Which Triumph Is Better, the Motorcycle or the Car?

Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

Car or bike: Who among us hasn’t asked the question? After all, don’t we like practically anything that goes zoom? As long as glistening chrome, shapely metal, a snarling exhaust and a purposeful stance are involved, the resulting machine will likely be irresistible to most of us.

But should it matter if that machine has four wheels, or only two?

Let’s face it, a lot of the same things that draw us to classic and modern sports cars attract us to motorcycles. In garages across the country—including those of several Classic Motorsports staff members—you’ll find cars sharing space with two-wheeled companions. Many a Sunday morning is spent coming to a firm decision on which of the two will provide the most satisfying afternoon drive.

So which is it? Does a car or a motorcycle provide a more complete motoring experience? Obviously we’re a car magazine, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask the question. It also doesn’t prevent us from doing a little hard research to find the answer. 

Triumph vs. Triumph

As luck (and story prep) would have it, we had the perfect setup for this epic battle. In our fleet is a 1969 Triumph TR6 that has undergone a rolling restoration over the past couple of years. Nearly every system in the TR has been replaced or refurbished to create a sophisticated, sporty, reliable classic that can be driven daily. 

On the other side of the fight card is a thoroughly modern take on a rather timeless classic from the same company. In 1959, Triumph introduced the Bonneville, which was one of the most powerful cycles available to the public at the time. Progress eventually moved the original Bonneville down the performance ladder, but when it was discontinued in 1983, it was still considered one of the company’s great triumphs—if you’ll pardon the pun.

Photography Credit: Zach Prescott

In 2001, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd.—a direct descendant of the original company—brought the Bonneville name back on a thoroughly modern bike that still managed to accurately capture the look and feel of the original. In fact, when the designers and engineers began work on the new version in 1997, they started with a fully restored 1969 Bonneville as a development “jumping-off point.” The modern Bonneville is less an homage than a continuation.

Our contest would be simple: We’d sample both machines and see what we thought. To kick off the festivities, we jumped into the deep end with a 500-plus-mile trek from The Mitty at Road Atlanta back to our Holly Hill, Florida, home base. Our route would use mostly state highways, but we’d throw in some back roads and interstates in the interest of science. If we didn’t learn anything on this trip, we’d need to just turn in our journalist cards.

Two Wheels or Four?

Most of us know the simple pleasures of a classic British sports car, even if it’s just because we’ve spent a few brilliant miles behind the wheel of a friend’s car or fondly remember sitting in Mom and Dad’s MG and making racing noises. Classic sports cars are simple machines that produce complex emotional responses—not necessarily because of their sophistication or refinement, but sometimes because of their lack of it. When the top is down and the exhaust is humming, “faults” turn into “character” and strengths are magnified to the point of religion. 

For motorcycles, take everything we just said and double it.

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Dozens of little factors contribute to the strong appeal of motorcycles. For one, image is certainly a powerful weapon. In the 1950s, motorcycles were the accessory of choice for the rebel—with or without a cause. Bikes were such a strong force that their mere existence created a subculture almost overnight, and by the end of the 1950s biker gangs were one of the main focuses of attention for U.S. law enforcement.

Of course, not all motorcycle enthusiasts are outlaws, but so prevailing is the “bad boy biker” image that it can be hard to tell the difference between a meth dealer and an orthodontist when they’re attending Bike Week. That rebellious aesthetic emanates directly from the two-wheeled contraption snugged between their knees.

There was no real question that both vehicles in our test would be high on the cool-meter. It was time for a little compare-and-contrast road trip. We saddled up at Road Atlanta and headed south.


That’s right, “All The Gear All The Time.” Why mention this commonly used acronym? Well, we’d be remiss in presenting a motorcycle-themed feature story without addressing some of the safety issues that accompany motorcycling.

We’ll just say it flat out: Bikes are more dangerous than cars. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in any conversation about the subject. 

In 2008, 26,689 people were killed while driving or riding in a car that was involved in a collision; that same year, 5290 motorcyclists were killed in accidents. Keep in mind that about 144 million cars are registered in the U.S. versus just 7 million motorcycles. This equates to about one death per 1300 motorcycles, compared to one death per 5400 cars. If you look at even more data, you’ll find that, per mile traveled, you’re about 37 times more likely to die in a motorcycle crash than a car crash.

