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After a day's escapades, Steve The Toaster reckons this is one Triumph which is a classic straight from the crate. Martin Gelder, on the other hand, says it might be big but it's not clever...

Triumph Rocket III

A large number of people would have you believe that good things come in small packages. What about chocolates? Ask TP and she'll tell you, without hesitation, that size is everything. Likewise, Premium Bond wins. Small ones are nice, but bigger is better. There are some sayings that I can whole-heartedly agree with; one of my favourites, instilled into me by my elder brother was 'There's No Substitute For Cubes'. This stemmed from his love of American V8 custom cars. It is a philosophy that I have done my damnedest to live by; bigger drinks, bigger dinners, bigger bikes and bigger fun; only in the area of women have I let this slip! Therefore you can imagine the deep joy with which I received the news that Triumph had decided to put the 2.3 litre behemoth, first spotted being tested in 2002, into production.

It's bigger than this in real life...

The grapevine works well in our neck of the woods and as soon as I heard that the local Triumph dealer had taken delivery of their first one, a demo bike for prospective customers, I was up there in no time flat. Sat in its crate, it looked large; ridiculously large; Valkyrie large. As the packaging came off and the wheels went on, it started to look more and more like a possible proposition as a serious motorcycle.

Once free of its bonds, I had my first sit. The Rocket III's bars are very wide, with possibly the widest span on a production bike today. The feet forward, splayed leg position required by the tank blends you into the bike, and this fades into the background once you actually start to ride it.

Much pathetic whinging, unashamed begging, crying and throwing of teddies out of prams ensued until one of my very, very nice friends at the shop managed to convince the very, very nice salesman that I, a gibbering, slobbering wreck should be let loose on it. I decided to wait until the first service had been carried out so that I could enjoy unleashing some of the true power of the enormous engine. Well, actually, all of it.

Arriving far too early to collect it, I got to chat with the chief mechanic Charles who was servicing it; he was fairly upbeat (for him!) about the Rocket and had recently finished his Triumph course on the bike. He had carried out the initial break-in period on this particular bike and had found no problems other than controlling his wrist. Even at running-in speeds, the acceleration in top gear had stunned him.

'Ripping up a ribbon of tarmac as you accelerate' was how he put it. I was looking forward to sampling the 140bhp / 147lb/ft of torque myself!

On a triple, it's unsurprising that things tend come in threes. Three spark plugs, three pistons, three exhausts, and three sump plugs; standing on the workbench, the Rocket III looked impatient to be finished so it could be unleashed to rip up tarmac once more. Service complete, his assistant took the bike out over the four mile road test course they use to check all was well.

Finally, I saw the bike returning to the showroom and with helmet already donned, I'm given my final 'pre-flight' check and the bike is mine for a day. Lifting it off the sidestand is surprisingly easy and the clutch is very light. Engaging the first of the five gears doesn't produce the clunk I'd expected. I check over my shoulder and let in the clutch and, with the two gents watching me, give the throttle a slight tweak and find myself gaining forward momentum somewhat rapidly. One gear change brings to me to my first right turn of the day, and, a little apprehensively, I teeter round my first corner; I needn't have worried, as the bike leaned over with nary a worry and forgave my ineptitude and fear.

Toaster's hair is going to be *so* knotted when he gets home...

I decided to ride over to Mart's and get him to do some riding shots of the bike. The hour-long ride was a glory of ever faster cornering and torquey acceleration, using higher gears and riding down the mountain of low rev grunt available by the skip-load. The tow out of corners, with a twist of the throttle and growl from the turbine-like engine, is totally addictive and immense fun. Pulling up in his drive, I couldn't help but see the two-handed, two fingered salutation with which he greeted my arrival aboard Triumph's £12k flagship. Envy is such an ugly emotion, dear reader…

It was soon obvious that I was a gibbering heap so we wasted no time on conversation and went to do the photographs. I was so in tune with the handling of the Rocket III that I thought I would describe it as 'forgiving' for newcomers to the bike, yet with oodles of promise for those with some experience built up. It is easy to become familiar with the handling, which in some ways is a bit Harley-like, long and steady but quicker and easier, with more stability than most factory custom-framed bikes.

Any minute now...

...whoops, this bit just 'fell' off.Triumph have done a fantastic job coping with 320kg (705lbs) of weight and an overall length of 1695mm (66.7-inches!) with the twin spine steel frame. The upside-down forks soak up the bumps well and allow harder turn-in to corners that you might have believed possible from such a colossus.

