Thunderbird Sport – A Triumph

The Thunderbird motorcycle of 1949 was a project of Edward Turner, then managing director and lead designer of Triumph. He was looking for a powerful roadburner to build the market in the United States; already healthy, but also red-hot as the families were returning to ‘normal’ in the aftermath of World War II. It was in the U.S. that he found the inspiration to build the 649c.c. twin. It was comfortable and well built and Americans bought many of them, until 1966 when the model was discontinued.

It was revived in 1981, though it had little in common with the first model except for the ‘paper dart’ Thunderbird logo. The Thunderbird TR65 was an ‘economy’ motorcycle which was actually a short-stroke version of the larger T-140 Bonneville. Only three model years later, in part due to lackluster sales, production was stopped and Triumph itself suffered financial troubles.

After John Bloor managed to get a new factory running in Hinckley to produce Triumphs in 1990, the Thunderbird was revived in 1994 as the Thunderbird 900. Scarcely three years later – in 1997 – Triumph released the Thunderbird Sport 900. It was an upgraded machine based on the same 885c.c. triple driving the standard Thunderbird. However, that engine was tuned to produce 82hp and 56ft/lb of torque – versus 69hp and 52ft/lb on the standard model.

Much of the classic looks of the original Thunderbird 900 were retained, but the Sport had some significant physical differences. Much of the chrome had been replaced with satin black; the fancy stitching and buttons on the seat were removed. The airbox was given a ‘cheese grater’ cover which harked back to the old exposed air cleaners mounted on historic racing motorcycles. The Thunderbird Sport 900 had uprated, fully-adjustable suspension to handle the extra power; and the higher-spec components improved the already excellent handling. For braking, the Thunderbird Sport had an additional disc up front which made for worry-free braking control. Smaller, 17 inch diameter, but wider wheels were fitted – 3.5 inch wide front and 4.25 inch wide rear versus 2.5 and 3.5 inches front and rear, respectively, on the standard Thunderbird – for a larger and sportier tire selection, not to mention a racier stance. Even the exhaust was changed for better ground clearance using a set of upswept reverse-cone mufflers on the right side of the machine.

The Thunderbird Sport managed to please its new owners. As a sport-tourer, it was a very successful motorcycle model. Unfortunately, production ceased in 2004 and this was the last model of Thunderbird offered for sale by Triumph for many years. After production stopped, we had to wait until 2009 to know if the Thunderbird would return. It did. And, now we have the 2010 Thunderbird 1600!

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