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1965 Triumph Bonneville T120C Competition Sports

1965 Triumph T120C Competition Sports

The T120C Competition Sports variant of the unit-engined Triumph Bonneville was produced in very limited numbers during its production period of 1963-65. Just 227 of these machines in total left the Meriden factory, all but 4 (2 to Mexico in 1963, 2 to Canada in 1965) being dispatched to the Triumph Corporation (TriCor), Triumph’s US East Coast distributors.

The unit T120C Competition Sports Bonneville was derived from the pre-unit TR7/B and T120/C scramblers, which in turn were inspired by the 1958 TR6 Trophy and were marketed for the “competition expert who wants top performance”. They shared the same engine as the T120R roadster with slightly lower gearing, were fitted with high pipes, trials tyres and sump guard and equipped with silencers, lights and horn for road use.

Johnson Motors (JoMo), the US West Coast distributors, never received unit-engined T120C Competition Sports Bonnevilles (though they did get the pre-unit versions). Instead they were supplied with the “TT Special”, a stripped down Bonneville without lighting or horn, battery-less ET ignition, bigger carbs and higher compression pistons intended purely for off-road use (though a very large number were converted for use as street bikes).

The TT Special was sometimes referred to as a “West Coast T120C” due to its Johnson Motors origins. However, from April 1963, the TT Special was shipped to TriCor, who from 1964, as the larger of the two distributors, were receiving them in greater numbers than JoMo. There has been a great deal of misinformation about the TT Special propagated across the internet, in books and magazines and it is only recently, following analysis of the Triumph factory records and other sources, that accurate information about the Triumph competition models has become available. In total 3,920 TT Specials were produced between 1963 and 1967 – over 17 times as many as the T120C Competition Sports scrambler!

One common misconception, particularly prevalent in the UK, is that East Coast T120Cs were scramblers with high pipes and West Coast T120Cs were TT Specials. Consequently, there are quite a few T120Cs which left the factory as the more common TT Specials masquerading as T120C Competition Sports with lighting, high pipes and silencers.

One such case is T120C DU21883, which was purchased by British restorer Graham Bowen as a pair of crankcases and a frame with matching numbers and re-imported from Chicago at the turn of the century. Graham, a well-respected restorer, decided it was a Competition Sports scrambler - possibly just because it was an East Coast T120C and therefore (as he may have believed) should have lighting and silencers. He restored it accordingly, to his usual high standard. We now know East Coast T120Cs came in two flavours: either as stripped down TT Special race bikes or Competition Sports scramblers. The TriCor brochure for 1965 clearly depicts a Bonneville TT Special (as shown under the "Brochures" tab on this site). The same brochure lists the Competition Sports variant as another optiion, but without a photo. The 1964 TriCor brochure (also shown on this site) depicts both the TT Special and the Competition Sports scrambler. The implication is very clear: both variants of the T120C - scrambler with lighting and mufflers and stripped down TT racer - were available on the East Coast in 1964 and 1965. Both variants were in fact also available from 1963 via TriCor, though only the Competition Sports is shown in the brochure for that year (see under "Brochures"). While the TT Special is not listed in the brochure, there is evidence in the factory records that TriCor received 50 of these "West Coast T120Cs".

The Triumph factory records for 1965, as in other years, can be ambiguous at times and there are sometimes inaccuracies. However, compiling the data from all 3 records into a spreadsheet, as I have done, enables it to be more easily analysed and trends readily spotted. One key fact is that before engine number DU15500, engine built 3 November 1964, there were no order numbers for T120Cs in 1965 - other than a handful in the first batch of the model year, in August 1964, numbered 7288. This appears to designate a T120R, and there is a loose note in the engine assembly record listing 8 T120Cs which were converted to T120R spec, and vice versa. It's unclear why this happened, but it is recorded. The early T120Cs built at the start of the model year were just given an order number of "TRI CORP" or "JOMO". DU15500 has an entry beside it in the engine assembly record of "ET 17T TACHOS" - ET ignition, 17T gearbox sprocket and batteryless AC magneto ignition with Energy Transfer (ET) coils: the basic spec denoting a TT Special race machine. These, like DU15500, were largely given order number 8014 or 8145. described in the assembly record as "T120C ET" and despatched as "T120TT". I think it's pretty clear that these machines were TT Specials. 775 left the factory in 1965.

