Straight up, Triumph’s Thunderbird was designed to go head-to-head with one of America’s holiest of institutions, Harley-Davidson and its essentially all-cruiser lineup. Looking at the Hinckley, England-based company’s line, there really are only three models that fit the mold of “traditional cruiser,” and two of those (Speedmaster and America) are still loose interpretations of the kicked-back Twin theme. As Triumph’s first heavyweight entry into the segment, the Thunderbird stands alone, while on the Harley side you could make an argument for as many as 20 different models to do battle against the ’Bird. In this case, we chose the Wide Glide, as it is without doubt the epitome of the cruiser profile.
The T-Bird has a classic stance; for those familiar with Milwaukee iron, it’s akin to a Fat Boy without the floorboards or a Road King with the windshield removed. The Thunderbird has a perfectly upright and neutral seating position, a wide, supportive seat and feet-forward pegs. The Wide Glide is similar but the seat is narrower, shorter and more bucketed, forcing the rider into a solitary riding position. Feet are way forward on the Harley, allowing only riders nearing six feet tall and above the chance to bend their knees. Handlebars meet the rider halfway on the H-D, but the lack of support from the seat means you find yourself hanging onto the bars instead of letting your hands comfortably relax on the grips.
Despite the obvious differences in riding position, stance and engine layout, these bikes are remarkably similar in performance. They represent two very different interpretations of what a twin-cylinder cruiser engine should be.
Harley’s 45-degree, Twin-Cam 96 V-Twin has two pushrod-operated overhead valves per cylinder with self-adjusting lifters, displaces 1584cc and uses electronic fuel injection. This version of the TC96 is rubber-mounted and features a six-speed Cruise Drive transmission with belt final drive. The Triumph is powered by a liquid-cooled, 1596cc parallel-Twin with double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder (shim-under-bucket valve adjustment) and fuel injection. Twin balance shafts keep it smooth and allow the engine to be solidly mounted to the frame. A six-speed gearbox and belt final drive put power to the ground here, as well.
Hitting the starter button on the Harley always results in the fire being lit right away. Those huge 103.8mm Triumph pistons, on the other hand, take a lot of energy to get moving initially, to the point that it sometimes requires an extra stab at the button to overcome compression.
Around town, both of these bikes exhibit excellent low-end to midrange power characteristics. The pair grunts away from stops smoothly and drama-free, but we give the nod to the T-Bird for its lighter-feeling clutch (with easier-to-feel engagement point) and its massive low-end torque. The Triumph makes more torque just off idle than the Harley does at its 81.1-ft.-lb. peak (at 3400 rpm). The T-Bird’s Clydesdale-like 95.1-ft.-lb. climax is delivered way down at 2630 rpm and doesn’t dip back down below 80 until just before 5000 rpm. Sure, the Wide Glide weighs almost 70 pounds less (643 lb. dry on our scale, compared to the Bird’s 710), but even that significant advantage can’t overcome the Thunderbird’s grunt.
Both engines are very smooth at cruising speed, with only minimal vibes, although you wouldn’t know it looking at the Harley’s vibration-blurred mirrors. Fueling on the Triumph is a bit cantankerous at startup but is then very well-mapped and ultra-responsive once the engine settles into its pleasant idle. The Glide, on the other hand, exhibited just a touch of surginess when cruising at a steady, relaxed rpm. Transmissions on each are quite good, with slick, positive shifts and comfortable cruising from tall sixth-gear ratios.
When it comes to outright straight-line performance, the Brit just edged out the Yankee with a 13.24-second/97.31-mph quarter-mile run compared to the Harley’s 13.31/97.96. Zero to 60 was tight as well, but it was once again the heavier Triumph trumping the H-D with a 4.7- to 4.8-second run. Top speed measured 118 to 116 mph with the T-bird taking the point.
Spending much time at more than 75 mph on either bike is an exercise in tolerance, due to the lack of wind protection. The Triumph’s riding position makes freeway droning more acceptable for longer periods and at slightly higher speeds. The Wide Glide’s aforementioned seating position puts a lot of pressure on your lower back and forces you to hang onto the bars for support. The latter gets old in a hurry—meaning if you want to go fast, buy something else.
Handling on both bikes is pretty good with only a couple caveats. The Harley’s chopper-like wheelbase stretches out to damn near 70 inches and its 21-inch front hoop flops from side to side at parking-lot speeds. At any pace greater than that, the Wide Glide’s low center of gravity allows it to handle quite nicely. The Triumph, on the other hand, doesn’t display any negative traits from a walking pace to peg-scraping speeds; it feels balanced and stable all the time.
Both bikes are limited in terms of cornering clearance, with footpegs dragging at even moderate turning speeds. The Harley allows a bit more lean angle because the pegs are mounted far up and forward, but we felt a bit guilty scraping them since our test unit came fitted with Edge Cut Collection billet bits from Harley’s accessory catalog (footpegs $79.95, grips $79.95, brake pedal $39.95 and shifter $18.95). The Triumph’s footpegs have replaceable feelers screwed in underneath—which drag often and early due to their lower and farther-aft location.
Twisty-road handling is the Triumph’s forte, with the ’Bird feeling much more stable and planted, due in large part to the bike’s 19-inch front tire and 32-degree rake compared to the Glide’s 36-degree fork angle (offset triple-clamps add 2 degrees to the steering head’s 34) and skinny 80/90-21 front pizza-cutter tire.
There is a huge difference in ride quality, as well. Neither bike has a ton of rear-wheel travel (Triumph 3.7 inches, H-D 3.1), but the Triumph’s extra 0.7 of an inch is huge and makes it feel much plusher than the Harley. The T-Bird isn’t perfect either, bouncing the rider out of the seat after hitting moderate to big bumps due to a lack of sufficient rebound damping. Nonetheless, the Triumph overall has better suspension; it absorbs rough pavement and freeway expansion joints far better than the Harley while providing a much more controlled ride when carving a winding mountain road. Toss in the Triumph’s superior brakes and you’ve got a pretty impressive cruiser package.
When it comes to styling, it’s purely subjective, but most around CW give the nod to the Harley; it just looks right. But that raises the question: Are you shopping for form or function? The Wide Glide starts at $14,499 in our test unit’s Vivid Black ($15,195 for two-tone); the T-Bird’s base price is $12,499 for single colors and ranges up to $13,599 for a two-tone fitted with optional ABS.
In our book, the outcome is dictated by the bike that is the most enjoyable to ride and best performing in the widest range of conditions, and that bike is the Thunderbird. Triumph may be new to cruising, but it clearly gets what the riding part is all about.