TRIUMPH ROCKET III – FIRST 5,000 MILES



TopBuying the Bike

Around February time I started scheming for the coming season and had to go over to Portland's Moto Guzzi and Triumph dealership, Cascade Moto Classics to get new tires for my V11 Sport Guzzi. As a fairly frequent visitor, a couple of Triumph Rockets caught my eye.

Still early in the year, they were looking for owners.
2006 - Blue livery, all black engine
Two were 2006’s, another was a 2005 in yellow with the flame motif. Silver engine paint, chrome rocker box. Impressive, but not for me. One of the 2006’s had the all black engine, another the black engine, chrome rocker box and the black and red two tone tank. That color scheme somehow reminded me of Triumphs past.

This moment of nostalgia was tempered by the fact that I thought the Rocket was rather ungainly when it came out, albeit an impressive lump. I couldn’t get used to the severe asymmetry and the swollen deadweight of it. Somehow, though, the old British Bike thing had stirred and the objections started to fall away.

2006 - 'Bonneville' livery, black engine, chrome rocker cover

Also in the mix was a trip to Canada, planned for September. My trusty, 76,000 mile, ‘haven’t the heart to sell it’ 1996 Yamaha 1100 Virago was probably up for it, but a new touring ride was called for. Main criteria: It must be unusual, powerful and handle well in the canyons.

TopOther Choices

Gold Wings and Harley full dressers fell at the first fence; they were everywhere and other factors conspired against them. I looked hard at the Triumph Sprint and the Yamaha FJR. I’ve ridden a Sprint and thought it very nice if a little too high revving for my liking (I’m a shameless V-Twin freak), but it was too close to a sport bike with the tipped up rear end and the backrest my passenger needed wasn’t going to work. With the FJR, I felt I’d be wanting to pin it all the time to get any sensation of speed. Not least, it was fully faired and, for me, the engine of a motorcycle must be clearly visible.

Fast forward to May when these vague thoughts had started to crystallize. It turned out there was an alternate livery package for the yellow bike: Cardinal Red. Coupled with the slashcut mufflers I preferred, the lack of a cat / plenum chamber in the exhaust and a respectable financial incentive for a prior year model, I ‘crossed the river’ and put down a deposit. A friend from the local Guzzi club, standing at the counter that day, said: ‘So, buying the Rocket eh, Colin ?’ I sort of stuttered, ‘Well, John, I think so, because I appear to be losing control of my bodily functions…’

Finally, on a Saturday, it was the monthly Triumph club breakfast. Ann, my wife, dropped me off and I enjoyed the usual fare - this time courtesy of Cascade Moto Classics - and shot the breeze with other Triumphiles (sorry, that word’s not in Webster’s just yet) until it was time to go. Janice and Kelly, the store's owners, drove me back to the store which they then proceeded to open up for the day. The place was teeming with club members and business was brisk. After far too much coffee, we got round to doing paperwork and I walked out the door for the maiden voyage. I was double wired – half from the coffee and half from the anticipation.

Kelly went through all the do’s and don’ts, mainly to do with some of the bike’s quirks such as not blipping the throttle at idle because it can confuse the EMU, having to hook up the gel cell battery to a smart charger because it tends to lose its charge if not ridden regularly (like that was going to happen..), holding the starter button in even after the Bendix has engaged and the poor gas mileage I would get during the early break-in period.

TopFirst Few Miles

I snicked it into gear, making sure I kept the shiny side up and after a couple of miles of the area's stop / start traffic, got onto the freeway and headed for home. The engine was raspy as all get out, but didn’t sound unhappy. There was a noticeable vibration at just around 2,000 RPM which disappeared at 2,200 and resurfaced at 3,100. Both mirrors afforded a good view to the rear but I was still in that uncertain zone where I wasn’t sure what I had gotten into. The latent power was unmistakable and I told myself I was riding a rather large engine which was busy cutting a lot of tiny metal; I should give it a chance.

At home, I managed to successfully negotiate the driveway. It’s a fairly steep, potholy road that takes a sharp right (almost a U-turn) and then over a ramp onto the flat area in front of the garage. If I was going to drop it anywhere, this was the most likely place. I kept the power on, slipped the clutch and everything went fine.

As I turned the ignition off, I was immediately hit by a wave of heat, new engine smells, and loud ticking. The monster was coming to life. I made double sure the sidestand was deployed properly, got off, looked at it and thought: ‘Looks like I just bought a Rocket !’ Photos were taken of my triumphal (‘scuse the pun) arrival home.

