Triumph Thunderbird SE
One Big Bird

by David Soderholm

Triumph motorcycles are a huge success. At a time when most motorcycle manufacturers lost double-digit sales in the United States (30 – 56%), Triumph continues to gain sales (up 5.49% in 2009 and 9% in 2010). They have become one of the fastest-growing motorcycle manufacturers in the country and one of only two manufacturers (alongside BMW Motorrad) that did not lose market share in the past five years. After getting the opportunity to review a 2011 Triumph Thunderbird SE, it’s easy to see why.

Triumphs cruisers come in three flavors. They consist of the 865cc parallel twins; the 2,300cc inline triples with the 1,600cc parallel twin T-bird line slotting neatly between the two. The Triumph Thunderbird SE is a touring version of the new 1600cc Thunderbird. Outfitted from the Hinckley factory with leather saddlebags, a quick-detach touring windshield with wind deflectors, a touring seat, ABS and a quick-detach passenger back rest with luggage rack. Rider and passenger floorboards are also included in the package. All that goodness is yours installed from the factory for a bargain $2,500.00 over the standard T-Bird. It brings the retail price to $14,999.

To test a bike, you need a destination. After doing a little research, I discovered that Minnesota has approximately 500 towns that have populations of 1000 people or less. All small towns have many things in common; they all have a beautiful church, at least one bar, a quaint main street and a mom and pop café that serves great homemade pie! With pie being a driving force, my goal was to take the T-bird SE to as many small towns as my time and mileage would allow.

After arriving at Belle Plaine Motorsports I saw the T-Bird SE parked outside, gleaming like a jewel in the sun with its beautiful chrome and metallic cardinal red paint. The detailing, paint and hardware quality on the bike is excellent. It is the equal of every other cruiser in that regard that I have eyeballed. It has muscular styling that somehow makes the bike seem smaller to the eye than it really is. While looking at it, it seemed somehow different to me than other cruisers. At first I couldn’t figure out why, but then it dawned on me. It was the engine – no V-twin here. Just 1,600 ccs of thyroid-challenged Bonneville looking parallel twin. It really does give the bike a unique look of its own.

That twin came about as a result of Triumph needing an engine to compete with the large cruiser V-twins from other companies. Originally, they planned a 1,600cc version of the Rocket III. But soon that engine morphed into the 2,300cc monster it now is. That left a sizable displacement gap in the cruiser lineup for Triumph. Being Triumph, they knew they couldn’t build a V-twin like every other entrant in the segment – so they produced the largest parallel twin of all time, and the new Thunderbird was the result.

Bore and stroke of the engine is 103.8mm X 94.3mm. It has DOHC, 4-valves per cylinder, is liquid cooled and has fully internal liquid passages with the radiator nestled between the front down-tubes. No external plumbing is present – very cool and tidy looking! It’s connected to a very slick shifting 6-speed transmission. Power is sent to the rear wheel though a fabulous lash-free belt drive that connects to the tarmac through a meaty 200mm Metzeler; big enough for the image, but small enough to still afford good handling. All of this is suspended with Showa chromed spring twin shocks that have 5-position adjustable preload. In the front the T-bird uses beefy 47 mm forks. No adjustments are provided.

Heading across back road Minnesota, I wondered if someone had slipped a V-twin John Deere motor under the tank. The Thunderbird is absolutely loaded with torque. Peak torque (91 ft-lbs at the rear wheel) is available at 2,700 rpm and plateaus out all the way across the 6,500 rpm rev range. That makes an engine that easily lugs at low rpm and makes shifting optional. You have great gobs of torque to pass anything your heart desires at street speed ranges. It simply shrugs it off and asks for more. The fuel injection system works flawlessly with no surging or abruptness present. Fuel mileage is good (44 mpg in this case) and only requires regular unleaded. From the saddle, Triumph somehow tuned this parallel twin to sound and feel like a V-twin engine. If you were blindfolded and put on the bike, you’d never know it wasn’t a V-twin. It’s a clever trick by Triumph to keep their heritage parallel twin and still satisfy the V-twin lust of the cruiser market!

