Honey I grew the cruiser…

Throughout the 90’s, it wasn’t just fast food that was getting the supersize treatment – so were motorcycles. By the new millennium, Kawasaki’s Vulcan exceeded the two-litre mark and Harley had their 1450cc ’88’ engine. Even so, when Triumph finally brought out their Rocket in 2004, the sheer size of it engendered an outbreak of jaw- dropping unequalled since the parting of the Red Sea. As if a 2.3 litre engine was not enough, a wet weight of 350 kilos, a fuel tank of almost 6 gallons and a 240 section rear tyre gave it more presence than a T-Rex in ray-bans. In fact, if Godzilla could ride, he’d have had one.

But though The Rocket has, without doubt, entered the motorcycle pantheon of Unique and Famous Bikes, the big triple has never been the run away success the Hinckley firm hoped.

Triumph Rocket Touring 2011 Paris Show. Image:Wikipedia

Triumph Rocket Touring 2011 Paris Show. Image:Wikipedia

Some say the basic design concept was flawed. The bike was aimed primarily at the American market on the basis that in the USA, size matters. Yet traditional cruiser riders are a conservative bunch and they were used to v-twins, not triples. The Rocket lacked both the visual beauty of the v-engine and, crucially, the familiar thump-thump soundtrack.

Just as importantly, Americans wanting speed traditionally bought Triumphs because they were lighter and faster than Harleys. The Rocket is fast, but light it certainly isn’t. The bike didn’t so much leave Yankee buyers unimpressed, as just plain bemused.

But misjudging a marketing niche doesn’t make the Rocket a bad bike. Ten years later, it’s still white-knuckle fast, raucously loud (in an off-beat triply way and assuming you ditch the standard pipes) and looks so glam-rock outrageous it’ll put a grin on your chops the moment you open the garage door. Triumph should get a medal just for imagining such a thing.

In the flesh, there’s seemingly 10 acres of gleaming chrome to keep Sunday polishers happy; the bike will leave a cloud of roasted rubber (and numerous lesser bikes) in it’s wake at the traffic light Grand Prix and, in a nod to practicality, the huge gas tank means that you won’t be stopping every hundred miles like most cruiser riders. In a nutshell, the the Rocket is huge fun, inspired pride of ownership and giving recession-hit egos a welcome boost.

Triumph Rocket Classic 2009. Our test bike.

Triumph Rocket Classic 2009. Our test bike.

The technical stuff…

The heart of the beast is a three cylinder over-square DOHC four stroke with a cavernous capacity of 2294 cc – more than the lump in many family cars. It runs a laid back compression ratio of 8.7 to one, but even so manages to kick ass to the tune of 146bhp.

Torque is enough to tow the Queen Mary down the fast lane of the M1 (no it’s not, Ed.) – a huge 147 ft/lbs. Even though the Rocket revs to 7,000 rpm, around 90% of the torque is available at just 2500. Astonishingly, it delivers more pulling power at tickover than The Triumph Trophy does flat out.

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In terms of model range, there are now two models to choose from, the Roadster with footrests nearly five inches farther back and an inch lower than the original Rocket III, and the Touring with foot-boards, hard saddlebags, screen and softer power delivery. Another bike you’re likely to come across however is the Classic, which has the floor-boards but no luggage – we chose this as our test bike.

Suspension and braking

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In terms of handling the power, and the mass, what you get is frankly a mixed bag. Moderate rake angle and heavy upside-down forks keep the front end reasonably well behaved, although there is no adjustment available.

But the rear shocks are awful and deliver a jarring ride on anything less than perfectly smooth tarmac. Slowing the bike though is admirably achieved by twin 320mm stoppers front and a single 319mm rear which haul the bike up impressively fast.

Odd though it might seem, the handling tends to be better on the Touring model as this has a narrower rear tyre (180 instead of 240) and better rear shocks. Turn in is faster and ride smoother.

