Saturday, 24 November 2012

Triumph Speed Triple R

I suppose it’s essential to be impartial and totally objective when fulfilling the role of motorcycle journalist, testing bikes for your information and entertainment. There has to be an element of subjectivity because we can’t be automatons all the time and just report the facts – not that anyone would want to read that anyway - but we can’t just slag off a bike because we don’t like a particular make or because our skill isn’t great enough to make sense of the machine in our hands.

 But, just sometimes, a bike comes along that not only speaks your language, but has the same accent and sense of humour, digs the clothes you wear, likes the same music and food and is happy to watch motorsport on the TV 24/7; in short, it fits like a glove.

One thing I have found, doing this job (can anything so enjoyable be called a job?), is that I have become increasingly confused about which bike I would buy if I had to spend my own money. Each bike has its plus- and minus-points and I love them all for what they are, but none has stood out as the bike that I would invest my money in. Some have come close, but there’s always been just that little…..something, missing.

If there is one bike that, to me, encapsulates the new Triumph brand, it is the Speed Triple. Not the Daytonas or Trophys or the retro models but the naked street fighter. Maybe because it is so uncompromising in its design and attitude; it’s a sort of two-finger salute to all those who wrote off the British motorcycle industry all those years. It’s a glorious ‘up yours’ that has backed the attitude up by being a sales success.

Anyway, enough waffle. The Triumph Speed Triple R: R30,000 more than the standard Speed T, but is it necessarily R30,000 better? Given that the standard Speed T is a cracking machine already, does adding fancy suspension and braking components, lighter wheels and a smattering of carbon fibre really make it all that much better?

The real world answer is; of course not, no, unless you had the skill of a professional racer and could detect the improved parameters of braking and roadholding that the uprated components give you. For you and I there is little other than bragging rights in having them fitted to what is already a state-of-the-art bike; having Ohlins stamped on your forks and rear swingarm and Brembo on the calipers does draw attention to the bike’s competency and away from your dire lack of skill to do anything with it!

But the Speed Triple is just such a brilliant bike and the R version adds that bit of extra bragging rights that so many of us bikers love. 

MV Agusta 750S America

There is something about Italian machinery; something indefinable but definitely there and it turns even the most mundane machinery into a piece of sculpture; a living definition of the Italian lifestyle; from the humblest Vespa or Fiat 500 to the mighty Ducati and Ferrari.

Of course, some Italian icons are a cut above the rest and, at the top of that pile is MV Agusta. Always frighteningly expensive, monstrously complex and ultimately exclusive – a product as aloof as Count Domenico Agusta himself - they have nevertheless gained a reputation as the motorcycle. No arguments.
Agusta was started as an aviation company in 1923 by Count Giovanni Agusta. He died in 1927 and the running of the company was handed over to his sons, Vincenzo, Domenico, Corrado and Mario.

Mecchanica Verghera Agusta was formed in 1945 as a means to save the workforce from redundancy in the slump years after the Second World War and to fill the need for cheap, efficient transport. The name derives from the hamlet – Verghera – where the first machines were made.

As with Enzo Ferrari, the brothers Agusta made road machines to fund their racing activities, at which they were devastatingly successful; they won over 3000 races and 63 World Championships between 1948 and 1967.

Their road bikes started as small capacity singles but in the early 1960’s, sales declined as customers moved to larger capacity machines. To meet this demand, a four-cylinder touring bike was designed – the 600 – but it was as ugly as the racing machines had been stunning. Customers craved a replica of the 500cc racing machines but the Count was having none of it and the capacity of the new engine was designed to discourage attempts to create such home-built replicas. Just 135 examples of the bike were made between 1967 and 1972.

In 1969, however, MV scored a hit at the Milan Motorcycle show when it launched the new 750S. It went into production in 1971 and used 1960’s Grand Prix technology, which meant expensive gears to drive the camshafts and roller bearings and shims throughout. It sold for four times the amount of the Honda CB750, which ensured exclusivity and, unlike its 600cc stablemate, it was super-stylish and utterly desirable. It was the Ferrari of the two-wheeled world.

Its sole role in life was to generate publicity and glamour on the Agusta concern, which was still making helicopters (naturally, some of the best money could buy). Follow-up models included the America and Monza – no less glamorous or more successful – and production ceased in 1977.

Trust the Italians to conceive something so improbably exclusive and mechanically impossible that virtually no-one could buy it but that everyone wanted. Production was always limited and in ten years, MV sold fewer than 2,000 four-cylinder machines. By comparison, Honda sold 61,000 CB750’s during the first three years in America alone!

But I know which one I would rather have.

