The near-sainted Edward Turner and I have at least one thing in common. We don’t always get it right.
When Turner sketched the Ariel Square Four on the back of a Wild Woodbine cigarette packet, he thought he was designing an engine that would avoid overheating problems. Warped and blown head gaskets soon proved him wrong.
When I first rode the new Triumph Thunderbird, I loved the bike but wondered whether the styling would be strong enough to pull it out of the mass of other cruisers on the market. The reaction from you, the Australian bike buyers, seems to be proving me wrong, too. You’ve opened your hearts to this bike in a big way.
I introduced Edward Turner, who eventually came into his own with his designs for Triumph, because he had something to do with the success of this Thunderbird, too. He originally came up with the name after a visit to Canada, where he saw carvings of thunderbirds on totem poles. The name was a winner – Ford got permission to use it for a car and Royal Enfield uses it to this day for an Indian-built bike. But it did more.
The name built the Triumph brand. And the strength of the brand is the reason for the new Thunderbird’s success. At least that’s what I think. I’m not denigrating the qualities of the bike when I say that – read my impression of the T’bird in Cruiser+Trike magazine #4 – but I doubt that an equally good bike from another manufacturer would receive the same overall approval as this one.
Please note that I’m not talking about the specialist motorcycle press here. It’s acceptance among potential buyers that matters and that’s what the bike is getting going by the reception it’s had among the riders I talk to.
Forgive me if I seem to be preoccupied with brands; part of my “civilian” job is editing a book called Superbrands, which, predictably enough, is about brands and which has taught me a lot about their power. In the case of this latest incarnation of the Thunderbird, it’s the Triumph brand that has brought and kept the bike at the forefront of potential buyers’ minds.
Now Triumph is not, actually, one of the world’s 100 most valuable brands. The annual list compiled by consultancy Interbrand has only one company on it that manufactures motorcycles (more or less) exclusively. Yes, that’s Harley-Davidson. Honda and BMW also appear, although in both cases this would be mainly because they make cars as well.
But if you asked about the most valuable motorcycle brands, Triumph would be well up there. That’s partly because the likes of Edward Turner came up with great names and great bikes but also partly because John Bloor, Triumph’s current owner, has capitalised on the brand.
He’s not set many feet wrong – there have been unsuccessful Triumphs, of course, including bikes such as the TT but today there are no duds in the Triumph model line-up. That creates its own attraction and here is where I think we come to the reason for the Thunderbird’s reception by Australian riders.
We are used to seeing interesting, successful bikes with the Hinckley badge on them – and so, if we’re looking for a new cruiser we will be more likely to look at a Triumph first.
Whew. It took a long time to get to a simple conclusion, didn’t it? But as with mathematics questions in exams, the working-out can be just as valuable as the correct answer.
Just in case you missed our stories in Cruiser+Trike, where we’ve featured the bike twice, here’s a quick rundown on what all the above fuss is about. Here’s a quick summary of C+T editor Bob Guntrip’s description of the bike.
“Twin-cam, four-valve-per-pot water-cooled powerplants are enough of a rarity in cruiserdom to get the pulse racing when one is spotted; and the Thunderbird’s [displaces] 1596cc. It’s unmistakeably a Triumph with that solid lump of vertical twin-cylinder bank amidships and sounds and goes likewise.
“Part of the design brief was for strong bottom-end power and the 270-degree crank emphasises that feel and adds a loping, offbeat exhaust note, delivered via exhaust headers that are double-walled to prevent blueing. Triumph has done bags of work on the T16 engine to damp vibration and muffle noise.
“Cam drive to the four-valve, twin-plug heads is by a small chain that runs up between the cylinders. Add to that fuel injection and clean, low-maintenance 32mm belt final drive – a first from Hinckley – and you’ve a solid and fuss-free powerplant.
“Triumph went for a twin-backbone steel frame using the engine as a stressed member. The design brief called for the Thunderbird to have ‘class-leading handling’. Suspension is via 47mm-diameter Showa forks and twin shocks with preload adjustment. The whole shebang tips the scales at 308kg dry but a low centre of gravity and a low seat (700mm) make the bike very user-friendly.
“To add to its attractions and make it as appealing to as many potential buyers as possible, a solid range of accessories has been tailor-made for the bike there are more than 100 items.”
And behind all that hovers the ghost of Edward Turner, possibly still trying to forget the Ariel Square Four but no doubt very happy with the name that he found in the wilds of Canada.
