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2009 Triumph Thunderbird first ride review

One of motorcycling’s few truly great names is back. Again. And this time it’s attached to a cruiser aimed squarely at Harley-Davidson. Slickly engineered it may be, but she’s no wild one

Click to read: Triumph Thunderbird owners reviews, Triumph Thunderbird specs and to see the Triumph Thunderbird image gallery.

As soon as the new Thunderbird and I leave the motorway, life gets better. Since Barcelona the three-lane highway’s been under a moody ceiling of grey cloud, the new Thunderbird’s chrome flat without a few rays of sun to bring it alive. But as soon as we start the climb up Montserrat, an incredibly photogenic mountain high above Barcelona, the grey recedes to leave behind a perfect blue and the sun beats down on what is a truly wonderful stretch of road.

Unsurprisingly, the new Thunderbird is no canyon-carver – it weighs 308kg dry and feels every one of them, boasts a substantial 1615mm between its contact patches and features pegs so low a support van of spare foot controls follows me everywhere – but Triumph claim the new T-bird enjoys class-leading dynamics and the handling composure to encourage enthusiastic riding. I don’t doubt them.

With Harley-Davidsons as class benchmarks I’ve seen loftier targets and, on the road, swinging through kinks and hauling down for tasty, cambered hairpins, the Thunderbird does possess something of the marque’s now trademark neutral, precise steering. For such a big, weighty bike, the Thunderbird turns easily enough and, once into a corner, the thing’s predictable enough to let you flirt with the limits of ground clearance all the way round.

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Thunderbird 2

Sun-kissed corners of every imaginable combination of camber and radius are dealt with easily enough, the easy rhythm giving you the time to actually take in the view. Fun, no doubt about it, it’s just that with such low pegs, all Triumph’s efforts with all-but-bespoke tyres (the bike was developed on a new, cruiser-specific boot, Metzeler’s ME880) and a convincingly rigid frame (Triumph say this the principle flaw in their oppositions’ bikes, something Harley-Davidson must agree with – the Americans beefed-up their touring chassis considerably for 2009) are all very nice but kinda wasted – get into anything resembling a groove and you soon find yourself levering tyres off the road. It’s a bit like building a 200mph engine but gearing it for a 20mph top speed. Or perhaps I’m just missing the point. Yes the Thunderbird handles well, but that’s to make life easier, not to go chasing crazy corner speeds, Triumph say.

Key to this handling integrity is a serious-looking frame that’s visibly more rigid than the usual cruiser effort, with large-diameter steel tubes running between investment cast joints and the cast headstock. Meaty swingarm pivot plates and plenty of triangulation further boost rigidity, as does the all-new engine, a bespoke, purpose-built monolith of a parallel twin. Yep, you heard that right – parallel twin. Liquid-cooled, too.

Triumph may have Harley buyers in their crosshairs but their latest offering is no unthinking clone. “We never really considered a V-twin or air-cooling – Triumph is synonymous with the parallel twin and honestly, we think it’s going to be very difficult to get an air-cooled engine to meet upcoming emissions regulations. The Euro 4 and 5 standards will be with us within a decade and, after designing it from scratch, we want this engine to be with us for a while yet,” explains Triumph’s Simon Warburton.

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Thunderbird 3

The engine itself is physically enormous, displacing 1597cc and boasting such vast castings your left leg actually ends up fouling it on its way to the footpeg. Fuel injected, with four valves-per-cylinder, two balance shafts, a hushed belt final drive and a central camchain, the motor’s been developed to strike that elusive balance between “soul” and refinement, a task Warburton insists was “as difficult as it is to get performance out of a sportsbike engine”.

The end result is undoubtedly an unobtrusive road buddy – no vibes, little or no induction or exhaust noise at speed, a mere 3000rpm on the tacho at 70mph in top – but it’s a little underwhelming too, with a flat delivery (intentionally, Triumph say) and power enough (a claimed 85bhp at just under 5000rpm; the redline’s at 6500rpm) to pull the bike’s mass around convincingly. The gearbox is similarly efficient, the shift action nicely light and swift and thankfully without the sloth-like, heavy industry feel of many cruiser gearboxes. All’s well in the engine room then, if a little too polite as standard to stir any base emotions.

And, at the end of the day, with new footpegs in place and the Thunderbird’s handsome, American-penned flanks polished clean, that’s the impression I’m left with. The new Thunderbird is immaculately engineered, from the impressive low-speed balance – there’s none of the drunk-monkey wobbling certain Harleys exhibit at walking speed – to the kind of clean, resolved detailing you want to see if you’ve just spunked ten big ones on a motorcycle.

You sense some very clever brains have been at work, flowing previously unseen levels of chassis understanding and engine refinement into the cruiser sector, one that in America represents such a huge pie even a modest slice will represent good business for Triumph. Yummy. But as standard it’s all a little too clean-cut, with nothing about the engine or the look of the thing to trigger any must-have-one lust. In a perverse way Harley’s air-cooled machines, with their farty motors and involving, all-action handling might be a little more honest and charming in the same way that V-twin purists find Japanese twin-potters a little too well-bahaved for their own good.

On the Thunderbird I’ve no doubt the potential’s there to build a bike to give you wood. Triumph’s own open pipes help, and there are plenty more genuine accessories where they come from. But without them the new Thunderbird’s something of an inoffensive blank canvas. Given that selling cruisers is also about making big money on the accessories you sell at the same time – Triumph’s 1700cc big-bore kit, which offers another 15bhp and 7lb.ft of torque for your money (around £1000 fitted) is a no-brainer – perhaps that’s the idea.

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Thunderbird Verdict

Would sir prefer the original?

One of the most emotive names in motorcycling came into being in 1949 with the launch of the original Thunderbird. Powered by a 650cc, bored-out version of the firm’s 500cc Speed Twin motor, the spritely Thunderbird evolved steadily over subsequent years, gaining such niceties as a rear swingarm in place of the original bike’s sprung hubs, a design that offers much by way of additional weight but little by way of discernible ride quality.

An original Thunderbird remains a tempting proposition. As the least loved of the 650 Triumph twins they’re affordable (£4000 buys you a decent one) with the performance to hit the ton, if not the brakes to come back down in any real hurry. Handsome, light and easy to ride, a classic with a sheen of Brando cool for half of the price of the new bike isn’t to be sniffed at.

Or the other Hinckley version?

The Thunderbird name – which is so good it was of course licensed to Ford cars – returned on a Triumph in 1994 when Hinckley concluded there was no point denying their heritage. Weighty and honest, the bike boasted an 885cc triple tweaked to look air-cooled. This was Hinckley’s first retro, paving the way for a model range that’s been key to their success. Out there now for as little as £2000.

Verdict

Dynamically capable and hugely polished effort from the Hinckley folk. Lacks the Rocket III’s lovable lunacy but should do well, with a keen price and the badge kudos to compete.

Specifications

Price: £9499 (£10,099 with ABS; + £295 for stripe)
Top speed: 115mph (claimed)
Engine: 1597cc, 8-valve, liquid-cooled parallel twin
Bore and stroke: 103.8 x 94.3mm
Compression ratio: 9.7:1
Power: 85bhp at 4850rpm (claimed)
Torque: 108lb.ft at 2750rpm (claimed)
Front suspension: 47mm forks
Adjustment: None
Rear suspension: Monoshock
Adjustment: Preload only
Front brakes: 2 x 4-piston calipers, 310mm discs
Rear brake: 2-piston caliper, 310mm disc
Dry weight: 308kg (claimed)
Seat height: 700mm
Fuel capacity: 22 litres
Colour options: Black, silver or blue