My search for another motorcycle to add to my fleet has finally concluded. This time, I’ve landed on a bucket list machine and it’s one that holds an interesting place in motorcycle history. I just picked up a 2005 Triumph Rocket III, and it’s a motorcycle that totally lives up to its name. This is a cruiser motorcycle sporting a 2.3-liter engine making 140 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque. The Rocket III is so powerful it feels like it can bend time and space. Ok, maybe it’s not bigger than your car, specifically, but it is bigger than a lot of the 2.0-liter four-powered crossovers on sale today!

This season I’m shaking up my motorcycle collection a little bit. I rode a repeatedly broken 1999 Triumph Tiger 855i for two years and while I enjoyed my yellow steed, the experience got a bit stale. The Tiger was remarkably comfortable, but it just wasn’t that fun unless I was off-road. In fact, the thing about the Tiger I loved most was its three-cylinder symphony. So, I sold the yellow ADV and set my sights on something to replace it.

This time, I decided to get another bucket-list motorcycle. At first, I tried to buy a green BMW R 100 RS. I’ve been in love with BMW motorcycles for years, but the timing just didn’t work in my favor. I was in Hawai’i when the first R 100 RS I wanted sold and I couldn’t snipe up a second fast enough. My other choices included a Victory Vision and a Harley-Davidson V-Rod; the former a tourer that looks like it comes from the future and the latter Harley’s underrated collaboration with Porsche.

I kept striking out for interesting motorcycles, then I found the one. Located just minutes from my birthplace in Madison, Wisconsin, was a metallic red Triumph Rocket III.

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I couldn’t wait to pick it up. I paid $4,500 for this bike, a far cry from its original $15,999 price.

The Biggest Production Motorcycle

On August 20, 2003, Triumph confirmed rumors that were swirling around the motorcycle press at the time. The British bike maker was working on a cruiser and in its press release, Triumph revealed that it wasn’t just any cruiser, but one that outclassed every other cruiser in mass production at the time.

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As UK publication Classic Motorbikes writes, in 1983, British businessman John Bloor purchased Triumph, which at the time had gone into receivership. Bloor then set about reviving the storied brand. Triumph and its facilities were outdated, leading to tens of millions of investment from Bloor. Over time, Triumph would become successful again. Fast-forward to the 1990s and like BMW, Triumph started eying the American cruiser market.

As I’ve written before, cruisers have an incredible market share in America. The allure of getting even just a slice of the pie has convinced a number of manufacturers to try their hands at the classic American cruiser formula. In 1997, BMW went weird with the R 1200 C. A year later, Triumph started development on its own cruiser. Triumph didn’t just want to make a cruiser, but one that trounced every cruiser on the market. Ross Clifford identified Triumph’s need for a power cruiser while designer John Mockett was given a mission to build a cruiser with a displacement larger than 1,600cc.

However, as motorcycle history site Timeless 2 Wheels notes, Honda was working on its 1,795cc VTX 1800 while Yamaha had its 1,602cc Road Star. If Triumph were to have the biggest and best power cruiser, it had to go even bigger. Thus, Triumph eventually powered its muscle bike with a 2,294cc inline triple.

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The Triumph Rocket III hit the road for the 2004 model year and the statistics were ridiculous. From Triumph’s release:

It is the biggest production motorcycle currently being built. There isn’t a benchmark or limit that hasn’t been exceeded. The first production motorcycle to break the 2-liter barrier, the potency of this powerful new machine is captured perfectly by its name – the Rocket III. But make no mistake, the Rocket III is not just another motorcycle; it’s the ride of a lifetime.

Now, many of you are probably scratching your heads because while 2.3 liters does make for an absolutely massive motorcycle engine, it certainly isn’t the largest. Boss Hoss has been pairing chunky V8 engines with motorcycles since 1990. Well, it seems Triumph doesn’t consider boutique brands like Boss Hoss to make “production” motorcycles. Here’s a Boss Hoss:

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Boss Hoss

Even though Triumph appears to be using a qualifier to call the Rocket’s engine the largest, the company wasn’t far off. At the time, Harley’s big engines were the 103 cubic inch (1,690cc) Twin Cam V-twin engines and later, the 110 cubic inch (1,801cc) Twin Cams. Triumph’s 2,300cc engine (140 cubic inch) really was the biggest in production motorcycle engines at the time. Harley’s biggest 135 cubic inch crate engine is still smaller and slightly less powerful than this older Triumph.