Sobering, eh? Sadly, the same things that make motorcycles so glorious—the freedom of being completely exposed to the elements; the light, responsive machinery; the unholy power-to-weight ratio—are what make them so much more hazardous than cars. Parse and spin all you want, and blat off ridiculous sayings like “loud pipes save lives” and “helmet laws suck,” but there’s no getting around it: Cars are safer.

Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

Which brings us to the gear part of the equation. When you hop in a car—whether you’re running to the 7-Eleven or across the country—you don’t put a lot of thought into your personal safety. The car takes care of that part of the equation for you. Even many of the older sports cars we love—like the TR6 in this test—have relatively advanced safety measures like three-point seat belts and safety glass. 

Cars also surround you with a protective layer of metal, plastic, glass and rubber that will hold up in a crash far better than your own flesh. The choice of gear when behind the wheel of a car is usually not that complex: a sweater on a cool day or a hat on a sunny one.

But not on a bike. While most of the safety systems in a car are passive—devices and technologies designed to help you survive an incident—passive safety on a bike is basically nonexistent. Active safety features like good maneuverability and ridiculously short stopping distances help you avoid trouble, but if you still manage to find it you pretty much have the clothes on your back, the love of Jesus, and your pretty green eyes to save you.

And that’s why the clothes on your back need to protect a bit more than your modesty. “All The Gear All The Time” means that each and every time you throw your leg over a motorcycle, you need to be wearing every piece of protective gear in your arsenal. 

For most riders this means good boots that cover the ankle, pants of a heavy fabric with some built-in armor or abrasion protection, a jacket with armor and inserts designed to disperse the force of impacts and abrasions, proper gloves, and a full-faced helmet with a face shield—anything less and you’re making a compromise somewhere. Ride without a helmet, and you’re just an idiot. Now, this is America and all, and we support your right to be an idiot, but you’re still an idiot.

If all of that stuff sounds cumbersome, you’re right. It’s a lot to deal with, and taking the proper safety precautions on a bike means an extra layer of complexity. This was one of the first things we noticed on our road trip. 

When we first left Road Atlanta, we were stopping frequently for pictures to take advantage of northern Georgia’s afternoon light. While this was no big deal for the person in the car—just pull over, unbuckle and hop out, then reverse the process when it was time to move out again—whoever had the bike had a bit more of a battle. 

There was a helmet and gloves to remove, then the added discomfort of standing around in nearly 100-degree sun while wearing full gear. (Of course, the getup was far more comfortable when the bike was in motion and a 60 mph breeze was blowing.) 

When we stopped for more than a quick photo snap, removing the jacket, overpants and other gear—then reversing the process when we got underway again—was a time- and energy-consuming process. 

On the Road

Another big difference between cars and motorcycles is cargo capacity. Our TR6 doesn’t have a huge trunk by any stretch of the definition, but it was cavernous in comparison to the storage on the Bonneville—which was basically limited to what we could carry on our person. Obviously touring luggage could pick up some of the capacity slack, but even a large bike would be hard pressed to carry the load that a small car could handle.

Now, we’re not really bringing this up because we’re making a value judgment; we’re simply stating fact. If you’re going to travel by motorcycle, learn to travel light.

As for the dynamic experiences these two machines provided, we were stunned not by how different they were, but how similar. With the top down, the TR6 provided a very bike-like panoramic view of the world. Our view of the horizon was 360 degrees with only the windshield to interrupt it, and all five senses were involved in the experience.

On the Bonneville, the same factors held true, but in an even more intense fashion. While we experienced the elements in the topless TR6, we were downright exposed to them on the Bonneville. 

Our bodies took in the full force of the wind, sun, rain, bugs, rocks and cigarette butts that crossed our path, and our senses went into overdrive to process all of the information and still get the bike safely down the road. Even for a cautious driver, operating a car under most conditions is not an activity that commands the entirety of your awareness. 

Operating a motorcycle, however, is a fully invested activity. In many ways it’s more like driving a race car than a regular car. Besides the additional gear you’re wearing, your brain is putting all of the sensory inputs right at the head of your perception queue. 

For many riders, this increases the appeal even further. Sure, every road imperfection, every wind gust, every oil spot and every texting driver moves to the head of the line for your attention. Of course, so does every sunset, every wave along the empty stretch of coastal highway, and every twisty switchback where you lean the bike over just a bit more than you did in the last corner.