TopFirst Ride

Within the hour we were headed for the Columbia Gorge on the Oregon / Washington state line. It was a mild day, overcast with even lighting conditions making road conditions easy to read. We crossed over into Washington and onto the (in)famous Highway 14. We stopped at Parker House in Washougal for lunch. The lot was almost empty and I parked the bike where I could see it in case anybody came within two miles of it. No need really; when a bike is that new and important to me, I can see through walls.

After lunch, we got out into the country and I started to thread the bike through my favorite curves, taking it easy on the new rubber. There was an unfamiliar sensation leaning the Rocket over. It reacts very smoothly and predictably to countersteering which is effectively a necessity with the sheer bulk of the machine. It goes as far as you push it and no further, almost as if you are leaning against a giant band of spring steel or riding just off the centerline of a large half pipe. The Guzzi drops in easily and goes round, but readily drops in further when you want it to. The Rocket holds its line very nicely once you’ve got it there, but when you screw it on just before or at the apex it will quite quickly take you to the edge of the road unless you consciously countersteer it back in. This would be true for most bikes, but on the Rocket it seemed pronounced. I actually like it, because you have to pay attention and ride it a certain way. When you do, it’s very rewarding and you can throw it around to a degree as long as you work the bars. I never felt like the footrests were going to touch, but at that point I was not really trying.

Rocket above Columbia Gorge

After about 100 miles, the fuel light went on, as expected from reports I had read elsewhere. The fuel level sensor lights it far too early. Apparently the aftermarket fuel gauge fares no better as it is tied to the same sensor. The bike is supposed to run on 89 octane, but the advice was that 87 is just fine, too. I’ve found no reason to doubt that tip. The engine is a lot less fussy about gas than the Italian.

We gassed up and went home. I put it in the garage and did half an hour or so of inspection and inhaling the aromatherapy that only a hot motorcycle can provide.

TopOn the Open Road

The following weekend, a desert ride was up and we took the Rocket out along the freeway to The Dalles. On the open road, I was working the engine up and down, shifting often and getting a sense of its upper and lower limits. From I-84, we turned south into the sweepers and open plains of Hwy 97. As I pulled up the hill going south from the river and into the high country, I wound the bike up around the first long curve and had my epiphany. Even with a modest handful, the hill was reduced to nothing as we just whooshed up it, into the next two sweepers, finally cresting out to empty blacktop with blue skies and distant peaks on the horizon. I steadied to a cruise and couldn’t wait for the next hill. I slowed a little then opened it up to check out how much throttle gives you what result and experienced the giant hand of 2,300cc catapulting me forward. What a kick !

A trip through power country. Honda Blackbird CBR1100XX, BMW R1200GS, Triumph Rocket III, Honda VTX 1800

TopTires & Handling

Now to the details of the bike. The front tire is a 150/80 17, the back a 240/50 16. Everyone asks about the back tire. The 880 is Metzeler’s second to largest stock motorcycle tire and was the biggest on any standard street bike out of the showroom until recently, when HD announced their VRSCAW V-Rod. That’s true for a number of statistics on this bike, but the rear tire is the most visible and arouses the most testosterone in male onlookers. Other than the sheer mechanics of getting all that torque onto the road, Triumph made a shrewd move; size is still king in the US. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. After several thousand miles on them, I have concluded that the difference in size between front and back is the main contributor to the ‘half pipe’ sensation when cornering. Even that diminishes when you are accustomed to it and the rubber wears itself in.

Triumph Logo - front and center

TopBrakes & Suspension

Brakes are twin disk at the front, each with a 4-pot caliper, standard Triumph stuff, rebranded Nissins. They are perfectly progressive and work extremely well. Back disk has a twin pot and is similarly up to the task.

Suspension is quite hard by cruiser standards, but again, this is fine with me. And anyway, compared to what ? The Rocket lies exactly between the Virago and the Guzzi i.e. shot bedsprings and Ohlins Nirvana. The only suspension adjustment is for rear spring pre-load. There are five positions with 5 being the most pre-load for heaviest loads, suggested as being rider, passenger and luggage. Fair enough for a cruiser class machine. It was explained to me that there is a break-in period for the suspension as well and that I should leave any adjustments until that is over. True to my form, I will probably leave it just where it is, which is position 1. Two up / no luggage seems to make no difference, so I will consider upping it when it comes time to load up for a longer trip. The front forks, which are 43mm upside downs, are reasonably well damped and I’m not sure I’d adjust them if I were able to. The fork sliders are well protected from flying gravel by chrome protectors which follow the metalwork design I’ll touch on later.