The Rocket III is bested only by its sequel, the Triumph Rocket 3 (below), which landed in 2019 with a 2,458cc engine and 165 horses with some fantastic visuals.

Background Rocket 3 R And Rocket

That name also has some history, too. The Triumph Rocket III is a reference to the BSA A-75 Rocket 3 of the 1960s, itself a version of the Triumph T150 Trident. The muscle bike of the modern era and the vintage steeds have little in common save for being powered by three-cylinder engines and being renowned for performance. Granted, it’s a fitting name.

As Motorcycle Cruiser notes, the three-cylinder design was first conceived in 1963. At the time, BSA was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. General Manager Edward Turner didn’t like the idea of triples, but that wouldn’t matter as in 1964, Turner was no longer at the helm. Honda had a four-cylinder on the horizon and to stay competitive, the Brits looked back at building a triple. The result was 58 horses from a 740cc engine, a great number back in those days.

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Mecum Auctions

The original Rocket 3 was arguably one of the first superbikes, long before such a term was ever coined. Unfortunately, Triumph and BSA couldn’t beat the game-changing Honda CB750.

Back to the modern machine, equally as mighty as the engine’s displacement is what the mill puts out. Triumph’s meaty triple lays down 140 HP and 147 lb-ft torque. Motorcycle Cruiser put a Triumph Rocket III on a dyno and found out the motorcycle put out 141 lb-ft torque and 132.4 HP at the wheel. That torque figure was down low, peaking at 2,500 RPM and staying at peak for another 1,500 RPM.

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In other words, these bikes have a torque curve about as flat as the runway at your local airport. Amusingly, the engine is bigger than the ones found in many crossovers. Volkswagen’s three-row money printer Atlas gets its propulsion from a 2.0-liter four.

That engine comes mounted to a twin-spine frame with a fat cruiser body on top, which has absolutely cartoonish proportions. The 6.6-gallon fuel tank is tall and wide, the wide rear tire looks menacing, and the handlebar’s ends might as well be in different zip codes.

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That mighty engine isn’t really a work of art. Honestly, it looks like it would be more at home in a car than on a motorcycle. To compensate, Triumph crashed the Rocket III through a Pep Boys, where it emerged adorned in all kinds of chrome bits. Yeah, that chrome bit on the left side of the engine? That’s an auxiliary airbox. The main airbox is under the seat.

I love all of the little details Triumph put into this machine. I still keep finding new things every time I look at it. You could tell that Triumph didn’t just throw a hot engine and a 240-series rear tire on just any cruiser, but the company put in a great effort to build something to make a cruiser fanatic’s heart skip a beat. And it’ll do far more than raise your heart rate.

Riding The Triumph Rocket III

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Some motorcycles don’t live up to their name. One of my first bikes was a 2005 Honda Rebel 250. That motorcycle was about as rebellious as a straight-A student thinking about faking being sick to skip a day of school, then not following through with it. On the other hand, the Triumph Rocket III is the motorcycle equivalent of strapping yourself to a Saturn V. It’s huge, it’s fast, and the power comes on so hard you better hope you have the strength to hold onto the bars. Other applicable names for this machine would be Shotgun, Missile, Detonator, or any other name that hints at speed or ferocious power.

When I first swung a leg over the Rocket III, I was impressed. Despite its girth and weight–it’s 802 pounds loaded up with fuel–I can flat-foot and balance the machine with ease. I startled myself with how easily I can balance it at a stop. Triumph did a stellar job keeping the weight low. The seat sits 29.1 inches off of the ground, though mine does have a custom Corbin seat.

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Firing up the 2,300cc power plant is an experience. My Rocket III is largely stock, save for the aforementioned seat, a bracket for a service jack, and a couple of other bits. Nothing else was changed on this 16,000-mile machine, including the pipes.

