Triumph Thunderbird: a personal review
By Ian Chadwick, revised March 1998. Click here for my review of the Triumph Sprint ST
I'm going to get business cards and hand them out instead of answering questions all the time. They'll say:
- Yes it really is a Triumph.
- It's made in England, not Japan.
- I know it has three cylinders. So did a Trident.
- If you want to know more, call my dealer at 705-429-3822.
Three years ago, in the spring of 1995, I test rode one of the new Triumph Thunderbirds and Sprints. My reaction to both was lukewarm. I liked the Tbird, but not enough to make me want one (at the time I was riding an Enfield Bullet and my tastes then ran towards vintage bikes). That was also before I got my Harley Sportster, in 1996. After a summer of shaking all the bolts loose (and a few fillings from my teeth), I had an entirely new perspective on the Tbird. Mike, another local Harley rider, sold his Hog that summer to get a new Tbird and couldn't stop raving about it. His comments stayed with me.
When people ask why I switched from the Altar of the Iron God (Harley) to this sorta-sportbike-almost-a-cruiser, I usually tell them I decided I needed another colour aside from black in my wardrobe. Black is de rigeur for Hog riders and you can't be seen astride the beast in any other colour. On A Triumph, I can wear white, blue, green...
Okay, so it's not the only reason. If they persist, I tell the curious I wanted to be able to recognize things in my mirrors. Or I wanted to be able to pass someone in a hurry. Or I didn't have space on my jacket for a HOG patch. Or my wife wouldn't let me take out another mortgage to buy any more genuine HD chrome for the beast.
Awright, truth be known, I really liked the Sporty. But I just couldn't buy into the elitist Harley lifestyle attitude. And I wanted something, well, with more grunt. The Sporty had a nice comfort zone but I wanted to punch a machine a bit faster, harder and ride longer without a kidney belt. Don't get me wrong: I like the stylish HD cruisers and I love their sound. I had seriously considered getting one of their 1340cc machines, but they were all well beyond my price range. Cost was a big factor.
Over the long winter of 1996-97, I decided to change (again). I'd been switching bikes every year for the past six or so years and Susan was fed up with the trips to dealers and owners, the promo brochures scattered on the kitchen counter all winter. She told me if I must get another bike, to make sure it was one I'd keep for a long time. One hundred thousand kilometers, at least. Or she'd remove one of my favourite bodily parts. I decided it had to be new (or nearly new) rather than vintage, in good part because I'm not mechanical enough to keep one running myself.
I don't like sportbikes, not least of all because my chiropractor gets richer every time I test one. Mostly I don't like the "ringey, ringey, ding ding ding" sounds of the engine. Nor does the styling do much for me. And any of the few that turned my head at all - like the Ducati - were again too expensive. Early in my quest, I crossed them off my list of potential bikes to own.
And I'm not a big guy. I don't want to wrestle some 800 lb. monster around in my garage, so when I made my list of possible replacement bikes, I scratched out the behemoths: Deckers, Valkyries, Goldwings, Royal Stars, Heritage Softtails.
I wanted a medium-size cruiser with guts to match its style. I considered another Virago, or even a Honda Magna or Ace, but the Celtic blood in me kept singing "Triumph." The mystique of Triumph was strong. And it's a great success story. After attending the International Bike Show, in Toronto, January 1997, I was convinced it had to be a Triumph. The question came down to: which model?
I leaned towards the Trophy at first (until the salesman told me to stop leaning on the bike), because it has sleek, contoured lines, hard bags and a potent engine. But one thing held me back: the seating position is far too sporty; not upright enough for me. I also wasn't quite ready to go to fully-faired machine. I needed chrome to polish! So I looked at the Adventurer. Nice seat, nice chrome, hate the tarty bob tail. So there it was: the Thunderbird. It was a natural. I must have known it all along.
Triumph Canada lowered its prices in 1997, so the Tbird came in at $12,000 Cdn. Still a bit steep for my resources, so I did some searching. I got a better deal by finding a well-maintained dealer demo model at J&R Cycle, in Wasaga Beach. It was one of only five in the 'Aegean Blue' colour scheme imported into Canada, not my initial choice but one I've come to really like. Both John and Rhonda rode Triumphs themselves, so that spoke well for the motorcycle. They delivered the bike in mid-March, during a snow storm, but I was out and riding within ten days, despite the cold. It was the beginning of a rewarding riding season for me.
Anyone looking at the new Triumphs can recognize the quality of the fit and finish. But 'chrome don't get you home,' so what really counts is the machine underneath. And the Tbird didn't let me down. At roughly 70 bhp, she has the grunt to do what I wanted on the highway, with lots of low-end torque for in-town riding. I quickly became accustomed to the comfy low-speed characteristics, but grab the throttle on the highway and she screams off like an angry leopard.
The short wheelbase makes the Tbird very maneuverable, handling well in curves at all speeds, easily flicked about. At high speed, she's stable and solid underneath you, at low speeds she corners without a hint of wobble. The suspension is on the stiff side, however, and not terribly comfy when riding on rough roads. Unfortunately, unlike most other Triumphs, adjusting the suspension is not easily done outside the dealer's shop.