MV Agusta F3

I’ve just had a brief and fiery affair with an Italian. She was (relatively)expensive, exclusive and temperamental; stunningly beautiful and, in the right hands, would perform faultlessly. The affair only lasted a few days; mere hours, but now that she has gone, I know that life will never be quite the same again. I will never look at another bike with quite the same yearning as long as she exists in my memory.
‘She’, of course, is the new MV Agusta F3 675. In all my years of riding motorbikes, I don’t think I have ever come across a bike that I wanted to own so much but that I knew would break my heart in the blink of an eye and would follow that up by breaking the rest of me. It’s not that it is dangerous in any way, but its abilities make it so aloof and proud - as any good Italian machine should be - that it would sneer at my ineptitude and clumsy handling and probably just refuse to start.

It is in every sense like a thoroughbred horse; not something that just anyone can mount and ride perfectly straight off. No, you have to work at this one to get the best out of it; you have to learn its idiosyncrasies and work around and with them. Get it right and it is the most rewarding experience – get it wrong and it will rebel against you and, in all likelihood, go off in a sulk.

What is it about Italian machines that provoke this sort of reaction? Actually, let’s be more accurate; what is it about MV Agusta that provokes this reaction? They have always been out of reach to mere mortals and have carried an impenetrable air of mystique. They are, after all, just a collection of different metals, nuts and bolts and plastics but there is that indefinable something about them that lifts them above other motorcycles.

Motorcycling is an emotional business. We buy bikes based purely on heart rather than entertaining what the head says. Of course it all comes down to personal preference but, in general there are some bikes that make the heart beat a little faster than others, no matter what your riding preference. We buy motorcycles because of what they make us feel - ‘cars transport the body; motorbikes transport the soul.’
Such a bike is the MV F3. I used to own an early 350cc MV, many years’ back and, even then, the name was something magic. Of course that bike was a long way from the amazingly exotic and expensive 750S America but it just had that indefinable something that all Italian machinery seems to possess. It was a relief to see that, with their return to motorcycle manufacture, MV didn’t lose the ability to amaze.

I was first given the chance to ride the F3 in the middle of Pretoria. The sick and twisted mind that dreamt up this was in front of me in a car whilst his cameraman filmed me from the back of the bakkie. I was there to film the bike for the Bike Show and it wasn’t pleasant. The bike was getting hot and so was I with the hot air vented right into the thigh area. Sweaty bollocks time!

The fuelling at low speed was terrible and you needed a fistful of throttle and slipped clutch to get off the line. Once moving, the throttle was like a light switch at town speeds, with the result that progress was not the smoothest. Like any performance bike, town riding was a series of violent accelerations followed immediately by hard braking.

But on the MV that didn’t matter as the sound was just incredible (any exhaust system that looks this good just has to sound brilliant). The engine may share architecture with the Triumph triple, but the layout is as far as the similarities go. This is like a Triumph engine on steroids; snarling, biting; it barks, it grumbles and finally it shrieks, all with a brutally hard edge to it. In the old days they used to say it sounded like the tearing of calico (a type of cotton cloth). Now I’ve never heard tearing calico, but if this is what it sounds like, then I’m off to buy some and rip it up!

Then I had the chance to get out onto the open road and it started making a bit more sense; it just wanted to clear its throat and let rip. And boy, when it lets rip, it goes. Maybe it’s the sound that does it more than anything but it certainly doesn’t hang around.

Esteemed colleagues who had the chance to take it round a track said the handling was simply brilliant. On the road there was no chance to verify that, but what you can say is that the ride is pretty unforgiving and the seat might as well be made from a plank of wood for all the give it has.

I had been riding the Suzuki GSX-R1000 up to that point and thought that it was pretty hard and focussed but when I climbed back onto it to ride back from Pretoria to Jo’burg, it was like riding a big, soft couch.
But, I love the fact that it takes a little concentration to ride; it’s refreshing to get on a bike that needs thought and effort and not be so perfectly docile that anyone can ride it. Because it makes no bones about what it is – a thinly disguised track bike - you can forgive it everything and, to the experienced rider with ability in spades, it would be more rewarding than a night with Pamela Anderson.

Look, the thing is flawed; I’ve spoken already about most of the problems and to add to that, the switchgear looks like it came from a discount electrical store. But none of that matters; it’s an MV and that’s enough to make you forgive it everything.

Ah, yes, I hear you say; but it must cost a fortune. Well, actually no! It’s only about 10-15% more than its rivals and when you look at what you get – exclusivity, looks, amazing chassis, full electronics package, sound and that name - it’s a bargain.

How can I convey my feelings about this bike; even though I will never be able to extract more than a few per cent of its abilities I would have it over any other bike I have ridden. So what if it’s even more impractical than an already ridiculous sports bike? As an exercise in making you look the other way, blind to its faults, this is damn near unbeatable.

