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Origins of my 1966 Triumph T120C TT Part 1

July 1, 2015

Back in April, Steve, a guy I'd been chatting to on and off about TT Bonnevilles over the past year or so - in particular his JoMo 1966 model - contacted me to say he'd decided to sell his bike and did I know anyone who might be interested? I'd already provided Steve with all the data from the Triumph factory records on the T120C TT Special and I'd seen photos of engine and frame stamps so was confident it was genuine.

 

The bike has had an interesting history. A carpenter by trade, Steve lived with his wife and young daughter high up in the mountains  in San Bernardino, California, close to the Mojave desert, in a wood cabin he'd built with his own hands. The air's thin and cool up in the mountains and he'd enjoy sitting out in the evening,  lazing back and watching the orange sun sink down over the distant dunes as he sipped slowly on a Wild Turkey on ice.

 

One day back in summer 2000 Steve was driving home from a day out with the family when he came across a bike shop somewhere near Barstow on the edge of the desert. It was a scorchingly hot day and Steve and his family had been driving for several hours. His young daughter had been getting increasingly bored, they were out of Kool-Aid and the bleak expanse of, well, not a lot, which comprises the Mojave wasn't exactly conducive to traditional car games such as 'I Spy' ('Boulder', 'sand', 'rock', 'rattlesnake'...) She was a quiet, contemplative child who never complained but Steve could see she was tired. Sometimes he worried about her, she never played much with the other children at school but just absorbed herself in her school work. He would have liked to see her smile more, have some fun like the other kids. Too much like her mom, that one.

 

The whole family was in need of a cold drink and a break to stretch their legs, and when the bike shop hove into view it seemed like the perfect opportunity to stop for a thirst-quenching Mountain Dew from the vending machine and avail themselves of the 'bathroom' to freshen up. Naturally, Steve would have to take a look at the bikes on sale and show some interest - it'd be downright offensive to the proprietor not to.

 

"Bailey's Cycles", a cracked plastic sign over the door proudly proclaimed. The place was little more than a shack in the middle of the desert, but it was cool and had a welcoming smell of oil and machinery. Mother and daughter were feeding dollar coins into the vending machine when the proprietor stood wearily up from behind his desk and sauntered over to Steve with a fixed smile. Clearly business wasn't exactly brisk.

 

"You looking for a desert sled? We've got a couple of nice Huskies and a 250 Honda. That the sorta thing you want?"

 

"Sure, sure, I'll just take a look round, see what you got."

 

A woman's voice was singing on the radio, "The trail is dusty, The road it might be rough, But the good road is a-waitin' And boys it ain't far off". It was a nice song.

 

Steve feigned interest in the big plastic traillies. Not really his thing. He'd always ridden British iron in his youth, a Triumph Trophy 500 had been his pride and joy until he'd married Marilyn and they'd traded it in for a big old Ford Torino station wagon. He'd loved that bike, gunning it down the Pacific Coast Highway late on a summer's night, watching the speedo needle judder its way up to 90, occasionally flickering up to the 100 mph mark, then backing off as a corner approached, blipping the throttle and down-shifting though the gears, the bark of the exhaust note bouncing off the rock walls and out towards the surf hundreds of feet below.

 

Almost all the bikes on display were small Japanese trail bikes and the odd Husquvarna - not really Steve's thing but he tried to look interested just to keep the proprietor happy. Then, in between two nondescript trail bikes, Steve spotted something that caught his eye. It was still wearing a fine coat of desert dust and looking a bit forlorn propped up on a paddock stand,  leaking a little oil from the primary cover. No lighting, horn or number plate, a big 'cheater' sprocket and chunky rear tyre, long high-level open pipes, big foam air filters. A number of dings and scrapes were testimony to the hard life it'd lived. Looking closer Steve deduced it was a Bonneville of some sort, but not a model he'd seen before. It had that elegant, sculpted Triumph tank that brought back memories of the old Trophy - but this was leaner, stripped for action, sleak, businesslike yet majestic.

 

There was something about the old bike that drew Steve towards it. He almost felt sorry for it - it looked like a fallen angel, an orchid trampled among the coarse plastic toys. 

 

"How much you wanting for the old Triumph?" he asked Bailey quietly, out of earshot of his wife.

 

"The Triumph? You don't want that old thing. That was Jed's bike - he used to race it with the 'Shamrocks' way back 30 years ago or more. Its a TT Special Bonneville - nothing could touch it. Lumpy pistons, wild cams, it used to fly. Then when he didn't come back from 'Nam, his brother Howard kept it, wouldn't ride it. It just sat there in his shed for years and years till he passed away. Whisky got the better of him. His son Bobby got it fixed up and used to ride it out on the desert a couple of years back. Never really took to it like Jed though so he gave it to me to sell on. It'll need some work doing mind - that jackass Bobby spent more time on his goddamn'  butt than he did in the saddle - it's got dings and dints all over."

 

"What do you want for it, bud?" 

 

"Well, I'd take $1500", these things are rare, you won't find another like it. Special desert racers, made in England. They don't make 'em like that no more."

 

After some brief negotiation, a deal was struck. Steve's young daughter Annie said she preferred the big orange one next to it. Marilyn never spoke to him in the car, when they got home or for the next two weeks. It wasn't up for discussion. Steve felt good inside, looking forward to fixing it up and restoring it to its original glory. He was excited about riding that Pacific Coast Highway again soon.

 

The next weekend he drove out to Bailey's place in his pickup to collect the Triumph. In the car park he tried to start it as Bailey stood by. He attempted vainly to kick it over, but the thing wouldn't budge. 

