1995 saw a big surge in UK sales for Hinckley Triumph and the prime reason was this stunning looking Thunderbird retro model.
After five years of claiming it was a modern company, uninterested in re-hashing the glory days of Meriden, the T´Bird proved to be exactly what the marketing men ordered. Grunty motor, laid back riding position, with an authentic old school feel – in other words, true character.
If you were a revivalist rocker, then the Thunderbird Sport variant, with an extra disc brake, racier styling and firmer suspension could fuel your trip down to Brighton Beach, via memory lane. Good clean fun.
The nastier, younger cousin of the basic Thunderbird, Roland Brown found the Sport to be the encouraging result of Triumph’s efforts to combine nostalgia and performance as his 1998 road test revealed.
Bombing along in the middle of the pack as a dozen or more Thunderbird Sports carved through Leicestershire in a high-speed convoy, it was easy to imagine I was part of a burn-up in the Sixties days when Brit bikes ruled the roads. We were Rockers headed for the cafe or the coast silk scarves and studded black leather jackets flapping, Bonnevilles and Thunderbirds revving dangerously high, and Eddie Cochran tunes playing in our heads as we roared along on hotted-up parallel twins.
The reality was very different: my view was of the multi-coloured modern leathers and matching full-face lids of a group of journos aboard efficient and mostly quiet three-cylinder Triumphs. When we stopped for lunch a radio was playing the Spice Girls, and the only time a bike leaked any fluid was when someone toppled over turning round in a car-park and landed in a pool of petrol and pieces of smashed indicator lens.
But at least the Trumpets we were riding didn’t just look the part, they encouraged some pretty rapid riding too. With its shiny two-tone paintwork, perforated chrome airbox covers, wire wheels and flat-track style reverse-cone twin pipes, the Thunderbird Sport matches the old-fashioned appeal of Triumph’s original Thunderbird cruiser. And its new engine, uprated chassis and sportier riding position give a much more aggressive feel.
The Sport might be the result of Triumph’s efforts to combine nostalgia and performance, but you’ve only got to throw a leg over the seat to realise that it’s a lot more T-bird than T595. Its bars are lower than the original Thunderbird’s, but still high enough to give a near-upright riding position in combination with a seat that is 40mm taller than the cruiser’s. The pegs are slightly sportier, too, but low enough not to cramp the arthritic knees of riders ancient enough to remember the original Thunderbird 650 twin of the Fifties.
The new bike’s black-finished three-cylinder engine is basically the 885cc lump from the Tiger trailie. Its peak output falls a couple of horses due to the new exhaust system, but the 12-valve triple still puts out a claimed 82bhp at 8500rpm, which is 13 horses more than the cruiser. More to the point, the triple motor still has the grunty midrange that makes both the T-bird and Tiger so easy to ride.
Going pretty fast on the Sport was mostly just a matter of winding back the throttle and letting the trio of revised Keihin carbs do their stuff. There was usable power from below 2500rpm, with no hint of a step as the pace picked up through the midrange. This bike has a six-speed gearbox (reasonably slick, but occasionally notchy on downchanges) instead of the T-bird’s five-speeder, to allow for its higher top whack, but there’s so much torque that you barely need the extra cog.
When I reached a straightish bit of road and used more revs the Sport stormed effortlessly past the ton mark on the way to a max of about 130mph. Although the softly-tuned engine gets a bit breathless at the top end, it hits the 8500rpm redline quickly enough in the lower gears. More to the point, the engine’s smoothness (although the mirrors blurred at some engine speeds) and the slightly leant-forward riding position combine to allow 80mph cruising in reasonable comfort. A pillion might say differently, though the rear pegs are high to clear the silencers.
The Sport’s new multi-adjustable suspension gives much better handling than the standard T-bird. By sports bike standards the Triumph is softly sprung, but it’s well damped and made a pretty good job of smoothing out the bumpy Fosse Way near Hinckley, where the cruiser handled like a pogo stick on its launch two years ago (1996). Chassis geometry ain’t exactly racy (27 degrees rake, 105mm trail) but the wide bars give plenty of leverage and the steering is fairly light.
Ground clearance is improved from the T-bird but it’s still easy to get the footrests scraping, with the pipe following on the right. That’s partly due to the grip provided by Avon’s radial rubber, the rear a 160-section cover on a wider 17-inch alloy rim. Braking is also uprated, with twin 310mm discs, gripped by twin-pot calipers, in place of the standard Thunderbird’s single disc. At 224kg the Sport is no lightweight, but the new anchors worked a treat.
On paper the basic Thunderbird and the Sport seem similar, but on any twisty road there’s a world of difference between the two. While the cruiser seems to be telling you to slow down, take it easy and enjoy the view, its nastier younger cousin demands that you open the throttle, tuck in on the straights, leave your braking late and stuff it hard into bends.
The Tiger-based 82bhp motor still feels a bit flat for quick riding, and for my money the more powerful 97bhp triple from the Trident or Sprint would be better still. Less weight and more ground clearance wouldn’t hurt, either, but the Sport is a step in the right direction. Its old-fashioned look is classy and uniquely Triumph, and its new-found performance is just the job for a thrash to the caff or the coast.
Changes from the Thunderbird
Styling: lower bars, new paint, flat-track style twin silencers, headlamp, front mudguard, perforated chrome airbox covers, black engine finish.
Engine: power up from 69 to 82bhp, uses standard Thunderbird’s five-speed gearbox with sixth ratio on top. Keihin carbs and exhaust system are new.
Chassis: unchanged steel spine frame holds new suspension 43mm Kayaba forks with triple-rate springs, adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping. Rear shocks’ travel is increased by 20mm and they’re also multi- adjustable. Wire-spoked 17-inch wheels have wider rims for Avon radials; front brakes combine 310mm discs with twin-pot calipers.
Accessories: colour-matched (red or yellow) flyscreen and seat hump, pillion grab rail, ’racetrack only’ silencers, plus standard T-bird parts including fork protectors, alarm and rubber knee-pads.
Get Triumph motorbike insurance for the triumph thunderbird sport.
|ENGINE||Liquid-cooled transverse triple|
|CLAIMED POWER (BHP)||82bhp at 8500rpm|
|FRONT TYRE||120/70 x 17in Avon AV27 radial|
|REAR TYRE||160/70 x 17in Avon AV281 radial|
|FRONT WHEEL||3.25 x 17in; 36-spoke alloy rim|
|REAR WHEEL||4.25 x 17in; 40-spoke alloy rim|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||43mm telescopic Kayaba, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping|
|REAR SUSPENSION||One Kayaba damper, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping|
|FRONT BRAKE||2, twin-piston calipers, 310mm discs|
|REAR BRAKE||Double-action caliper, 285mm disc|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|
|FUEL CAPACITY||15 litres|