How many of us know that iconic image of Marlon Brando sat astride a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird in The Wild One?
Well that was the very first Triumph Thunderbird before it was reborn with a 885cc triple cylinder in 1995.
By 2009 it was time for Triumph to add a rumbling, thunderous cruiser to the market; one that had much more grunt than those from the parallel twin America’s and Speedmaster’s, but more usable and attractive to a wider audience than the huge Rocket 3.
That offering would once again take the Thunderbird namesake and the Triumph Thunderbird 1600 was introduced.
Triumph Thunderbird 1600 Review
Triumph Motorcycles are one of the very few manufacturers to continuously produce cruisers without bowing to the pressure of using a V twin engine. For that we have to give them credit as let’s face it, the lack of a V twin will certainly prevent some very traditional cruiser riders from considering a Triumph.
I don’t think Triumph care too much as they continue to produce unconventional cruisers and the public continue to buy them.
The sole aim of the Triumph Thunderbird 1600 was to bridge the gap between the smaller 865cc America and the super sized 2,294cc Rocket 3.
In order to compete with the big boys like Harley Davidson in the cruiser world and target the US audience particularly, Triumph knew they needed a heavyweight cruiser that had impressive power, was rider friendly, looked the business and sounded awesome.
The best way to do that was to take the idea of the Triumph America 865cc already in existence and make it bigger, a lot bigger.
At the time of its release the Thunderbird 1600 was equipped with the largest parallel twin engine in production.
The clear signal from Triumph Motorcycles was that the British are here with the new Thunderbird and we are not only going to compete but we are going to give you such a good bike it can’t be denied.
The Thunderbird 1600 had a production run until 2016.
Engine and Transmission
Initially the engine used in the new model was intended to be a modular unit essentially two out of three cylinders from the Rocket 3. However, as it turned out the only parts in common were the valves, the rest was all new a liquid-cooled, DOHC, four valves per cylinder engine.
It was mated to a six speed transmission, fitted with quiet helical gears and belt final drive. This was the first time a belt final drive had been used since the 1920’s, but Triumph could no longer argue with the reliability, low maintenance benefits from using a belt over a chain.
The 1,597cc engine produced 85 horsepower and 146Nm of torque which no small feat or something to be sneered at. A great improvement over the smaller 865cc Bonnie engine that graced Triumph’s other cruiser type bikes.
12,000 mile service intervals and 2,500 mile belt inspections and adjustments were pretty impressive and fed into the low maintenance positives for the new bike.
The engine pulls very strong and sounds awesome, it is a thundering rumble, usually only found on big V twins. It is smooth and linear but not lacking in character in fact the smoothness is achieved by the placement of two balances in front and behind the cylinders along with the advanced fuel injection system.
Triumph utilised a six speed gearbox, with the sixth gear being the overdrive, for when the rider is soaking up long distance cruising miles.
The power was more than enough, adequate and delivered extremely well, arguably the only downside or note is that it wasn’t mind-blowingly fast.
However, it was just a really good engine, one that made for a comfortable ride and a capable one in all circumstances, so there wasn’t too much more you could ask for.
This even filtered down to a relatively light clutch lever and silky smooth gear shifter more on par with Japanese sportsbikes.
Chassis, Suspension, Brakes
Housing the big motor was a tubular steel frame with a twin sided swingarm.
The bike is big and heavy at 777lbs roughly ready to ride, despite this you could still consider the bike fairly quick and it wouldn’t struggle to carry a full load, there would be no notable power difference whether you rode solo or with a passenger and luggage.
The front forks were long and raked as was the style, the seat low slung, passengers accommodated but not necessarily cared for, although you could add a much needed passenger backrest.
The bars are pulled back, high, wide and footpegs far forward, in a typical cruising rider position. It isn’t a bike for shorter riders on this basis without some modifications first.
Suspension is good, soaking up the road bumps and carrying the bikes weight well. Centre of balance is low and central which makes movements at low speeds pretty easy. All riders should be able to get both feet down to paddle the bike around the drive and do so with relative ease.
