We test the all-new 2014 Triumph Thunderbird Commander cruiser motorcycle to see if it can steal some of Harley-Davidson's thunder. It can. Read why.
Make no mistake; Triumph Motorcycles is on a bit of a roll at the moment. The British company currently has one of the best line-ups of motorcycles it has ever had, their U.S. dealer network is profitable and growing and the company is optimistic for a big increase in sales in North America for 2014.
This week, Triumph launched its all-new Thunderbird Commander and Thunderbird LT, and the timing appears to be spot on. But can either of these British cruisers really be considered as serious contenders in what is essentially a sector entirely dominated by one U.S. manufacturer?
Triumph’s Recent History
To understand what is new at Triumph and why, you have to understand a bit about the company’s past and the close ties it has to the U.S.
At the introduction of the new Thunderbirds, Triumph was keen to underline that it has a long and illustrious story in America. Its motorcycles, most notably the Big D Texas Cigar followed by the Triumph Gyronaut X-1, were breaking land speed records throughout the 1950s and 1960s on the Bonneville Salt Flats at ridiculously fast speeds.
With its U.S. dealers, Triumph also raced with great success in the 1940s through to the 1970s against the likes of Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycles.
Triumph even lays claim to have kicked off the whole biker image with the brooding Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild Ones. Although Brando had to ride his own Thunderbird in the film because the Triumph factory wouldn’t supply him one and even demanded that the tank badges were taken off the bike during filming.
Through all of this and much more besides, Triumph has become an iconic brand and their motorcycles, particularly the current line-up, very well respected on this side of the Atlantic.
This fall, Triumph will again be back on the salt flats with the Castrol Rocket (powered by a pair of Rocket III 1485cc engines producing 1000 bhp) running in the streamlined motorcycle class and intent on breaking 400 mph.
On the business front things have been changing quickly too. Since 2010, the U.S. Triumph dealer network has been revised and increased from 165 to 225 (17 new dealers alone were appointed in the last quarter of 2013) with the aim of a 300-strong network in the next couple of years.
Triumph worldwide sales last year were at a record level with 52,089 motorcycles sold and around a quarter of those were in the U.S This year, Triumph is expecting even better U.S. sales performance.
Greg Heichelbech, CEO of Triumph North America, told RideApart: “Triumph wants to be the number one import brand in the U.S. within the next few years. We believe we can overtake the Japanese here in the U.S. based upon what we have achieved so far and what we know is coming down the pipeline from Triumph in the near future.
“We sold 13,000 motorcycles last year in the U.S. and estimate for 2014 that will increase to 16,000. So it’s absolutely the right time for us to launch two new cruisers into the market.”
It’s not going to be an easy task for Triumph. Harley-Davidson sold 260,839 motorcycles in the U.S. last year, but Heichelbech said that Triumph’s not looking to compete head on with the Milwaukee company: “There are a number of customers out there who don’t want to buy a Harley-Davidson and want something different. They like the brand image of Triumph and can relate to that and what we can offer them.”
In the past year, Harley Davidson and the hugely ambitious Indian Motorcycles have been starting to square up as to who is going to be the top dog in U.S. cruiser market not just in sales numbers but also in terms of quality, choice and rider appeal.
With Triumph now on the scene with two all-new convincing cruisers and promises from the British company of even more to come, things could start to get very interesting.
Up until five years ago, Triumph did not have a full dresser cruiser that could compete with anything the U.S. or Japanese companies were offering. To begin cashing in on some of its legendary brand appeal in the U.S., Triumph launched its first cruiser the Thunderbird in 2009. It was and is offered with a big 1600cc parallel twin and belt drive. It was nicely built and finished and was generally felt to be a good first step for Triumph into the cruiser segment.
The Thunderbird did all things well, it rode nicely and looked like any other cruiser. That’s the main issue for Triumph - the Thunderbird is just not different enough from anything that Harley-Davidson or the competition is currently offering.