I found the ergonomics of the T-Bird SE to be extremely comfortable. It’s rare for me to say that about a cruiser with forward controls. You sit similar to how you would in a comfy chair using a low ottoman. You have support available from your feet on the big floorboards, which are positioned a very reasonable distance from the saddle. Those same floorboards allow a good amount of foot adjustment while underway. The T-Bird SE also has a natural reach to the bars and grips that help avoid the shoved into the garbage can parachute like riding positions of many cruisers. The removable windshield (which for me at 5’ 11’’ was the perfect height) could be seen over instead of through and afforded great coverage. Combine all of that with a pillow seat from the gods which somehow is supportive and forgiving and you can literally ride for hours in comfort. The only caveat being a fairly wide gas tank, a result of that big parallel twin between your knees.

Handling of the T-Bird is spec-dang-tacular! Literally, this is the best handling cruiser I have ever ridden. It has a low center of gravity and wonderful balance – always answering your commands with the exact amount of lean angle that you intended, on the cornering line you intended. Turning into corners is light and feedback is plentiful and almost sport bike-like. I knew exactly what the tire patches were doing at all times. I rode this bike on 45-mph twisty two-lane lake country roads and had an absolute blast. Leaving the bike in third gear and rolling in and out of the throttle flowing through corners was very rewarding. I pulled over to make sure this was a cruiser! The only real limitation is ground clearance, which is actually pretty good by cruiser standards. The issue is that the handling is so good; it’s easy to push through a corner to the point of grounding the folding floorboards. In less-spirited riding, clearance wasn’t a concern. Amazing job with the chassis Triumph!

Helping with that excellent chassis is the suspension. It provides a comfortable pot hole-eating ride along with excellent wheel control. Damping in both compression and rebound is very good which leads to a bike that doesn’t wallow when going through corners, and is bullet train stable in a straight line. Go fast, or go slow – the suspension package has you covered either way. I ran the shocks in the #2 preload which means I had plenty of adjustment left for a passenger and cargo.

Eventually, all roads come to a stop somewhere. Triumph didn’t skimp out with the stopping hardware either. The T-Bird has triple 310mm discs gripped by 4-piston Nissin calipers up front and a 2-piston Nissin caliper in the rear. All brakes are outfitted with steel braided lines and ABS. I’m here to tell you, when you throw the anchors out on the Thunderbird, it stops quickly. Feel through the front lever is excellent. The rear brake is a little wooden in feel, but works well. After checking 10 – 12 times to make sure ABS was present (and preparing an apology on the impending possible crash to editor Pearman!), I decided to try for a stop using ABS. Using my best newbie ham-fisted braking technique, I clenched my teeth and hammered both brakes. Quick pulsing through the lever and pedal greeted me along with grinding sounds and the bike performed a retina-detaching stop! It was much less dramatic than expected. It’s good to see ABS becoming more commonplace on motorcycles, and kudos to Triumph for putting it on this bike and making it an option on non-SE versions of the Bird.

The top-loading, leather-wrapped bags on the SE are nicely detailed and look the part. They are roomy and held closed by Velcro and seat belt type clips. The leather buckles are just for show. They are not lockable. The bags are not waterproof, but you could treat them with conditioner and it would allow for a degree of water resistance. They are nice bags, but I prefer the top loading waterproof lockable leather clamshell bags on something like the V-Star touring line.

In the end, the Thunderbird SE is a truly great bike to ride. It fills multiple motorcycle roles with aplomb. Ride it as decked out from the factory and cross the country. Strip the bags and windshield off and cruise the boulevard. Hit the curves and revel in the chassis and suspension. And it’s always got that torque-filled twin for you to use. It’s a cruiser that is comfortable, well built, is smooth and handles like a pseudo sport bike. This is a bike I could park in my garage and be very happy. 32 towns down and counting…!

