Triumph Thunderbird Ash On Bikes

8 Feb 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on Triumph Thunderbird Ash On Bikes
Moto Guzzi Californian  Cruiser

Triumph Thunderbird

Pictures: Jason Critchell . Paul Bryant

Triumph has the entry level end of the cruiser market effectively covered with the Bonneville America and Speedmaster – both models are doing well in the important US market and sell strongly elsewhere in the world too. They score on two counts: one is their easy riding manageability which gives them strong appeal to relative novices, the second is their combination of cruiser styling with a very specific Triumph character, and that-s not just the parallel twin engine, but the sixties British twin look morphed into modern cruiser.

Click on image for gallery It-s important to note these reasons for the smaller twins- success because Triumph is hoping very much that owners of these will want to move up not to a Harley-Davidson but the new Thunderbird, and it will need to offer as much appeal if it-s going to work in the same way. The monster 2.3 litre Rocket Three hasn-t done as well as Triumph had hoped, mostly it seems because bigger isn-t necessarily better after all in America: cruisers do best in the 1.4 to 1.8 litre range, and really, only two cylinders will do. But could it also be that the Rocket Three, defining three-cylinder engine and sheer size aside, actually is rather bland looking as cruisers go?

Triumph has readily admitted that it is targeting Harley-Davidson with the Thunderbird, and that it commissioned Californian designer Tim Prentice to produce a bike aimed specifically at the American bikes. He came up with the Thunderbird-s styling, while the engine capacity is right there with the Milwaukee machines, 1597cc against the Harley twins- 1584cc, while everything else about the bike is generic cruiser, from the raked-out forks to the teardrop tank to the long, low stance.

Triumph though has broken with cruiser tradition for the engine, using the classic British parallel twin layout where just about every other cruiser, and certainly every Harley, uses a V-twin. Triumph reckons it can get away with this because the British brand is still well thought of in the States as well as being identified by the parallel twin, and it-s probably right. The question is, even with a different motor, does the bike offer enough else to tempt Harley regulars, which after all is the only way it will sell in big numbers?

I-m not entirely convinced, and that-s despite the Thunderbird being superior to a Harley in just about every way you can measure. The engine for example does all you-d want from a cruiser, in terms of feel as well as power and torque. It-s a low, low revving unit producing a muscular 108lb.ft (146Nm) of torque at a mere 2,750rpm, and a sufficient 85bhp (86PS, 63kW) at less than 5,000rpm.

The crankpins are staggered 90 degrees apart to produce uneven, V-twin-like firing intervals, so when you crack open the throttle the motor thumps lumpily and the bike lunges forward with satisfying urge. Vibration is tactile low frequency rather than annoying tingles, although spin the engine beyond 5000rpm (not that you normally would) and it does become harsh, while the fuelling is perfect, smooth yet immediate and utterly predictable. It even manages to use less fuel than most other cruisers, according to Triumph (and I-ve always found the company-s claims in this respect perfectly honest and accurate), improving on a typical Harley by some 25 per cent with 54mpg (5.2 l/100km, 45mpg US) in mixed riding and 44mpg (6.4 l/100km, 37mpg US) at a steady 75mph (120kph).

The transmission is unobtrusive with reliable gear selection and the first belt drive on a Triumph for 85 years. as Triumph product manager Simon Warburton said, they couldn-t find the original engineer to call on his experience. But then the inverted-tooth, Kevlar-reinforced modern belt is vastly superior to a vintage version, quiet, clean and efficient and requiring very little maintenance. And it won-t slip in the wet.

Triumph has put a lot of effort into the chassis, determined to endow the Thunderbird with superior handling to a Harley, so it has a stiffer frame and better suspension. In particular, the steering at low speed is very impressive: most cruisers with their forks raked out at something like the Triumph-s 32 degrees tend to drop in to corners, and stand up if you brake while leaning, but the Thunderbird does neither, remaining neutral and as a consequence, very easy to handle.

Whether a hairpin bend, mini-roundabout or high speed turn, the Thunderbird sweeps round impressively demanding the minimum input from the rider. This is a very relevant superiority, not in terms of agility but giving the bike a natural, undemanding feel.

The brakes do the job unobtrusively, asking for high pressures for hard stopping but responding well and proportionally, while the optional ABS is smooth and works effectively, certainly better than earlier Triumph attempts which could badly upset the chassis on bumpy surfaces.

This despite the suspension being soft, inevitable as low speed comfort is the primary aim. Bumps at speed have the bike bouncing around, but still the damping does a good job of controlling the wheels and providing the best ride quality in the class. Add this to the comfortable riding position, which is upright and spacious while avoiding the ergonomic extremes of many cruisers, along with the generous 4.8 gallon (22 litres, 5.8 gallons US) fuel tank, and you have a genuinely useful motorcycle as a well as a cruiser, a too-rare combination.

You really can go places on this bike, and there-s no shortage of accessories to turn it into exactly the machine you-re after, with various luggage and screen options for touring as well as an array of shiny bits: you could spend up to £7,000 on extras if you felt the need.

The finish quality is far more consistent than a Harley-s too. While the American bikes mix some of the very best finish with some unforgivably awful detailing, such as hose clips fixing exhausts or bolts and silencers which start rusting from the crate, Triumph-s corrosion resistance is regularly good and the Thunderbird-s attention to detail is impressive. The styling is well balanced and nicely themed too: note the way the final drive cover on the engine is angled to match the slash at the end of the silencer for example.

Moto Guzzi Californian  Cruiser

So why do I have reservations? Well, these are not so much to do with the UK market where I think the Thunderbird-s dynamic qualities along with its provenance will help it succeed in the cruiser market. It really is a great bike to ride, especially as it addresses what cruiser riders like in particular by feeling and sounding good, while having better range and rust resistance than a Harley really matter here in Britain.

The price is usefully lower too. I just feel that the styling is too generic. Despite the trademark Triumph engine the bike could be any cruiser from any factory, except Harley itself.

Harley-Davidson-s cruisers each have very particular characters beyond merely being cruisers, such as the California custom Rocker C, the Fifties Road King and ironically the Euro-custom-inspired Dyna Fat Bob. As a result, the Thunderbird lacks the presence or character of a Harley, and that does matter, more than any superiority in the handling or performance angles.

I suspect American Harley owners will see the Thunderbird, nod in appreciation at the badge and find it pleasing to look at, but find nothing to really grab their attention and persuade them to forego the home team. Still, this is just the first of many for Triumph – if Harley can make 20-30 bikes using the same motor then Triumph has plenty of scope yet to add individuality with niche versions.

And for the British rider, all this matters less anyway: this is a British cruiser with values that are more important to us. The cruiser sector is smaller here but Triumph will grab a useful slice of it with the Thunderbird.

Price: £9,499 (ABS: add £600. Two-tone paint: add £300)

Available: June 2009

Contact: Triumph Motorcycles Ltd, 01455 251700,

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