2010 Triumph Thunderbird

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Christa Neuhauser

Triumph revives an iconic name from its past to launch its heavy-middleweight cruiser.

In North American indigenous mythology, the Thunderbird is a supernatural avian of immense power, said to create thunderstorms by flapping its wings. It's often depicted atop the totem poles of Pacific Northwest peoples.
On a trip to the Daytona races in the 1940s Triumph's boss, Edward Turner, came across a Thunderbird Motel, and on the grounds there was a totem pole topped with the mythical bird. The evocative image seemed perfectly suited to grace Turner's latest and largest motorcycle, designed specifically for the U.S. market - a new 650cc machine, known until then only by its codename 6T. Ever the showman, Turner launched the Thunderbird at the Montlhéry circuit in France, where three machines completed 500 miles on the track at an average of over 90mph. Thenceforth, a legend was born.

It's a Triumph Thunderbird Brando rides in The Wild One (1953). Bud Ekins (subbing for Steve McQueen) leaps the prison camp fence on one in The Great Escape (1963). And it was Triumph that licensed Ford to use the Thunderbird name for its sporty 1955 car. The last 6T Thunderbird was built in 1967, but the name briefly appeared on an economy 650 produced by the Triumph Meriden Cooperative in 1980, and was revived by John Bloor for a street-standard styled Triumph 900cc triple in 1995.

Like Bonneville, the Thunderbird name carries powerful marketing connotations for Triumph and is used sparingly. That it appears on the company's latest cruiser emphasizes the importance attached to the new bike.

Is this Triumph's Cruiser that Could?

Triumph's success in the cruiser market has been sporadic at best. The America and Speedmaster are styled right, but don't measure up on presence and performance - two things the tank-like Rocket 3 has in spades, although it's an aesthetic train wreck. Triumph learned two things at least from their R3 experience: While both are important, appearance trumps performance in the cruiser market; and if your engine isn't a V-twin, it better appeal to, not repel, the target market. And the slab-sided Mack-truck look of the R3 turned off the chrome cruiser crowd.

So now the new T'bird comes along, looking like a grown-up Speedmaster with a few steroid shots, and as such it checks most of the right cruiser boxes. The engine is unashamedly a parallel twin, liquid-cooled, but with mock cooling fins. Bulk and chrome abound in the forks, rear shocks, handlebars and exhaust headers (double-walled to prevent discoloration). Especially noteworthy, though, are the shiny alloy wheels which lend the 'Bird a modern performance look. A tiny bucket headlight and color-matched fenders and gas tank complete the visual cues. To me, the engine has perfect visual appeal, though diehard vee fans may not concur.

A low seat, with a slender front, and the broad handlebars make righting the 'Bird from its kickstand a breeze. All the controls are where you want them, easy to reach and light to use in operation. The beast fires with a thudding lurch and burbles heartily at computer-controlled idle. Triumph chose a 270-degree crankshaft layout, which gives a V-twin-like exhaust pulse while also reducing primary vibration. Three additional balance shafts in the motor mop up the residual wobbles to leave just the right visceral "character."

Instruments are mounted in the tank top, requiring a downward glance to read them, which is less than ideal for consistent scanning of the road ahead. There's a speedometer and (unusual for a cruiser) tachometer, as well as a digital display with a clock, fuel, 2 trips, odometer and range options, plus the usual idiot lights. A bonus (something all bikes should have, in my opinion) is the four-way turn signal flasher.

On the Road

It's become a bike-reviewing cliché to say that the bulk and weight of a big cruiser dissipate once on the move, but it really is true of the T'bird in spite of some resistance to turning at walking speeds. Opening the throttle produces pulsing power up to around 2,000rpm when everything smoothes out, and the prodigious torque seems to thrust the 'Bird along effortlessly. The light clutch and easy-snicking gearshift also contribute to the graceful feel.

Out on the road, the wide bars instill a sense of confidence, especially in the swervery. Big cruisers are rarely very comfortable on contorted pavement, and the T'bird also prefers straight lines. But though some pressure is needed to lean it over and keep it there, the handling, generally, is excellent - steady and predictable. Not surprisingly, the sliders on the foot pegs get a real workout, and it's not difficult to ground even more of the undercarriage. And while most cruiser riders won't explore handling to this extent, it's worth noting that the bike can get jacked up at steep lean angles, potentially unsettling its traction. That said, this is certainly one of the best handling cruisers on the market.

It stops, too. Many cruisers have a rearward brake bias that can make them dangerously prone to skid in a panic stop, but the T'bird uses two big discs each, with dual-piston calipers up front and a single disc at the rear; and Triumph offers ABS as an option. The brakes are smooth, progressive and capable. Suspension travel is limited, though, and bumpy roads can be uncomfortable.

So it handles and stops, but does it go? Unlike most cruiser makers, Triumph is refreshingly candid about its power numbers, claiming 85hp @4,850rpm and 106lb-ft of torque at 2,750rpm, which puts it toward the top of the power cruiser pile. (For comparison, the Harley-Davidson Fat Bob CVO makes 71hp and 86lb-ft.) Power goes through straight-cut primary gears and a wet clutch to the slick six-speed cog box, which connects to the six-inch rear wheel and 200mm section tire with a Kevlar belt. As Rolls-Royce used to advise its customers, power is "sufficient," and in spite of its 750lb curb weight, this bird produces arm-stretching acceleration.

