Desperate for U.S. sales, Triumph introduced the custom-inspired T140D Bonneville Special, but it wasn’t special enough to save Triumph.
1979 Triumph T140D Bonneville Special
Engine: 744cc air-cooled OHV vertical twin, 76mm x 82mm bore and stroke, 8.6:1 compression ratio, 47.4hp @ 6,500rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 100mph (period test)
Carburetion: Two 30mm Amal MkII
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Oil-in-frame dual downtube steel/55in (1,397mm)
Suspension: Telescopic fork front, dual Girling shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes: 10in (254mm) disc front, 10in (254mm) disc rear
Tires: 4.1 x 19in front, 4.25 x 18in rear
Weight (dry): 400lb (182kg)
Seat height: 32in (813mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.5gal (17ltr)/30-35mpg
Price then/now: $2,700/$4,000-$10,000
In 1979, Triumph, desperate for U.S. sales, introduced the custom inspired T140D Bonneville Special. Unfortunately, it wasn't as custom or as special as Triumph's ads might have tried to suggest. Something of a failure when new, it's a rare bird today, and even old Triumph hands find themselves drawn to its unique lines.
Richard Hardmeyer was flat tracking in the glory days after World War II, when the 500cc overhead valve Brit bikes were going heads up against the flathead 750cc Harleys and Indians. He has a lot of racing stories, but this Sacramento Mile event is one of his favorite memories. "I was at the Sacramento Mile, riding a 500 Triumph twin out of Joe Sarkee's shop. I used my practice tires for the heats, but for the main event they put on a new tire. There was a film of grease or something, and when I went into the first corner I went into a slide, and slid up to the fence. Well, I held on to the bars, picked the bike up and got back into the race. In 23 laps I passed 15 national number plates and ended up in sixth place."
Now 81 years old and still contesting trials and other offroad events, Hardmeyer also rides on the street. After more years than most riding all sorts of machinery, Hardmeyer still likes his Triumphs, and one of his favorite bikes in his collection is this 1979 T140D Bonneville Special.
Hardmeyer got into motorcycles in high school, acquiring an Ambassador 2-stroke at the age of 15 and a half. The British Ambassador is not well known on this side of the pond, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they made well-regarded small bikes, their advertising calling them "The finest value on two wheels!" A friend knew Joe Sarkees, the Sacramento, California, Triumph dealer, and introduced Hardmeyer to Sarkees, who needed someone to help in the shop. Hardmeyer worked after school until he graduated, and then started working there full time. He remembers Sarkees as "the nicest guy — outside of the shop. Inside the shop, he was all business."
Flat track racing was at the peak of its popularity, and Hardmeyer started racing as soon as he was legally able to get on a track. "At the time, you couldn't get a professional license until you were 18. Then you had to spend a year as a novice. The next year you went to amateur, and after three years, if you qualified, you got your expert license."
Hardmeyer raced until he was in his 30s. Then there was the accident: "I went to Washington for this race. I slid sideways, and I was hit by one guy, went up into the air, and got hit by a second guy. I went to the hospital with a concussion and a broken rib. I went back to racing as soon as I healed up, but my heart wasn't in it any more. So I quit," Hardmeyer says.
At the same time Hardmeyer was flat tracking Triumphs, Ed Brooks was selling them out of his shop in San Jose, about 120 miles south from Sarkee's Sacramento emporium. In the 1960s, Brooks was one of the largest Triumph dealers in the U.S. In the years after World War II, running a British motorcycle shop was a way for an enthusiast to make an honest living, and by the 1960s, a way to make a pretty good living. Then came the 1970s.
The English motorcycle industry was simply not equipped to respond to the rise of the Japanese motorcycle industry, thanks to general management incompetence and years of starving their factories in order to pay large stock dividends. In his book, Save the Triumph Bonneville, former Triumph worker John Rosamond describes his first days of work at Triumph in late 1970. All production had stopped for three months due to problems with Triumph/BSA's newly designed P39 frame, which used the frame as an oil tank. But the final drawing came in late, and errors in the design meant that Bonneville engines didn't fit (BSAs did), requiring Triumph to make changes to the rocker boxes and cylinder head. Shortly after the factory was again running, management called a mass meeting to threaten workers with closing the plant if production targets — behind due to the frame design problem — were not met.
Unfortunately for Triumph, the new frame was panned by reviewers and customers alike. It was too tall for many riders, and its small oil capacity led to engines running hot. Exactly what problem it was solving was unknown. One reviewer pointed out that the time, energy and money thrown at the oil-bearing frame could have been used to produce something useful, like an electric starter and disc brakes.
The 1971 model year revamp of the Triumph Bonneville had extended to a lot more than the oil-bearing frame. The front forks were new, looking more like the units Ceriani in Italy was building. The 650cc engine had redesigned rocker boxes and pushrod tubes, and a 5-speed transmission became an option midway through the model year. The frame was lowered for 1972 to bring the seat height down from a toe-stretching 34 inches to a more reasonable 32 inches, and 1973 brought yet a further redesign that much improved the frame, along with other upgrades. The 650cc engine was enlarged to 724cc and then 744cc, the 5-speed gearbox became standard, and a Lockheed disc brake found its way to the front wheel. A factory strike in September 1973 stopped production, but a few bikes, basically similar to the 1973 version, were released during the 18-month workers' blockade. A few more bikes were built after the settlement to 1975 specs, and production then ramped up for the 1976 version of the twin.