Given, well, everything else, you’d expect the engine to thunder into life, but in its stock configuration, it purrs. This is one of those engines where even at wide open throttle, it’s a smooth and quiet operator. Now, if I wanted to, I could make my Rocket III really loud. Some pipes make these sound like a tractor or an old warbird, depending on your ears:

Don’t let the gentle soundtrack fool you, because that engine houses serious firepower. Rev it while sitting still and the bike will torque itself to the right, not unlike a classic car with a V8. This made me giggle. Then I dropped the clutch, cranked the throttle, and started laughing so hard that I cried.

The torque of the Rocket III feels like it hits just off idle and the power is pretty much relentless from there. There is so much power that the bars aren’t just there for you to steer the bike, but to hold on so the Rocket doesn’t throw you off. The Rocket III has so much power that you can pass an entire line of traffic without dropping a gear. When you get to the other end, you’ll be going so fast that you’ve blown right past a speeding ticket and gotten right into “three nights in jail” territory. Don’t get stopped by any cops, though, because you’ll still be giggling long after the officer has asked you for your license and registration.

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I’ve had the pleasure of riding a variety of machines from 600cc class sportbikes to a couple of the latest electric motorcycles. The Rocket III is not the fastest motorcycle on the road, not by a long shot. However, the Rocket III surprises you with power. You’d expect an electric motorcycle to hit hard and a sportbike has no problem racing to extra legal speeds. The Rocket III seems like it should be a slow cruiser, but then the power hits like you’ve accidentally stumbled into a boxing match.

Yet, the Rocket III isn’t all about endless power. This motorcycle also hooks up and corners well enough that for a brief moment, you might forget that you’re on a power cruiser. It’s not nimble and I wouldn’t call it agile either, but the Rocket III is not afraid to throw its weight around corners. Part of that has to do with the suspension. You get 43mm upside-down forks and twin rear shocks.

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These are remarkably firm, more so than you’d expect on a cruiser. When I hit Chicago potholes, I get launched out of the seat. And hard bumps that don’t launch me out of the seat? I feel those in my spine. I thought that maybe, the hard suspension was related to the bike’s age, but reviewers when these were new noted a similar hard ride. Huge cruisers are often wallowy and don’t inspire confidence in the turns. Despite its girth, the Rocket III doesn’t have that problem, but it traded some comfort in order to be able to do that.

What the good handling does mean is that the Triumph Rocket III has so much capability that you’re likely to run out of road or bravery before you out of bike. The front brakes even come from a Daytona 955i and stop the show quickly enough. Really, what I’m trying to say here is that riding a Triumph Rocket III is probably the closest a motorcyclist will get to strapping themselves to an actual thruster.

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The looks are equally as otherworldly. In my short time owning this bike thus far, I’ve seen dudes practically break their necks trying to look at the thing. Last weekend, I stopped at a gas station for fuel and came back to four guys studying the engine. None of them have described the Rocket III as beautiful, but certainly striking. The fat tires, the automotive-style engine, and the three pipes all get attention.

My Plans

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It’s actually pretty rare that I buy a vehicle that has no problems to speak of, but that’s the situation I’m dealing with now. The motorcycle has fresh fluids, glistening paint, and not a problem noted for the 16,000 miles on its odometer. The only “problem” I’m seeing is with the motorcycle’s rubber. The front tire is pretty worn out and shows a date code that says it was made in the fourth week of 2008.

The seller told me he hasn’t ridden the motorcycle a ton over the years and the front tire confirms it. Forums suggest that the front tire lasts around 9,000 miles, so, this bike hasn’t even gone 10,000 miles over the past 15 years.

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So, new rubber for the front and the rear is on the way. That’s it, that’s all this machine needs in terms of repairs. I will update the headlights to more modern units and I might look for another seat. But other than that, I’m going to ride it through the summer just as it is, and I will be laughing through every mile.

I won’t say that the Triumph Rocket III is for everyone. It weighs 800 pounds and that suspension probably isn’t great if hurting yourself is a concern. With that said, if you’re looking for something overpowered, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is frankly pretty daft, you cannot go wrong with a Rocket III.

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(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)

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By Tara