What you do have to watch for is ground clearance, of which there is not as much as the tyres and frame could handle. The Rocket III is so willing to corner that you have to show some restraint to your entry speed or the footpegs touch down way too easily. Such is the poise of the bike, that circumnavigating a roundabout with the peg down is a piece of cake. Unfortunately, it seems the peg wasn't too happy with this arrangement and after a couple of hours of such treatment decided to, er, jump ship, as it were.

A walk around the bike lets you take in some of the finer details. The rear tyre, the largest on a production bike at 240/50-17, looks like it wouldn't be out of place on your average Cadillac; the front isn't small at 150/80-17. But they grip tenaciously in the dry, however in the rain I must admit to showing some caution when applying the power coming out of bends. Tyre-spinning starts in the wet at traffic lights were all to easy, and for the sake of the tyre's surface were kept to a minimum. Not to mention that a pair of boots comes to around three hundred beer vouchers…

Styling-wise, it is way over the top; Charles likened it to the bike ridden by Sylvester Stallone in the film Judge Dredd, and admitted that each overtaking manoeuvre left him with a 'you have been judged' impression as the mighty chrome beast swept easily past its prey. The Rocket III is lumpy and messy, and in some ways a bit gaudy - like most custom bikes.

The clutch is light, considering it's huge and strong to cope with the constant demands of such a powerful engine; the gear shift is slick too for such a tough box. And quick your changes have to be when accelerating hard as you only get a couple of seconds between changes when using all the revs. Shaft drive - what shaft drive? It's totally unobtrusive - and that's just as well. There is a little torque reaction when you rev it at a standstill - a la Moto Guzzi - but not as much as my own 1100 California. It had to be shaft drive - chains or belts just wouldn't have lasted long enough!

A bit of chewing gum and it's as good as new.

The flip side of all this manic performance is just how easy the Rocket III is to ride sensibly. You can pull away in any gear, even top. OK, you won't be first up the quarter-mile strip, but it makes for a relaxing ride when you're of a mind to enjoy the scenery. This is a custom, a tourer, a sprinter; neither a racer nor replica it is. Try to ride it like one and you'll get bitten big time - when that much mass get out of shape, expect pain.

Hauling it up at the lights is no problem - the brakes are as immense as everything else; twin 320mm front discs with four-pot calipers (as used on the 955i) and a twin pot Brembo designed for the Rocket III on the back burn off speed admirably. Should some numpty pull out in front of you, they should do the trick; if not, use the weight and just ride through instead!

The rear seat, not shown in these pictures, is a bolt-on pad that 'only takes a few minutes to fix' - allegedly; I hope your pillion has a grip like a gorilla. There is a plethora of aftermarket goodies available for it from the manufacturer, and expect the custom goody merchants to follow suit. Likewise luggage too. There are different aftermarket exhausts made by Triumph - British and American - and the word is that the Yank's version is louder - you heard it here. I know what I'll be ordering when Old Mutha Lottery shines on me.

See how the rear wheel looks small? It isn't.

I'll need a lottery win to afford all the chrome cleaner I'll need - this is a bike covered in chromey tinware that will require a fair bit of polishing if it's not to become a rust bucket in our somewhat moist climate. It's a bike that I fear will be bought by people who will own it but not ride it enough; like too many Harley-Davidsons and other large, expensive exotica. Not as an investment you understand (although some put their money down early and I have since seen a few with 'no mileage - jump the queue' adverts in the papers) but the sort who will ride it once a month if the bike is lucky. I feel sorry for any bike that spends most of it's life hooked up to an Optimate; it's too close to being 'in a coma on a drip' in hospital for my liking!

Niggles? Not a lot I couldn't live with - sidestand is a bit pony, I'd have liked a bit more ground clearance to explore, louder pipes and maybe the bars a bit narrower and higher. But, hey, I could change some of these things myself.

So, it's big; it's chromey; it's powerful. I saw 140mph on the clock; not much more, though. It weighs a lot at a standstill, and each piston is the size of a dustbin. It'll tear your arms from their sockets and swallow small dogs whole through the full injection system if they come within a hundred yards. Should you buy one? If you have to ask, the answer is probably no. You'll want to buy one because it's the most powerful, baddest bike out there today: it'll out-yank a Harley; it'll out-dance a Valkyrie, it'll out-drag a Suzuki. And, best of all, it's British.

No need for a fairig with that tank to hide behind.