Speaking of leaning the bike over, let’s go a bit more in depth about just what it was like to drive these vehicles. We won’t bore you too much with the details on the TR6: It’s a comprehensive restoration that has made a few appearances in this magazine and in British Motoring, the official publication of Moss Motors.

However, we will say that while it may be approaching its 40th birthday, this car isn’t showing too many signs of age. The 2.5-liter engine reminded us why we love inline sixes, namely for their broad, climbing torque curve and those wonderful sounds they make when you wind them up just a little. 

The TR6 had no problem pulling neatly off of idle, even in fourth gear. The four speed’s shift pattern wasn’t laser precise, but once we learned the exact locations of the individual gears, moving between them was refreshingly smooth—with just enough resistance to remind us that we were operating a mechanical device. The chassis and body are very narrow by modern standards, but despite the lack of elbow room, the interior is spacious and ergonomically proper for most drivers. 

Our TR6 also has a folding top, which transforms the open convertible into a rather smart coupe when we preferred not to have wind in our hair. The Bonneville has no such luxury. This became evident when we made a late-night pause on our journey. The driver of the TR6 decided that the moist night air was something best separated from the driving experience, so the top was popped up during a quick stop. The motorcyclist had to press on through the damp atmosphere. 

While some large tourers may have heat vents or airflow through the fairings, a pure standard like the Bonneville focuses more on the visceral part of the journey rather than the luxurious part. As such, our only options for dealing with the elements were vents in our clothing and a good washing machine once we got home.

While we’re on the subject of weather, we should mention that there is no wet quite like motorcyle-in-the-rain wet. Falling into a pool does not get you as wet as riding a bike in a storm—it’s just you, your gear and the rain, which at 60 mph is more like a barrage of tiny wet bullets. From a motorcycle in a downpour, a TR6 cloth top looks like a bank vault.

Despite its lack of weatherproofing, the Bonneville is a thoroughly modern window directly to the past. Though the styling cues, stance and details may seem like they were pulled directly from the original Bonnevilles of the ’50s and ’60s, the engineering is thoroughly 21st century. 

That doesn’t mean Triumph isn’t proud of the heritage, though. They went so far as to disguise the fuel injection as a set of carburetors—fake float bowls and all. We haven’t met anyone it didn’t fool. Of course, the injected Bonneville starts reliably when cold, hot or anywhere in between, so we’re completely okay with the deception.

Weighing in at just under 500 pounds and with a 58.6-inch wheelbase and 865cc of engine displacement, the Bonneville is squarely in the middleweight division of motorcycles. While it gives away 100 pounds or more to most modern sportbikes, the handling on the 17-inch front and rear wheels is as sporty as it needs to be for this class of bike. 

Probably the best word to describe it is “user friendly,” even though that’s two words. It has a steep enough rake (27 degrees) to create some urgency when carving up a back road, but not so much that it becomes nervous when touring.

Classic sports cars and bikes are more at home on the back roads and byways than on the superslabs of interstate highway. See something interesting? Pull over and look at it. It’s that type of freedom that adds to the allure and romance of these machines. Photography Credit: Zach Prescott

On our trip, touring—especially on the back roads—is where the Bonneville excelled. On the freeway, the five-speed gearbox felt like it could use another ratio to truly feel comfortable at 70-plus mph all day. After we hopped off onto a surface road, however—where we always seemed to be using some of the torque of the parallel twin to negotiate a gentle curve or a slight rise—the Bonneville really shined.

All of the bike’s controls fell easily to hand. The bars were a bit of a reach for our shorter-armed testers, but not so much that they were uncomfortable.

The low 29-inch seat height means that the Bonneville is accessible for riders of nearly any size. Even our shortest riders felt comfortable when at a stop or maneuvering into and out of a parking spot. And just like the fuel injection, the thoroughly modern front and rear disc brakes were a welcome touch of the present wrapped in retro spoked wheels.

The overall impression of the Bonneville, then, was much like that of the TR6. There was a general feeling of confidence and competence in the manners of both vehicles. Like the TR6’s inline six, the 66-horsepower parallel twin also pulled smoothly from idle to redline—although the cycle’s redline was in the 8000 rpm range. With balance shafts, the vibration wasn’t at all intrusive, and our hands and butts were fine after our marathon ride home. 

Both vehicles provided a link to the past—a perfectly clear window we could gaze out of to see and even experience what it used to be like. However, neither trapped us in that world. They simply let us enjoy the cool parts and forget about the rest.

