Road Test Review
Despite competing head-to-head with much larger makers for a slice of the American motorcycle market, Triumph has always gone its own way. For example, among the nearly 100 cruisers in the other manufacturers’ U.S. lineups, you can count those with something other than a V-twin engine on one hand. If that’s not indicative of what the American cruiser rider wants, I don’t know what is. Yet Triumph’s year-2009 cruisers are all powered by either an enormous in-line triple (Rocket 3) or the ducky parallel twin from the Bonneville. Although the 865cc America and Speedmaster have 270-degree crankshafts instead of the Bonneville’s 360 crank for an offbeat, gruntier sound, they’re still known more for power and smoothness for their engine size rather than the traditional “rumble” that cruiser riders crave.
Well, if you want something to rumble when it rolls and it’s not a V-twin, just make it bigger, right? Enter the 2010 Triumph Thunderbird, at 1,596cc nearly double in engine size over Triumph’s other twin-cylinder cruisers. In fact, it’s now the largest parallel twin in production. That’s a big leap from Triumph’s original 649cc 1950 6T Thunderbird that Marlon Brando rode in The Wild One, or even the reborn 1995 Thunderbird 885cc triple, which made about 70 horsepower and 53 lb-ft of torque at the crankshaft. On the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno, our 2010 Thunderbird cranked out 74 horsepower and 93 lb-ft at the rear wheel. That’s some nice rumble indeed, even compared to much larger V-twins. And if it’s still not enough, Triumph offers a road-legal 1,700cc big-bore kit that it claims is good for 5 more horsepower and 7 more lb-ft.
Triumph focused on elemental sound, power and simple rider-friendliness in designing the new Thunderbird. Power flows to the wide rear 200-series radial from the liquid-cooled, DOHC, four-valve-per-cylinder engine through a six-speed transmission with quiet helical gears and belt final drive, Triumph’s first belt since the 1920s. Engine management for the ignition and EFI with twin 42mm throttle bodies controls each cylinder separately, and at our 42.0-mpg average the bike seems more fuel efficient than most. Along with oil and filter changes, inspection of the shim-over-bucket valve-lash adjustment is required every 12,000 miles, along with new spark plugs (two per cylinder), coolant, air filter and fuel filter. Belt final drive inspection and adjustment is called for every 2,500 miles, but no lubrication is required, of course, and a replacement interval isn’t called out in the manual.
Almost everything that looks it on this bike is steel or aluminum; the only faux covers to be found are the plastic sidecovers and radiator shroud. Since it shows tremendous promise as a touring cruiser, we requested our Thunderbird with Triumph’s accessory quick-release Roadster windscreen and bolt-on leather-covered saddlebags. The accessories bring the Thunderbird up to a chunky 770 pounds fully fueled, with a generous 464 pounds of remaining load capacity. Fortunately, those 93 pounds of torque still get the solo rider down the road in a hurry, and even two-up it’s not a stretch to call the Thunderbird fast. Power is delivered smoothly but strongly without any fuel-injection abruptness, though it does start to drop off before the engine’s 6,500-rpm redline—most of your riding will be done at engine speeds well below that number.
Even with cable-actuation for the clutch rather than hydraulic, shifting is quiet and silky, more like a Japanese sportbike than a cruiser. Triumph calls sixth gear an overdrive, and upshifting into it drops the revs to just 2,200 rpm at 60 mph, only 500 rpm or so below its torque peak. At cruising speeds the bike has a wonderful rumbling feel and sound even with the stock 2-1-2 pipes and slash-cut mufflers, and doesn’t start to feel too busy until well over 75 mph in top gear. Even then, vibration in the machine is limited to some pulsing in the grips and seat that’s never really bothersome, and the decent mirrors always stay at least usable if not clear. That’s partly due to twin gear-driven counterbalancers—without them, as Triumph has solidly mounted the engine in the Thunderbird’s double-spine frame as a stressed member, it would probably shake the rider unacceptably.