Fork protectors - chrome features abound

The wheels are massive 5-spoke cast aluminum, with black accents and apparently clear coated. Both wheels are truly beefy and should be a good buffer between a sudden lapse in road surface and the deadweight of the behemoth.

TopElectrics / Instruments

Electrics and instrumentation are minimalist and easy to use. Handlebar controls are absolutely standard. From left to right, high / low headlamp beam is atop the clutch lever casting with a left / cancel / right indicator switch and horn button below. The action of the switches is light and positive with good feedback to a gloved hand. On the right, the kill switch is at the top as usual and the starter button at the bottom. The headlamp flasher button is disabled for the American market. Might come in handy if you’re driving somewhere headlamp flashing may garner you a return flash from a handgun.

For instruments, I really like white or cream colored clock faces. The Rocket’s are black, but the rest of the layout, features and performance are perfect in my mind. The speedo ranges to 140mph which is given as the bike’s nominal top speed. I may find that out one day, I may not, it’s not critical to me. There is an amber engine check LED to the left of the LCD mileage display and a red, dual purpose LED to the right, with oil and coolant symbols next to it. The relevant warning is indicated when one of two small triangles, one above the other, on the right hand side of the LCD display comes on.

Instruments follow the overall theme

The rev counter side has five LED’s in all: green turn signal, blue high beam, green neutral indicator, orange fuel indicator and red theft alarm status indicator. This last LED comes into play when the Triumph theft alarm accessory is fitted. The outstanding feature of the instrumentation is the use of diffused lens LED’s. The LED’s are clearly visible in every lighting condition I have so far encountered.

The LCD odometer has three settings: cumulative mileage, trip #1 and trip #2. The last two are flipped by turning a knob momentarily until the display changes and reset by holding the knob in its turned position for a second or so. Nothing unusual here, just simple and effective. The needles are stylishly curved to match each clock’s increment graphics. In brief, the instrument cluster is good looking and functional. Outside of a more logical fuel indicator light, I need for nothing else.

Low / high beam, indicator switch and horn button on the left...

TopLights & Horn

The Rocket’s lighting is arguably radical up front and, if you listen to some pundits, overly conventional at the back. The dual headlamps are a clear carryover from the Speed Triple and appear to be Triumph’s hint that Rocket owners might have some of the ‘bad boy’ hooligan element in them, perhaps in line with their ‘Go your own way’ marketing theme. As ho-hum as that byline might sound, it’s appropriate to the American market where many motorcyclists still cannot spell ‘Triumph’ or believe that the V-Twin footdragging form factor is what constitutes a cruiser. The lamps themselves throw a reasonably coherent pool of light about 20 feet ahead of the front wheel, followed by a general illumination of the road ahead which is adequate. Beam angle is simply adjusted at the single bracket to which both lamps are mounted. The back light is a standard, twin filament incandescent bulb as opposed to the more popular high intensity LED assemblies and is consequently underpowered. Riders following have commented that it is hard to see and could use a boost. The teardrop red lens itself is redolent of any number of other cruisers and has been criticized as being rather unimaginative. For me, it is quite in keeping with the shape of the rear fender and the design is fine; the performance of the bulb within is not.

Ah yes, the Rocket’s horn. Mounted under the headlamps behind a chrome molding that is a love / hate item for some, the stock horn is completely out of character with the gravitas of the rest of the machine. I laughed out loud then frowned the first time I hit the button. I will replace it as soon as a suitable alternative can be found and unobtrusively mounted. One can only imagine that the thought was to meet minimum legal requirements and rein in production costs. Hopefully the manufacturer will step up to something better going forward.

Engine kill switch and starter button on the right

TopSeat

The stock seat is broad enough for the rider, but small for the pillion. In fairness to Triumph, they are probably anticipating that the primary market for this model is the single rider who just wants brute power and something shiny in the garage which handles well in the canyons. If it’s a two-up cruiser that’s required, then the owner can acquire the aftermarket seating of his or her choice. I had a new seat pad built on the existing pan by Mr. Ed’s Moto in Albany, OR. It is now about 4” wider than stock and, after a second fitting which was included in the initial cost, is a big improvement.

