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24 June 2011 | Reviews

Text by Janie Omorogbe

Triumph is the world’s fastest growing manufacturer. Their recent sales have boomed across the board, with a substantial 22 percent of their total 49, 812 bike sales being attributed to North America. But if the British manufacture is to continue their growth spurt and encourage new buyers from across the pond, they need to address the glaringly obvious gaps in their motorcycle range. There are certain segments where Triumph aren’t represented at all. There isn’t a small trailie for example or 1000cc sports bike, (despite constant badgering from UK journalists.) But for now, the Hinckley based brand has decided to concentrate on filling the yawning void between their entry-level, 865cc powered Speedmaster and America and their humongous 2.3 litre Rocket III.

Statistics show a massive fifty percent of purchased cruisers are powered by engines between 1401 and 1700cc. So it’s no surprise that Triumph have invested a lot of time and energy into producing the perfect sized plug to stem the flow of escaping bike sales, particularly from the US. Of course, that means competing directly with the King-of-all-cruisers, the legendary Harley-Davidson, but Triumph are keen to point out that they are by no means expecting to knock the established Americans off their proud pedestal, or even challenge them to a head-to-head of bike sales. They’re more concerned with expanding their own range, and offering an alternative to the Japanese low riders.

The first step was to dismiss the notion of using an air cooled V-Twin engine, (the traditional choice for a cruiser.) In order for the Thunderbird to state a realistic claim on the market, it had to be totally individual and not just another Harley-clone. It had to show dedication to the British heritage. It had to be an unmistakable, traditional Triumph. Hence the liquid cooled 1597cc parallel twin powerhouse. It isn’t a bored out Bonnie, or a Rocket III lump minus one cylinder, it’s a completely new engine and it’s one that’s been designed specifically for the Thunderbird. American designer Tim Prentice was also assigned to the project, which started five years ago with a blank sheet of paper and although I’ve now ridden the result of his efforts through the Spanish hillside outside of Barcelona, I have no doubt that this isn’t the end of the story. Not by far.

The Thunderbird is pleasing to the eye. That’s the best way to describe it. It’s pleasantly inoffensive and subtley enticing, but it’s hardly the lairy chromed cruiser that middle aged dreams and cashed in savings policies are made off. But in a way, that’s half the attraction. It’s a blank canvas that you can make your own by splashing out on lashings of chrome, leather saddlebags or stylized footpegs. And that’s just scratching the surface of the one hundred accessories and seven thousand pounds worth of extras available for this bike. And you can bet your bottom dollar this is barely the tip of the iceberg. If the Thunderbird is successful, there could be a whole family of T-bird brothers, all powered by the same smooth engine, but with different styling and characteristics. It works for Harley-Davidson after all.

Triumph are dipping a cautious toe in the cruiser pool with the bike’s intentionally conservative styling, because they already consider the engine configuration to be a radical step away from the norm. Despite that, the Thunderbird still manages to capture a sense of quiet elegance and unmistakable quality. It feels and looks like a finished product. Not all cruisers do. The dash fits snugly on top of the wide 22 litre tank and incorporates a chrome surrounded Speedo, two trips, a fuel gauge, clock and distance to empty, which should be quite impressive as Triumph claim the Thunderbird has twenty percent more fuel efficiency than most other cruisers.

But this bike isn’t really concerned with a battle for sales, performance or power figures, it’s about character. Where Harley-Davidson are famous for their air-cooled engines, the water cooled parallel twin is Triumph’s signature dish. And it’s delicious. The low revving, muscular mounds of heavy torque are served in a smooth, faultless delivery that satisfies a really lazy appetite to gear changing. There’s no need to stir the ‘box endlessly to find flavour and punch as you can taste the potential from as low as 1500rpm, with the 85bhp peaking at 4,850 rpm and 108lb.ft of torque poised at lowly 2,500 rpm. Moreover, the transmission uses the first belt drive seen on a Triumph for eighty five years. It’s as smooth as the power delivery, totally unobtrusive and dismisses the need for a grimy and higher maintenance chain.

Where cruisers often have the tendency to feel as unsteady as a newborn foal at slow speeds due to the raked out front forks, the Thunderbird’s handling feels confident and reassuring at any pace. Triumph have focused their attentions on making it easy and rewarding to ride and as a result, it feels neutral and remarkably manageable. The brakes are strong without being potent, and even if you dive for the front mid corner, the bike won’t startle you by suddenly sitting up. For extra security, an ABS version is also available for an additional £600 (and a two tone colour scheme for £295). Tight and tricky u-turns are easily executed, as long as your arms are long enough to cope with the bike’s ample steering lock and wide handlebars, and it feels relatively stable in the faster sweepers. Of course, there is a softness to the suspension which becomes evident if you’re intent on riding as though you’ve straddled a sportsbike, but the flip side is a plush comfort that encourages a more relaxed ride. That said, the footpegs will start to drag as you expect more and more lean from the bike, which is inevitable because it handles so well. But although you’ll touch down as often as a good American football player, you’ll still be scraping the pegs (or aftermarket footboards) less than a typical American cruiser.

The Thunderbird fits the gap in cruiser market as neatly as it was intended to. It certainly has competitive performance and handling within the limitations of the genre. And it has a stronger identity than many Japanese customs. Performance, identity and a string of bling on offer. What more could you ask?

Tech Box
Model        Triumph Thunderbird. from £9,499. ABS £10,099
 twin tone colour add £295.   
Engine            1597cc liquid cooled, parallel twin       
Power            85 bhp @ 4,850 rpm   
Torque            108 lb.ft @ 2,750 rpm               
Transmission        6 speed   
Dry Weight        308 kg / 678 lbs   
Seat Height        700mm / 27.6 inches   
Fuel capacity        22 litres / 4.8 gallons
Fuel economy        53.9mpg with mixed use
Contact        Triumph Motorcycles 01455 251700

Pictures by Jason Critchel

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