So Which One Wins?

Yeah, there’s that whole “choosing one” thing. Look, you probably knew from the outset that there wasn’t going to be a “winner” as such. Bikes and cars are like apples and oranges, and both of those fruits are quite delicious and good for you. That’s the conclusion we seem to be coming to here: It all comes down to enjoying the journey. 

Drive a classic sports car over a stretch of road and you’ll have a whole set of memories to savor. You’ll fondly recall the way the sun reflected off of the hood and how the wind came over the top of the windshield. You’ll remember that little crackle in the exhaust every time you shifted and the way the steering got just a little bit heavier when you pushed it into a turn. 

Travel the same stretch in a competent, friendly motorcycle and you’ll have a different but no less affecting set of memories to ponder: the wind hitting your chest as you pushed the bike just a little past the posted speed limit; the immediacy of the road, as though your central nervous system were wired directly into the bike; and that fantastic, historic brap from the parallel twin’s peashooter exhaust.

The winner? Whoever’s driving either. We highly recommend making room in the garage for six wheels’ worth of fun.

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

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View comments on the CMS forums
12/10/13 5:22 p.m.

Among our other vehicles my wife drives her beloved 1950 MGTD and rides her 1971 Honda CB350 Four nearly year round in, almost always, sunny Northern California. We restored both and they look like new but are definitly drivers with not a lot of power but a lot of fun. Drive 'em and ride 'em - don't hide 'em.

12/10/13 6:37 p.m.

The obvious answer is to use the bike for quick adrenalin fixes and four wheels for the longer jaunts. This keepw the classic Triumph Bonneville, BSA 750, or Honda 305 Super Hawk (my personal want) tolerable, which longer stints on the saddle don't. Six hours on even the most comfortable motorcycle is really overexposure to the elements.
In 2001 I drove my 76 MGB from Memphis, Tennessee to Saint Joseph, Missouri. It's a distance of 600 miles, taking the short route diagonally across Missouri rather than the Interstates, I-55, I-70 and I-29. It was the week before Sturgis and the route from Memphis to Springfield to Kansas City is the central corridor for those bound to the Black Hills Moto-festival. It cuts through the Ozarks and has some of the nicest curvy four lanes in the entire region. About every ten miles there is another delightful village to slow down for and maybe stop for a meal or shopping. Even doing the 60 mph speed limit is fun, but the traffic generally exceeds that by 10 to 15 miles an hour which is... a beautiful sensation. I came up behind a group of ten or fifteen riders. My wife was driving our other car and leading the way. She passed the entire group, which was doing the speed limit in the right lane. The weather was perfect, 70 degrees and Simpson skies. The late afternoon Sun's golden tones washed the tree lined road way. As I cruised by the woman on the back of the last bike in the parade looked with the greatest longing at my empty passenger seat.

bkwanab New Reader
12/14/20 3:15 p.m.

There is a reason that those of us that rode in the 1960s built Tritons and Tribsas.  The Turner engines were strong but the triumph frames were poor.  Besides riding to the Ace or Busy Bee cafes some of us actually raced on the the many race tracks around Britain such as Brands Hatch, Snetterton, Mallory and Cadwell Parks and even in Londan at the Crystal Palace track.

Of the contemporary brands the Norton "Featherbed" frame handled the best, probably followed by the BSA Gold Star frames, especially when equiped with the Eddie Dow suspension.  If you raced a standard Triumph you would end up at the back or just as likely in the straw bales.  The answer was to put a Triumph engine in a Norton or Beeza frame.  In those days I'd put my Dresda Triton up against most other bikes up until the Honda 750F changed everything.

In the 1960s a Triumph car was a much better machine, as long as you avoided the early swing arm Spitfires and GT6 models.  But also cost a lot more to buy.  These days any compact hatchback commuter vehicle would blow them into the weeds.  That's why I have a Buick engine in my Triumph TR7 Spider, with massively updated suspension and brakes.

Oh, and I keep my Benelli 750 SEI for the occasional ride up the coast and a small Honda TLR200 to ride around my property.  Now I ride much more defensively.

DaveD New Reader
12/14/20 6:44 p.m.