Johnny Strabler rode a Triumph. That’s the Brits’ great advantage over the Japanese and everyone else who has tried to tackle Harley-Davidson on its home ground. The hero of The Wild One, the best-known (and more importantly the first) biker movie of all time, rode one of their motorcycles. Unlike anyone else still in the business, Triumph was there on the scene* back then. It has the heritage, too.
And it’s heritage, more than anything else, that sells big cruisers in the US market — and in ours as well.
John Bloor’s Triumph fired two ranging shots into the American cruiser market. The first, the America and Speedmaster, fell short. I don’t mean to suggest that they are bad bikes, and their similarity to the Triumphs that sold so well in the US half a century ago was a good move. But they are physically too small to take a serious piece out of the Milwaukee marvels. The second shot went long; the Rocket IIIs are simply too big and powerful for a lot of riders.
But the ranging shots did exactly what ranging shots are meant to do: they established the correct range to the target. Will the third shot take that target, the still-huge US market, out?
Well, let’s leave the branding, marketing and positioning to the branders, marketers and positioners and check out the bike itself. I suppose there are three main boxes that a big (meaning serious) cruiser needs to tick, and three minor ones.
The big ones are simple and interrelated. The bike has to make you feel good, it has to impress your friends and it has to be reasonably exclusive so nobody else in the street, at least, has one. H-D ticks the first two but its success means that it is gradually getting to the point where the third one can’t any longer be guaranteed. The solution is easy, though. The super-expensive CVO series allows you to stay exclusive and makes a bit of money for H-D along the way. Win-win, really.
The minor boxes are also interrelated. It helps if the bike is easy to ride, handles, goes reasonably well and is reliable. The work H-D has been doing recently on upgrading things such as the suspension and brakes means that it’s ticking these boxes, too.
How does the new Thunderbird rate?
Well, it definitely ticks the minor boxes. The T-Bird is remarkably easy to ride. In fact, its low seat, low centre of gravity and (relatively) low weight combine to make it feel much smaller than it is. It is manageable at all speeds, significantly more so than Japanese bikes of similar capacity. It also goes well, with terrific drive out of corners and brakes that do its performance justice. The fuel injection is exceptionally well tuned. As for reliability — well, that’s something the Bloor Triumphs have worked hard to establish. Time will tell, but I’d be very surprised if there were chronic problems.
Now to the big ones.
The jury is still out for me on the first box. The bike certainly felt terrific to me but hardly anybody noticed it. Remember that I said that it’s how the bike makes you feel that matters, not how the bike feels. And how it makes you feel has a lot to do with the way others react to it. The badge is far too discreet, I think, and while the bulldog look of the bike is successful to my eyes, it doesn’t stand out in the street. Despite the oodles of solid-looking chrome, Jane Public’s glance simply passes over it. If you think that doesn’t matter, that’s great — you’re definitely a potential Thunderbird buyer. But the fact is that it does matter to many people and they will have to turn to customising to make their statement.
Will the T-Bird impress your friends? It certainly will if they’re cruiser riders themselves; all they will need is half an hour on the bike and they’ll come back impressed, no matter what their current machine is. If they’re not riders, see the comment above — but then the opinion of non-riders ought to matter far less, right?
No problem with exclusivity, at least for the time being. Half of the 2009 Thunderbird production run of 5000 bikes is going straight to the US, leaving not many for the rest of the world. Even if the bike is hugely successful, it will take years — decades — to become as common a sight as a Harley.
But that’s all just generalising. What about the person who really matters? What about you? Why would you buy a Thunderbird?
Well, here’s the deal. Triumph has built a cruiser, but true to its own heritage it has equipped it with a vertical twin instead of a vee-twin, like H-D and practically everyone else. Don’t worry, though, the 270-degree camshaft makes it feel and sound just like a vee-twin.
It’s also very willing to rev from just above idle, despite a crankshaft that had to be loaded up to maintain smoothness. But smooth it is, and revvy — a good combination. Ride it in fourth; you’ll hardly find yourself changing gear. And, if you do, be pleasantly surprised by the smooth but definite gearbox — it really is the best box Triumph has come up with so far. Final drive is by belt, which is state of the art on cruisers now — and should be. It’s cheap, light and almost maintenance-free.
