Back From the Dead

by Simon Farrell
Triumph ThunderbirdTriumph’s “legend reborn” Thunderbird looks great and goes like stink

The first Triumph I rode was a 1960s Bonneville with an ankle-scraping kick-start and traditional oil leaks. As twilight descended on warm summer evenings in a dairy field in Somerset, southwest England, with no crash helmet or lights, I was Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, prior to his being spectacularly mangled by barbed wire as Nazis closed in.

I read sometime in the 1980s that Triumph had gone bust and thought nothing more of it until about three years ago when I saw a Triumph dealer in Mita, Minato-ku. So I bought a Speedmaster 900cc.

Now here I am on the latest threat to Harley- Davidson from the world’s oldest surviving motorcycle manufacturer — the Triumph Thunderbird, released in late 2009.

This solid model will challenge the Big Twins of the US. Powered by a liquid-cooled, electronic fuel-injected 1597 DOHC Paralleltwin, the six-speed, belt-driven Thunderbird sits between Triumph’s more modest cruisers and the intimidating Rocket III.

At first I wasn’t sure. It looked too, well, Harley. And my pillion passenger was used to the rugged Speedmaster’s comforting backrest I bought as an extra. Once used to holding the seat, however, WIFM photographer Jun Igarashi said the bike felt stable, the seat comfortable, and the ride smooth.

For three days in late March I cruised around Tokyo, fielding questions from curious onlookers at traffic lights and cafes, marveling at its swift acceleration, soothing ride, and classic styling. I barely touched top gear, such was the power.

For another female passenger’s view, Tomoko said the engine sound was smooth, it looked classic, felt stable, and she noticed many envious stares.

Flick a switch to jump from kilometers left in the 22-liter gas tank, to how many you have traveled, to a clock on the digital instrument panel. No fiddly fuel tap or choke. And definitely no kick-start.

Oh, how things have changed, I reminisced. One final check: No oil leaks, naturally.

Climbing back on my Speedmaster, it felt like 1974 and Steve McQueen again: relatively sluggish, top heavy, noisy, even smoky — everything the Thunderbird isn’t.