The bikes wheelbase is pretty long which is great for stability at speed, it is also suited to riders who like to test their limits somewhat aggressively.
The only issue they could encounter is the pegs scraping and hearty cornering be a bit nervy, let’s face it only the best riders or nutcases are capable of throwing heavy cruisers into corners like they are on sportsbikes, so that doesn’t matter too much. Sweeping bends however, are great fun and should be engaged in at all costs.
Brakes are perfectly fine and suited to slow the bike down and bring it to a stop. ABS was also optional in the US and standard for the UK bikes.
Handling and Styling
In terms of handling, the Triumph Thunderbird is a bike that gives you a great riding experience. If you are used to your fists in the air, feet forward and wrestling with big motorcycles then this won’t be un-natural for you. If you are moving from other types of bike it might take some adjustment to get used to the riding position.
However, the bikes steering isn’t as heavy as you think, it goes where you want it to go and the low centre of gravity certainly inspires a riders confidence to deal with the weight.
To ride the bike is comfortable and with a few touring accessories that could be chosen out of Triumph’s collection of parts, you could do some serious long distance touring.
In terms of styling, the bike is classic, a bigger brother to the Triumph America in many ways. The silhouette side by side is not all that different and that isn’t a bad thing as the America is a very classically styled cruiser.
With the exception of some covers everything feels premium, so you feel like you are riding a quality motorcycle which is reflected in the performance.
Lashings of chrome make the bike a little flashy unless you go for the 2011 Storm version which was a more aggressive blacked out model.
Thunderbird 1600 Performance
Upon its release the Thunderbird caused quite a stir, Triumph were once again entering the foray with a parallel twin, sticking their very British fingers up to the American V twin engines.
While the America and Speedmaster had been accepted they weren’t exactly flying high and dominating and the Rocket 3 was a power cruiser attracting a niche audience. On the other hand the Thunderbird was a bonafide attempt at taking on Harley and to an extent it seemed to have worked, certainly among the press.
Add in a comfortable riding position and excellent-handling chassis, delivered at a competitive price, and all we can say to the other guys is, watch out, the British are coming!Cycle World who listed the T Bird as one of their Ten Best Motorcycles of 2009
With the Thunderbird, Triumph can finally lay claim to having a well-rounded cruiser lineup, even if it still went its own way with parallel twins and in-line triples. Such cheeky nontraditionalism certainly won’t revolutionize the V-twin-oriented American cruiser market, but you can count us among the turncoats.Rider Magazine
MCN argued that it was the best model to take on HD in terms of price, spec and performance, with their only downsides being that the model was a bit bland.
Triumph had a 7 year production run with the Thunderbird so it is safe to say that the public also appreciated the efforts, this is backed up by the fact that the bikes seems to have held their value pretty well to date on the used market.
Triumph Thunderbird 1600 Specs list
Engine and Transmission
Engine – Four stroke, parallel twin, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
Capacity – 1597cc
Bore x Stroke – 103.8 x 94.8mm
Compression Ratio – 9.7:1
Cooling System – Liquid cooled
Starting – Electric
Induction – Electronic fuel injection
Transmission – 6 speed
Final Drive – Belt
Max Power – 85.6 horsepower
Max Torque – 146Nm
Top Speed – 117.1mph
Chassis and Dimensions
Frame – Tubular steel, twin sided swingarm
Front Suspension – Showa 47mm forks
Rear Suspension – Showa twin shocks, 5 point adjustable preload
Front Brakes – 2 x 310mm discs, 4 piston calipers
Rear Brakes – Single 310mm disc, 2 piston caliper
Rake – 32 degrees
Trail – 151.3mm
Dry Weight – 678lbs
Wheelbase – 1641mm
Height – 1216mm
Width – 947mm
Length – 2350mm
Seat Height – 702mm
Fuel Capacity – 22 litres
Triumph Thunderbird 1600 Variants
There was just one variant of the Thunderbird 1600 offered and that came in 2011.
