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