MMM thanks Matt and Amber from Belle Plaine Motorsports for their cooperation and hospitality in making this review possible. They run a great dealership and are very nice to deal with! Contact them at 952–873-4500 or

by Kevin Kocur

You couldn’t escape it. Every news and entertainment channel, anywhere in the world, was covering it and hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the streets, hoping for a chance to view the Royal Couple. While the rest of the world was fascinated with events in England, I’ve had a fascination with something out of England–the new Triumph Thunderbird.

The name Thunderbird has been used on everything from a classic two-seater built by Ford to a British TV show featuring creepy marionettes. There was even a motel in Bloomington with that name, which boasted a Native American motif. Triumph originally used the name on one of its models in 1950. The 2010 model would be the third incarnation of the Thunderbird name since then.

The original “T-Bird” was powered by Triumph’s air-cooled 650cc parallel-twin engine. Today’s flavor of Thunderbird features a liquid-cooled, DOHC parallel twin now displacing 1,594ccs featuring 85bhp and 108 ft-lbs of torque. If that’s not enough for you, or you really feel the need to overcompensate, Triumph offers the dealer-installed 1700 Big Bore kit.

I picked up our metallic red test bike from Belle Plaine Motorsports on a cool, rainy fall day. I was grateful that we were reviewing the Special Edition model, which includes a nice, big windshield and saddlebags in which to place some of my work stuff. I set off for home, taking as many back roads as I could to avoid the rush hour freeways-turned-parking lots for as long as possible. Inevitably, I found myself in stop ‘n go traffic in the middle of a downpour. While I hadn’t planned to use the Thunderbird’s stock ABS, I did engage them once and they performed brilliantly. I finally pulled into the driveway and rolled into the garage as the rain was letting up. It looked as if the next day’s commute wouldn’t be terribly unpleasant.

My original plan was to ride the Thunderbird to Last Tuesday in Duluth. This monthly event gives me a destination and the motivation to ride there, not that I need either. Sadly, reports of torrential rain, wind and 30-footers on the big lake they call Gitche Gumee, had me planning otherwise. I would have to be satisfied with commuting and running errands until my schedule opened up later in the week.

Thankfully, the Thunderbird SE features saddlebags and a rear rack, so running errands and such would be easy. I would commute, then go shopping or meet my mates for dinner. If I had leftovers, there was always some place to carry them on the Triumph.

There is no better way to commute than by motorcycle. Period. The Thunderbird is a delight to commute on, mainly because it has such a wonderful motor. Power, torque, sound—it’s all there!

Not wanting to copy everyone else and slap a V-twin in their cruiser, Triumph did something completely different: they designed the world’s largest parallel twin, the T-16. It’s a sweetheart of a mill and the sound is bloody fantastic, largely due its 270º firing interval. 42mm throttle bodies ensure a steady supply of dino juice and as an added styling touch; the throttle bodies have machined fins that match the ones on the cylinder. Nice touch, Triumph. The exhaust exits through an underside muffler and then through a pair of megaphone pipes. Power runs through a wet, multi-plate clutch and into a six-speed transmission, with six as an overdrive, and helical-cut gears. Power to the rear wheel is then delivered by a belt-drive. Triumph Trivia: this Thunderbird is the first Triumph to use belt-drive since 1922!

Pub trivia aside, it’s time to throw a leg over this beast. With a wet weight of 746 pounds, there’s a little effort needed to get the bike off its side stand. In all fairness, this is a typical weight for a cruiser this size. The bars are wide and require a slight reach, which I prefer over the “tillers” some cruisers come with. One thing you’ll notice from the saddle is just how wide the tank is, which was confirmed by my armored knees as they cradled it.