The tachometer's red line says 8,500 rpm, but at 100 kmh, she's only doing a comfortable 4,000. By the time you hit 120, you're at 5,000 with plenty of room left for passing. After 160, she doesn't have a lot of oomph left, but there's still 1,000 or more revs left on the tach. Amazingly, most of the time you can read the mirrors. The triple is smooth and quiet, and easy to ride for distances. However you may want to change to the "offroad" pipes for a better, meatier sound, because the stock pipes don't do the engine justice. Not that they're a lot louder: just enough to define the machine nicely with an exhaust note of character (curiously reminiscent of an old Bonneville...). And there's some added horsepower to be gained in the exchange.
I had the misfortune of riding the beast through a heavy thunderstorm one summer night along an unknown highway detour through the countryside. The rain was so heavy I couldn't see more than 100 feet in the headlights - and they were my only illumination on a very dark rural highway. The road was awash with water and vehicle spray was heavy and nearly blinding. I was pleasantly surprised at how well she handled in adverse conditions (and at the fact I got home alive...). The Tbird holds the road quite well wet or dry.
The bike looks great; it makes its own statement. Mine came with enough chrome and accessories to make a Harley rider wince. It's nice to know there are add-ons to spend the mortgage money on. But I eschewed the stock saddlebags (they're designed by an art department, not by riders who have to use the things in real life) and went for a generic set. However, you'd be surprised at how many minor Harley items (like headlight visors) fit on a Tbird.
There are some minor ergonomics to fault, however. Triumph's indicator ('idiot') lights are far too dim under anything stronger than starlight. They're a meagre 1.7w bulb, which you can, with some tinkering, replace with a 3 or even 5w bulb. The battery is tough to get at, compared to the ease of Harley's design. And the air filter system is way over-engineered - and as a result very expensive. Fortunately it can be replaced with a stock washable filter.
The riding position is competent, but not all that comfortable for long trips. This is in part because the classic-look bench seat is inferior to an after-market Corbin in all aspects. It really needs some defining contours for proper support - the 'king-queen' seat is recommended. Triumph also didn't design the 'Bird for highway pegs or floorboards, either of which are mainstays for long-distance riders.
I also found the stock grips - those knobby rubber things made for dirt bikes - didn't absorb enough vibration, so I replaced them with decent foam grips. The wider foam grips also give you somewhat better throttle control and come with yet more chrome..
Gas mileage is okay, but nothing to boast about. I figure around 10km/l which puts it about the same as the Sporty. The tank is deceiving: it looks large, but only holds enough gas to go 150-180 kms - again in the Sportster range.
But the first thing you really notice about the bike happens whenever you stop. And I don't mean the brakes (which, though they look small compared to some other Triumph wheels, are excellent... although I found the back wheel has a tendency to lock if the brake is applied too strongly). People come up and ask about the bike. They talk about Triumphs they used to ride. They can't get over the fact the company's back. I get mired in chit chat when I want to ride. So I plug them with both barrels full of a coupla pithy anecdotes on Triumph's history and design and then leave them gaping in my dust when I blast off.
If you haven't read my Triumph timeline at www.georgian.net/rally/triumph/, then here's the short version of the Tbird's heritage: The Thunderbird was introduced in 1950. It was Triumph's largest vertical twin at the time: a 650cc engine based on the Speed Twin design. It later was released in a much-loved sporty version as the T110. The Thunderbird was one of the company's most popular motorcycles throughout the 1950s, especially in the United States (Marlon Brando rode one in the movie, The Wild One). The bike remained in production until 1963. Another bike of that name was released in 1981 but it was really a T65, 600cc. This latest incarnation has many styling elements that hearken back to the old Tbird. You can see some pics of an older, restored Tbird at www.ee.ualberta.ca/~albert/bikes/tri.html
For the more serious reader (who's wondering by now what I'm rambling about), the Tbird is a bloody marvellous bike. It does all the right things when you need it to, and it looks great, too. I put in my longest riding season this year (late March 97-March '98) and my only problems were a slightly over-charging battery (regular checking is recommended) and fouled plugs from too much choke during too little travel distance.
In the fall of 1997, I had the 10,000 km. service and at that time had the DynoJet kit installed. With the offroad pipes, the new air filter and the re-jetted carbs, I added roughly 6-8 hp, mostly noticeable in the snappier throttle response. Although the Tbird has much more power than the Sporty, after a season of riding I want more. The new Tbird Sport has an 83 hp engine I envy, but lacks the chrome that makes my Tbird so sexy. It's trade-off I can live with. For now.
PS. Many thanks to John and Rhonda at J&R Cycle for putting up with my endless questions, interminable phone calls, and annoying habit of sitting on their showroom bikes making "vroom, vroom" sounds.
PPS. The Tbird Sport was introduced in 1998 and the Legend TT in 1999. Despite rumours that the model was to be dropped, it still remains a main element in the company's lineup. In February 2000, I purchased a 1997 Tiger and will ride it this year instead of the Tbird (now sold). In 2001 Triumph released the 800cc Bonnie twin. I also reviewed the absolutely amazing Sprint ST (the best damned bike I've ever ridden - I had one on load for a month an 1,000 kms in June, 1999).
Ian Chadwick - email at email@example.com.
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