by Troy Johnson
After last month’s fun with the Harley-Davidson Sportster Sport the opportunity to ride the Triumph Thunderbird Sport is a temptation met with very little resistance. This Sport model of the T-Bird rolls over some of the same ground that Harley-Davidson does with the Sportster Sport. The interesting difference is that Triumph’s sedate little bike is only three years old and shares its basic engine design with ferocious asphalt and gravel eating Speed Triples, Tigers and Sprints. Oh, my!
The Thunderbird is the motorcycle that Triumph designed for its re-entry into the American market. The retro styling was meant to draw the existing American Triumph enthusiasts into the new Triumph’s fold by offering a modern bike with striking visual similarities to the legendary motorcycles of the sixties. Getting these enthusiasts into the habit of searching for their next motorcycle at a local dealer (instead of in Farmer Brown’s hay-loft) went a long way toward ensuring Triumph’s success here in the States.
With the original mission for the Thunderbird complete the factory has decided to rework the bike into a form that is more apt to stay on the Hell-Bent-for-Leather pace set by the rest of the Triumph line&emdash;the Thunderbird Sport. The Sport maintains the handsomely civil good looks of the Thunderbird while parting ways with the older bike in most areas of performance.
Here is the quick and dirty laundry list of what it takes to turn a mild-mannered Thunderbird into a rip-snorting Thunderbird Sport: Change the 18 inch front and 16 inch rear wheels to 17 inch on both ends shod with Avon tubed radials. Add a second disc to the brakes up front. Throw away the suspension and install fully adjustable (compression, rebound damping and spring pre-load) 43mm forks and a fully adjustable
monoshock. Take the 885cc liquid cooled in-line-three cylinder engine, raid the Speed Triple parts bin and boost output from a meek 69 horsepower to a chic 82 horsepower. Now route that power through a six-speed gearbox and bolt on a swell set of upswept reverse-cone mufflers to generate the necessary ground clearance. Voila, let’s go snack on a few crotch rockets.
Triumph also made a few cosmetic changes to the Thunderbird for the Sport model. The chrome has generally disappeared in favor of a nice satin black. Decorations like stitching and buttons are gone from the seat.
The airbox gets a sportier visual treatment that recalls the exposed air cleaners worn by yesteryear’s competition bikes. There are no sharp corners on the Sport. The fuel tank, side panels, fenders, crankcase covers and valve covers are curvaceous pieces that seamlessly flow into each other. The attention paid to this theme of roundness (oneness?) is phenomenal. The brake fluid reservoirs are short cylinders! Once the new turn-signal lenses and taillight caught my eye they held it for five minutes. Nice touch.
Pushing the starter button and hearing the stone cold triple-cylinder engine immediately fire up is one of the most satisfying motorcycle moments I have had this season. This particular Triumph three sounds exactly like it is halfway between being a twin and a four, a smooth rumbling whistle&emdash;think of an aircraft. Clicking into first gear, enjoying the precision of the Triumph transmission and listening to this engine while slowly riding away has me thinking that the next few hours are going to be very well spent.
The claimed 82 horsepower seems to be about right. This puts the T-Bird Sport at the near side of the sport bike world in terms of power, and the 17″ wheels, Avon radial tires and premium suspension components fitted to the Sport are not going to get in the way of a quick rider. This motorcycle behaves very much like a sport bike. It steers quickly and easily, accelerates hard and stops smoothly. On the public roadways it easily pushes sport bike riders to the far edge of their comfort zones. The six-speed transmission means a little work at the shift lever to maintain this sort of pace but a good rider making good use of the gear box is going to leave the average superbike guy lying awake late at night worrying about his manhood.
Another trait the Thunderbird Sport shares with sport bikes is not as welcome as the power and handling characteristics. The motorcycle makes you want to get off after an hour of saddle time. The seat is sloped downward toward the front of the bike at exactly the wrong angle for this rider. This forces my boxer shorts to crawl into unnatural places and occasionally puts my right knee in contact with the cylinder head which hangs out from under the tank on that side. A Corbin seat is not a nice addition to make to this bike; it is a necessity.
When the pace slows down the handlebar and foot peg positioning on the Thunderbird Sport encourage the rider to sit up and enjoy the countryside while the engine purrs smoothly below. The triple does not buzz or vibrate at any RPM. Long weekends on the Thunderbird are going to be a joy once you add the optional fly-screen to keep the wind off your chest and your significant other to occupy the ample passenger area.
The switch gear is all placed where you expect it to be. Kudos to Triumph for the placement of the passing light switch, which is perfectly positioned near your left index finger, and for the exceptional side-stand, which never caused a missed heart-beat or a curse-filled contortionist’s performance.
It is easy to like this motorcycle. Triumph is making some solidly built bikes these days, and this is no exception. The Thunderbird Sport is one of the rare bikes that has the performance capabilities to keep most every veteran rider interested, yet is so easy to ride that beginners are going to be comfortable growing into it. Right ho, Triumph!