The Co-op that rose from the ashes of Triumph tried hard to make good bikes with good quality control and an excellent finish, but was hampered by an almost complete lack of money for R&D or machine tooling. Even so, issues with oil leaks were addressed and the Bonneville was upgraded to meet new U.S. environmental regulations and left-side shift requirements. New models were announced, and better quality and enthusiastic magazine write-ups led to a modest sales bump by 1978.
The August 1978 issue of Motorcyclist pitted the Bonneville against its archrival, the Harley Sportster, and the Triumph edged the Sportster out with better handling and better quarter-mile times. Unfortunately, the pound was strengthening during this period, hammering the Co-op's profit margin and further threatening Triumph's financial footing.
The 1979 Triumph models featured electronic ignition, a lockable seat and better ground clearance, and Allen-head fasteners replaced the previous Phillips head bolts, which were easy to damage. Four color combinations were available in the U.S., Triumph's biggest market, and three in England, with different gas tanks for the different markets. In addition to the regular Bonneville, there was an extra model, the T140D Bonneville Special, designed specifically for the U.S. market.
Designed to capitalize on the growing custom-styled "specials" market in the U.S., the T140D Bonneville Special featured a very attractive black and gold paint job on an American-style "slimline" gas tank, a shortened front fender, a slightly stepped seat, and cast badges. A distinctive 2-into-1 exhaust hung on the right side, and it rode on seven-spoke U.S.-made Lester mag wheels, a first for Triumph, with a fat rear tire enhancing the bike's custom look. The engine was basically the same as found on a standard Bonneville, with the exception of threaded exhaust ports.
The Co-op soldiered on, despite worsening economic conditions that led to repeated layoffs. Although a strong British pound was increasing U.S. prices and dampening sales, changes and improvements continued. Bonnevilles finally got an electric starter in 1980, and an 8-valve head came in the middle of the 1982 model year. But in 1983, with the U.S. economy in turmoil and overall bike sales plummeting, the Co-op finally ran out of money. The rights to the Triumph name were sold to John Bloor, who later built a new factory in in Hinckley, 25 miles away from the old Meriden plant, and got Triumph going again.
Ed Brooks kept the flame alight for a while, but retired in 1984. He sold his extensive parts collection to his service manager, Bob Raber, who is still in business as Raber's Parts Mart. Ed moved his large motorcycle collection to a warehouse. After he died, the bikes sat, while his family figured out what to do with them. Some bikes, including this Triumph, were used as parts donors in order to keep other people's bikes running. Finally, in 2011, the family called in the auctioneers. Hardmeyer went to the auction.
Prior to the auction, Hardmeyer and his friend Jim Moore had bought out a motorcycle wrecking yard. One of the bikes in the lot was a 1979 Bonneville Special, with missing parts, and Hardmeyer and Moore wanted to restore it. "I looked at the Brooks sale and there was this 1979 Bonneville. We figured we could get enough parts off it to get the one we had running, so we bought it," Hardmeyer says. "When I looked at the speedo of the auction bike, it said 2,000 miles. I found out it was Brooks' personal bike. It was in the shop when he died, and people bought parts off it. We had also bought a BSA Gold Star from another collector, so Jim decided to keep the BSA and let me keep the Bonneville."
The Brooks Bonneville was in better shape overall, and with much lower mileage than the wrecking yard bike. Hardmeyer decided that the wrecking yard bike, which coincidentally had the parts that the Brooks Bonnie was missing, would be the donor bike, and he would build up the Brooks machine. After a lot of cleaning, replacing missing parts and tending to basic maintenance, the Triumph was back on the road.
"The '79s are a good-handling motorcycle, although they don't handle as well as the late-1960s Bonneville," Hardmeyer says, adding, "1970 was the best-handling Triumph. They made major changes in 1971, and they were not good changes. After 1971, they made changes every year. By 1979, they made it back to a good bike. But for the best handling, you have to put that 750 engine in a 1969 frame. That said, he still holds the T140D in high regard. "The 750 Special is special; it's a little upgraded. The problems from 1971 were corrected, and it has better handling and a good engine. It's definitely a little bit better than the rest of them."
Better yet, Hardmeyer says they're easy to own, noting that maintenance on a 1979 Bonneville is similar to that on a modern motorcycle. He suggests changing the oil at least once a year, regardless of mileage. "The more you change the oil, the longer your bike will last," Hardmeyer says, adding that it's a good idea to check and change fork oil regularly, as well. Tuneups are easy, thanks to electronic ignition, and the disc brakes — front and rear — don't require much beyond regular brake fluid changes to keep the seals in good shape. Pads seem to last forever. MC