Rumbling around the city of Charlotte late at night to avoid the oppressive heat of the day late this summer, a myriad of colored lights dance and play in the seamless chrome of the sculptured, headlight before flowing along the seamless gas tank. Unchecked air flows across the wide, chrome handlebars, and the rhythmic cadence of the smooth parallel twin beating beneath me transports me to the place we motorcyclists go. Tipping effortlessly into the next curve of the road, downshifting to feel the powerful engine pull me forward on the exit, there is no feeling in the world to compare with this sense of freedom. Comfortable, laid back, and built to mimic the classic American style and feeling we associate with cruisers, the new Triumph Thunderbird gives this and more, by bringing a few distinctly British traits to the table.
As I missed the initial launch of the new “T’ Bird,” Triumph’s Jim Callaghan kindly offered to bring one to Charlotte so I could spend some quality time on the bike over a few weeks. This would let me experience the bike in a wider variety of situations and get a more in-depth feel for Triumph’s first large displacement parallel twin. More after the video
As the style of motorcycle I gravitate towards the least, the Triumph Thunderbird has done more to improve my appreciation for this class than any other cruiser, save perhaps Yamaha’s line of bigger Star machines. Displacing 1587ccs the new Thunderbird fits squarely between the Bonneville America at 865cc and the gargantuan 2294cc Rocket III. With the America barely making enough power to pull your Granny off the Mail man, and the Rocket III capable of ripping your arms out of their sockets and leaving your missus in the next county, the new Thunderbird is the perfect balance and addition to this cruiser line up.
Edward Turner introduced the first Triumph Thunderbird in 1949, so it’s illuminating that Triumph would hang this famous historical moniker on their new cruiser. It’s also interesting that it’s the first new from the ground up motorcycle to come from Triumph in a few years, with the Thunderbird appearing to share no common parts with any other models. As tested the bike came in standard form, but there are already a number of accessory items available to customize the Thunderbird to individual tastes. Just head on down to your local dealer or check online to see the options.
On first appearance the bike appears very neat and tidy. The lines are clean with nothing poking out interrupting their smooth flow. The bike is classically styled, and without any obvious Triumph logo shouting out what brand it is, which confused more than one person while I was out on my travels. What was immediately apparent to anyone with more than a passing interest in mechanical things though was the engine. There wasn’t a motorcyclist who didn’t comment on the parallel twin and want to know the size and the amount of power it made.
The 1597cc twin is quoted as producing 85 horsepower and kicking out 108 ft. lbs of torque at a lowly 2,750rpm. This puts the Triumph a little down on power compared to Suzuki’s M109R and Star’s line of bigger cruisers, but up some when compared to the Harley Davidson collection. This displacement is achieved by an over square bore and stroke of 103.8mm and 94.3mm respectively. Making for basically two 800cc pistons with a 270-degree firing order, it’s necessary for the big twin to use twin balance shafts and a crank mounted torsional damper to keep unwanted vibes from taking the fillings out of your teeth.
As the largest production parallel twin on the market, there is actually a big bore kit available for those desiring more grunt. This enlarges the engine capacity to 1700cc, giving an additional 15 horsepower and 7 foot-pounds of torque. Personally, lack of power is not an issue for me, and I actually applaud the amount produced and the way it is delivered. It gives the Triumph an aggressive and sporting nature when you crank the throttle, and with a 6,500-rpm limit it doesn’t run out of power too early. For those still interested, the big bore kits costs $889 from your Triumph dealer and takes about a full day of labor to complete the work. For a significant power increase that comes by simply bolting on factory parts, it seems like a very reasonable deal.
Rolling through the city on my night ride with a light passenger on the pillion seat the Thunderbird is unfazed by the extra weight. It pulls 70 mph with just 3,000 rpm on the tachometer in sixth gear, and our ride is super smooth and slick with very low vibration through the pegs or bars. Below this point on the tachometer you are aware that there is a big twin beneath you, but the extra vibes are certainly not annoying or distracting. Fueling is very similar to the injected Bonneville I tested earlier in the year. Although, where the Bonneville is perfect on or off the throttle at any point in the power band, the Thunderbird gave the occasional minor hiccup. It came after running on a closed throttle any time I didn’t quickly pick up the throttle, and not happening every time it was somewhat difficult to pin point at first. Even then it needed just the right set of circumstances to manifest, so it really is a minor blemish on an otherwise excellent fueling system.