Equipment

Extra gauges are available to add detail to inputs and bling up the cockpit.

Extra gauges are available to add detail to inputs and bling up the cockpit.

Triumph have clearly taken a leaf out of BMW’s book when specifying the Rocket; standard levels on the Classic and Roadster are pretty basic with the tourer only a tad better, but the accessories catalogue is huge.

Pick and mix does offer choice but seems a bit mean given the bike’s asking price. For instance, our 2009 model originally came with no clock or fuel gauge until the previous owner kindly added these OEM ‘extras’ .

More oddly for a water-cooled bike, it also had no water temperature gauge, nor indeed for so appealing a candidate for theft, an alarm or immobiliser. We added these HERE. There is no ABS as standard on earlier bikes.

Triumph make a kit for heated grips, and another for fog lamps, both pre-wired in the bike’s harness. We fitted the latter HERE and also upgraded the feeble OEM horn with a fabulous America Wollo air horn HERE.

More recent bikes have immobiliser and alarm as standard as well as ABS and the 2014 Touring model comes with fog lamps, screen, crash bars, panniers and computer.

With the Rocket more than most bikes, if buying pre-owned, check out exactly what your bike does and does not have before handing over the cash.

Looks and performance

Image: Wkimedia

Image: Wkimedia

The bug eyed headlights and buxom curves of the Rocket make for a bike that is striking rather than pretty (think Doris Day not Angelina Jolie) except for the engine which is, frankly, just an ugly lump, best left blacked out as Triumph have indeed done. It’s a shame more could not have been done to improve this key visual component of any cruiser’s looks.

Fine build quality though is apparent from the deep shine of the tasty paintwork to the quality and lustre of the chrome. It’s well put together and built to last.

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The Rocket is not all-show-and-no-go. It looks powerful and indeed, in a most Ronseal sort of way, it is. Straight-line performance is impressive, with the old girl being able to hoist her skirts and blast forward at rates normally only seen on sportsbikes.

Embarrassing fast cars and other unsuspecting bikes at traffic lights can be humungous fun. Similarly overtakes can be accomplished safely and quickly with the flick of the wrist – a far cry from the anxious throttle-wringing needed to pass traffic on a typical Harley. It’s simply astonishing to see how fast a car turns into a mere dot in your mirror as the Rocket blasts off.

Triumph launched the Rocket Classic with a brilliantly funny advertising video. Click to go to video. Image: Triumph Motorcycles.

Triumph launched the Rocket Classic with a brilliantly funny advertising video. Click to go to video. Image: Triumph Motorcycles.

Road test

We had our test bike for three months and managed a mix of Sunday ride-outs, a short tour and a few urban errands. We also fitted a range of accessories and carried out some maintenance tasks (see a number of videos RIGHT >.

The first thing that strikes you as you sit on the bike is, unsurprisingly, the sheer bulk. However Triumph have cleverly kept the weight low and the tank pinched in where it meets the seat – meaning that most riders will get feet flat on the ground. Combined with a low seat height, this all goes to make the bike pretty un-threatening, at least for an experienced rider.

Start the engine, and you are greeted by a disappointingly quiet exhaust note. Many people remove the cat (there’s a Triumph replacement pipe that goes in it’s place) and some fit the Triumph-Off-Road or TORS pipes. We had a de-cat pipe already on ours, so we drilled the baffles for some extra sound and had a free re-map done by our local dealer. The result can be heard HERE. It’s not bad … fruity and a bit snorty, but isn’t the traditional a rhythmic beat of a V-Twin .

Once underway, the mass becomes surprisingly controllable, both around town and when parking up. On the open road, gear shifts are clunky but positive, except for finding neutral at traffic lights, which is a known bugbear. Occasionally there’s a bit of feedback from the shaft, but nothing worrying.