So stop biting your lip, book yourself a test ride and become the owner of one of the fabbestio bikes to hit out shores in a long time. OK, so Triumph were reborn with their triples and fours that were Jap clones. Maybe some of you will think this is a Harley clone. Well, whatever - it's in a league of its own. Buy before they legislate it off the production lines! A Triumph of engineering? Yes, unreservedly - a triple to be proud of. Well done lads, I say! We're British; we have to build such things - because we are the greatest nation when it comes to engineering of this type. We are great innovators too - my favourite -- the Hawker Harrier jump jet. So pawn Granny now and go get the biggest mass-production bike out there.

Remember: there's no substitute for cubes!

*** *** ***

Don't Believe the Hype

No substitute for cubes? 'No substitute for bullshit' might be more accurate.

If Triumph wants to build a bike with the biggest motorcycle engine in production, fine. A lot of people like that sort of thing, and the 'bigger is better' philosophy has kept Harley Davidson in business long after their asthmatic ditch-pump engines should have clattered off into historical oblivion.

But bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, and past a certain point it doesn't even mean faster or more powerful. Sure, the Rocket III makes a lot of torque, but it's not that powerful, and it is *very* heavy. Let's look at some numbers.

The Rocket III develops 142ps and 200Nm of torque (or 140bhp and 147ft.lbf). Big numbers - especially the torque figure - but the Triumph's Achilles heel is its weight. It tips the scales (it crushes them, to be accurate) at 320kgs - 704lbs in old money. That's a lot of weight for a motorbike, even one making 142ps. For comparison, Kawasaki's new ZX10R weighs just over half that; 170kgs. Oh, and it's more powerful than the Triumph as well.

Think about that for a minute. The Rocket III weighs the same as a modern sports bike which has another sports bike strapped on its back, yet makes less power. Suddenly those claims of "Fastest accelerating bike ever!" and "It'll out run a Hayabusa!" don't seem so credible.

If it was three quarters of the size and half the weight, it'd be a fantastic bike. My next door neighbour (who knows nothing about bikes) was well impressed.

"Ah!" I hear you cry, "But what about the torque figures?"

Time for some more numbers. The Kawasaki makes an apparently measly 115Nm at 9,500 rpm compared to the Triumph's 200Nm at 2,500 rpm. However, for torque to be meaningful you need to look at the rate that it can be applied to the work in hand - the power figures. The Triumph makes 142ps at 5,750rpm, the Kawasaki 175ps at 11,700 rpm. So while the Triumph apparently develops twice as much shove as the Kawasaki, by the time that shove has made it through the gearbox's ratios and out onto the road, it's actually not capable of working as hard as the Kawasaki.

"Look at those revs, though!" you shout, "Maximum torque at 2,500 rpm; the throttle response must be fantastic!"

Pay attention at the back. The Rocket III weighs the same as two ordinary motorbikes. Roll the throttle open and you have to accelerate both of them. It almost seems as though Triumph had to make the bike as powerful as they did so that it could move its own weight.

Is it heavy because it has a monster engine, or has it got a monster engine because it's so heavy? To me, that's not what motorcycling is all about.

If you want to cruise around on a Rocket III looking cool, fine. It'd almost certainly make a great tourer as well.

But if you buy one hoping to out-accelerate sports bikes, expect to be disappointed. It's fast, it pulls hard, but only compared to other cruisers; it's more Routemaster bus than Harrier jump jet. Triumph of engineering, or Triumph of marketing?

Don't believe the hype.

Postscript:

Triumphs on eBay.co.uk

You don't want to turn one of these round by pushing it backwards and forwards.A magazine with slightly better resources than RealClassic (RealMart has a watch that works under water, and Rowena has some string, but that's about it) put a Rocket III, a Yamaha V-Max, a Harley Davidson V-Rod and a Kawasaki ZX10R up against each.

To cut a long story short (it's the September '04 issue of Bike Magazine, if you're interested), the Rocket III was quicker than the V-Rod by a significant margin everywhere, quicker than the V-Max by fractions of a second up to 100mph, and slower than the ZX10R everywhere except 0 to 30mph where it was 0.08 seconds faster. Wow.

Digging round the numbers, the Rocket III is on a par with a good modern 600; nothing wrong with that, but it does put the hype into context.

More info:

Figures are all manufacturers' claims, and I've tried to use comparable units where possible, hence the German Kawasaki site:

  • Triumph Rocket III Specifications
  • Kawasaki ZX10R Specifications
  • Torque or Power?

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