 

"Jeez! What's the compression on this thing?"

 

"11.2:1. They're a bitch to start! Tickle 'em carbs! You gotta swing at it!"

 

Eventually, after following the proprietor's helpful suggestions, it fired into life. The slow rumble turned into a staccato bark as he cracked opened the throttle. Steve gingerly eased it into first and let the clutch out. The front wheel lifted slightly as the machine lurched forward and he kicked it into second, then third before slamming on the brakes to avoid running into the kerb. He was grinning from ear to ear.

 

"Hot damn! Goes like a scalded ape!"

 

Over the course of several weeks, in a frenzy of activity the bike was stripped down, new parts ordered from England and the tank taken to Blake Conway to be painted in its original Alaskan White and Grenadier Red colours. Steve bought books on the TT Bonnevilles and went on the internet to glean as much information as he could, immersing himself in the lore and mythology of the competition Triumph twins (and sharing his arcane knowledge with me when I bought a 1965 TT Special last year).

 

And there the bike stayed, in his shed, in bits gathering dust, a victim to competing prioirties. Over the course of the next 15 years, Steve's daughter grew up, moved away and got a job in a hotel. His wife Marilyn left him for an insurance salesman. Steve broke his leg badly while felling trees and now walks with a permanent limp. Time passed on and eventually Steve realised it was too late, he was never going to get the bike running and now he was too old to ride it. He never did get to ride that Pacific Coast Highway again. Now there's another good road a-waitin, and Steve knows it ain't far off. So he offered the TT to me - and how could I refuse? 

 

We agreed a deal and money was exchanged. Steve boxed the bike bits up and drove them down to LA in his pickup where they were loaded onto a pallet, wrapped in cling film and shipped in a container aboard the MSC Alabama, homewards bound. It arrived  intact other than for a broken spark plug early last week and was delivered to ace Triumph restorer Terry Macdonald on Thursday. I went over to view it on Friday and we agreed a plan of action.

 

My intention is to build it along desert racer lines, returning it to the guise in which it spent most of its working life, rather that just do a stock rebuild. There were 1,310 TT Specials built in 1966 and I've already seen quite enough that look as though they've just come out of the crate. Very pretty (1966 was the best year in my opinion, with the gorgeous slimline tank, before they introduced the bulky seat which adorned the 1967 models) - but once you've seen one, well, you've seen 'em all!  TT Bonnevilles which were used as God intended never stayed looking like they came out of the crate but were modified to varying degrees to meet owners' requirements, whether as TT steeplechase race bikes, desert sleds and scramblers or street dragsters. To my mind, rather than just return it to stock spec, it would be far more interesting - not to say, authentic - to restore it to the way it was back when Jed rode it out in the Mojave with the Shamrocks.

 

I plan on using this one so will be fitting horn and period QD lighting, Bates headlamp and some form of taillight - probably the attactive Triumph '68 one. I'll get some high level pipes made up, either Bud Ekins style ones as in the photos or the slash-cut ones Triumph fitted to the Trophy Specials. All the original parts and the tank which has been well painted in its original colours will be kept so if I feel like it the bike can be readily converted back to standard to please the purists. Nothing too radical.

 

Since receiving it last Thursday, Terry has completed a dry build, we've ordered most of the parts required and Terry's now stripped down the engine and gearbox. It appears this was rebuilt very soon before Steve bought it - it seems to have done no more than 10 - 15 miles.Whoever had done the work had made a pretty good job of it - though why they hadn't bothered cleaning out the crank sludge trap is a bit of a mystery! Engine and gearbox condition is overall excellent: standard big end shells, standard spec cams - which will be replaced with nitrided ones. Rebored +40 with new 11:1 pistons - which I'll replace with 8.5:1 ones or 9:1s if not available (the 11:1s are not really useable with standard pump petrol). Cylinder head looks in good shape though Terry will be measuring it up tomorrow to confirm.

 

Carbs ready to be sent off for resleeving. Original ET coils will be fitted for show only, Boyer Powerbox and Pazon on order. Coils will be hidden out of sight using custom built mounts which attach behind the steering head (tried and tested on Terry's 1963 Trophy Special and fitted to my 1965 TT Special).

 

A few problems with the cycle parts. Front wheel was some form of BSA type item with a 7" brake, not the Triumph one in the photos, so that's going to have to go. Two rear wheels were provided but both rims are mangled so will be replaced. Hubs are salvageable. All original nuts and bolts which I'm getting cad plated - not having much luck with this in England so looking at sending them to the States. Tank mounting bracket sheared and needs brazing and sidestand lug needs welding on - all in hand. Hoping to have this work completed next week then I'll take frame and various other cycle parts off for stove enamelling.

 

I have a spare slimline tank in good shape other than a small dent and a snapped off rear lug - this will be repaired with the frame  by Terry's man who will also do all the paintwork (other than the stove enamelling). Still deciding on the colour for the tank. I won't be fitting badges but will have the 'Triumph' logo painted on (in the fashion of the Thruxtons and desert racers). Thinking along the lines of using the same design as the '66 TT and Trophy Special tanks, maybe dark green and white - like the Trophy Special but dark green instead of blue. These are my inital ideas, but I'm toying with a whole load more (and will in all likelihood change my mind!) 

 

I'll be updating this blog regularly with progress and photos of the work Terry's doing as the build progresses. The aim is to get this bike on the road in time to enjoy whatever is left of that season we optimistically like to call "summer" here in the Peak District!

 

 

 

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