Graham Bowen's machine, DU21883 was described in the assembly record as a "T120C ET" and despatched as a "T120TT", in the middle of a batch of 195 similar specified machines, order number 8145. There were in total 5 batches of machines built in 1965 which left the factory as "T120TT", for both East and West Coast distributors: in August 1964 (150 machines); November 1964 (152); December 1964 (51); February 1965 (227); and April/May 1965 (195). 775 TT Specials in total. Graham Bowen's T120C, DU21883, was one of them.

Prior to the larger batches of machines despatched as "T120C TT" or "T120TT" there were smaller batches of around 13 - 20 machines which were despatched as "T120C" (instead of "T120C/TT" or "T120TT"). Notes in the engine assembly record of "18T" identified them as having 18T gearbox sprockets - unique among the Bonneville to the Competition Sports models (see copy of of 1963 and 1964 TriCor brochures under the "Brochures" tab - there are no specifications given for the T120C Competition Sports in the 1965 brochure though it is listed as a available. The US supplement to Parts Catalogue No. 3 indicates that the East Coast T120C - the Bonneville Scrambler - should have the 18T gearbox sprocket too.

These bikes were shipped to TriCor only, with order numbers 8027, 8028 or 8029, in August 1964 (13), December 1964 (20), February 1965 (16), and April 1965 (20). A possible 2 more were shipped to Canada in July 1965. In total, just 71 at most T120C Competition Sports scramblers left the Triumph factory in 1965. My analysis of the records indicates 67 were built in 1963 and 60 in 1964: 198 Competition Sports scramblers built in total, making them the rarest of the unit Bonnevilles.

The evidence contained in the factory records makes it extremely unlikely that Graham Bowen's award-winning T120C left the factory in its current guise. Without any provenance there is absolutely no way that a claim can be made that it was ever a Compeition Sports scrambler. Instead it would have had ET ignition, no lighting and underslung TT pipes. A stunning bike, nonetheless, but without the rarity of the Competition Sports variant. In its current guise, no matter how good it looks, it is no more than a replica.

Graham's bike has just collected an award as "Best British Bike" in the October 2015 Stafford show. Prior to this it has featured in "Real Classic" magazine and the book "Triumph Bonneville - Portrait of a Legend" by James Mann and Mick Duckworth. Both contain what might generously be described as "misleading information". The Mann/Duckworth book contains the following gem: "This Bonneville T120C road-legal street scrambler is as supplied through Triumph's Eastern headquarters and marketed as the TT Special, although from 1966 that name would apply to a T120C minus road equipment". This is absolute, complete nonsense and is essentially re-writing history. The TT Special, from its conception by JoMo in 1963 and its sale on the East Coast from April 1963 onwards was only ever available as a stripped-down off-road racer "minus road equipment" (just look at the factory brochures). The T120C Competition Sports street scrambler, which Graham Bowen's masquerades as, was introduced in 1960 in pre-unit form and in 1963 in unit form: it was an entirely different variant.

Sadly, I note that Graham's Competition Sports replica now appears in a 2016 calendar purporting to be a Competition Sports. It would be best if this bike were converted into TT Special spec, as that is how it would have left the factory. This would make it much more authentic. While many more TT Specials than Bonneville Scramblers were built, the 1965 ones are still a rare model, particularly given the fact that many of these bikes were used for racing and subsequently have not survived in one piece

As mentioned above, TT Specials were in fact distributed to both East and West Coasts from April 1963, with very minor differences in specification – principally types of mudguard and seat covers. T120C Competition Sports scramblers were only supplied to the East Coast, in very limited numbers indeed. The only way to differentiate between a TT Special and a T120C Competition Sports - in the absence of original photographs and verified provenance - is by reference to the factory records.

My genuine T120C Competition Sports shown in the photos was imported from the US in early 2015, following purchase from its second owner who had bought it in 1966, and is thought to be the only genuine 1965 example in the UK. It was very original apart from high bars, some extra chroming and a bad paint job and has now undergone extensive refurbishment by Triumph restoration guru Terry Macdonald to get it back on the road in its original condition (photographed prior to addition of decals and front tank styling strips). It has most of its original, unrestored parts (wheel rims, forks, seat, many cadmium plated nuts and bolts and its original Triumph stove enamelled frame).

