When the Triumph Bonneville was reviewed in 2001 I said it handled well but was overweight and lacked top end - which didn't matter to born-again riders who in any case bought the thing to wallow in nostalgia.

Or did it?

The original Bonnie was a serious performance machine and the young hooligans who bought them in the early 1960s rode them hard - usually from one truck stop to the next, which is how the term "café racer" was invented. For many of them the mild-mannered Hinckley recreation missed the mark.

So Triumph did exactly what they would have done, all those years ago - stripped it down, bored it out for a bit more poke, put on loud pipes, low bars and go-fast chequered stripes, and came up with an instant classic.

They called it the Thruxton, after a famous racetrack in England where bikes not unlike this one won a lot of races before the Japanese invasion of the 1970's.

Like the home-brewed specials of the day it's a lot peakier than the Bonneville, producing 51.5kw at 7250rpm and maximum torque of 72Nm at 5750 rather than the Bonneville's 60Nm at 3500.

The engine has been bored from 86 to 90mm, increasing its capacity from 790cc to 865cc, compression is up from 9.2 to 10.2:1 and there are bigger carbs with electric heaters and throttle position sensors.

The steering has been sharpened by fitting longer shocks at the back and the front suspension is now adjustable for preload. A 320mm disc with a twin-piston floating calliper does duty on the front wheel and the upswept silencers flow a good deal more freely than those of the earlier model.

The rest is purely cosmetic - but it's pure magic.

It starts with a big round headlight in a chrome nacelle, mounted as high as possible on an otherwise bare front suspension - it's worth remembering that bikes such as this were intended to be ridden flat-out on public roads at night - decent lights were a survival tool, not a fashion statement.

Tightly tucked in behind them are the matched speedo and rev counter, on a bracket made from a single piece of aluminium alloy sheet, between two-piece "clip-on" handlebars, steeply angled and as narrow as possible while still allowing full steering lock.

The rear of the tank and the nose of the saddle are so narrow that there is nothing to hold on to with your legs - there are even little chromed guards to stop you burning your knees on the cylinder head!

The footpegs are slightly rear-set and the reversed-cone tailpipes (leave us not tempt the gods by calling them silencers!) are neatly up-swept and tucked in to maximise ground clearance.

The midsection of the bike is so narrow that after you ride away, first thing in the morning with the old-fashioned push-pull choke still on, you can close it by simply squeezing the bike between your legs.

The saddle is small, thinly padded and has just the suggestion of a step up to the pillion; it feels a little odd to modern bums but remains comfortable for surprisingly long rides. A small cowl is available to make the bike look like a single-seater but was not fitted to the test unit.

Usable power

The engine is amazingly tractable, for all its revvy (by parallel-twin standards) power peak; it will pull without juddering from about 1800 in any gear, drifting slowly and quietly through the traffic without complaint, and runs almost vibration-free up to 4800rpm.

Then it starts to shake, the intake note becomes an aggressive flat bark and the bike pulls hard up to the red line at 7500rpm. It's the widest usable spread I've encountered on a sports bike and it makes the Thruxton a willing hooligan tool in the right conditions and a steadfast, surefooted companion on bad roads or in heavy weather.

I rode the test bike in gales and sheeting rain; the predictable, vice-free power delivery (and sure-footed roadholding) put me completely at ease, more so than any modern sports bike.

The rest of the drive train is standard Hinckley fare: a predictable, slightly grabby clutch and a quick, very slick, five-speed gearbox. After the first three minutes on the bike I stopped using the clutch on upshifts (except for first to second, which was a bit noisy) and never missed a shift during the time I had the bike.

The final drive exhibits very little snatch despite a fairly long chain; other makers please note it can be done.

Not that it's important, but the Thruxton thundered up to 194km/h at 7600rpm (a needle's width into the red zone) and was rock steady at that speed on our smooth test strip.

Intuitive handling

The seating position is well forward, throwing a lot of weight on to the rider's wrists, but the bike's handling is so light, so intuitive that this never becomes a problem; the bike simply goes where you look - on smooth roads.

The 41mm conventional forks, adjustable for preload only, are superb; the initial movement is supple, accurately following small inequalities in the road, then rapidly stiffens to keep the plot together under hard cornering and braking stresses.

The twin rear shocks, however, are about as dated as they look; their action is harsh and bumpy even on good surfaces and it's possible to induce patter on badly rippled tar, especially under hard acceleration - which makes you feel like you're riding really hard while telling you politely that you have now reached the limit, thank you, sir.

Speaking of limits: ground clearance on the right is remarkable for such a dated chassis layout - thanks to the lumpy bits being so narrow - but is restricted on the left by the tang of the sidestand which grounds all too easily.

And that's not just me saying that - the one on the test bike was badly bent and worn halfway through when I got it. I s'pose real café racers would've done away with the stand altogether and just parked the thing against a wall - I'm old enough to remember when that wasn't unusual.

Within those limits the bike's handling and roadholding are astonishing, it's steering precise to a fault. The whole bike is so compact and narrow that flicking it from side to side through fast S-bends is almost instinctive in a way that not even Ducati can duplicate.

Torquey midrange

On tight corners you can dump the bike on its ear and turn it on as early as you like; the torquey midrange pulls you out of the hole with authority and you'll come out of familiar corners faster than you expect.

The Thruxton can shake its head going flat-out on long, bumpy curves but once again that's more of a polite warning than a disaster signal. I suspect a fresh rear tyre (the one on the test bike had plenty of tread left but had been well squared off by too much Gauteng straight-lining) and some painstaking suspension adjustment would have cured most of it.

The brakes are the one area where this bike is distinctly non-traditional - thank goodness. The drum brakes of the era took a lot of setting up and were prone to fade even when properly adjusted.

The Thruxton has a 320mm disc on the front wheel with a straightforward twin-piston floating caliper - typical of the 1970s Japanese stuff that found its way on to a lot of Britbikes because it was available and it worked - and a neat, unobtrusive 220mm platter at the rear with an unexpectedly sharp action.

The brakes work well within the 51.5kW power delivery; hard stopping takes a goodly squeeze but the action is consistent and predictable - and easy to modulate on streaming wet roads.

Plain and very, very neat

Fit and finish, as always on Hinckley products, is plain and very, very neat. The overall impression is of an unsophisticated design executed by craftsmen. The paint is deep and glossy, the chrome is smooth and lustrous, and the engine cases are neatly satin-finished (and lacquered - something the original Bonnie could've done with).

And no, Cyril, it didn't leak a single drop of oil in 10 days of hard riding.

I expected the Thruxton to be gorgeous in a very understated, very English fashion; I expected it to be torquey and ridiculously agile. It is all of these.

What I didn't expect was its superb power delivery and absolute surefootedness in appalling weather. If you're happy with its stiff rear suspension and sporty seating position, the Triumph Thruxton is a remarkable all-rounder.

The response from everybody who rode the test bike was the same, regardless of their age or motorcycling heritage: "I could live with that."

So could I.

  • Test bike from Mike Hopkins Motorcycles, Cape Town.

    Price: R72 500.

    Triumph 900 Thruxton specifications