As it now turns out the first Thunderbird was just the start of Triumph’s plan to move into the cruiser market with a broader selection of models to choose from. In 2011 the Thunderbird was joined by the Thunderbird Storm, a dark and moody looking motorcycle which came equipped with the water-cooled, 1699cc, eight valve, DOHC parallel twin.
Now the latest additions to Triumph’s Thunderbird line-up – the Commander (and yes Triumph knows that Norton has used the name in the past) and the LT – have been designed to take the Triumph brand even further into Harley-Davidson territory.
While the new derivatives share the same tank, engine, brakes and switchgear as the Storm, Triumph says everything else on both the Commander and the LT is completely new including a redesigned steel twin spine frame with the 1699cc motor acting as a stressed member.
To keep things simple, the Thunderbird LT is the version that comes with a quick detach screen and detachable leather bags with waterproof liners and a custom-style front fender with chrome accents, single headlight and running lights.
There were two areas that Triumph was particularly proud of at this week’s Thunderbird introduction; firstly the LT’s spoked chrome wheels, which have the world’s first radial whitewall tires (16 inch front and rear) developed specifically for the LT by Avon Tires.
Triumph said for performance reasons the LT had to have radial tires and for style reasons it needed to be white-walled. They are proper white-wall tires too and are not just painted.
Secondly Triumph was keen to reinforce the quality and craftsmanship in its production methods and explained the pin striping on the LT’s tank and fenders is done entirely by hand at the Hinckley factory in the UK.
The other new Thunderbird model – the Commander - is effectively the naked version of the LT but with a drainpipe-style exhaust, alloy wheels with sportier Metzler tires and distinctive twin headlights. You could argue twin lamps is a Harley-Davidson design cue as it uses it on its Fat Bob but Triumph says it’s had twin headlights for some years on the Speed Triple through to the Rocket III long before H-D took up the idea for the Dyna.
There are some other minor differences between the two new Thunderbirds, such as the bars (you sit more upright and a little more aggressively on the Commander), while the LT has slightly different rear spring travel, as Triumph believes more people will ride with a passenger on one. But the LT’s extra kit brings its wet weight up to 836lbs, some 70lbs more than the naked Commander.
`What both bikes have in common is the world’s largest parallel twin. Triumph is very proud of its 1699 cc engine and the company says it has stayed with this configuration because the parallel twin is part of Triumph’s heritage; it has better heat management when water-cooled than a v-twin and it helps with a bike’s weight distribution, keeping mass positioned well forward in the frame.
In its latest guise in the Commander and LT, the Triumph twin produces 93 hp at 5400 rpm. But where it really counts there is an impressive 111 ft.- lb. of torque at just 3400 rpm.
The brakes have always been one of the highlights on the first Thunderbird and the Thunderbird Storm and Triumph has carried the set-up over to the Commander and LT. Both bikes feature ABS as standard equipment with twin 331m discs and four-piston Nissins up front and a 310mm disc, twin piston Brembo at the rear. An unusual combination, but it works and works well for these big, heavy cruisers.
Triumph claims the brakes will bring a Thunderbird traveling at 80 mph to a complete halt in just over 210 feet. That’s an impressive stopping distance for such a big bike.
Rider and passenger comfort was a key goal for the Triumph product development team for the LT and Commander, Triumph says it spent more time than it has ever done before developing a new seat for a motorcycle. The finished result, which is shared on both new Thunderbirds, we found supremely comfortable with a clever lumbar support for the rider, and it offers a really good seat height of just 27.5 inches on both bikes.
At the introduction Triumph insisted the media spent some time looking at the new bikes to check them over for fit and finish. We looked long and hard trying to find fault but we simply couldn’t.
The paint finish, quality of the chrome, all the wiring neatly routed through the bars for a simple clean look down to the slight design differences between the two models classic Triumph tank badges. It all spoke volumes about effort and pride of workmanship that has gone into building these motorcycles at Triumph’s UK factory.
We may not have been big fans of some of the subjective things like the chrome and paint color choices on the new Thunderbirds but in terms of how these test bikes had been put together they were definitely up there with some of the very best we have experienced.
