By Guido Ebert
Lets start by pointing out that there have been quite a few bikes that look like this on the market; most, apparently, squarely targeted at Harley-Davidson’s successful Heritage Softail Classic.
Building a LT is a familiar recipe for cruiser manufacturers. Step 1) Base it on a cruiser in your line. Step 2) Raid the parts bin for items that’ll make that existing cruiser comfortable for light touring duties.
In this case, the 2014 Thunderbird LT shares its structure with the equally new Thunderbird Commander ($15,699) and some of the amenities – fore and aft lighting, for instance – appear to come from the Rocket III Touring.
From a technical standpoint, the only real difference between the Commander and the Thunderbird LT is that the Commander runs on a 140/75 ZR17 front tire with 17 x 3.5 in. cast alloy five-spoke and a 200/50 ZR17 rear tire with a 17 x 6 in. cast alloy five-spoke.
Nevertheless, for an extra $1,000, you’ll get into what Triumph calls this “premium classic touring cruiser,” featuring a large, easily removable windscreen, pair of easily removable leather saddle bags, a different headlamp and two
auxiliary spot lamps, a reshaped seat, reshaped handlebars, operator and passenger floorboards, a passenger backrest, tri-oval shaped exhaust silencers, elongated chrome-tipped fenders, and what the OEM claims to be the world’s first white-walled radial tires riding on 56-spoke rims (ed: Scratches head. Really?) A deal, no doubt.
Our particular bike, sourced from the great folks at Belle Plaine Motorsports and priced at roughly $17,600, also had a larger Roadster screen, forward crash bars with adjustable highway pegs, rear crash bars to protect the saddle bags, lower air deflectors, and a small chrome luggage platform attached to the backrest supports.
Triumph’s use of the Thunderbird moniker has appeared on numerous during the past 65 years.
The first Triumph Thunderbird, the 6T, was introduced in 1949 and sent to the U.S. to capture sales in the booming post-war market. The 6T Thunderbird used a variant of the earlier Speed Twin’s parallel twin engine, bored out from 500cc to 650cc to give the bike appropriate power output for its name.
The bike’s name, design and ‘paper dart’ logo apparently were thought up by managing director Edward Turner on one of his regular trips to Triumph’s operations in the U.S.
U.S. pop culture at the time was ensconced in tales of the Old West and Turner likely ran across the term Thunderbird – a mythical bird with enormous wings thought by some Native Americans to create thunder while it flies – during his travels.
The nameplate caught on when moviemakers used a 1950 6T for Marlon Brando’s character in the 1953 film The Wild One. Two years later, in 1955, Ford introduced its Thunderbird automobile. Seven years after that, in 1962, the Thunderbird Motel was erected along I-494 in Bloomington.
Starting from the front, the 2014 Thunderbird LT is equipped with a chrome-shelled headlamp with dual auxiliary lights that had cage drivers adjusting their mirrors during daylight hours, which I felt served as a good reminder I was sharing their road. The large windscreen appears optically correct and proved stout and flap-free in windy weather. It’s removable without tools, simply grab each side and lift.
In the operator area, the chrome encased instrument pod has been tilted forward to provide optimal viewing in the sunshine; the off-center fuel cap is easy to service with a twist; the 34.5-inch-wide handlebars offered a comfortable stretch; the rider and pillion seat foam is a double-layer, dual-density material, soft and receptive at first feel but compressing to give a firmer, supportive yet pliant ride; there’s an adjustable heel/toe shift lever; and the rider and pillion footboards are made from chrome-plated die-cast aluminum and accept replaceable skid plates.
The removable, leather-covered saddlebags prove an easy-to-use design, but it’s always a bit of letdown when manufacturers utilize hidden plastic buckles and hook & loop closures. You’ll have to dismount the bike to service the bags.
Down below, in the engine bay, machined fins decorate the parallel twin jugs while chrome engine covers are offset against black barrels and crankcases. A pair of widely splayed exhaust pipes dominate the front three-quarter profile.
As for the rollers, Triumph engineers turned to British tire manufacturer Avon to jointly develop the white-wall radial. It’s a classy look that plays well with the bike’s chrome and helps turn heads on the High Street.
ON THE DUAL CARRIAGEWAY
The motivating force behind the new Thunderbird LT is the World’s largest parallel twin motorcycle engine.
Noticeable at a standstill is the “tip-tip-tippity-tip-tip-tippity-tip-tip-tippity-tip-tip” from the bike’s pair of saucer-sized parallel forged pistons and uneven, long-stroke 270° firing interval, and the low tenor roar of a muscle car once you twist the throttle. G-BBRROOOOOOM – the 1699cc engine spins up nicely.
Pull in the clutch (left hand, thanks 1776 Revolutionaries) and tip the shifter smoothly into 1st gear. No clunk. Once rolling, transmission response proved equally as buttery with clutch pull light and the heel-toe shifter never feeling misplaced.
The 107 lb. ft. of torque comes on at a relatively low 2,750 rpm, although you wouldn’t know it from the lack of an analog of LCD tachometer. It doesn’t feel truly aggressive starting from a standstill (belt drive), but shows its sweet spots at rolling speeds, when your rate of travel and gear selection are in perfect unity. At 70mph in sixth, you’ll want to shift down to make a pass. Again, I can’t tell you how fast the engine was spinning at that speed. My seat-of-the-pants dynamometer simply told me I had better shift down if I was to make it into that open left lane as a semi came barreling up from behind.
As for cornering … yeah, it corners. Actually, I’m pretty impressed at the cornering ability manufacturers have designed into modern cruiser chassis. My last few Iron Horse rides have pleasantly surprised me with their ability to squirt through twisties and offer nary a worry about low-siding 750 lbs. of chrome into a culvert. On this bike, the 47mm chrome-wrapped Showa stanchions faithfully kept a line over roadway irregularities and the five-way pre-load adjustable Showa dual shocks – nicely hidden behind the saddlebags – easily soaked up the bumps.
Braking comes from twin 310mm floating front discs bitten by Nissin four-piston calipers and an equally sized single disc in the rear utilizing a Brembo two-piston floating caliper. Both ends are ABS equipped. That’s more than enough hardware to reel this 747-lb. ‘Bird down from speed in a steadily progressive and controllable manner. Totally trustworthy.
Now for the niggles.
The ignition port is on the right side, the same side as the start/stop switch, which proves a bit of a pain when shutting down in neutral with the kickstand up. You begin rolling backward because you’re using your right hand to turn the
key rather than squeeze the front brake lever.
The lack of a tachometer irks me. The tank-mounted chrome dash console includes an analog-style speedometer and fuel gauge along with an LCD featuring range-to-empty, twin trips, odometer and clock functions, conveniently scrollable via a handlebar-mounted button. But, in this Information Age, I want to know the status of every system. Certainly a show of engine speed shouldn’t be too much to ask. And, while they’re at it, the boffins could add a temperature gauge.
Touring is supposed to be comfortable. While there are plenty of additional options – auxiliary power socket and a saddlebag power socket, alarm, windscreen lock, leather tank cover and tons of chrome – you can’t order the bike with a heated seat or grips. Of course, the English never appeared to have a fondness for folks from the North.
Looking back at Edward Turner’s history with the Thunderbird, the 2014 Thunderbird LT proves to be an English bike “forged” in post-WWII America’s desire for big, powerful and comfortable motorized conveyances. … Aw, Hell, lets face it – this is a bike Triumph designed in an attempt to grab a bit of market share from H-D and waning Japan-made cruiser demand. How well does it achieve its goal? That’s completely subjective.