TopFit & Finish

I’d rate the fit and finish on the Rocket at 8 out of 10. If I were looking for BMW radical design and high tech finish, I might go a point lower. If I were looking for Italian character and subtle beauty, same again. However, this is a unique, British motorcycle, affordable in its class, that sets out to please and deliver that pleasure in a channeled and purposeful way. For all that it was, to a degree, built to a price, the frame welding is far superior to that on the Honda VTX, for example. Just because frame member dimensions for power cruisers are in the agricultural category should not mean that welding has to be sloppy and unsightly. The Triumph is pleasantly free of such eyesores. The tank is seam welded. It would be nice if it were not, but the end result is clean and inoffensive. The chrome is of generally good quality, but not exceptional. I’d rate Harley’s finish superior. There are some plastic parts, notably the horn cover and the radiator surround. They are reasonably resistant to scratching, but there’s not much you can do about flying rock chips without going to clear protective film which I’ve not seen applied to chrome.

The indicator stalks, fork slider protectors and radiator surround are shaped with cutaways that best approximate to a Klingon ‘mekleth’ or combat blade. This motif is subtly noticeable throughout the bike’s design without being overly ornate in the same way as the Honda Rune. By way of contrast to the plastic components, the side panels are steel and require tools to remove. That is not only a quality feature, but a huge plus in the security stakes, as they cannot be casually pilfered.

TopClutch / Handlebars

Parts used throughout the bike are generic in nature, albeit Triumph branded. The brake cylinders and calipers are a case in point. The clutch is cable operated, yet is beautifully smooth and progressive with easy, yet effective spring retraction. In a blind test, I know I could not tell the difference between the action of the Rocket’s clutch lever and the hydraulic on my Guzzi. My one hope is that the factory now does a better job of soldering clutch cable nipples than they used to on the Meriden Triumphs of yesteryear.

In summary, the bike’s accoutrements are practical and affordable. When you’re passing a slowpoke on an open road, you’ll be grinning too much to focus on cosmetic details. When you sit on the Rocket, there is no mistaking you’re slap bang in the middle of a big motorcycle. Unless you’re an orangutan or you haven’t yet outgrown apehangers, the bars will spread your arms wider than you’ve probably experienced on any other ride. Even the handlebar diameter makes itself noticed. On most bikes, reckon with 22 – 23mm (7/8”). The Rocket’s are a full 25.4mm (1”). With good reason: the added girth is needed with increased length for manoeuverability at both low and road speeds and presumably helps to mitigate vibration. The handlebars are not rubber mounted, but vibration dampers are standard on the bar ends and there is some to deal with, despite these designed precautions. After 5,000 miles, the vibration is much reduced.

2,300cc side panel statement always gets a head shake from curious observers

When you first get on, the bulbous tank seems big as a football field with the added breadth of the signature chrome airbox cover on the left hand side. From the riding position, the engine is all but invisible, save for the three header pipes on the right. There is a feeling you should be reading instructions on the safe use of agricultural machinery before setting off. When you do, remember to throw your feet forward and find the folding footrests with touchdown pegs. The footrests are mounted to a steel tube rail which bolts to the frame at the rear and the engine crankcase at front. Riders following the Rocket have commented that the rear tire with two boots sticking out into the wind are what characterizes the bike in motion from behind. A sidebar to this is that the bike rides right on the edge of its rear tire tread in the curves. Even without extreme cornering or footpeg touchdown, chicken strips are noticeably absent.

Three bold header pipes are the engine's unique signature

TopEngine / Gas Mileage

Last, but not least, the mighty mill that fills the space between front wheel and the already legendary back tire. I first got an inkling of its nature by examining a cutaway version of the engine on a display stand at the 2005 Seattle Motorcycle Show. Based on its cubic capacity, the math is fairly simple. Each cylinder is larger than the total displacement of my 1977 Suzuki GS750, which was no slouch in its day. What a concept ! Slightly oversquare at 101.6mm x 94.3mm, the common piston comparison is with that of the Dodge Viper. I’m not into cars, but I understand that vehicle is no slouch either.

Similar comparisons based on horsepower or torque bring the power of this bike’s engine into sharp relief: 140hp, 147ft/lbs of torque. Other features of note: overhead cam, 4 valves per cylinder, dual spark ignition, liquid cooled (I’d like to see how big the aircooled version might have been), five speed transmission into shaft drive. The tank holds 6.6 US gallons and the oil system runs to 1.56 US gallons. Lubrication is technically dry sump and indeed oil is filled at and returned to an oval shaped, surface mounted reservoir on the left side of the engine block. However, an oil change not only requires removal of the front mounted oil filter but also no less than three sump plugs, one each for the front and rear sump chambers and a third to drain the reservoir / return oil tank.

Early gas mileage was under 27 mpg on average. After 1,000 miles, 33mpg was more common. At 5,000, the bike is regularly running 38 - 40mpg on highway / freeway, 33mpg in town. If you’re getting less than that, set aside some cash for tires and tickets.

