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5th January 2003


Steve Wilson has travelled Down The Road of classic motorcycling for donkey's years. In this first part of his new series, he reckons that if you had to choose just one bike as the one true classic, it would surely be Triumph's Bonneville...

What Bonnie does best!The Lost Traveller

Photos by Garry Stuart

Hugh Brown is a modest, friendly guy, with just a bat-squeak of Ken Dodd about his facial features. He's also probably one of the top three or four restorers of Triumph twins in the UK, and there are some formidable contenders for that title. Hugh specialises particularly in the unit 650 twins built between 1964 and 1970. As US writer Peter Egan summed it up, the 1967-70 Bonnevilles 'seemed, like the DC-3 aircraft or the Winchester saddle gun, to be the final product and distillation of everything learned about balance and proportion in the era that preceded it.' Nice bikes.

Museum Meet

I first met Hugh Brown during a breakfast run to the excellent London Motorcycle Museum in Greenford. He was with his pal John Bobeckyj (pronounced. 'Bubeski'); they'd thrashed down the A1 together from their homes outside Stevenage, John on a modern 1450cc Harley and Hugh on his UK spec '68 Triumph 650 Bonneville. Hugh had also built John a '65 Bonnie, and John wasn't slow to tell me how good Hugh was at what he did.

They roared off for the ride back home, most of which reportedly took place at over 80mph -- Hugh doesn't pamper his Triumphs. And when I called on him at his Hertfordshire home, where he lives with wife Noreen and sons Grant (20) and Harry (17), with the modest workshop out the back, John was present again.

You'd look as happy as Hugh with that bike parked in your workshop

We stepped out to Hugh's modestly proportioned workplace, and John told me it had been even more modest a couple of weeks previously. 'About 9-foot square, including his lathe and workbench, which we've now doubled. But even then it was OK, because Hugh's so meticulous and organised. His attention to detail is incredible. See these tank badges on my '65?' John tapped the curved, flamboyant 'mouth organ' badges, a design based on the radiator grille of a Buick automobile. 'I wanted original ones, but they cost 250. So Hugh bought pattern ones, and then spent two days cutting and filing and making them perfect, and then on a linishing belt getting the exact correct curvature to the tank. If he uses cap screws, he takes all the knurling off so they don't get dirt in them. That's how he is.'

Triumph Type

Hugh's involvement with Triumph twins goes way back, but was never exclusive. From 1969 to 1972 he held the class record at Santa Pod drag strip on a 350 Triumph, 'a standard 3TA with Tiger 90 stuff in it.' At the same time and until 1982 he was club racing an ex-works 500 Suzuki. 'It was so forgiving; I spannered it myself, and saw some results. Then I got a Hatch TZ500 Yamaha - it was so different, there was no feedback, and I fell off it three or four times.'

So how did his hobby of restoration turn into a business? 'Well I still do it as a hobby, really, as fun. I only do projects to commission. But four years ago I took early retirement, with pension, from my job selling insurance. With the restoration I don't need to advertise, I get work now by word of mouth, or via my website.' That's www.TheBikeShed.net

'Work in progress? There's a bloke in Belgium interested in my doing a '66 Bonnie for him; he's got the frame and engine, and then we'll go from there. A guy in Philadelphia also wants a Sixties' Bonnie; I'll source one and strip and rebuild it for him. And a guy in Australia has left a deposit, and is coming over next summer to commission a Bonneville. And John wants a '55 Thunderbird.'

'And my wife Anne wants a '62 Bonnie,' John chimes in, 'because that's what we met on, many years ago. I was the only biker at this really posh party when I first met her. I told her I had a motorbike, a Triumph, and then said "You don't know what that is, do you?" She said "Oh yes. Is it a Bonneville, a Trophy or a 500?" We were away.

'I've had the '65 for 22 years, it was what I got after the '62, and my sole transport for a while. I'd thought of selling it or chopping it, but then three years ago I met Hugh at a vintage rally in Stevenage, saw his bike and asked him to sort out the '65 for me. Now it's fantastic. It starts first kick, and I ride it in all weathers. I thrash it, and it doesn't leak oil or break down. I've got modern bikes including a Ducati, plus a fast car, but the Bonneville is my best thing - it's always so great when you go past a modern one on it!'

No... no oil leaks at all. Is this some kind of voodoo?

