2010 Triumph Thunderbird

Spanish sunshine reflects off the monolithic stone face of Montserrat, 40 miles west of Barcelona. The tarmac shadowing the mountain route is pristine, with long sweeping bends and narrow turns delivering panoramic views of the Catalan countryside below and glimpses of the famed Montserrat monastery, nestled high in the rock cliffs above. It’s one of those moments riding a motorcycle, when all the white noise of life is gone. The only sounds registering are the playful rumble of a Parallel Twin, and the occasional footpeg scrape as I toss the 2010 Triumph Thunderbird around the bends.

The new 1597cc Thunderbird represents Triumph’s entry into the mid-displacement cruiser market, revitalizing a historic model name first affixed to the firm’s 1951 6T performance model. Splitting the ample difference between the three existing Triumph cruiser model lines, the 865cc America and Speedmaster and the 2294cc Rocket III Triple, how critical was filling that 1429cc chasm in the Triumph lineup?

“The Thunderbird is our mainstream cruiser offering, our spearhead into the cruiser market,” answered Triumph Motorcycles project manager Simon Warburton at the Barcelona press launch. Warburton reckons that of the 500cc-and-over cruiser market, 50% of total sales are models between 1401-1700cc – only 7% is credited to the massive 1701cc and higher segment, with the 500-900cc and 901-1400cc models claiming a respective 22 and 21%. If you want to carve out a piece of the pie, it only makes sense to aim at the biggest, most lucrative piece. The Thunderbird project, began in 2004, looks to stake a claim by targeting three distinct riders:

1) Triumph riders who want a mainstream cruiser
2) Cruiser riders who want to stand out from the crowd
3) Non-cruiser riders who are not satisfied with the riding experience on other cruisers

The first group are an easy mark and undoubtedly comprises those who have already plunked down deposits on the Thunderbird – set to make its trans-Atlantic crossing this summer. That leaves Group 2 and 3…

So what makes the Thunderbird stand out from the crowd?

“It’s a Parallel Twin because that’s what we do,” said Warburton on the definitive feature of the T-Bird. The chosen engine configuration continues a conscious corporate decision made earlier this decade, the boys at Hinckley rightly realizing brand identity rests with the Parallel Twin and Inline Triple platforms. So with the configuration a foregone conclusion, the only real question at Triumph was the Twin’s size.

The Thunderbird T-16 Twin opts for a 1597cc (98 ci) displacement – a near perfect match to the Harley Twin Cam 96. The Thunderbird’s side-by-side 800cc cylinders house 103.8mm-wide pistons blowing through 94.3mm strokes. The pistons thump up and down to turn a 270-degree crankshaft and twin balancer shafts. Meanwhile the center chain-driven dual-overhead cams actuate four-valve heads.

The PR talking points for the T-16 engine are “emphasis on torque, character and refinement.” And on the road, the Twin does lump out satisfying torque and power delivery. Does the T-Bird’s Twin brim with the same cantankerous potato-potato character of an American V-Twin? We can say the Thunderbird mill had us smiling.

It didn’t hurt that our first stint was aboard a T-Bird equipped with optional accessory pipes, which enhance the auditory appeal of the Twin and give it a wonderful rumbling backbeat on deceleration (something we absolutely love on the Triple-powered Trumpets – like the Speed Triple.) The sound emanating from the stock twin-skinned stainless steel exhaust ain’t half bad either, and Triumph’s homologated two settings, one for Europe and one to take advantage of the slightly higher decibel limits in the US.

The headlining option on the new Trumpet, however, is the 1700cc big bore kit, which bumps displacement up 100cc with a corresponding jump in claimed horsepower (85-100 hp) and torque (108-115 lb-ft). The kit, which is EPA and CARB compliant, costs $899, with riders also paying for the approximate day’s worth of installation labor at a Triumph dealer. Ride the 1700 and the difference is palpable, the Bird churning out more grunt, in particular while rolling out the throttle in the higher gears.

The Thunderbird’s EFI system controls fueling and ignition independently in each cylinder. Aside from improved engine response, the system claims 20% fuel efficiency gains over competitors (not that American riders are picking up mid-sized cruisers based off of MPG stats). In its stock 1600cc setting, the Bird’s fueling is immediate, very responsive at the throttle. The mapping for the big bore kit is still being refined, with some herky-jerky response on both the 1700 and the 1600 with accessory pipes – though Triumph promises a mapping fix before delivery.