Prior to 2011 Triumph had been offering as an extra, a big bore kit that upped the capacity of the engine to 1700cc producing 5 more horsepower and 9 extra Nm of torque, it wasn’t a huge difference but it did get riders a bit more excited about the potential power of the bikes.
In 2011 the Thunderbird Storm arrived. It featured the 1700 engine as standard, it was also fitted with twin headlamps and featured far more black components than chrome for a blacked out moody version of the popular cruiser.
Buying an original Triumph Thunderbird 1600
$7,000-$11,000 will get you a good Triumph Thunderbird in the US and in the UK you will need between £6,500-£9,500.
The bikes are easy to find and there are plenty in great condition to choose from on both sides of the ocean. Triumph offers an approved used programme therefore it might be worth checking out to see if local dealerships have any Thunderbirds in as part of their used section.
There are plenty of motorcycles that have had accessories fitted. So, it is worth taking your time as someone may have already kitted out the bike with everything you want or need in terms of accessories such as a screen, luggage options, new saddle etc.
The one thing to look out for is that Triumph were offering the Big Bore kit for more power, so you will want to check that this has been done professionally and everything is as it should be.
In terms of other things to check on a used model there are just a few standard key points:
Check all metal parts, chrome etc for rust/corrosion. This includes all the hard to get to places, and make sure you open the fuel tank and look inside for rust. This will give you an indication of how well the model has been looked after.
Check the brakes are in good working order.
Check the tires for any flat spots or areas where they are worn down as these may need replacing
Make sure any aftermarket exhausts and other components have been properly fitted
Other than that on the whole the Triumph Thunderbird is a quality, reliable workhorse that if looked after will out ride the rider.
As they say the world is your oyster and at the current used prices you can get a sound motorcycle for a lot less money than new options and have a great time. Let alone one with a name that has such a rich history, that makes sense to me.
Restoring a Triumph Thunderbird 1600
Parts are readily available for the Triumph Thunderbird 1600, everything you could need to restore a model is available and affordable with many original parts still in circulation.
World of Triumph is a good start point for OEM components along with Bike Parts Triumph. These two sites will give you a breakdown of components and have links to the original catalogue, eBay as always is another great place to search for parts.
The bikes aren’t very old so in theory many models should be in good condition and not be in need of full restoration.
The Thunderbird 1600 however makes a great choice for a custom build, it has a pretty powerful engine, plenty of torque, modern features like ABS and easy handling. The foundation is solid for you to modify and turn into the ultimate modern custom cruiser.
Is the Triumph Thunderbird 1600 a good investment?
The Thunderbird remains steady in terms of holding its value on the used market, those for sale have sat around the same prices for the last couple of years.
With British company having released the new Triumph Rocket 3 variation and the all new Bobber line, it seems they are continuing to have a focus on their cruiser offerings which in turn keeps riders interested in past options too.
Whether the Thunderbird will be a future classic, it is too early to tell, all we can say is that the fact it hasn’t dropped significantly in value suggests they are still in demand and appreciated.
It is a watch this space kind of situation, but if you are looking for a cruiser that stands out from the crowd, is boldly British in design then the T bird is surely a worthy investment.
The Triumph Thunderbird 1600 is one of my favourite cruisers from Triumph, it is a really good, really solid, fun to ride, powerful big boy cruiser that oozes style and class.
Most importantly it is unmistakeably a Triumph.
The cruiser market for so long was flooded with motorcycles that all looked the same, were generic in their design, particularly those coming out of the Big Four Japanese manufacturers. Performance wise they might have been spot on, but style wise lets face it most of them were trying too hard to be Harley’s and lost their identity.
Thankfully that has changed in recent years with manufacturers going back to the drawing board and producing new fresh designs such as the Vulcan 650 and the honda Rebel 1100. the return of Indian Motorcycles has certainly helped this too.
However, before the change we had Triumph creating British designed motorcycles that could hold their own against any traditional cruisers on the streets and still retain that unique style we all know and recognise.