Almost exactly one year ago, I came to Motoworks Chicago to trade in two motorcycles and a scooter for a bike I’d desired for nearly a decade: a 2013 Triumph Bonneville. I took it as a very good omen that as I rolled away from Motoworks on that brisk Autumn day, the odometer on my brand new brit bike read exactly 007 miles. “Bonneville. Triumph Bonneville.”
I’d chosen the Bonneville for its classic lines, Triumph’s proven engineering and the bike’s compact, city-friendly proportions. I found the standard Bonneville, with its mag wheels, particularly appealing because of its lively handling and lower stance. I’d also been intrigued by all the things the custom community had been doing with Bonnevilles, Scramblers and Thruxtons alike. Although when I bought it, I didn’t really have any plans to customize it. Already two projects deep in the Salzmoto shop, I intended the Bonneville to be my daily runner. It’d serve as a my go-to modern motorcycle that I knew I could depend on while all my vintage resto-mod projects continued rolling forward. I intended the Bonneville to be the bike I more-or-less left alone.
Yet despite my lack of outlandish custom ambition for my Bonneville, I did have some modest aspirations. The bike was quiet. A little too quiet for my tastes. The engine was really smooth, which is great on the one hand, but I wanted just a little more character. I knew a different exhaust would satisfy both desires, so that was my only real plan for the Bonneville. Well, that and maybe some lower handlebars. And I suppose while I’m changing the handlebars, I might as well toss on some different grips and mirrors. Then if I’m doing grips, I might as well put heating elements under them for the cooler months, right? But that was it! At least that’s what I kept telling myself.
I brought the Bonneville home, then a few days later I rode down to the Barber Vintage Motorcycle Festival on my other white Triumph, a 2010 Tiger 1050 ABS. That trip was glorious and I’m looking forward to going back to that event here in just a few weeks. Yet by the time I came home from Barber, the midwestern winter was already starting to rear its ugly head. Little did I know, the coming months would turn out to be the worst Chicago winter in more than 30 years.
Just before winter set in for real, I moved my recreational mechanic’s setup into a new shop over on West Fulton Street. At the time I was focused primarily on a 1983 Honda GL1100 “Naked Goldwing” project I’ve been working on for a couple years now. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about my Bonneville. I should just pause this and do the exhaust on the Bonneville? I’d think to myself. It won’t take that long. It’d be a nice change of pace to do something easy. So I started looking into exhaust options.
The British Customs Predators seemed an obvious choice, but how about something more outlandish? Inspiration came from an unlikely place. Danny Valdez was the sales guy at Motoworks who’d actually sold me this Bonneville, and he had a Triumph Scrambler of his own. He’d fitted the Arrow performance pipe on his bike, which was a two-into-one, stainless steel, rear-facing bazooka of an exhaust. Best part? It sounded fantastic. I couldn’t help but wonder, could I fit this pipe on a Bonneville somehow?
I consulted with Steve, the Service Manager here at Motoworks to see if this was even possible. “It will mount right up to the engine. Shouldn’t be a problem,” he speculated. I wondered if there’d be any running issues since the Scrambler engine, while identical in many ways, has a 270º firing order compared to the Bonneville’s 360º firing. “We’ll have to find a tune in the ECU that will work for it, but it should run no problem. In the end it’s just an exhaust.” That was enough re-assurance for me. I was in. Let’s do something weird. Let’s put an Arrow Scrambler pipe on a regular Bonneville. How hard could it be?
Before I put in my order for the pipe and the handful of Scrambler parts it’d take to make room for it (such as the right side cover), I decided to do a little playing around in Photoshop. I wanted to make sure the side pipe would look attractive on the Bonneville before investing in the purchase and all the work it’d take to install the system. Being a designer, I naturally turned to Photoshop. I grabbed photos from all over the internet, most actually from British Customs’ website. I was only really planning on doing the exhaust, but because they make so many great, Bonneville-specific parts, I sampled about a dozen images for parts and pieces and assembled a Photoshop franken-bonny. Starting with the Arrow Scrambler pipe, a grander vision for a bike started taking shape. So much for just an exhaust.
I should have known better. In retrospect, it seems so inevitable. Scope creep gave way to a scope runaway, and before I knew it, I’d designed an entire rework of the Bonneville in Photoshop. Seat, bars, grips, mirrors, rear fender, new exhaust — the list got longer and longer. With that seed planted, there was no going back. I did manage to give myself one limitation, however. Because I’d remixed this bike from images of aftermarket parts and pieces, I decided to limit myself to what I could get off-the-shelf from the Triumph parts catalogue and aftermarket suppliers like British Customs, Biltwell, Speed Merchant and Dime City Cycles. I would restrict custom fabrication to only those parts I had to build, rather than this project getting any more ambitions than it’d already gotten in Photoshop. After all, I wanted to ride this thing once the weather got warm again, not lay it up for three years doing something super ambitious.