Barber's Haircut

Hugh Brown's own bikes are good arguments for the quality of his work. There's the '68 Bonnie in UK trim (4 gallon tank, flatter bars etc), his favourite, as well as a shapely example from 1970 in US export finish, with high bars and the classic 'teardrop' 2.5 (US) gallon tank, painted with white-lined silver scallops. 'It's a totally different animal,' said Hugh, 'more of a cruiser. I built it for a laugh, really -- a friend wanted a Bonnie, and we had to buy two, so I was left with a frame and a set of cases, and built it up from there.'

Some bits can prove troublesome to source - like the proper 'top hat' air cleaners for Hugh's own Bonnies. 'They were specific to Triumphs, and only on '67 - '70 Bonnevilles, not Trophies. The pattern ones are flat backed, lacking the 'top hat' lip. In the end I found some at an autojumble.'

Trying Triton

And despite his experience, some projects can still be a big headache. Hugh gestures at a slim silver machine in the workshop. It's a recently completed Triton, the classic marriage of top-handling Norton Featherbed frame and Triumph pre-unit motor.

'The Triton was a nightmare,' sighed Hugh. 'It's been endless shimming, spacing, welding - and dealing with crap parts you buy from so-called specialists, that are rubbish. But it's been a labour of love - the guy who owns it has become a very good friend. He's a builder, and he gave me the tank, seat and two pairs of crankcases and told me to build him a Triton. Oh, and not to take the dents out of the tank, because they'd make it look authentic!

'Like most of my customers, he had money. Frankly, if you ring and ask me how much a rebuild's going to cost, you probably can't afford it. People do sometimes say they don't want to spend too much, but then they come round and see my bikes and say, I don't care about the money, it's gotta look like that! The builder gave me a free hand, which was nice. You do get some odd customers. One guy after a Bonneville seemed perfectly reasonable - till he told me he wanted it painted pink. No, I only do them right, the way they came out of the factory. Internal mods are OK, and stainless - it's green, you can use fasteners again, where cadmium corrodes.

'The Triton's engine is a 1960 T110 fitted with a nine-stud twin carb head, and belt primary drive. It's got a complete Boyer ignition system; we took the magneto off and fitted a Powerbox and a double-ended coil very neatly mounted under the tank nose. I made up a John Tickle-type bracket for the speedo and rev counter; I believe the originals were never handed, so I made them left and right. The exhaust pipes were too close, so I made plates for the silencers from quarter inch Dural. It took a day, and I did the two together - but then they only fitted on one side! I also had to make spacers so that the exhaust pipes were the same height.

'The central oil tank seemed to be a perfect fit, but before polishing it, fortunately I put the inner chaincase on the engine - and found that the tank's drain plug fouled it. One of the wheels would lock up - I found that the brake plate had been machined incorrectly, so that when everything was tightened, the wheel wouldn't turn. Everything was so time-consuming -- it took seven months, and that was doing something on it every single day. I built the bike up three times - twice, and then a final time after Precision had done the paintwork.

'The controls are genuine Tomaselli, and the clocks have 'Dresda' on them. Everything is either stainless or polished - it was fun making the spacers for the rear-set control linkages, I can tell you! All the nuts and bolts are pointing the same way - I'm a sad sod like that. I left the ears on the front forks for a Norton mudguard, so that one could be fitted if anyone ever wants to put the bike back to original - that's a nice way to do things, I think.'

Amen to that. The builder must be pleased, as he now wants a Bonnie. 'Everyone that's bought a bike off Hugh wants another one,' explained his friend John, 'not instead of the first one, but as well! He did a Trophy recently, actually the best thing he's ever done, and now the guy wants a Saint (the police model 650) - nostalgia, he used to have one.' If you need to convince a partner/bank manager about the expense of a Hugh Brown rebuild, you could try playing the 'investment' card. 'Recently a '68 Trophy I did got sold,' said Hugh, 'the guy's hips had gone, and it was up for six grand.' Anything over about 4500 is top dollar for the relatively plentiful unit 650s.

Hugh has no plans to change course. 'I'll stay with the Triumph twins I know,' he said, 'that's '63 to '70 - the oil-in-frame twins don't float my boat, and I don't want to do a triple.'

'I've got all the tools you need to do a pre-'71 unit 650. Both mine go well, and I give them a real pasting - see the blued pipes on them?' Well, that's the final test for a rebuild, and it's what they were built for. Though not always built as well as Hugh Brown puts 'em together.


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