The Thunderbird’s seat is wide and low at 27.6 inches, and at first seems uncomfortably hard, but that supportive density actually allowed me to spend many pleasant hours in the saddle without a break. The pullback tubular handlebar positions the grips high, wide and a bit forward, enough that even though the footpegs are well forward the rider is still braced against the wind at normal riding speeds. Overall the bike is one of the most comfortable cruisers I’ve ridden long distances, and that’s without the quick-release Roadster windscreen, which once installed pops on and off easily, is low enough to see over and blocks the cold and windblast well without much buffeting. The leather-covered accessory saddlebags look nice but aren’t quite as functional, as their internal cutouts rob a lot of space and seem unnecessary, like they were designed for a different bike. Narrow fixed openings also limit what you can put inside to smaller items.
Living with the Thunderbird on a daily basis is easy. Its custom curvaceous looks and throaty sound turn heads in town, and it maneuvers at low speeds, parks and hoists off the sidestand without much effort. Starting requires pulling in the clutch and punching the button, nothing else, and the enormous 5.8-gallon fuel tank allows for more than 200 miles between fill-ups. Triumph doesn’t give any of its cruisers or modern classics locking gas caps, which seems a bit odd, though they do look nice. Other nitpicks include the bolt-on rather than locking seat, a hex wrench for which is under a side panel. Removal of the seat is required to retrieve the spanner for the shocks, the only other item in the Thunderbird’s “toolkit.” I am enamored of the bike’s tank-nacelle-mounted speedo-tach, which includes an LCD display controlled from the right handlebar with two tripmeters, a clock and range countdown. Turn signals are self-canceling, valve stems in the wheels are right-angled for convenience, and the Metzeler Marathon 880 radials provide plenty of stick for such a bike, likely with more longevity than sportier rubber.
The Thunderbird’s solid handling will make most riders wish for more cornering clearance in tighter turns, though it does OK in fast sweepers if you don’t push too hard. Footpegs start to drag at speeds well under what the bike would otherwise be willing to achieve in corners. Steering effort is low and the bike stable at all times except when paralleling certain types of pavement seams, when that wide rubber in back can make it squirm a bit, though not excessively so. Braking from the Triumph’s triple discs is strong and linear at the lever and pedal, though the large front lever really needs an adjuster for less than monster-sized hands. Kudos to Triumph for offering anti-lock brakes as a factory option, as well as giving the bike rider footpegs and a regular motorcycle rear brake pedal instead of floorboards and a hard-to-modulate automotive-style pedal. Rider highway pegs are one of more than 100 accessories, as are passenger floorboards.
A stout 47mm fork in front with 4.7 inches of travel is set up well for the Triumph’s weight and intent, and neither dives excessively nor lacks damping. The two rear shocks are a different story, as they lack travel at 3.7 inches and overcompensate with too much compression damping and not enough spring. Gentle bumps are sucked up satisfactorily but sharp-edged ones will send a jolt to your spine, and a lack of rebound can cause the bike to pogo a little. It’s obvious something is amiss when the first spring preload position is specified for solo riding, and the fifth for everything else. I predict a good pair of aftermarket shocks will transform the bike, especially for two-up touring.
And two-up touring is where the Thunderbird should really excel, except that in addition to the shocks you will also need a decent passenger seat to replace the small stock pad. Triumph offers a Longhaul dual touring seat that may do the job, and with the passenger backrest, luggage rack, windscreen and bags you should be good to go. The bike has really long legs on the highway, comfortable compliant suspension on smooth roads and lots of fuel range. Triumph will probably offer a factory-equipped touring version soon, and we’d also like to request a sportier-handling one to go along with that great engine, perhaps with midmount footpegs, more cornering clearance and 17-inch rubber front and rear—sort of a mega-Bonneville, eh? Woo-hoo!
With the Thunderbird, Triumph can finally lay claim to having a well-rounded cruiser lineup, even if it still went its own way with parallel twins and in-line triples. Such cheeky nontraditionalism certainly won’t revolutionize the V-twin-oriented American cruiser market, but you can count us among the turncoats.