Like many cruisers, there’s a single gauge smack dab in the middle of that tank. Lest you think that you were denied such luxuries as a tach, trip meter or clock, don’t worry, mate—they’re all here. Toggling a switch on the hand controls lets you scroll the LCD screen between two trip meters, clock, fuel gauge and range ‘til empty. The speedo also features a tachometer on the bottom side of the large gauge. Not only is this a practical way to display information, the styling of the speedo face is retro-cool. The down side to all of this cool is that you will find yourself looking down at the tank any time you want to view that information. Also, forget running a tank bag. Otherwise, mirrors, horn switch, switch for the turn signals (self-canceling!), etc. are all in their proper places. Only the ignition switch is missing (pssst–it’s on the side) from what appears to be a very well-designed cockpit. Our bike came with floorboards and all T-Birds feature a more foot-forward riding position. Coming right off of a Dual Sport, this combination took a while for me to get used to.

What doesn’t take getting used to is the excellent power delivery. The thing is downright docile as lower speeds, but whacking the throttle open turns this beauty into a beast. I really tried to behave myself, but that proved too difficult. I think it’s just the way we’re programmed. Big motor = big fun and all of it needs to be exploited. Hey, we’re not nuns driving to Sunday school in a beige Dodge Aries. Back on subject: yes, this bike accelerates nicely. The T-16 also makes some fantastic sounds everywhere from idle all the way to the rev limiter. The reality is, you don’t need to keep the engine spinning at redline to enjoy the big ‘bird. It’s not an R6, after all.

The six-speed transmission works brilliantly. The helical-cut gears are quiet and the whole unit shifts with precision, but never feels clunky. Forget about commuting in overdrive, unless you commute on the Autobahn. In town, you will never need to go above fifth. I usually rode in either fourth or fifth. The motor is in its sweet spot, feeling neither busy nor buzzy and I seldom had to downshift.

A sunny weekday found me with a hall pass for day, plus a destination. I headed into western Wisconsin. Any Wisconsin road within a reasonable proximity to the river is usually good. If the name of the road is simply an alphabet letter, that’s even better. On throttle, off throttle, bang the gears, look, lean, accelerate. The Thunderbird is designed as a cruiser, but it’s still a Triumph. What that means is that you might be surprised at how well the T-Bird handles.

A 47mm Showa fork tames the front. A pair of Showa shocks, adjustable for pre-load, handles duties in back. This combination works fairly well by offering a decent ride, yet allowing you to throw the Thunderbird around in corners until the peg feelers start scraping. For a cruiser, it has a decent amount of clearance but spirited riders will have to get used to the scraping. Even then, the bike feels well-planted. I really enjoyed hustling it around those Wisconsin roads.

The windshield on our test bike worked quite well, with only minor buffeting on my helmet. For the record, I’m about 5’11”. While I didn’t get to try the rear rack, I did use the saddlebags which will accommodate a lot of stuff, but are a bit fiddly to open and close. The straps on the outside are just for show.

The paint and chrome are as good, if not better, than anything else in its class. There are nice little details and a cool LED taillight. Overall, I like the looks of the bike, but think the standard model (sans windshield and bags) looks better. However our Special Edition test mule functions better.

While I had a blast with the Thunderbird, I have to be honest—it just isn’t for me. While I can appreciate the styling of the cruisers and their usually awesome motors, I just can’t get comfortable on them. In reality, if Triumph were to put this brilliant power plant in an Adventure bike and go after the Super Ténéré and BMW GS, I’d likely be the first person to put my hard-earned money down for one. In fact, I’d fly over to England to take delivery right from the factory. Then I would motor about the countryside, sitting high and proud on my new steed. Hmmm…I might need someone to show me around a bit. Does anyone know if Pippa Middleton likes motorcycles?

MMM would like to thank Belle Plaine Motorsports for the use of the Triumph Thunderbird. Give them a call at 952-873-4500 or surf on over to


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