One major advantage of the cylinder arrangement is that the seat can be nice and low — 702mm in this case. There’s no rear cylinder to get in the way. The seat and the pleasantly wide handlebars combine with moderate forward controls to provide a comfortable riding position. I liked the tank-mounted instruments, which include an information window, adjustable from the right switch block (like the Rocket III Tour’s), and an unobtrusive rev counter. The fuel tank is quite large at 21 litres (and when you look at it from the front, is quite wide as well) but it doesn’t feel wide and your knees tuck in nicely, quite naturally. The bike I rode had a dual seat, which gave my tailbone a bit more of a workout than I liked. If you’re travelling alone, I’d definitely suggest the single seat. If you’re usually two-up, check out the options.
For once I would not be looking at replacing the pipes. They are very quiet, it’s true, but they look really good and they can be encouraged to bellow if you push on towards the rev limiter at 6500rpm.
The front forks are not adjustable but do a good job. You’ll want to play with the preload adjustment on the twin rear shocks to get the best compromise between handling (nice and hard) and pothole survival (a bit softer). I was happy enough with the brakes at both ends, and ABS will be available pretty soon.
The engine is terrific, but what really made the bike for me was the handling. I went for hard suspension and tried to avoid potholes. Despite the fairly chunky 200 section rear tyre, the Thunderbird is nimble and great fun in corners. There’s no tendency to wallow and the bike doesn’t need to be pushed down into corners the way some other cruisers do. Neither does it decide to drop into the corners, another common fault. Neutral, that’s the word. The bike is also stable at speed, although on public roads there was a limit to how much I could test that. But I doubt that you’d ever have stability problems with a Thunderbird.
The bike is versatile to the point of being a fun scratcher (within reason, of course) on the one hand and a thoroughly relaxed distance hound on the other.
So that’s why you’d buy one. I would. Oh, and if you want more power (though I’m not sure why you would) there’s a factory 1700cc upgrade. There are also more than 100 factory accessories to get you started on that customising project…
And remember that Chino, the bad guy in The Wild One, rode a Harley, while the bike Johnny Strabler was riding wasn’t just a Triumph. It was … a Thunderbird.
*Yes, I know that Johnny’s bike wasn’t a cruiser as we define them today. But there weren’t any modern cruisers, or choppers for that matter, in the film. The point is that the bike had street cred, then and forever after.
Quickspecs Model: Triumph Thunderbird Price: $20,990 (plus on-road costs) Warranty: Two years, unlimited distance Power: 62.5kW @ 4850rpm Torque: 146Nm @ 2750rpm Engine: Liquid-cooled vertical twin, DOHC, four valves per cylinder, fuel injection, electronic ignition. Bore x stroke: 103.8mm x 94.3mm Displacement: 1599cc Compression: 9.7:1 Transmission: Six-speed, multi-plate wet clutch, final drive by belt Suspension: 47mm telescopic fork, twin shocks adjustable for preload Dimensions: Seat height 702mm, weight 308kg (dry), fuel capacity 21 litres, wheelbase 1641mm Tyres: Front, 120/70 R19; rear, 200/50 R17 Frame: Twin loop steel tubing Brakes: Front, twin 310mm discs with four-piston calipers; rear, 310mm single disc with two-piston floating caliper Colours: Jet Black; Aluminium Silver with Jet Black stripe; Pacific Blue with Fusion White stripe Verdict: Watch out, eagles
You read the Bear’s ride impression in the last issue — here’s Bob’s launch report
Photos: Lou Martin, factory
In late September, Triumph Australia invited the press to northern New South Wales for a leisurely look at its new baby, the Thunderbird. The new bike, plenty impressive in its own right, is the key element of Triumph’s new assault on the heart of the cruiser market — as I found out.
Sometimes, you just can’t help yourself: “You already have the Speedmaster and the America at one end of the cruiser spectrum,” I heard myself saying to Triumph Australia marketing manager Mal Jarrett, “and the mighty Rocket 3 at the other. Where do you expect to find customers for a 1600cc Thunderbird?”
Mal, who does a nice line in tolerant smiles, turned on one of his brightest and steered me towards the conference room where the official launch was to take place, and moments later I had the answer: that there’s a massive cruiser market out there to be tapped and, according to Triumph’s research, fully half of the riders in that market are likely to sit up and take notice when the Thunderbird starts popping up in the press and nearby Triumph dealers.
The last bike to wear the Thunderbird badge was the 885cc triple that arrived in 1995 and sat, perhaps a little awkwardly, alongside other, better-known members of the range: the sporting Daytona, do-it-all Trident and touring Trophy. That T-bird was not quite cruiser, not quite stocker, yet it won its share of fans and maybe did its bit to inspire the current, Speedmaster-led cruiser dynasty from the Hinckley outfit.