Beyond that, I wanted to share this project when it was finished, hoping that it would be an inspiration for other would-be garage builders. I wanted to show people that they can do something remarkable without spending a huge pile of money or having a garage full of specialized tools.
With a clear vision on the screen, I reached out to Stef at Motoworks to start acquiring parts. She and Steve helped me navigate the Triumph parts fiche to identify what I’d need to make the Arrow side pipe work on the Bonneville. Stef also helped me wrangle components from British Customs and Biltwell, which we carry right in the shop. Within a few weeks, I had a pile of new components for the project, and there was nothing left but the doing of it all.
There were definitely challenges along the way, but the good kind. Getting that Arrow Scrambler pipe to mount up to the Bonneville was pretty straightforward, but it required a couple of additional (and expensive) Scrambler parts that I hadn’t planned on. In particular, the right-side foot peg brackets and the rear brake master cylinder. While I didn’t really have to re-engineer anything, I did have to improvise quite a bit. The project turned into a kind of LEGO set made of Bonneville and Scrambler parts from Triumph and a plethora of other parts mostly from British Customs and Biltwell. Yet over the course of just a couple months, the Bonneville transformed.
(You can see the step-by-step progression of the build over on Instagram using the hashtag #salzmotobonny. Or, head over to Salzmoto.com, where I’ll be recapping the build in detail over the coming weeks.)
Because the Pareto Principle is always true, I had about 80% of the project done in the first six weeks or so, but actually completing the project would take another six months because of schedule conflicts. Yet every hour of time (about 40-50 hours total) had been worth it. I couldn’t be more proud of the results. While I’ve made changes to my original design concept along the way, such as opting for the OEM Triumph tach and choosing not to use the knee pads or black-out the wheels, I was still seeing the results of executing against a concept. I’d envisioned something and then made it happen, and given how so many of the projects I work on day-to-day have intangible results, seeing a beautiful, working motorcycle roll out of my shop was as satisfying as anything I’ve ever done. I had dared, and I had succeeded.
Most of all, I’d succeeded in what was, for me, this project’s main mission. Anyone could have built this bike. With only two pieces of very simple custom fabrication on the whole machine (the rear exhaust hanger and the rear brake pedal return spring anchor), I’d built the whole bike using nothing but common tools like a bench vice and angle grinder — stuff I’d picked up at Home Depot. No welding, no sheet metal work, no sending things out for powdercoat or paint. Just some time and effort and a willingness to try new things and iterate until I was happy with the results.
I can’t stress this enough: You could have built this bike in your garage. Yes, you. Sure, I modified a lot of the components, but all using simple tools costing less than $60. All those barriers that I’d imagined for building a bike of this caliber were all in my imagination. Most of all, it’s my hope that if you’re into the results you see here, that you’ll try something like this of your own.
The real key to how this project turned out is all the people who helped me make it happen, especially here at Motoworks. It wasn’t just expertise, like Steve’s advice on the exhaust, Jacob putting the right ECU tune on for me, or Jonathan figuring out why I couldn’t get the Triumph accessory tach to work (I plugged it in upside down. D’oh!). It wasn’t just logistical help from Stef, Mario and Brian in securing parts for the bike. The most important support came from Johnny and the whole team at Motoworks by way of their enthusiasm for the project — a project that wasn’t even a Motoworks project in any sort of official capacity. There wasn’t anything in it for them, but everybody was jazzed and couldn’t wait to see the final result. I also got key help from people out in the Chicago community at large. Jen Marquez did amazing hand-drawn type for the side cover, and Juan Hernandez took the amazing photos you’re seeing here.
Now that the project is done, a completely different kind of fun has begun. With winter once again looming on the horizon, the Bonneville and I are out tearing up the streets of Chicago as much as possible. As in love as I am with the looks of this bike, it’s just as great to ride. The Arrow exhaust is so light, it’s made a real difference in how fast the bike feels. That and the tune Jacob put on the ECU have made this Bonneville really feel like the 900cc bike that it is. Then there’s the noise. Oh man, the exhaust sounds spectacular. Everything on the bike is serving a real purpose, especially the stealth heated grips that are coming in so handy this time of year.
So for now, I’m just out enjoying this unlikely machine. I hadn’t planned to take it this far, but I’m really glad I did. We’re planning to bring the bike down to Barber this year as well, so keep an eye out in the Motoworks paddock, or maybe even in the Ace Cafe Corner. More importantly, get out in the garage and start a project of your own, and if you need any help, Motoworks is here for you.