The first Thunderbird came in response to the American cry for cubes and proved an immediate hit. It wasn’t all about performance though; in 1952 an SU equipped Thunderbird, ridden at 30mph, achieved a remarkable 155mpg.
There were other incarnations, including unit and a co-op effort, while the current Thunderbird (launched 2008) is a 1600cc parallel twin; there’s a 1700cc Thunderbird Storm, too.
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Riding a mid-1950s Thunderbird is a pleasure in many ways – for example, it’s wonderfully comfortable, while the way the fuel level never seems to go down is almost uncanny – but it’s the still-eager, instant performance of the engine which impresses most.
It’s only when compared with a contemporary 500cc machine (then the norm and considered a ‘big bike’) that extra cubes are most appreciated. Acceleration is brisk, accompanied by a satisfying rasp from the exhaust, and while braking and handling fall short when compared with 10-year newer machines, there is much joy to be had riding a Thunderbird; in many ways, it’s the ultimate British twin.
Model years and descriptions follow.
1946 Triumph Thunderbird
The first and most iconic. Even if Brando hadn’t ridden one in The Wild One, the superbly styled, wonderfully named first postwar 650cc Triumph twin would’ve been a design classic anyway. Launched in a hail of publicity with a Montlhéry high-speed stunt in July.
1955 Triumph Thunderbird
An update came in 1955, when a swinging arm frame was introduced. By now, the Thunderbird had been joined by the ‘hot’ Tiger 110 so wasn’t the range leader – but for the cooking 650 in the range, didn’t it look sensational. Competitive pricing meant it remained a winner for the Meriden concern.
1960 Triumph Thunderbird
For 1960 came a new, duplex frame, while there was also the ‘bathtub’ rear wheel enclosure. The Thunderbird had slipped further down the list of ‘sportiness’ as the Bonneville had joined the range too. Soon, a lower tank rail was added to the new frame to strengthen it after reports of breakages.
1964 Triumph Thunderbird
By 1964 the Thunderbird was possessed of both unit-construction and bikini rear fairings, while there had been a new, single downtube frame in 1963 too. This was the last significant redesign for the ‘old’ T-bird, which was dropped from the listings at the end of the 1966 season.
1982 Triumph Thunderbird
Launched in the first third of 1981, the ‘co-op’ Thunderbird was a short-stroke version of the Bonneville and was the cheapest model in the Triumph range; budget items included the black-painted chaincase and cheaper tyres. It lasted until the Meriden closure in 1983.
1994 Triumph Thunderbird
announced for the 1995 season, the Thunderbird was ‘new’ Triumph’s first attempt at tapping into the lucrative ‘retro’ market. Powered by a detuned version of the 885cc triple engine used across the range, the Thunderbird was made until 2003, the Thunderbird Sport until 2004.