Which is where I came in, so let’s absorb a little more of Mal Jarrett’s wisdom. Apparently 1401–1700cc bikes account for a neat 50 per cent of the cruiser market, with 900s (such as Triumph’s Speedmaster/America) taking up a modest 22 per cent and 1701+cc monsters (eg the Rocket 3) chipping in with just 7 per cent.
And Mal’s crystal ball has more to offer. Apparently, the cruiser market splits into four basic style segments, each accounting for some 20 to 30 per cent of the market. There are Full Tour (31 per cent), Custom (28 per cent), Classic (21 per cent) and Light Tour (20 per cent).
What Mal describes as Full Tour are perhaps better known to you and me as Dressers. “These,” he reckons, “are bikes dedicated to touring, with hard panniers and a fairing, and maybe a top box. It’s a sector absolutely dominated by Harley, but one the Japanese are showing an increasing interest in.
“Next is Light Tour, bikes with a blade screen and panniers, which can be hard or soft; bikes such as the Road King, Stratoliner and Kawasaki Nomad. We believe our Rocket Touring fits in between these two classes.
“In what I’ve called the Classic sector are bikes with fat tyres, deep mudguards and shrouded forks. They look a lot like light tour bikes without the screen and bags. We’re talking about Fat Boy, Road Star, Suzuki C109R etc.
“And finally comes the Custom sector, characterised by bikes with a 19- or 21-inch front wheel, non-shrouded forks, skinny mudguards — generally a more stripped-down look. There’s quite a variety of bikes I’d include in this sector, from modern style like the V-rods and Suzuki M109R to more classic styles like the Harley Dyna Super Glide.”
With that, Mal favoured us with another of those smiles and stepped from the podium.
OK, so here’s the punchline. Triumph has pitched the Thunderbird in the Custom segment, largely due to its trim front end and shortie rear mudguard, but its muscle-rippling stance makes it a walk-up start for the Classic sector as well.
Add in selected goodies from the dedicated accessory range and you have a genuine touring contender, too.
Ladies and gents, meet the Thunderbird in all its versatility…
Metal, metal and more metal
Twin-cam, four-valve-per-pot water-cooled powerplants are enough of a rarity in cruiserdom to get the pulse racing when one is spotted; and the Thunderbird’s comes with a game-over 1596cc, which works out at 97.4 cubic inches if you’re ancient or American.
It’s unmistakeably a Triumph with that solid lump of vertical twin-cylinder bank amidships, and sounds and goes likewise — apart from looking clean and tough, Triumph wanted particular characteristics from its new engine (it shares valves with the Rocket 3, otherwise it’s a new engine).
Part of the design brief was for strong bottom-end power, and the 270-degree crank emphasises that feel and adds a loping, offbeat exhaust note, delivered via exhaust headers that are double-walled to prevent blueing. (There’s no immediate indication these will be offered as a retro-fit to the Bonneville range, judging by Gary McDonnell’s pointed remonstrances on the subject.)
“This engine is all about torque, character and refinement,” Triumph Australia Technical Manager Cliff Stovall told us. “Getting all these aspects right is every bit as difficult as getting the right levels of power and durability from a super sport engine — every engine has its challenges.”
Triumph has done bags of work on the T16 engine, as it’s apparently called, to damp vibration and muffle noise. Cliff did the world’s fastest engine strip on a demo unit and revealed two thumping great balance shafts fore and aft of the crankshaft to help beat the buzz, and proudly pointed out the helical-cut gears (second to sixth gears) in the gearbox that help to keep noise down. Another neat dodge to reduce mechanical clatter is the use of small oil reservoirs in the cases.
Cam drive to the four-valve, twin-plug heads is by a small chain that runs up between the cylinders.
Add to that fuel injection and clean, low-maintenance 32mm belt final drive — a first from Hinckley — and you’ve a solid and fuss-free powerplant.
Triumph went for a twin-backbone steel frame using the engine as a stressed member. The design brief called for the Thunderbird to have “class-leading handling”. Suspension is via 47mm-diameter Showa forks and twin shocks with preload adjustment. The whole shebang tips the scales at 308kg dry, which is right up there in Harley-Davidson territory, so that suspension has plenty of work to do.
But a low centre of gravity and a low seat (700mm) make the bike very user-friendly. To add to its attractions and make it as appealing to as many potential buyers as possible, a solid range of accessories has been tailor-made for the bike.
