It is, in the end, all about heritage. Triumph tried this big-displacement cruiser once before with the humongous Rocket III. And while, yes, to the uninformed bystander it had all the makings of an overwhelming success - a traditional (for Triumph) three-cylinder engine, an iconic name and an absolutely overwhelming 2,294cc engine - it did not achieve universal appeal. Some faulted the engine as too large, others the styling. But, finally, what is comes down to is that, yes, Triumph had a history of three-cylinder machinery (though the original Rocket III was branded as a BSA), but they were the company's sportiest bikes - not cruisers - and their engines were not the somewhat awkward stem-to-stern design of the modern Rocket III. In other words, it lacked some authenticity.
Triumph didn't make the same mistake twice. And while the Thunderbird, whose equally iconic moniker has been resurrected here, was never a cruiser, many of Triumph's old twins ended up chopped just like their Harley brethren. So Triumph's new-for-2010 Thunderbird has some actual history - no matter how fleeting - behind it. It also helps that, where the Rocket is simply bulky, the new Thunderbird is seriously stylish. Indeed, the new Thunderbird is by quite some margin the most convincing custom yet from the small British firm, at once fitting in with the current trend towards power cruisers while simultaneously staking out its own interpretation of the genre.
Like Harley, the engine is core to the Triumph's persona. Up front and centre, it is a vision of chrome and unmistakable for anything other than the company's trademark parallel twin. Like the V-Rod (and Suzuki's M109R) it is long, low and just a tad menacing. There's a huge 200/50-17 tyre out back and, indeed, everything appears outsize aboard the 1,597cc twin. The pistons, for instance, measure 103.8mm across and the engine, in stock form, boasts more than 146Nm of torque.
Taking another page from Harley's book, however, Triumph is offering a big-bore kit that sees the mill expand to 1,700cc and horsepower jump from the stock 85 to about 100. Max torque bumps all the up to 156Nm. I tested the bike in stock trim save for a set of Triumph's accessory (a euphemism for louder) pipes. Not nearly as deafening or as objectionable as some of the aftermarket pipes that seem to find their way onto every Harley, they nonetheless add personality to an engine that already has it in spades. Ironically, the closest that Triumph comes to cloning Milwaukee is in the sound department.
The Thunderbird eschews the common 180- or 360-degree crankshaft arrangements common to virtually all parallel twins for an unusual 270-degree arrangement. The result, thanks to the pipes and that unusual crank, is a beat vaguely staccato Harley yet part sportbike. It's a sharp, authoritative bark and, like the best cruisers, turns heads. That unusual firing arrangement does require twin balancers to ward off teeth-shaking vibration. Above 3,000rpm, there is noticeable quaking through the pegs and seat. But, by that time, the Thunderbird is cruising comfortable at 120kph, its engine loafing thanks to its extraordinarily tall sixth gear. Nor does the Thunderbird need much more than that for decent acceleration. Its stock 146Nm of torque arrives at just 2,750rpm so short shifting is not only permissible but encouraged. The six-speed transmission, by the way, handles all that torque without being even slightly notchy.
Though it makes prodigious torque, even the Thunderbird's meaty power doesn't warrant that huge 200mm rear tyre; it is, like all such outrageous rubber on cruisers, a stylish affectation rather than a performance necessity. Unlike some other cruisers similarly accoutred, however, the Triumph's handling doesn't become wayward as a result of the over-wide rear tyre. Sure, that and its lengthy 1,615mm wheelbase hardly make for GSXR-like precision, but at least its steering isn't awkward. The even-heavier Rocket III also boasted commendable handling, so making unlikely machines handle well is becoming a bit of a Triumph trait.
Even more welcome is a semi-rational seating position. The footpegs, for instance, aren't garishly forward, nor is the handlebar too high; the seating position is comfortable upright and amenable to long hauls in the saddle. Said perch, for the rider at least, is broad and spacious if a little hard. The passenger portion, in stock, is very small, hardly encouraging to attracting a passenger. Triumph does offer an accessory seat as well as the saddlebags and small windscreen I tested for those looking to journey past their local.
The Thunderbird is, by quite some margin, the best cruiser yet from Triumph. It has the style, the motor and, most of all, the attitude to differentiate itself from the madding crowd. Indeed, it is one of the few cruisers I could see myself owning. The nearest Triumph dealer, Alfardan Motorcycles in Doha, will deliver bikes here; the Thunderbird starts at approximately Dh69,600. email@example.com