Motorcycles allow us to indulge our appetite for nostalgia like few other vehicles. Riding a motorcycle can transport us back to younger, more carefree times. And if motorcycles from the past stir your emotions, you can satisfy those impulses without having to deal with the fussy carburetors, mushy suspension and Fred Flintstone-caliber brakes of true vintage bikes. Within the broad range of motorcycles on the market today, you can buy classic cruisers, throwback bobbers, knockabout scramblers and oh-so-cool café racers, and thanks to modern engineering, you can have the style without the headaches. Cruisers have been around the longest, with the traditional styling carried forth most faithfully and continuously by Harley-Davidson. But most of today’s bobbers, scramblers and café racers are part of a retro revival that blossomed after the housing bubble burst and the chopper craze went belly-up.
Two companies that have been particularly active in this revival are BMW and Triumph. The Brits have been at it a while, starting with the resurrection of the Bonneville back in 2000. Triumph redesigned the Bonneville platform from the ground up for 2016, modernizing the line with liquid cooling, throttle-by-wire and ABS while also turning back the clock with more classic styling. After launching five models in 2016, including the Street Twin, T120 and T120 Black (which shared Rider’s Motorcycle of the Year award), and Thruxton and Thruxton R, Triumph rolled out three more Bonneville variants this year—the Street Cup, Street Scrambler and Bobber.
BMW is no stranger to tradition, of course, having built motorcycles powered by its iconic boxer twin since the 1920s. But its participation in the retro movement is fairly recent, starting with the R nineT in 2014, a new model that offered back-in-the-day styling, modern components and a modular, customization-friendly design, all in one tidy package. Just as the reborn Bonneville has been the genesis for spin-offs, the R nineT has birthed retro offspring of its own, including the Scrambler, Pure (which we tested last month), Urban G/S and Racer.
When we compared the R nineT and Bonneville T120 Black in our November 2016 issue (also on ridermagazine.com), we were surprised at how two bikes that look so similar on paper could offer such different riding experiences, leading EIC Tuttle to label the BMW a “brawler” and the Triumph a “gentleman.” Shifting from roadsters to café racers leads to this comparison between the R nineT Racer and Thruxton, though just by looking at them it’s obvious that BMW and Triumph have taken very different approaches. With its bullet fairing, rear seat cowl, low clip-on handlebars and stretched-out profile, the Racer screams its intent: get on, shut up and go fast. The Thruxton speaks in more hushed tones. Its Pure White paint, spoked wheels, dual rear shocks and dummy monobloc carburetors are more genteel, even a bit buttoned-down.
Inspired by the BMW Concept 90—a 2013 collaboration between BMW Motorrad and Roland Sands Design to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the R 90 S—the Racer’s sculpted plastic bodywork and steel tank are painted Light White and accented with the iconic blue/purple/red stripes that have symbolized BMW’s Motorsport division for decades. Looking at the Racer parked on its sidestand, when your eyes drift below the bodywork you see a modern motorcycle that won’t easily be confused with a ’70s-era BMW. Its air/oil-cooled, 1,170cc boxer twin powered BMW’s entire R-series lineup just five years ago and power is sent to the rear wheel through a single-sided, shaft-driven Paralever swingarm with a single shock. For a cleaner appearance and lower cost, BMW’s signature Telelever front end has been replaced with a conventional fork, and there’s a steering damper to keep things under control. The Thruxton, on the other hand, has a much more traditional look. Idling at a stop light or pulling into a gas station often elicits admiring stares from folks who may think you’re riding a nicely restored classic.
As easy as the Racer is on the eyes—it gets my vote for best-looking new motorcycle for 2017—it sure is hard on the body. High, rear-set footpegs and low clip-ons positioned ahead of the triple clamp mean the rider has no choice but to lean over and stretch far forward. Riding around in the attack position, especially on tight, twisty roads, can be fun—for a while. But after a long afternoon in the saddle with plenty of stops and breaks, my lower back hurt, my neck hurt and my hands and wrists hurt. Even the small, firm seat, which didn’t bother me on the Pure, took its toll, in part because my hips were rotated so far forward. Racer owners will want to keep their chiropractor on speed dial. About the only time I found relief was when cruising down the freeway at 75 mph, with windblast coming off the bubble screen hitting me in the chest and taking weight off my wrists.
Perhaps knowing that the Thruxton will appeal to riders who are not only old enough to feel nostalgic about classic Bonnevilles but also have the disposable income to buy a new one, Triumph endowed it with much more humane ergonomics. Compared to the Racer, its clip-on handlebars are much higher and closer to the rider, its footpegs are lower and farther forward and its seat is longer and more supportive. Both bikes have 31.7-inch seats designed to accommodate just the rider and there are no passenger footpegs, though accessories are available if you want to carry a passenger.
