

The Bobber was never intended to be practical. That would have ruined the lines, and it’s those lines that help this bike sell in big numbers worldwide. The features the Bobber Black does have are enough for most bikers. It just took a pretty face for many of them to realise this.

The thing is, if you want a cool and practical retro bike, with a characterful and grunty 1 200 cc twin-cylinder motor, Triumph has you covered with the rest of the Bonneville range. There are versions that are faster, handle better, cost less and even some that will let you wander off road. Yet you won’t get another that is this beautiful, and I say that with regards to the entire modern classic-retro genre. Complaining about the lack of practicality? Well, no-one wants to hear it.

The Instruments of the bike

Closing thoughts

At the start of this review I said my first thought was ‘this bike is so pretty, it would just be bonus if it rides well’. After a few days with the Bobber Black my thoughts have changed to, ‘this bike is such a blast to ride that its beauty is the actual bonus’. That’s all I need to say about this motorcycle. It makes you (feel) cooler than you are, and that’s a big part of biking. Also, it’s a motorcycle you want to take for a ride purely for the sake of riding. It is one of the purest riding experiences I’ve had in a long while, because it has no specific aim, outside of looking good and being a proper laugh to ride.

The front wheel

Specifications of the Triumph Bonneville Bobber Black (2020)

Engine  1 198 cc, parallel twin, 8-valve SOHC
Transmission  6-speed, chain drive
Power  57 kW (77 hp) @ 6 100 rpm
Torque  106 Nm @ 4 000 rpm
Weight  237.5 kg (dry)
Seat height  690 mm
Suspension  47 mm Showa telescopic forks (front), and KYB mono-shock, preload adjustable (rear)
Brakes  Twin 310 mm Brembo, 2-piston floating callipers (front) and a single 255 mm, Nissin single-piston caliper (rear)
Fuel tank  9 litres
Consumption  4.1 litres/100km (claimed)
Warranty  2 years/unlimited mileage
Price  R192 000
For more info, visit Triumph Motorcycles South Africa.

The Bobber Black seen from above