Viewed from the side, there’s no hiding the bulk of the great brick of an engine which is a stressed member of the bike, but Triumph has done a pretty good job with the inline concept bearing in mind that this is a naked machine and there’s nothing to hide its gargantuan dimensions. Its layout is a natural for shaft drive. Yes, there is a slight lateral twist noticeable when blipping the throttle at idle, but, as a Moto Guzzi owner, I felt right at home. The effect is far from pronounced and simply adds to the machine’s character. I wouldn’t expect it to bother anyone, if they even noticed it.

TopStarting

The bike starts readily, although there seems to be an element of randomness as the EMU picks up the incoming sensor signals and tries to figure out who’s on first. Best practice seems to be to start with no throttle whatsoever and keep the starter button depressed until the engine has caught properly. Occasionally the idle will be slower than usual, but that is probably temperature or humidity dependent. With no manual choke to set, there is little else to do differently. From cold, I prefer to get the engine reasonably warm first and have the management system settle in before moving off. I’ve heard too many stories of expensive tipovers on other bikes when a fuel injected engine burps and drops power just as the rider pulls away or snakes his way through a parking lot on a cold engine.

TopGearbox

Going up through the gears, the stated flat, evenly distributed torque curve makes itself noticeable. If someone were looking for sheer top speed and a howling banshee, they would be in the wrong place with the Rocket. Top speed is more limited by the lack of aerodynamics than actual engine power. If a rider is too lazy to change gear and just wants to pull away in any gear, they should think again here, too. Regardless of its prodigious torque, the 2.3L motor is still a reciprocating, internal combustion engine and it likes gears. Sure, you can pull away in second and accelerate in a gear that would be unreasonable on almost any other machine, but there’s a good reason not to. In the right gear, the acceleration and the sense of gathering momentum is nothing other than a thrill. Unless they have money to burn, zero mechanical sympathy and a perverted sense of pleasure in ruining a fine piece of engineering, I’d encourage folks to drive the engine as they would any other. In the right gear, the experience of locomotive pulling power is only rivalled by riding fairground machinery or waterskiing / parasailing behind a cigarette boat. Lastly, if you don’t like changing gears (can you tell I do ?), get a scooter !

TopVibration

As mentioned earlier, there is some vibration along the way. Quite pronounced in the first 300 miles, it has since backed off as the engine has begun to break in. It first becomes noticeable at around 2,000 rpm and manifests itself only in the handlebars. In the case of my particular bike, the right handlebar. In the early stages it was enough to slightly numb my right hand, but mirror clarity was barely affected. With more than 5,000 miles on the clock at time of writing, this is no longer bothersome. In any event, the gearing is such that 60 – 65 mph in top gear lands you in an almost completely vibration free zone around 2,200 RPM, just when engine torque is at its peak and where you are likely to spend most of your time at legal speeds.

The shaft drive is uncomplicated in appearance from the outside and has no vices I can detect or want to concern myself with. Full disclosure here: I like shaft drive and have owned several bikes so equipped. I don’t miss chain drive even if it is mechanically more efficient. Further disclosure: at 4,200 miles, a bearing on the gearbox output side failed for no apparent reason. This has been an issue on a few 2005 models, but the repair was thorough (i.e. all transmission parts through to the back wheel replaced) and carried out under full Triumph warranty. Symptoms are a whining or screeching sound from the motorcycle midsection, which does not go away when the clutch is pulled in and the motorcycle is moving.

Even from new, the gearbox was easy on the foot and the ear, albeit downshifting at low speeds can feel and sound a little ponderous. The action of the gear lever is light and positive with no tendency to find a false neutral. Occasionally, the bike will need to be rocked out of first gear when idling at the lights. This minor irritation is occurring less and less as the box beds in.

Rocket, V11 Sport and Virago

The Rocket could use a reverse gear, but that would impact weight. The motto is to pay attention when parking or manoeuvering on a hill. The bike is easy enough to move around on flat ground, or, of course, downhill, but the slightest uphill push is out of the question for normal mortals.

TopConclusion

Without doubt, as interesting as the various cosmetic and functional aspects of the Rocket are, the brute force that its motor hands out and the bragging rights that come with the largest engine displacement in a mass produced motorcycle are central to the bike’s being and probably the main attractions for a potential buyer.

The Rocket III. Not your Dad's BSA

The choice of a Rocket can be made on simple criteria, as follows. Wanted: motorcycle, exposed engine, lots of chrome, brute force power, must handle, non-standard engine format, affordable within its class.

That’s why there’s one in my garage. And it's still raining. Oh well…