The ample torque from the T-16 lump is shelled out by a precise 6-speed gearbox and final belt drive – the first belt in the Triumph lineup since the 1920s. The helical gears are smooth and easy to find, and while freeway commuters and tourers will appreciate the sixth-gear overdrive, I rarely found need to get into fifth, much less sixth. For the leisurely cruise around Montserrat, I preferred to leave it in second and third gear letting the Twin rev in its responsive mid-range up to the 6500 redline.

Twin 310mm discs with four-piston Nissin calipers and steel-braided lines handle braking up front. The beefy binders hammer the claimed 746-lb curb weight to a stop, while the Brembo 2-piston single disc rear is less forceful. Overall Thunderbird braking package is impressive – even more so when supplemented by the $800 optional ABS system.

The Thunderbird rolling chassis is a twin-spine steel frame and swingarm mated with Showa suspension and five-spoke cast wheels (19-inch front/17-inch rear). The wide 200mm rear tire was developed for the Thunderbird in tandem with Metzeler. And while the 200mm width may be unnecessary on the Trumpet, the handling is little affected – lacking the drama sometimes accompanied when leaning over a cruiser with a fat rear.

The Showa components are a non-adjustable 47mm fork and chromed twin spring shocks, five-position adjustable for preload. The T-Bird’s wheelbase stretches to 63.6 inches, with a cruiser-ish 32-degree rake and 19-inch front wheel that turns in without trouble. Unless the rider is excessively heavy, the suspension is more than adequate for the cruiser application, with the limits of the footpeg ground clearance reached well before any other chassis inadequacy. Warburton stated the Thunderbird intends to be the “best handling bike in its class” – a claim we’d love to test, as Triumph seems to have good reason for its confidence.

The feet-forward ergonomics place the Thunderbird squarely in the cruiser domain. At 6’1” I felt well-tailored to the T-bird’s riding position, albeit the pegs were fractionally higher than I would have preferred. The handlebar rests exactly at my natural reach, with wide leverage for turning – the only downside being low-speed steering and U-turns make for a long reach on the opposing bar (i.e. wide reach to right bar while sharply turning to left).

Seat height, at 27.6 inches, is quite low. The seat itself is comfortable, with no complaints after well over 100 miles in the saddle – and this coming from a notorious whiner when it comes to motorcycle perches! Looking down from behind the saddle is a circular instrument cluster, with analog speedo on the top half and matching tach underneath – a small LCD display is housed to the middle right. The instrumentation looks good, but rests on top of the 5.8-gallon fuel tank and requires looking down from the road ahead to glance, at least for me while wearing a full face helmet.

Los Angeles designer Tim Prentice penned the T-Bird’s lines, seeming to aim at the American cruiser clan’s conservative styling sensibilities. The radiator does its best to be unobtrusive, the design focusing instead on the distinctive side-by-side cylinders, with header pipes leading out to slightly upswept, flared mufflers.

One big tip of the importance Triumph places on the Thunderbird is that more than 100 accessory T-Bird products are already developed, the most ever for a Triumph model. The aforementioned 1700cc Big Bore performance kit gets top accessory billing, but a multitude of cosmetic bolt ons bearing Prentice’s stamp of approval are also available. Options include chrome bits, along with bodywork, windshields and bags to create either an edgy muscle cruiser or a light-duty tourer. A standard touring version is almost certain to follow in the years to come.

The real test of the Thunderbird will be on the sales floor, where its attractive $12,499 base MSRP compares well with the H-D Dyna line and has the potential to make the British firm some serious dollars. True, some, strike that, most of the H-D market is sewed up for life – with riders having inflexibly strong opinions about where their motorcycles are made, or at least the nationality of the brand… Yet, even cutting into a small portion of H-D Big Twin sales would be a remarkable coup.

“We’re not going to dislodge Harley anytime soon, probably never,” admits Warburton, before adding of the Thunderbird’s expectations. “In 10 years time, I hope we’re going to be in a very good position within the cruiser market.”

The Thunderbird certainly makes an intriguing case: It looks good, challenges V-Twin cruiser conformity and, most important, delivers a satisfying riding experience. Triumph staff and executives sure seem confident of their finished product and its expected contribution to the British marque’s future, and after a memorable day in the Thunderbird saddle, under that sweet Spanish sun, we can understand why.