The point about this bike is not how fast it is or how amazing round a track; it is all about how it makes you feel; the emotions it stirs. They are so strong that I would find it impossible to resist if I was in the market for a middleweight bike.

Even if it was flawed in the dynamics department, even if it wasn’t that fast (which, let’s face it is pretty academic unless you are trying to win races) it wouldn’t matter. It’s an MV Agusta and there is nothing finer in life than that.

Triumph Bonneville SE, 2013

Good looks, but shame about the optional single seat

There's no school like the old school, and this is the headmaster....

Back when I was young and foolish, a 1970’s Triumph Bonneville 750 was the first bike I bought after passing my test. For the next 12 years she was my main means of transport and never once let me down; I loved that bike and, whilst many others came and went, the Bonnie remained.

By the time the Triumph twin had been stretched to 750, it had lost all its smoothness and was a real vibrator but had a fair bit of punch. However, it was a ridiculously ancient design and the Japanese had shown the way forward way back in 1969, so that by the mid-seventies, Triumphs were way past it in every respect. But it was still an icon of Britishness and a last symbol of the once-mighty British Motorcycle Industry.

It wasn’t the best bike in the world to ride but it was small and nimble and the 750 motor, whilst being renowned as a shaker, was punchy enough and, with the right silencers fitted, made a lovely sound.

When new Triumph was born the only cues they took from the old Triumph were names; Daytona, Trophy, Speed Triple, Thunderbird, Tiger, etc. The engineering was as far removed from the bad old days as it was possible to get, although the 3-cylinder engine was a large part of the revival and has since rightly become one of the great motorcycle engines.

Quickly, however, Triumph realised that here they had a brand that still had enormous nostalgia in the minds of consumers and they chose to look backwards to go forwards. Hence, the parallel twin was reborn in an unashamedly retro package and the Bonneville name entered the catalogue once more. It was aimed squarely at returning bikers who probably started their riding on a 50’s or 60’s British bike and would feel comfortable with the familiarity of the new Bonneville. But, equally, it makes an ideal entry-level bike for new riders.

I, like many I suspect, dismissed the Bonneville as a sales gimmick, albeit one that certainly worked for Triumph. However, having now ridden one, I am happily forced to reassess that judgement.

It had been ten years since I last rode my Bonneville but stepping onto the 2012 Bonneville SE took me back in an instant. I couldn’t believe how similar it felt, rode, performed, and sounded. But there was still a modernity about it that addressed all the failings of the old and solved them perfectly without detracting from the essence.

It really was uncanny; I had been transported back ten years. Everything felt so familiar; the power delivery, the handling (although the new frame thankfully has none of the ‘hinge-in-the-middle’ feeling of Triumphs of old), even the look of the clocks, mounted high on the top fork clamp. The ignition key was where it used to be – on the left-hand headlamp mounting ‘ear’ – and, despite the fuel injection, there was a ‘choke’ that really needed to be used when starting from cold.

Standing beside the bike, it even looks exactly the same, right down to the dummy carburettors that house the fuel injection gubbins and the Norton ‘peashooter’ silencers. The SE is a copy of the 1978 Bonneville Special and has lovely cast alloy, 7-spoke wheels in black and a black tank and side panels.

And what a joy to ride. Performance is adequate but the motor is lovely and smooth; power delivery is very linear and nothing to frighten the novice rider. More experienced riders would obviously want more but that would be to miss the whole point of the bike. This is no long distance mile-eater or track-day bike. Its sole aim in life is to please and give fun and is simple enough to allow that to happen. It would be the ideal bike to have in the garage to simply jump on and go somewhere just for the sake of going there.
Handling is safe and secure and, whilst the suspension lacks any adjustability, it really doesn’t need it. The SE differs from the T100 Bonneville in having 17-inch alloy wheels as opposed to 19-inch spoked wheels. This reduction in diameter helps quicken up the steering and lowers the bike along with a thinner seat. Tall riders might find it a bit too low, but for normal-sized people it’s very comfortable.

The brakes – single disc front and back grabbed by Nissin two-pot calipers – are very strong and reassuring and, allied to the handling, make this bike a brilliant town ride. On the highway, you will see 180km/h (where permitted, of course…) but the wind will be pretty stiff in your face at those speeds.

But out and out speed is not the point of this bike; in a way the Bonneville exists to bestow a sense of history on the rest of the range – a tangible link to the rich history of Triumph. It’s a brilliant melding of retro design and style with modern technology. Who can say; if the Bonneville had been this good back in the 70’s, maybe the story would have been different?