£13,999 | 93bhp@5400rpm | 111lb-ft@3550rpm | liquid-cooled parallel twin
It’s exactly 50 years since the Beatles arrived in America and became an even bigger British hit there than the Triumph Bonneville. Triumph’s recent attempts to recreate that level of success in the cruiser dominated US market with the Thunderbird have come up short. But they’re having another go with a pair of T-bird variants, the LT — short for Light Touring — and its naked sibling the Commander.
Of the two it’s the LT that makes the bigger impression. So familiar and faithfully reproduced are the styling cues of its near-vertical screen, fat white-wall tyres, buckled leather pannier bags and heavily chrome-laden accessories that at a glance you could easily miss the fact that its two big cylinders are arranged in parallel, rather than at a 45-degree angle like those of the Harley Road King Classic into whose nostalgia-steeped territory it so blatantly trespasses. The Triumph is cheeky, sure… but is it any good?
Tell me about the engine
That 1699cc, liquid-cooled motor comes from the Thunderbird Storm. It has a DOHC, eight-valve layout and is mechanically unaltered, although injection and exhaust changes lose a few horsepower to leave a maximum of 93bhp. The benefit is an even flatter torque curve that reaches its very healthy peak of 151Nm at just 3400rpm.
Triumph’s big twin is a very flexible and respectably refined powerplant. Its 270-degree crankshaft layout gives an off-beat cadence, and Triumph have added a valve to the exhaust to allow a slightly louder note, for a bit more character. The LT’s laid-back nature is helped by tall gearing — at 60mph in top it’s turning over at less than 2500rpm. Not that the rider is aware of that because there’s no rev-counter in the chrome-rimmed console set into the top of the gas tank.
Most of Triumph’s development effort went into the chassis, and was aimed at improving comfort while retaining the marque’s reputation for handling. A typical cruiser flaw is that the demand for a low seat tends to lead to short-travel rear suspension, which in turn requires stiff springs — and often generates a spine-crushingly harsh ride.
Triumph designed a stiffer, low-set tubular steel frame whose diagonally mounted shocks give 109mm of rear wheel travel, which is 14mm more than the basic T-bird’s, and generous by cruiser standards. The Showa units have dual-rate springs, with tighter windings (which compress more readily to absorb smaller bumps) hidden beneath the chromed shroud at their tops. Ride quality is also enhanced by the seat, which is thickly padded and incorporates a lumbar support pad comprising foam of three different densities.
Triumph showed their commitment to the chassis when, after discovering that no tyre firm made white-wall radials, they teamed up with Avon to develop some fat 16-inchers that complement the twin’s thick two-tone paintwork very nicely.
If you like the traditional US tourer style of what’s basically a big-bore cruiser dressed up with screen and panniers, and you don’t insist on following convention with a V-twin engine, then you’d do well to give the LT serious consideration. It has a similar style to the Road King Classic, comparable performance and handling ability, is more comfortable and has a pleasant twin-cylinder character of its own.
It’s also usefully versatile. Its screen unclips in seconds. The panniers, which incorporate inner bags and a 12V socket, unbolt easily complete with brackets, leaving a cleanly styled naked cruiser for short trips and fine weather. The long list of accessories includes highway pegs, crash-bars, luggage rack and numerous billet parts.
At £13,999 the LT is cheaper than its Harley rival by almost £4000; or by more than that figure if you want two-tone paint. A decision could end up being less about the bikes and more about how keen you are on the whole Harley ownership thing.
Despite its thickness that seat is very low, at 700mm. That helped make the LT reasonably manoeuvrable despite its hefty 380kg weight as I pulled away on the launch ride in southern California, gripping the wide, raised one-piece handlebar. The near-vertical screen did a surprisingly good job of deflecting the wind over my head as I looked over the top of it, headeding north-east from San Diego on Highway 67.
Straight-line performance was very adequate for a US style tourer. The Triumph sat effortlessly at an indicated 70mph, feeling very relaxed with the help of its smoothness and tall gearing. When occasionally requested, it pulled respectably urgently from there on the way to a top speed of about 120mph. It also felt quite involving, perhaps partly due to that exhaust note, which is distinctly throatier, if not an actual Harley-style potato-potato soundtrack.
Handling was very respectable, blending rock-solid stability with light, neutral steering. On the twisty roads east of Julian the LT was easy to corner despite its length and weight. Those white-wall Avons felt reassuring although they didn’t really have much work to do because on dry roads the footboards scraped long before the rubber approached its grip limits. Owners probably won’t mind generating a few sparks, especially as the boards’ lowers are replaceable, but some riders grounded out hard enough to run worryingly wide in turns.
Braking, on the other hand, was admirably efficient, thanks to four-piston Nissin front calipers with ABS as standard. And the LT chassis was most impressive for its comfort, due not least to the exceptionally plush ride quality provided by those dual-rate shocks. The seat’s innovative lumbar pad really worked, adding useful support. A pillion gets a generous seat, footboards and a back-rest, so should be happy to make the most of the 22-litre tank’s range of close to 200 miles at 40-plus MPG.
So the Thunderbird LT is respectably quick and sweet handling, good looking (if far from original) and comfortable. It won’t restore Triumph’s Stateside sales to the heights they reached half a century ago, when the Fab Four’s legendary US debut on the Ed Sullivan Show generated even more American excitement than the previous year’s launch of the 750 Bonneville. But the LT is a classy, enjoyable bike that proves Britain’s attack on the US market has got serious at last.
Tested by: Roland Brown Photos by: Alessio Barbanti, Paul Barshon, Freddie Kirn and Tom Riles.
Price: £13,999 (LT); £12,999 (Commander)
Engine: 1699cc, liquid-cooled, dohc 8-valve parallel twin
Power: 93bhp (69kW) @ 5400rpm
Torque: 111lb-ft (151N.m) @ 3550rpm
Curb weight: 380kg (LT); 348kg (Commander)
Seat height: 700mm
Tank size: 22 litres