The original post-war Triumph 6T Thunderbird was launched 1949 and its mission was to crack the US market by giving Americans what they wanted: power. To achieve this, Triumph gave the Thunderbird 650cc parallel-twin that was essentially a bored-out version of the Speed Twin’s 500cc engine. The model remained on sale until production ceased in 1966.
The nameplate made a brief return in 1981 in the form of the TR65 Thunderbird. This bike ran a short-stroke version of the T140 Bonneville’s 750cc parallel twin to retain the Thunderbird’s 650cc capacity. The demise of Triumph Engineering in 1983 spelt the end of production.
The reborn Triumph Motorcycles reintroduced the nameplate with the launch of the Thunderbird 900 in 1995. Again, this machine was developed to appeal to the American market, but this time it ran a liquid-cooled 885cc triple. Despite being an all-new bike, there were plenty of styling cues paying tribute to the original Thunderbird, which had proved successful in the US market decades earlier. The Thunderbird 900 ceased production in 2004.
Five years later, in 2009, the Thunderbird nameplate would be reborn once again with the launch of another all-new model, this time running a huge 1600cc parallel twin and with Harley-Davidson cruisers clearly in its sights.
Then – 2009
Triumph chose a US-based designer by the name of Tim Prentice to style its all-new Thunderbird, which was a radical departure from the previous incarnation of the bike with the same name. Prentice had previously designed Triumph’s own Rocket III, as well as bikes from other manufactures including the Honda VTX and Yamaha Roadstar.
The new Thunderbird was to have classic cruiser styling, with no fake bits pretending to be anything other than what they really were, and Prentice came through, creating a bike with classic, flowing cruiser lines, but dominated by the massive parallel twin at its heart.
And that 1600cc parallel twin was a ripper. While peak power was a respectable 63kW at 4850rpm, the engine was all about low-rpm torque, with a meaty 140Nm available from just 2000rpm, peaking at 146Nm at 2750rpm. The engine had plenty of character, too, it’s 270° giving the parallel-twin the sound and feel of a big V-twin engine.
The engine was a stressed member in the stiff twin-spine steel-tube frame, and the Thunderbird ran a 47mm Showa fork up front and twin Showa shocks at the rear with adjustable preload. A conservative (for the genre) 200-section rear tyre ensured the T-bird wasn’t a pig to turn and big 310mm front discs with four-piston calipers, along with a 310mm rear disc with two-piston caliper ensured there was plenty of stopping power. ABS was a $1000 option.
The Thunderbird’s six-speed gearbox was a delight, with a good spread of ratios and a buttery smooth shift quality, and final drive was by way of a Kevlar reinforced belt. Top gear was a genuine overdrive and resulted in just 3000rpm showing on the tacho at 100km/h for relaxed highway cruising.
And despite the wide handlebar and peg-forward position, the Thunderbird was a comfortable mile-eater, with a well-padded and wide seat. Triumph also offered optional a range of accessories including windscreens and wind deflectors to suit the Thunderbird.
As well as good touring capability, the Thunderbird proved to be one of the best handling bikes in its class and it could be punted along at a reasonable pace on twisting backroads, so long as you didn’t mind scraping the pegs. And although it weighed in at a hefty 305kg (dry), a low 700mm seat height made it easy enough to handle in stop start traffic or to manoeuvre in tight spots.
At the time of its launch, Triumph offered a big-bore kit to suit the Thunderbird which took engine capacity up to 1699cc, and claimed peak power and torque to 72kW and 156Nm respectively. This kit added $1700 to the T-bird’s very reasonable $20,990 starting price, which pitched it at the lower end of the big cruiser price range.
Now – 2018
When Triumph launched the Thunderbird Storm in 2011 it cost just $1000 more than the standard T-bird, but as well as its black paint and twin headlight set-up it packed the more potent big-bore 1700cc engine that was previously a $1700 option.
Prices continued to drop over the next few years and by 2014 you could pick up a standard 1600cc Thunderbird for $19,990 ride-away, while the larger-capacity Thunderbird Storm with standard ABS was now just $20,990 – the same price of the original 2009 1600cc Thunderbird without ABS.
Two new Thunderbird variants joined the standard 1600cc Thunderbird and the 1700cc Storm in 2014: the Commander and the LT. Despite sharing the Storm’s 1700cc powerplant, the Thunderbird Commander is slightly detuned and produces peak outputs of 69kW at 5400rpm and 151Nm at 3550rpm (down from 72kW and 156Nm).
Like the Storm, the LT scores a twin-headlight set-up, but unlike Storm it has lashings of chrome, around the headlights, the fork shrouds, engine covers and various other places. It also wears a fatter 140/75-17 front tyre, has a swept-back handlebar, and comes with footboards made from chromed high-pressure die-cast aluminium with replaceable skid plates and an adjustable heel/toe gear lever. The rider and pillion pews have also been tweaked and they feature double-layer seat foam for improved touring comfort.
The Thunderbird LT (Light Touring) has plenty of stand-out features including trick-looking ultra-wide wire-spoke wheels wearing white-wall radial tyres, shrouded forks, quick-detach windshield, detachable leather saddlebags and deep, custom-style mudguards with broad chrome embellishers.
There are plenty of other chrome bits, including around the large single headlight, the windshield and yokes, and the auxiliary spot lamps. The LT also gets one-off Triumph tank badges, white piping around the seat, art deco-style rear indicator and LED tail light assemblies and twin hand-painted coach-lines on the two-tone tank and mudguards.
he LT also wears unique 150/80-16 front and 180/70-16-inch rear tyres on its wire 56-spoked rims. Like the Commander, the LT also has footboards made from chrome-plated, high-pressure die-cast aluminium with replaceable skid plates and adjustable heel/toe gear lever.
The LT’s panniers feature metal buckles hiding quick-release clips, waterproof inner liners with carry handles, provision for fitment of a 12V accessory socket and a waterproof inner pocket for documents and wallet. Like the windshield, the panniers can be quickly removed to give the LT a completely different look.
The last Thunderbirds to be brought into Australia were all MY17 models, and the line-up currently with dealers consists Storm ($22,800), Commander ($23,800) and LT ($25,000). As the Thunderbird is currently in run-out mode, there are great ride-away prices available on all three models, which currently stand at $23,490 for the Storm, $23,990 for the Commander and $24,490 for the LT.
The Thunderbird may not have changed a lot in nigh on a decade, but it’s still one of the most engaging large cruisers on the market.
Words Dean Mellor Photos Triumph Motorcycles