As Mal Jarrett suggested, the Thunderbird can be gussied up from the accessory range to slot into the classic, custom or light-touring class just by pointing to the dedicated displays of goodies around the walls at your local Triumph dealer and asking the nice people there to fit the whole thing together.
Altogether, there are more than 100 items with which you can adorn your Thunderbird, and from what I saw these included a couple of choices of seat, three screens, two types of handlebar, custom wheels and a couple of exhaust-pipe designs. And that’s just the big stuff: there are footpegs, running boards, mirrors, clutch covers, front caliper shrouds, sissy bars, panniers and range of T-bird-branded clothing.
So handing over the $20,990 you’ll need to grab yourself one of the first Thunderbirds in the country might well be just the start of a well-signposted road that’ll help you tailor the bike to your particular requirements.
On the road
If you’re looking for a ride in the warm, the loop we took from Kingscliff via Murwillumbah, Kyogle, Lismore and Bangalow to Byron Bay comes heartily recommended. It’s tight in plenty of places but there’s not much traffic and the region is crowded with excellent scenery. There are plenty of interesting places to lay your head and to stop for refreshment, and you have the satisfaction of riding one of the nicest corners of the land, with the craggy drama of the Mount Warning National Park at its heart.
The Thunderbird liked it, too. The blend of short straights between sequences of 35–65km/h bends bore out Triumph’s assertion about its linear power delivery. The T-bird might boast just 85bhp (63kW), and that’s at the crankshaft, but they’re well-nourished and sturdy horses. Acceleration is brisk, but with 308kg plus fluids and people to lug around, this bike is unlikely to win too many drag races.
The clutch is a solid pull, but the gearchange action is sweet and light. Ratios are good. Triumph pitches top gear (sixth) as a kind of overdrive, but from 100km/h in top (at a low 2000rpm), the engine pulls lustily.
Steering is good and the front end feels pretty solid. The back suspension (the units are adjustable for spring preload with the usual five settings) can be made to protest at surface irregularities or the crests and dips common to country back roads. Cornering clearance, too, can be a problem, with the pegs touching down relatively easily on both sides — but that’s by naked bike standards. It’s good for a cruiser.
The riding position is OK but I think works best with the longer bar option. With forward-mounted footpegs fitted, my legs were stretched more or less straight forward and from that starting point a shortie handlebar can be an uncomfortably long reach. The rangier bars definitely offered a more relaxed and so more enjoyable ride.
Thanks to the engine’s 270-degree crank and those mighty counter-balancers, there’s not too much to write about on the subject of vibration. You wouldn’t feel much through the roomy and generously padded seat, anyhow, and few tingles reach the rider’s extremities through either pegs or bars.
During my day-and-a-half on the bike I never found the bottom of the 21.7-litre tank, and once I’d adjusted to looking down at the tanktop instrument display for information on the vital signs I checked regularly, but there seems to be a solid 300+km cruising range in that cavernous tank, and Triumph reckons the Thunderbird will use 17 per cent less fuel than other, comparable cruisers.
The display itself runs to a thumping great circular speedo with a small tacho across the lower third of the dial, and LCD displays offering information on mileage and fuel consumption (the display counts down the last 100km in the tank). It’s neat and works well, though I’d rather see it on the handlebar.
Minor niggles, really. All told, there were 14 of us pedalling T-birds and I can’t recall speaking to anyone who professed a substantive dislike of Triumph’s new light-heavyweight cruiser. It’s a worthy and viable rival to the tough guys already on the block and offers performance and presence for your buck. It’s now showing at a Triumph dealer near you. Go see.
Quickspecs Model: Triumph Thunderbird Price: $20,990 (plus on-road costs) Warranty: Two years, unlimited distance Power: 62.5kW @ 4850rpm Torque: 146Nm @ 2750rpm Engine: Liquid-cooled vertical twin, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder, fuel injection, electronic ignition Bore x stroke: 103.8mm x 94.3mm Displacement: 1599cc Compression: 9.7:1 Transmission: Six-speed, multi-plate wet clutch, final drive by belt Suspension: 47mm telescopic fork, twin shocks adjustable for preload Dimensions: Seat height 702mm, weight 308kg (dry), fuel capacity 21 litres, wheelbase 1641mm Tyres: Front, 120/70 R19; rear, 200/50 R17 Frame: Twin loop steel tubing Brakes: Front, twin 310mm discs with four-piston calipers; rear, 310mm single disc with two-piston floating caliper Colours: Jet Black; Aluminium Silver with Jet Black stripe; Pacific Blue with Fusion White stripe