2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600 - First Look

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600 - First Look

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600 - First Look

Certain things take guts. For a motorcycle manufacturer, one of those things is to allow anybody outside the company to even see an early prototype of an as-yet-to-exist model.

But we saw it.

It takes even more cojones to let someone not on the design and engineering team actually ride said early prototype.

But we rode it.

No, Triumph may not be big—in 2007 it sold just under 45,000 units worldwide to Honda's 13,476,000!—but it played it big by letting us in so early during the design and development process for its latest model, the 2010 Thunderbird power-cruiser, perhaps the most important bike to date for the reborn company.

In fact, my first ride on the 1596cc parallel-Twin-powered machine came in England in late 2007. Since that time, Hinckley's engineers have been hard at work on every area of mechanical spec, and refined the styling and paint to produce the bike you see here.

But the first question on many minds is, where has this bike been? Well, if you haven't noticed over the last few years, they've been pretty busy at Hinckley. A certain 2.3-liter cruiser jumps to mind, not to mention an all-new Tiger, the Sprint ST, the Speed and Street Triples, and, of course, there is also perhaps the most important model of all in terms of demonstrating the English company's world-class engineering competence, the 675 Daytona. Not even the Big Four can doeverythingat once.

There has certainly been a call for a machine just like the Thunderbird. "Our dealers have been screaming for it, particularly in America," said Triumph Product Manager Simon Warburton.

If the styling seems super-clean but somewhat conservative, well, it was strictly intentional. "We took the decision to build a bike that is recognizably a cruiser to compete in the cruiser market," admits Warburton. "Obviously, using a parallel-Twin rather than a V-Twin is a fundamental difference, but we're not trying to invent a category or new class of bike. We wanted to make something that will compete head-on in the cruiser market. The idea was to stretch the concept a little bit with the engine configuration but keep it in the 'comfort zone' with our competitors' bikes as a real alternative."

Was this a reaction to the (shall we say "uniquely styled") Rocket III?"

Exactly. With the Rocket III we did invent a new category of bike. But it's a niche market. In the size of company we are getting to be, we need to be moving into more mainstream markets, definitely."

An American, Tim Prentice, was charged with styling the Thunderbird. Prentice has worked with Triumph on some other bikes—most recently the redone Rocket III Tour, winner of last month's "Battle of the Baggers" comparo—but also has a long history with Honda, consulting on the NAS 1000 concept sportbike (CW, October 2001) and the Valkyrie Rune among his projects."

Tim's done a really detailed job on all the parts of the bike," says Warburton. "He came over and was essentially in residence with us, sort of as an honorary Hinckley resident."

This was truly a key to how the bike came out, because as the Thunderbird progressed from clay model into a mechanical reality, Prentice could be there to fine-tune the aesthetics of the parts that had to change for engineering reasons.

"Normally the stylist works on the clay model and you do as much engineering as you can in parallel so the model is as 'real' as possible, but there is always stuff that has to change when you get into the real nitty-gritty," Warburton relates. "Having the stylist there most of the time to apply the finishing touches as we did with Tim, it's valuable. We learned that on the 675 project. It made a huge difference."

So why not a big Twin like the Thunderbirdbeforethe Rocket? "To be honest, I don't think we fully understood the significance of the Twin for the cruiser rider," says Warburton.

He went on to explain that the Rocket III concept actually began as a 1600cc Triple with the intent of competing in the segment now being attacked by the T-Bird, but during the early phases, engine capacity kept growing because Triumph had feedback from the States saying, "Hey, bigger is better, and we need to make this the biggest bike of all."

The end result of the Rocket's growth to 2.3 liters was a big gap between it and the 865cc America/Speedmaster.

The answer is this 1596cc, liquid-cooled parallel-Twin. First off, the only parts this bike shares with the Rocket is valvegear, and even then, just the valves, shims and buckets. The rest is all-new. Certainly Triumph drew on its engineering experience, both from the big Triple and from the 865cc Twin used in the Bonneville range. In fact, most of the engineers on the Thunderbird came from those projects.

The main goals were to achieve at least 80 horsepower and 103 foot-pounds of torque, with a lopey engine character that featured plenty of bottom-end power. The exterior of the powerplant had to be crisp and clean, with essentially no visible oil or coolant plumbing.

The 270-degree crankshaft was chosen for the sound its firing intervals provide. There were a few calls for a 360-degree crank as used in the classic Meriden bikes and the current Bonnevilles, but the 270 was the one employed essentially from the beginning. "It gives the basic engine character that cruiser riders expect," says Warburton.

