THE CAFE RACER RETURNS
by Troy Johnson
Triumph motorcycles returned to the U.S. for the 1995 model year. In the lineup of decidedly modern bikes was a retro-model made specifically for the American market, the Thunderbird. Like all current Triumph models, the Thunderbird’s name revived the spirit of a machine the company made before going on life-support in 1983.
After World War II, Johnson Motors of Pasadena, CA owned exclusive U.S. distribution rights to the cycles of the Triumph Engineering Company. By 1949, Triumph began to realize they could not tap into the immense potential of the U.S. market with a lone, west-coast distributor. At that time, there were only a few population centers in the west, and it was a cumbersome matter to supply dealerships in the east from Pasadena.
Encouraged by, or fearful of, BSA’s success with a two-coast approach to selling motorcycles in America, Triumph began to plan an eastern distribution company and a new marketing strategy. They became intent on penetrating the huge U.S. market from the left and right coasts simultaneously. A motorcycle tailor-made for the U.S. market was the flagship of this new plan. It was the 1950 Thunderbird. The T-bird was virtually the same as the successful Speed Twin. Both motorcycles used the Edward Turner designed vertical twin engine, but Triumph increased the displacement from 500cc to 650cc for the new Thunderbird. Americans then (as now) craved horsepower. The smartest thing for Triumph was to give it to them.
Triumph was successful in their early bid to conquer America. When the new Triumph prepared to come back to these shores, they again armed themselves with a Thunderbird.
Aimed at those with a passion for the old generation Triumphs, the T-bird looks familiar. It sports a fuel tank straight out of the late 1950’s, and its three cylinder engine conjures up images of 1970’s Tridents. But looks can be deceiving. This is the new Thunderbird. It is not the big horsepower machine of the old days, nor is it a twin. Triumph Motorcycles Limited offers a modern machine with a history lesson.
Ron Schlegel of Delano Sport Center knows his history. He is resurrecting the ancient art of turning Triumphs into cafe racers. M.M.M. spent an afternoon on a T-bird fitted with his cafe racer kit. This bike is Triumph’s best-selling Thunderbird returned to its youthful bad manners. Gone are the pea-shooter canisters, the civilized handlebar and the two-up bench seat. Upswept Dunstall replica pipes, clubman handlebar, and a one-holer Corbin seat are in their places.
There is no doubt this is a good looking machine, but it really grabs your attention when you start it up. It sounds mean. It sounds like it has been up for two nights drinking coffee and is feeling a bit edgy. The carbs shake back and forth in the manifolds like three nervous knees. This machine wants to move.
Saddling up and “assuming the position” is a whole new experience on this motorcycle. The bars are a long reach, and they are way down low, but the foot-pegs are still right under you. This is not a crouch; it’s a squat. Moving the pegs and foot controls rearward a couple inches would be top priority if this thing were under my butt every Sunday.
The engine is off choke and ready to go in no time. The clutch is an effortless pull, and the gears engage surely and seamlessly. The engines and gearboxes on these new Triumphs seem a little overbuilt and add size and weight to the bikes, but the solid confidence they convey to the rider is worth the extra heft.
On the road, the T-bird cafe racer does nothing wrong but backfire a bit on deceleration. A little tinkering with the jetting would fix that in a jiffy, but Ron seems to think it’s part of the charm. The bike is sure-footed, and, although it doesn’t have big, big power, it is never under powered. The triple has an ample supply of torque and can rev like a four on the long straights. There is a lot to like about three cylinder engines, and Triumph did us all a favor by bringing them back.
The brakes are stock Thunderbird fare. How well they work is a matter of perspective. If you are currently riding around town on an old Bonneville, you will love these. If you have recently ridden a machine sporting cast-iron rotors and six-piston calipers, it spoiled you forever. Nothing short of a brick wall at 60 miles per hour will impress you. The Triumph brakes are adequate by current standards and the sticker price of the machine.
The Corbin seat forced me to sit on the front half, but Corbin saddles are comfortable no matter which way you’re pointing. Prospective cafe-kit buyers will be able to order a seat custom fit to the specifications of their particular bum.
The T-Bird Cafe Racer draws positive comments whenever it appears in public. It deserves them. The fit and finish of the kit parts blend perfectly with the Thunderbird’s high build quality. The bike is seamless. I can not say that for some new unaltered machines sitting on showroom floors.
Engine Type: 885cc liquid cooled DOHC in-line triple, four valves per cylinder
Bore and Stroke: 76 x 65mm
Compression Ratio: 10:01
Carburetor: 3 x 36mm flat slide CV
Wheelbase: 61.0 in.
Dry Weight: 482 lbs.
Tires: Front; 110/80 18 Rear ; 160/80 16
Forks: 43mm with triple rate springs
Rear Suspension: monoshock adjustable for preload
Brakes: 320mm single front disc, 285mm rear disc