Top speeds are irrelevant in cruiserdom, but the 'Bird will certainly hold its own in the traffic-signal drags. Rolling on the throttle in any gear around 1,500rpm provides lusty forward thrust, though the engine needs to see 4,000rpm and more for optimum acceleration. Giving the big throbbing beast its head can be quite seductive as its momentum builds so rapidly, and caution is needed to avoid running out of road or hitting illegal speeds. Power delivery is even and snatch-free with perfect fueling; so mid-corner throttle transitions are smooth and drama-free. The engine seems happiest cruising at around 2,000rpm, which equates to about 60mph in sixth gear.

Ergonomically Speaking

Cruisers are frequently ridden long distances, and whatever your opinion on what constitutes a comfortable riding position, the classic cruiser posture presents its challenges: almost all the rider's weight is on the butt (unlike a sportier stance which distributes weight more evenly); the upright seating attitude creates plenty of wind drag, which pulls on the arms; and the foot-forward stance tends to bend the spine forward rather than keeping it straight. The result is backache and a sore butt. Cruiser riders mitigate these challenges with windshields, backrests and aftermarket seats.

Triumph, coming from sportier origins, has found a workable compromise in the Thunderbird. The ergonomics are "cruiser-conservative," with foot pegs not too far forward, and the sweep of the bars close enough to the rider to allow a straight back. Triumph has promised more than 100 accessories to fit the Thunderbird, and the first I'd buy would be a windshield (then some luggage), which, by deflecting highway-speed drag, will make the T'bird a much better long-distance mount.

I rode a naked T'bird close to 1,400 miles in five days through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and western Maryland for the 2009 RoadRUNNER Touring Weekend. Usually, I avoid cruisers because the riding position tends to aggravate an old back injury of mine. But the more I rode the 'Bird the more I enjoyed it. It just seemed to require less rider input, leaving me free to enjoy the views and the verdant hills. Its stability, light controls and wide powerband encourage relaxed riding, which, after all, is what cruising is about.

The weekend, though, was bookended with 400-mile rides from and back to RoadRUNNER HQ in Winston-Salem, providing ample opportunity to evaluate the 'Bird's long-distance capabilities. In spirited riding on the serpentine (and often imperfect) pavement of Virginia, the big Triumph handled the twisties very capably and could mostly stay with the sportier machines on the ride, though ground clearance became the limiting factor in fast turns. Christa especially seemed to master dragging the Thunderbird's metalwork, and managed to grind about a quarter of an inch off the brake lever.

But cruisers aren't supposed to be about knee-dragging cornering. They're about parameters that are difficult to measure and highly subjective: style, attitude, presence, prestige, and charisma. They thrive in a world where bigger is better, where adding metal is preferable to removing it, and where chrome is king. Essentially, it's the world as is, meaning how you look is more important than how you ride, and where personalizing and accessorizing quickly adds up to more than the cost of the bike. It's emotion over reason, form over function, style over substance - tire smoke and billet mirrors, if you will. And some less than stellar motorcycles have been produced over the years as a result.

Triumph, whose shtick is "go your own way," may well have its work cut out for it in a market dominated by slavish attention to predetermined styling cues. However, the company possesses a few particular advantages that may yet help it prevail, or to at least win a good part of the day. For one, Triumph seems incapable of building a bad motorcycle, and the Thunderbird arrives on the scene performing and functioning as well as any motorcycle in the power cruiser category - and better than most, especially in terms of handling and braking. Also, apart from the parallel twin engine, the Thunderbird is conservatively styled, but with touches (like the alloy wheels) that also speak to modernity. And finally, the Thunderbird has "crossover" potential, attracting riders who like cruiser styling but have higher performance expectations.

I ride a lot of motorcycles, and I find something to like about all of them. But I've never ridden a cruiser I would consider owning - up until now, that is.


2010 Triumph Thunderbird
Second Opinion by Chris Myers

Two Thumbs Up

Like Robert, I too had the pleasure of rolling up a few miles on Triumph's impressive new cruiser. I tossed a set of Willie and Max saddlebags over the back seat and hit the road on a recent trip across the state of Tennessee, and I noticed right away that this bird is built to soar. The giant, parallel twin is perfect for freeway duty, especially considering the welcome addition of a six-speed transmission. And when the back roads call, this mill proves equally adept thumping along at a small town pace. The sound is substantial yet not at all overwhelming. And the fuel injection performed perfectly, with mountains of torque readily offered at the twist of the throttle.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Thunderbird is just how well it handles. The stability exhibited through turns, especially the ease with which it falls into those corners, far outclasses the low chassis' anemic ground clearance. Due to the bird's solid feel, after a few twists it's easy to become overconfident and start running in a little hot. Despite the beefy 200-series rear tire, this Triumph simply shredded the curves and left sparkling bits of British foot peg scattered across the Volunteer State. So, it's a good thing that top-notch brakes are part of the package. The triple disc setup is the best I've come across in the category.

I also found it a nuisance not having a windscreen at freeway speeds. But because the position is not as rearward biased as seating is on most cruisers, leaning into the wind takes pressure off the arms. But that's not good enough. I second Robert and recommend investing in the windshield. On the other hand, the wide seat is fine as is, which is all-day comfortable. I rode from Clarksville, Tennessee to Winston-Salem, North Carolina and never missed a beat. According to Google Maps, that's almost 500 miles. Not too shabby for a boulevard bomber.

I have carried on a love-hate relationship with cruisers for years, but the older I get the greater the love. A cruiser's size, the chrome, and relaxing are much more appealing now. Add stout power, sound handling and legitimate brakes to the package and it's looking better all the time. That's not to say I'm ready to make the leap from my nakeds and dual sports to the laid-back realm of cruising yet. But when that day inevitably arrives, a Triumph Thunderbird could very well top my wish list.