Silver streak

Words: Steve Wilson
Photographs: Gary Chapman

This 1956 Thunderbird is a rolling demonstration of why these soft-tuned, iron-engined 650s were the ultimate Triumph twin for many experienced riders.

Of the three 650cc twin he owns, the Thunderbird has become Alec Taylor’s favourite.

Triumph’s 6T Thunderbird was held by many ‘in the know’ to be the all-round best of the firm’s twins.

Sales manager Ivor Davies, the late guru restorer Hughie Hancox, journalist Bruce Main-Smith and many others all considered the original iron-engine, single carb, pre-unit, 34bhp 650cc twin as tough, reliable, and the easiest to live with. As influential ‘alternative biking’ man Royce Creasey wrote, the Thunderbird was “the definitive feet-up chopper” (Royce was involved with Feet Forward designs) “and everything else was just an unfortunate attempt to make it go faster”.

I had ridden early tuned T110 versions of the pre-unit 650, and been amazed by their smoothness compared with the 1963-on unit-engined big twins. But while seduced by the looks of the rigid or sprung hub, 1950-1954 6Ts with their Brando ‘Wild One’ associations, I remained dubious about the swinging-arm versions introduced for the UK in 1955.

Firstly the new brazed-lug frame with its unbraced swinging-arm had started the ‘Triumphs-don’t-handle’ legend, widespread when I came to motorcycling at the beginning of the 1960s. Which was true, but with a qualification. These ones didn’t handle if pushed to the limit, as they were by the emerging cult of young rockers. Journalist Dave Minton, a quick rider, recalled “…the frame saddle-tube, on which the swinging-arm was mounted, warped like a torsion bar and gave fast cornering a horrible new meaning entirely”.

Read more in the January issue of TCM

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