How would you take on Harley Davidson if you were Triumph?
Build a triple? They tried that with the Rocket Three. It was nearly an apt name in that they sold approximately three of them.
So if a good bit of British eccentricity didn't work, what about taking the fight right to Milwaukee and build a big twin? A really big twin.
Say hello to the T-16 engined Thunderbird, a clean-sheet design and on that once clean piece of paper a far superior design than anything in the current HD line-up.
Except the bike I rode a couple of weeks ago was the 1,700cc Storm version of the 1,600cc Thunderbird. You can spot a Storm because they only come in black and it looks like it's been put through an extra powerful chrome magnet. Triumph describe the Storm (shudder) as a 'punked up' version of the Thunderbird. That's the last time I'll use that phrase, I promise.
Like any big cruiser, the Storm is, er, big. In every sense of the word. The bars are big, the tank's big and the engine's really, really big. The seat height isn't big, though. At 27 inches from the ground, it's about as low as seat heights get, this side of a 250 Gas Gas.
Its dry weight is pretty big, too. This is not a bike to be falling on top of you off your workbench. But that's all part of the cruiser scene, isn't it?
I pottered into town and back on it somewhat self consciously mindful that I might be lacking the wallet on a chain and necessary leather cut-off. And then, a week last Tuesday, I wrote off a whole day to get better accustomed (no pun intended) to this behemoth.
To cut a very long and possibly tedious story short, I came back impressed but slightly confused.
The 1.700cc Storm engine is Amazing in most respects. The upper case A was not misplaced, there.
Not only is it incredibly smooth (only a small amount of vibration makes its way through to the bars) but the torque produced by those gargantuan cylinder dimensions can't fail but make you smile. The off-beat 270 degree crank is presumably the size of a small lathe but its firing pulses and obvious inertia have the most remarkable affect on the way the Storm explodes its way forward, regardless of rpm.
Compared to the base Thunderbird, with its tiny 1.600cc motor, the Storm features larger diameter pistons and rings, new cams, cylinder liners, piston pins, a head gasket with bigger holes in it and stiffer clutch springs. There's 115ftlbs of torque on tap, or in new money 156Nm. There must be a at least a dozen cliches to describe that sort of torque but they'd be wasted. You can only fully appreciate it when you're riding it and you wind on the fat throttle. The rate of acceleration always seems totally disproportionate to the thudding, lazy exhaust note. If you've ever been fortunate enough to ride a Vincent Black Shadow or a 900SS bevel Drive Ducati, it's a similar experience - just a lot more powerful.
Riding the Storm is all about kicking up through the six gears and surfing the torque curve. The gearbox is snickety-snick sweet so early and frequent shifts are a pleasure to execute.
And dare I say it? It handles well, too, especially bearing in mind it weighs a third of a tonne. Triumph have done a fantastic job with the whole chassis. Coax the Storm into a series of fast, top gear sweepers and it holds its line and shrugs off any bumps, hollows or surface imperfections. There's never a hint of weave, any suggestion of wallow. It's as rock steady as anything made in Jamaica in the late sixties.
With a 1,615mm wheelbase, 155mm of trail (!!!!!) a 200 section tyre and carrying all that cake, it's hardly 250 two-stroke flickable. It's nearly two and a half metres from bow to stern, after all. But in this sector, this market, the Storm is the best handling bike out there by several furlongs. If you know your road and plan ahead there's enough equity in the Storm's handling bank to allow you to keep pace with most other people on most other bikes. Ninety percent of the time. This is never an option on a big Harley with the exception of (maybe) the V-Rod.
The triple disc brakes are more than adequate too. I had one moment involving a blind driveway, an old lady driving a lime green Peugeot 106 and a greasy road surface just outside Leicester. I slammed on everything and the ABS really did its job allowing me to scrub off all my speed and bank right-left-right to plot an avoidance path. Impressive. With such an alien (to me) weight distribution and such a freakily large rear brake (the size of a man hole cover) ABS is a very useful addition to a bike like this.
So... it's quite comfortably the best bike in this class if it's viewed on its spec' list and abilities. I also think it looks better than anything else out there. The engine castings, finish and attention to detail is more like something Arlen Ness would enter in a show than you'd expect to plop off a production line.
But I have a problem. The engine is just too good for a riding position that hangs you out to dry in the breeze like some kind of S&M dungeon game. Harleys don't get better the harder you rev them or the more you load them up, they get worse -wheezing and straining. For this class of bike an engine like that is perfect so while Triumph have built a dynamically far superior bike to anything produced in Milwaukee, they've kind of shot themselves in the corporate foot by making it too good. It's just too fast and too capable.
But that's just my point. Dennis Hopper riding positions need an engine that's only comfortable doffing about at a leisurely pace, an engine that's in its sweet spot at, say 55-80mph. The problem with the Storm is that the incredible engine just gets better and better the harder you use it. It'll rev out (comfortably) to 8,500rpm, ferrchrissakes and in sixth gear, that's a fair old lick of speed.
So I built a new bike for Triumph - in my head, obviously. It's yet another retro-market model but this time a proper 21st century cafe racer using the Storm engine as its base. It doesn't get much more British than that, does it?
It would look like a Triton but in essence and spirit it'd be more like a NorVin. A modern day take on a Featherbed frame with quality suspension, modern brakes, spoked wheels, a massive alloy tank with knee and hand cut-outs and (obviously) clip-ons and rear-sets.
Remember the still-born Aprilia Blue Marlin concept? Like that but with more torque and more attitude.
Might have to build it myself....