Taking the fuel and air into the big cylinders, via two inlet valves driven by an overhead camshaft, the Thunderbird uses two large 42mm throttle bodies. The EFI controls this mixture on each cylinder separately, and a pair of exhaust valves let the burned mixture escape after being opened by their own camshaft. Triumph is quoting the system as 20% more fuel efficient than the competition, but I’m sure that information is really more for the European market where near $8 per gallon gas prices are more likely to get your attention.
For the most part the city streets around Charlotte are in good condition, but there are some bumps and bangs to be found. The Thunderbird’s suspension did a good job of absorbing these when they appeared. Up front there is a conventional 47mm Showa fork with 120mm of travel. This is set up firmly enough to not fold under heavy braking, but soft enough to provide a supple ride. The fork is non-adjustable as you might expect on a cruiser. Under your bum there are a pair of chrome spring shocks with 95mm of travel. These are adjustable for five-positions of pre-load, and this operation is performed quickly with a spanner found under the seat. The ride quality is very good, and they deal with irregular road conditions as well as any other cruiser I have tested.
The Thunderbird rolls on an attractive pair of cast aluminum alloy wheels wrapped with specially designed Metzeler tires for optimum handling. With a 200-series rear Marathon ME880 tire in the back on the 17 inch rear wheel, the steering and maneuverability are better than I expected without that strange feeling of the bike revolving around the rear tire that you get on cruisers with big tires. The front wheel is a 19-incher using a 120/70 series ME880. Wheelbase is 63.6 inches, and the rake is set at 32-degrees with 5.95 inches of trail. Knowing how many miles Triumph test riders put on new motorcycles before they go into production, and on what sort of roads, it’s no surprise that the Thunderbird handles in such a competent manner. In my mind it is one of the best handling of the cruisers in this segment, and allied to the urgent response level of the engine, there is a definite sporting element to the Thunderbird you won’t find either in cruiser world.
When it comes time to slow down 2010 Triumph Thunderbirdor stop the 680-pound British cruiser, the non-adjustable front brake lever operates a pair of Nissin four piston calipers working over dual 310mm rotors. A single two-piston Brembo caliper grabs a similar sized rotor in the rear and adds some solid stopping power to the strong front set up. These front brakes don’t overwhelm the fork as I mentioned earlier and get the job done without any drama with a good firm pull on the lever. Overall the package feels a notch above all of the other cruisers, except maybe the Star line with their R1 derived package.
The rider’s eye view is clean and minimalist with chrome top triple trees, handlebars, and headlight being set off with smooth, black switchgear and front brake master cylinder. The whole package has a high quality look and feel and work in a conventional fashion with no surprises. The instrument panel sits in the 5.8-gallon fuel tank in tried and tested Harley fashion.. Accompanying the large analogue speedometer is a small tachometer that sits in the bottom of the gauge. It is hard to see these numbers for those of us who need reading glasses but not impossible.
The six-speed gearbox has a nice solid cruiser thump to it when you drop into first, and the engine note is robust, if maybe a little muted with the stock pipes. Clutch action is not so light it feels weak, but not so stiff it leaves you with an aching wrist in traffic, although I’m personally not a big fan of the wide bar grips. Shifting up through the gears is a smooth and simple task, and the bike pulls well in sixth gear if needed, even thought this is really an overdrive as the engine only drops 200 rpm when you make this last shift. Triumph has always made good gearboxes, and this one is no exception, with clutchless up-shifting possible for those who need it.
Seat is a cruiser low 27.6 inches with a nice, thickly padded seat. Legs stretch forward in typical fashion, and the wide bars fall nicely to hand with a fairly good set of mirrors attached. Styling is all Americana, but with the unique parallel twin engine setting the stage, the experience is different enough to be refreshing. Priced at $12,499 it’s certainly competitive, and the Thunderbird comes in a choice of three colors: Jet Black, Pacific Blue/Fusion White and Aluminum Silver/Jet Black. While I doubt it will wrestle the Harley faithful away from the brand, the new 2010 Triumph Thunderbird is certainly going to make a viable and tempting choice when stacked up against the current crop of Japanese cruisers. It also might make me reconsider the thought of having a permanent cruiser in the Bayly garage. It’s that good.
Text and Photos by Neale Bayly