After initial refurbishment, including addition of Boyer electronic ignition and resleeved carbs, it was MOT'd and put back on the road. It ran well - other than the occasional grinding of gears. Once, when changing down from 3rd to 2nd, it sounded as if the gearbox was about to explode. Clearly, there was something very wrong with the 'box.

Back to Terry's and up on the ramp, gearbox cover off, close inspection revealed a half inch crack in the gearbox casing which was seeping oil. Pulling out the gears revealed that at some point something catastrophic had occurred - possibly the clutch end nut had come loose - resulting in the virtual explosion of the gearbox. All the cogs were badly damaged and the mainshaft was bent - it was a wonder that the gears had ever engaged at all. The damaged gears had simply been bashed back into place, leaving the machine in a state unfit for use and which could have resulted in an accident.

The bike was advertised for sale by a small bike shop in Arvada, Colorado, who'd passed me on to the owner since 1966 - an old fella by the name of "Bill" who sounded genuine on the phone and told me how he'd had it since he was at college in Georgia, and gave me some history on the bike. He'd bought it while at college in Georgia and then, having married and raised a family, the bike had accompanied him around the States, seeing little use but always being well kept. "JC" said he'd started the bike up but hadn't ridden it - which should have rung warning bells. Once he had my money, he suddenly went very quiet and stopped answering emails... "Caveat emptor" is very much the byword here - in my experience, and any motorcycle re-imported from the States needs to be stripped down to the last nut and bolt and rebuilt. It's very much a gamble - no matter how good a machine might look or how convincing the vendor's sales pitch, you never know what's gone on inside it. The additional work required to replace the gearbox in its entirety, and further engine work necessary which came to light when it was stripped down, has cost me around £2000. Still in credit though - the vendor didn't know what it was he had in his hands, or the rarity of the Bonneville Scrambler, and gearbox problems aside, this is still a wonderful and very original and rare Triumph.

Terry Macdonald has now replaced all components of the gearbox, the barrel had been rebored to +40 and new 9:1 LF Harris rods and pistons fitted. All bearings and oil seals have been replaced and the bike is now back together and running beautifully (although I am feeling decidedly lighter of pocket!) I would have had to rebuild the engine and gearbox at some stage and it was better having it done earlier rather than later (or so I tell myself!). The engine had been poorly rebuilt at some stage in its past using some low quality parts such as pistons, and the con rods weren't in good shape having been bashed about by someone. Now it's all sorted and ready for the road or trail and I'm looking forward to putting it through its paces in the (relative) wilds of the Peak District.

In the photo above the bike isn't quite in its finished state - it's missing transfers and styling strips. These finishing touches have now been applied.

A couple of people have remarked that the slotted headlight ears are incorrect and were introduced for 1966. Initially I took their word for it and started looking around for some earlier ones. However, I have been corresponding with a guy in America who owns a Trophy TR6SR, built in May 1965 (my scrambler was built December 1964). He bought the bike off his neighbour who bought it new when he was an architectural student, collecting it from Meriden (he had previously ordered a 500 via TriCor but they didn't have any available when he arrived and handed him the Trophy - with a letter of apology, which I have seen!) in May 1965. He then rode it around Europe before shipping it home to Pennysylvania. He kept all receipts and original paperwork.

The new owner has many photos of his bike before he restored it and it's very original. It has the slotted ears like mine, supposedly not introduced until 1966. There are no receipts for these and the previous owner is sure that they were never replaced. In the Replacement Parts Catalogue No. 2, for the 1964 model year, the headlamp ears are part numbers H1646/H1647; in Parts Catalogue No. 3 for 1965 they are H1887/H1888. Likewise in Parts Catalogue No. 4 for 1966. Based on the above, I think it's evident that the slotted ears were in fact introduced for the 1965 model year and not the 1966 one as some people maintain, amd those on mine are correct (which is good news, as the earlier ones are rare as the the proverbial!)

Standard T120R non-folding footrests (F6069/F5910) as fitted to my T120C are also correct, according to the US Supplement for Parts Catalogue No. 3, a copy of which is included in David Gaylin's "Triumph Bonneville & TR6 Motorcycle Restoration Guide" (essentiial reading for anyone restoring or interested in the history of these bikes). The folding type, F6653/F6654, were only fitted to the TT Special, as required by the AMA for off-road racing.

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