Although it weighs a few more pounds than the Racer, the Thruxton’s narrow tank and shorter wheelbase make it feel smaller, and its sporty steering geometry and grippy sport-touring tires make it easy to squirt through traffic and negotiate tight corners. The Triumph’s twin-pot front calipers are surprisingly strong and its suspension strikes a nice balance between comfort and responsiveness. Living up to its name, the stretched-out Racer has stiffer suspension and stronger brakes, and its revvy, buzzy boxer feels raw with a barky exhaust that snaps, crackles and pops on decel. Although the Thruxton’s parallel twin is silky smooth and has a muted exhaust, it’s surprisingly strong. The BMW makes more rear-wheel horsepower—98.5 at 7,700 rpm compared to 90.2 at 6,700 rpm on Jett Tuning’s dyno—but the Triumph is a stump-puller, grunting out 79.6 lb-ft of torque at just 3,600 rpm compared to the BMW’s 74.5 lb-ft at 6,300 rpm. Grab a handful of the Thruxton’s throttle between 3,000 and 4,000 rpm and the front wheel will rise up momentarily before TC kicks in and sets it back down. The Thruxton allows you to tailor the riding experience to conditions or mood with three throttle-response modes (Sport, Road and Rain), and switchable traction control is standard. There are no riding modes on the BMW, and traction control is a $400 option (our test bike also had accessory heated grips, which cost $250).
Some motorcycles steal our hearts, some stimulate our minds and really special ones do both. I’ve had a crush on the BMW R nineT Racer since the first moment I laid eyes on one. Its sleek bodywork, cheetah-like profile and gorgeous paint scheme speak to me on a primal level. And the underlying engine and chassis are exciting, timeless and appropriately sporty. But I like to ride motorcycles, to put miles on them, not just look at them, and I couldn’t live with the Racer’s 110-percent-commitment riding position. A motorcycle that puts my hands to sleep during a relaxed cruise down the coast will end up sitting in my garage. The Triumph Thruxton is not only a delight to look at, it’s a genuine pleasure to ride—comfortable, nimble, torquey and responsive. It offers a well-balanced blend of authentic style, modern performance and all-around livability. And if I want to scratch my Racer itch, Triumph’s accessory list for the Thruxton includes a bullet-shaped café fairing, an Arrow 2-into-1 exhaust and more.
2017 BMW R nineT Racer Specs
Base Price: $13,295
Price as Tested: $13,945 (heated grips, ASC)
Warranty: 3 yrs., 36,000 miles
Type: Air/oil-cooled, longitudinal opposed flat twin
Bore x Stroke: 101.0 x 73.0mm
Compression Ratio: 12.0:1
Valve Train: DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 6,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: Fully sequential EFI, 50mm throttle bodies x 2
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 4.2-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, hydraulically-actuated dry clutch
Final Drive: Shaft, 2.9:1
Ignition: Electronic (BMS-MP)
Charging Output: 720 watts max.
Battery: 12V 14AH
Frame: Tubular-steel bridge frame w/ engine as stressed member, Paralever single-sided cast aluminum swingarm
Wheelbase: 58.7 in.
Rake/Trail: 26.4 degrees/4.1 in.
Seat Height: 31.7 in.
Suspension, Front: 43mm stanchions, no adj., 4.9-in. travel
Rear: Single shock, adj. for spring preload & rebound damping, 4.7-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 320mm floating discs w/ radial-mount opposed 4-piston calipers & ABS
Rear: Single 265mm disc w/ floating 2-piston caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Cast, 3.50 x 17 in.
Rear: Cast, 5.50 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: 120/70-ZR17
Wet Weight: 486 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity: 462 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 948 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 4.5 gals., last 0.8 gal. warning light on
MPG: 91 PON min. (low/avg/high) 37.4/42.0/59.6
Estimated Range: 189 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 3,400
2017 Triumph Thruxton Specs
Base Price: $13,000
Price as Tested: $13,250 (Pure White)
Warranty: 2 yrs., unltd. miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse parallel twin
Bore x Stroke: 97.6 x 80.0mm
Compression Ratio: 11.0:1
Valve Train: SOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 12,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: Multipoint sequential EFI, 44mm throttle bodies x 2
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 4.0-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated assist-and-slipper wet clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Charging Output: 558 watts max.
Battery: 12V 10AH
Frame: Tubular-steel cradle w/ twin-sided cast aluminum swingarm
Wheelbase: 55.7 in.
Rake/Trail: 22.7 degrees/3.6 in.
Seat Height: 31.7 in.
Suspension, Front: 41mm stanchions, no adj., 4.7-in. travel
Rear: Dual shocks, adj. for preload, 4.7-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 310mm discs w/ floating 2-piston calipers & ABS
Rear: Single 220mm disc w/ floating 2-piston caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Spoked, 3.50 x 17 in.
Rear: Spoked, 5.50 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: Tube-type, 120/70-ZR17
Rear: Tube-type, 160/60-ZR17
Wet Weight: 502 lbs.
Load Capacity: 450 lbs.
GVWR: 952 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.8 gals., last 0.9 gal. warning light on
MPG: 87 PON min. (low/avg/high) 37.7/43.6/51.0
Estimated Range: 166 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 2,700