J.G. ~ You bloody well know what perfect pairing was missed here! Comparing a Triumph TR6 with a... (wait for it...) Triumph TR6! Yes, as many door-slammers here might not realize is that the nomenclature for the single-carb 650cc Triumph motorcycle was indeed 'TR6' (as opposed to the 'T120' Bonneville, differentiated by no more than an additional Amal carburettor (spelled correctly, mind you). And comparing 1969 TR6 (4 wheels) to 1969 TR6 (2 wheels) would have been simply too delicious for me to resist when I was publishing British Car & Bike in the 1980s. The machines were genuine contemporaries and potentially more than one buyer of a new TR6 also had a new TR6 in his garage! Sort out that sentence! LOL

So comparing the 1969 Triumph car with the far-more advanced 2010 Triumph Bonneville SE motorcycle was basically comparing a British sports car to a similarly-named retro-modern motorcycle. Not that I didn't enjoy the insights discussed here (I own a few classic British cars and almost too many British motorcycles) comparing the 2-vs-4-wheeled experience (best line: "...a barrage of tiny wet bullets." Totally nailed that one!) and that in of itself was a great read.

And now, while both you and Tim no doubt mutter, "that Dave D. can be such a PITA," I'll retreat back to my gare-awge and spin some spanners on some right-side-shift anachonism.

frenchyd PowerDork
12/14/20 10:31 p.m.

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

Are you nuts?  ( said with humor ) Minnesota we have 6 months of winter. Snow, Ice, freezing cold weather to 40 below.     Insane people won't venture out for those 6 months on a motorcycle. A sports car would be tough enough. But at least they have heaters.  Some form of rudimentary  way to deal with weather. 
       I used to travel with pride in getting my MG or whatever sports car I owned through snow most cars wouldn't venture in but I cannot see putting my transportation up for 6 months of the year.  I did own a variety of motorcycles. Every summer. And sold them in the fall. But even then in pouring rain they were left at home or quickly parked under the first available bridge or whatever until the rain let up. 

wspohn Dork
12/15/20 11:02 a.m.

Easy solution - in areas with significant winter weather, you don't ride a Triumph, you ride a Husky with knobbies on...

bkwanab New Reader
12/15/20 4:05 p.m.

In reply to frenchyd :

In my first Minnesota winter after relocating from the UK I enjoyed cross country skying out my back garage door into the Hennepin county park trails system.  But the second year it got too cold too early and we had no snow all winter other than some powder that just blew around.  In frustration, on one of those glorious clear sunny Minnesota winter days I warmed some oil and poured it into the Benelli SEI crankcase.  It fired right up so donning my riding gear I took off south on country road 18 from Plymouth towards Edina.  That day I really discovered what wind chill is!  The air temp was around -15F but at the then speed limit of 55 mph the wind chill must have brought that below -50F.  I didn't make it to St Louis Park before I turned around and headed for home.   So yes, I was nuts that day!

03Panther Dork
12/15/20 4:47 p.m.

In reply to bkwanab :

Back when I rode more than I was in a car, my lowest ride was 20 deg F. That was riding from middle NC into TN. Wasn’t too bad, with the right gear on. The lowest I ever left the house intentionally just to ride for fun is prolly high 30’s. You sir, have me beat by a lot!smiley

Broadspeed New Reader
1/12/21 4:00 p.m.

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

Great trip down memory lane  for me. I did a mild restoration  on a  69 TR6 back in the 80's  when i operated foreign car shop. Same  British Racing Green.  I live in western north Carolina and touring the mountain roads in the TR6 an awesome experience.  First vehicle i learned to drive was my Dad's 62 Chrysler 300  and I believe that is one in  the background in the junk cars shot.  During high school I rode a 65 Honda CB72  250cc motorcycle. Great speeding ticket magnet! Love that motorcycle and survived riding 4 years in south FL without any broken bones  Thanks for the memories.




SSpro New Reader
2/9/22 11:57 a.m.

After owning a TR3A, TR4 and TR6 over many years I advise new owners of TR6's to be aware of two dangerous things. The first is frame rust where the alloy rear axel supports bolt to the frame with under engineered bolts and secondly, the attachment of the rear hubs into the same alloy support using fine thread bolts into aluminum. Both of these situations are killers and need to be inspected often. British engineering wasn't at it's finest with the TR IRS!

ddavidv UltimaDork
3/3/22 8:11 a.m.

Vintage motorcycles are the solution for the tinkerer who likes variety but only has room for a car or two. You can park a lot of bikes in a single stall garage.

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