Test Ride: Triumph Thunderbird Sport

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Words: Rob Harris   Photos: Rob Harris
DEATH AND REBIRTH

Triumph. To any motorcycle enthusiast that has graced this earth for at least 30 years, the name is bound to stir up memories. Memories of a legendary British motorcycle maker, who ruled the world with their ‘Bonnevilles’, ‘Speed Twins’ and ‘Speed Triples’, only to make a vertical nose dive and deathly crash in the seventies, at the hands of a well organised and well engineered Japanese onslaught.

Morn their loss or not, few can argue that Triumph and the rest of the British motorcycle industry didn’t blow their mighty market share through bad management and woefully outdated engineering practices. Darwin had spoken and that was it.

Well, until 1991 at least, when the Triumph name was reborn and once again Triumph badged machines were rolling off assembly lines in the Midlands of England.

Since then the company has grown steadily and again offers a respectable range of motorcycles. One part of that range is what Triumph refers to as their ‘Classics’. Four models based around basically the same motors (885cc triples) and chassis, with minor tweaks here and there being enough for the company to claim each one to be it’s own distinct model.

The sportiest and most powerful of the bunch, and coincidentally the one that I happened to get my grubby paws on, is the Thunderbird Sport.

CLASSIC LINES

Last year’s 2 into 3 exhaust system has been dumped to allow for more passenger leg room

The T’bird Sport does well in the looks department. The blacked out, liquid cooled motor has mock polished fins to give a nod to the old air cooled motors of British motorcycle rule. Three chrome pipes exit out beneath the radiator and become one, as they sweep under the engine and out towards the rear. This is a change from last year’s model, which featured a very attractive three into two system. Unfortunately this system left no room for the passenger’s feet and so was dumped for 2000, ultimately aiding passenger comfort but making a substantial sacrifice in the looks department as well.

Other classic nods include the teardrop shaped gas tank, paying homage to the old U.S spec. Bonnevilles.

All this, along with the distinct lack of plastic, a modicum of chrome and wire spoked wheels, means that the T’bird Sport has all the requirements of a modern day classic, even if the package is somewhat chunkier than the originals. Actually they’re a lot chunkier than the originals, which loses out in the sleekness department somewhat, giving a slightly over exaggerated feel to the bike.

… CLASSIC RIDE!

High footpegs can cramp the riding position

The bike is relatively tall, with a seat height of 790 mm, which suits my 6’4” chassis quite well. Unfortunately the foot pegs are unusually high, which left me feeling a tad cramped on the ride and also left my knees rubbing uncomfortably against the lower edge of the tank. Strange. Thankfully the flatish bars put you in a good, slightly forward lean, which helps somewhat at speed as there is no screen to deflect the wind blast.

Triumph have used the 855cc triple motor on all their ‘Classic Line’ models, fitting the Sport with a six speed box and giving it a higher state of tune over the other three models. Aided by a balance shaft, the motor is relatively smooth with a steady power output which doesn’t surprise, but then doesn’t really excite either. Opening up the throttle from idle would result in the bike gradually winding itself up in a very linear fashion – no surprises, no thrills. That might be fine for a commuter or novice but then why not just buy a car?

Maximum power comes in at a claimed 82 HP at 8,500rpm – which is dead on the redline. That’s pretty low for a sport bike (the modern Japanese sport bikes kick out around the 13,000 mark), and if you try to push it beyond that the power falls off quicker than a Psycho Canada test rider (yes that quick!).

The six speed box is a bit notchy when changing up and down, requiring a relatively firm push of the boot to get a clean change. It’s also prone to the occasional false neutral as well – Triumph trying a bit too hard for that classic feel?

The retro package is completed by the use of carburetors (as opposed to fuel injection) which worked well in most applications except for a tendency to cut out sometimes at idle. One time I found myself caught up in a downpour which left the bike with a big hesitation off idle and left me revving the engine and slipping the clutch to get through the flooded dips in the road. A tad unnerving to say the least .

Weighing in at a rather lardy 224 Kg doesn’t help it earn the sport title either, giving it an overall feel more like that of a well sorted 80’s Japanese bike – which I might add would be a much cheaper option. The weight is also carried quite high, which results in a feeling that it’s always just about to fall over at low speed, and then might not do what you want it to at higher speeds. Just when you’re sliding off the seat with your knee out for that long sweeper ahead the T’bird Sport can only give you an “Okay, I think we can do this” reaction. Not the kind of feedback that brings on the adrenaline filled heroics. Sigh.

The front twin disc brakes do a respectable job at hauling it to a halt , but keen usage tended to cause the front suspension to dive rather too easily, so much so that it wasn’t hard to bottom it out altogether, signified by an audible “thunk”. In contrast, the rear brake is a bit too much on the soft side and proved almost impossible to lock up. This might sound like a good thing, but in reality it had about as much retarding effect as a bag of candy on a hyper active four year old.

WHY, WHY, WHY?

Being the owner of one of those aforementioned older (and cheaper) Japanese bikes, I didn’t feel too out of place with this bike. In fact we conducted the test ride with staffer Tony Lee, who brought along his old Honda CB1100F.

CB1100F (left) proved to be the more popular amongst the two test riders

In order to get a second view we’d swap bikes throughout the day. By lunchtime we were both fighting to ride the CB. It might have an additional cylinder and an extra 200cc, but it was almost twenty years older! That begs the question: Why would I pay ten times the price for essentially the same machine? Granted, it’s a brand new machine, and it does say Triumph on the tank, and … well it’s probably better looking, but at best that means it’s a great bike – twenty years ago!

If you used to ride one of the big Jap fours in the seventies and then gave up the sport to have kids and all things homely, then this might be the bike for your re-entry into motorcycling. Otherwise I find it hard to think of who might feel at home with the T’bird Sport.

Thankfully, Triumph also have the 955s and the new TT600 sport bikes in their line up, so history and the decline of the British bike empire do not seem to be repeating themselves. Ultimately, the Thunderbird Sport does have a place in the modern motorcycle market for maybe the more reserved or relatively new rider. Unfortunately, it’s main pulling power is not from the motor but from the history invoking badge on the tank.

Bike

Thunderbird Sport

MSL

$12,499

Displacement

885 cc

Engine type

Inline dohc triple, liquid cooled

Carburetion

3 x 36mm flat slide CV carburetors

Final drive

Six speed, Chain drive

Tires, front

120/70 R 17

Tires, rear

160/70 R 17

Brakes, front

Dual 310 mm discs with dual piston calipers

Brakes, rear

Single 285 mm disc with two piston caliper

Seat height

790 mm (31.1″)

Wheelbase

1580 mm (62.2″)

Dry weight

224 Kg (494lbs) (claimed)

Canadian colours

Opal White & Tangerine

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