Dual balance shafts were a must, especially with a pair of nearly 800cc cylinders firing away! The engine is smooth enough that it is solidly mounted in the double-backbone steel frame.

The dohc head features four valves per cylinder, and the exhaust cam is equipped with a decompression system that props open the valves for easier cranking while starting.

Bore is a very large 103.8mm, with the stroke set a 94.3mm. The latter was an interestingly arbitrary figure: "On the crank machine we have, which is quite expensive, the 94.3mm stroke is the maximum we can manufacture, so that set the stroke," Simon says.

Bore is bigger than that of the Rocket, making twin sparkplugs per cylinder even more of a necessity than on the R3 to get a good burn and allow the 9.7:1 compression ratio without detonation.

All markets get closed-loop EFI and catalysts. Each cylinder has its own 02 sensor and completely separate fuel and ignition mapping. Further, there are separate "adaption" figures.

"Our system works by 'learning' how the engine is running and storing some numbers in the ECU to make it run as sweetly as possible," says Warburton, adding that there are no secondary butterflies in the 42mm throttle bodies. "We've learned a lot about EFI in recent years and we don't need a second butterfly to control the engine properly. Going forward on bikes, we are not using a second butterfly."

On the early prototype I rode, engine power and torque were excellent, but response off the bottom was pretty unrefined. Not a big surprise because the bike was so early in its development. The cush-drive in the clutch was still being worked on, as was the crank-end torque compensator, and the fuel/ignition mapping was in very early stages. It turned out to be a lot of work to smooth the response to the effortless levels big-bore cruiser riders expect.

"Yes, the biggest challenge we had was the smoothness or lack of it when you opened up the throttle at low speed when all the drivetrain engaged," says Warburton of the first R&D hacks. "I said at the time when you rode the early prototype that we would sort all that out, and we have, but it was a lot harder than we thought it would be. We thought we'd tune the clutch, torque-compensator and EFI and it would be fine. But what actually happened is that we tuned all those and it still wasn't enough."

This required some fundamental changes that led to significantly increased crankshaft inertia to smooth that low-end response.

"We added weight in a few different places, not just one big lump," he says. "We added about 20 pounds and had to move some walls of the crankcase, which meant big changes to the crankcase tooling. It was the only way we could find of taming the power. We'd made a lot of advances on engine calibration, but in the end what made the real difference was adding a big lump of inertia."

Most of the weight was added to the alternator and torque compensator, but it required re-tooling the crankcase, which shows the degree to which the company is dedicated to getting the bike right from the outset.

After that, the rest was pretty straightforward. The six-speed gearbox was a bit of a departure in the sense that it features helically cut gears in second through sixth—a first for Triumph—for less lash and quieter operation.

Another first for Triumph is belt final drive—"Unless you count the ones from the early 1900s," says Warburton—which was essentially a marketing decision. Nobody wants an oily chain on their tidy cruiser, and a belt invites accessory wheels and pulleys much more readily than a shaft.

Seat height is 27.5 inches, with overall dry weight expected to be about 650 pounds. Wheelbase is 64.6 inches. The Thunderbird definitely feels light on the road and the riding position is on the standard side of kicked-back cruiser, making it very comfortable for a feet-forward machine. The fuel tank (with clean, "seamless" bottom weld) is quite wide and carries 5.6 gallons of gas. ABS will be optional on the triple 310mm disc brakes, while self-cancelling turnsignals are standard.

The 200mm-wide rear Metzeler ME880 gets you into the "size-matters" club without making low-speed handling too ponderous. In fact, the Thunderbird prototype I rode was surprisingly neutral at low speeds. Tires were developed in conjunction with Metzeler specifically to enhance the handling of the bike, with special construction at the rear and a softer-than-normal compound at the front.

Because the bike is a 2010 model and won't go on sale until mid-2009, price is far from finalized. But you can expect the Thunderbird to be competitive with the likes of the Honda VTX1800, Suzuki M109R and the rest, so probably around $13,000–$14,000.

How important is this bike to Triumph in America? Half of the production run is slated for the U.S., with the other half going to the rest of the world.

"Getting the message to the cruiser rider that we are out there in this market is going to take some work," admits Warburton. "But we think the Thunderbird is going to be very good for us."

Consider the message sent.

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600

2010 Triumph Thunderbird 1600