Open the taps on the engine, and sheer rush of acceleration would make a plaster saint giggle. With torque coming in so low you can ride a fat wedge of power giving rapid response with a scooter-like twist of the throttle. Delivery is not like the low down grunt of a traditional cruiser though – the bike revs freely and power keeps rising right to 5750 rpm. Overall the engine’s characteristics encourage speed and rapid acceleration.

Overtakes are easy – in fact near addictive. Need to cut speed quickly though, and the bike can do it, except on a wet road or in a curve, when things can get ugly real quick. With no ABS on our 2009 model it was easy to lock up either front or rear.

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Cornering is fine in fast sweepers, but limited ground clearance soon makes itself felt if you try anything more ambitious at speed. In a blast through the twisties, Yamaha’s V-Max would leave the Triumph struggling. Something hard to believe from the British brand. You might well say that a cruiser isn’t supposed to corner like a sports bike, but then cruisers aren’t traditionally supposed to be this fast or powerful either.

And this brings us to the problem at the heart of the Rocket; With so much power on tap and good brakes, the bike seduces you into situations where the handling just can’t cope. Put simply, the engine writes cheques the chassis can’t cash. Fast in a straight-line, you soon learn to back off well before a corner arrives and pick your line through it in advance and with care. It makes for a rather disjointed ride.

Ride quality is poor for something so heavy. Even uprated shocks don’t entirely cure the problem, though they are a start. Normally mass aids a smooth ride (as it does for instance with Honda’s VALKYRIE). But with the Rocket, even moderate bumps create a jarring of the lower back that seems designed to keep chiropractors in business and touring ambitions limited.

Living with it …and prices

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The Rocket is a fun bike for a Sunday blast, It’s stable and maneuverable enough in traffic to be used for general urban riding, were it not for blast-furnace-like heat coming off the engine and exhaust close to the rider’s right leg.

Touring is limited by rider and pillion comfort problems, but shortish high-speed blasts are fine – we didn’t find the seating configuration on the feet-forward Classic a problem until around 100 MPH. You probably wouldn’t want to do this for long or in the rain however, even with the tourer’s screen, which creates unpleasant buffeting.

In terms of running costs and reliability, early bikes had a few niggles, quickly fixed by Triumph. Later models are generally reliable. Access for servicing is good and most owners will be able to keep costs down by doing basic stuff themselves. For instance, we changed the Spark Plugs HERE. If this appeals, invest in a centre or paddock stand such as the Flipmeister one HERE. Shaft drive means no belt or chain maintenance.

New bikes start at £13,000 for the Roadster and a grand more for the Touring. Rocket’s hold value if looked after and if mileage is kept low – even an early 2005 model will set you back around £6,000. Best bet is to look for a speced-up low mileage model ideally with ABS. A tasty 2010 will cost you around £9,000. Check out candidates on MCN HERE.

Verdict

We’re glad Triumph built the Rocket – it’s a bike on which you can have loads of fun and which possess the grin factor in abundance. But we give it the ‘Curate’s Egg Award’ for being only Good in Parts; A mighty engine, fabulous acceleration and excellent brakes, coupled with exuberant styling we all like, but these have to be set against limited handling ability, excessive weight and sadly disappointing ride quality.

Above all we can’t shake the idea that the fault may lie with the basic concept; lacking the beat of a twin and with more power and weight than the chassis can handle, it satisfies neither those looking for a traditional cruiser nor those wanting a more adrenaline fuelled two-wheeled experience. It just doesn’t feel right riding it slowly. But on the other hand, as speeds rise the willingness of the engine can get you into situations the rest of the beast is uncomfortable with.

Nothing wrong with Rocket quality though, and it’s a head turner for sure. Prices aren’t cheap but then again, value for money is good given the sheer presence of the bike and reasonable running costs. For our cash though, if we wanted a bike of this ilk, we’d be thinking more of the Thunderbird or America. If we had more cash still, then it would be the V-Max. All of these have a better sound, better handling and less weight. Tests of all of them coming to this magazine soon