A lot of motorcycle manufacturers when faced with the prospect of an international media launch for their new cruiser have taken the easy way out and sent us on a round about trip up and down the freeway. For sure, a cruiser should be good on a freeway, but it should also be able to perform well on twisting, two-lane roads running up the side of a mountain.
Triumph was sufficiently confident in the work it has done on the LT and the Commander that it worked out two very comprehensive riding routes of more than 150 miles each east of San Diego for this international launch. There was very little freeway riding and a lot of time in the curves.
With both bikes nearly identical on paper, we opted to test the Commander. It may not have the fancy chrome bits on the fenders, the screen or bags like its LT sibling but we liked the naked look of this big Triumph. Apart from the slight difference in the handlebar design and stiffer rear on the LT, Triumph told us we’d be hard pressed to notice any major difference between the two when riding.
When you first swing a leg over the Commander’s big 5.8-gallon tank, the first impression is that this is one big motorcycle. However, everything falls neatly into place and for this rider, the low seat height and terrific work that’s been done by Triumph in developing a super comfortable saddle, made a great first impression.
We’d not say it was a doddle swinging the Thunderbird around at low speed in the parking lot, but despite its mass and girth you soon get the hang of how it turns and how it’s going to behave. You just need to respect the fact your controlling 766lbs of motorcycle and adapt your riding style accordingly.
Once on the move, this is a super smooth cruiser. Unlike others we have tested recently the six-speed gearbox is seamless and effortless. There’s none of the clunking you expect as the norm on a cruiser when shifting up and down.
We’re not big fans of foot boards on bikes and both the Commander and the LT come equipped with them (complete with replaceable wear plates) as standard. We accept the cruiser community in general like boards and when combined with forward controls they sort of make sense but make the ride (this rider anyway) awkward and take a bit of time to get used to, particularly if you’re used to riding with mid controls or with a sportbike set up.
At the Thunderbird’s heart though is a terrific engine. We understand why Triumph is so proud of its big twin. You can roll on and off the throttle with ease, it’ll pull from almost any speed and in any gear and it sounds good too. For these latest versions of the Thunderbird range, Triumph has equipped them with an exhaust valve that opens at low speeds to get that distinctive parallel twin engine sound. Triumph engineers were quick to point out that this new system still meets legal noise level requirements in the U.S.
Throughout the 150 plus miles we rode the Commander it felt solid and sure-footed and completely unflappable, while you know you’re not on a sportbike you can still ride the Commander quickly into corners, tucking in the front end far faster than you would ever imagine.
On a twisty section of mountain road if you get into the groove it’s an absolute blast. Sure it’s not a Ducati sportbike, it’s a Triumph cruiser. But for a big bruiser it’s one really nice motorcycle to be on early on a sunny morning on an empty, twisty mountain road. But with the extra work that has been done on making the seat so comfortable, this is a bike you can literally ride all day and then still want to do more.
Attention to detail, excellent build quality on a bike that, if you’re into cruisers, you will want to just ride and ride from the moment the sun comes up until the sun goes down.
It’s stable, comfortable and for a big heavy bike big fun to ride too.
Triumph’s made no secret that it’s gunning for a piece of the pie H-D pie and wants to attract new customers. But it didn’t need to build a bike that looks just like a H-D Softail. We don’t think it’s been creative enough in the styling of either the LT or the Commander. Both are handsome looking bikes but to our eyes still too conservative. Put your hand over the badge and ask someone what brand of bike it is and we bet they’ll guess Harley-Davidson.
Without a doubt Triumph is a premium brand. You pay extra for something that is a little more special, has heritage and real history. Look at how high residual values on late used Triumphs can be and see how quickly they are snapped up. It’s not just the private individual but Triumph dealers too right now that are having a problem sourcing good pre-owned Triumphs.
At $15,699 for the Triumph Thunderbird Commander and $16,999 for the kitted out Thunderbird LT, we think Triumph is bang on for the money. That’s cheaper than a Harley Davidson Softail and you’re still getting a lot of extras as standard and a two-year warranty thrown in. If you plan on traveling through the U.S., splash out the extra $1000 and get the LT with bags and the screen. If all you’re wanting is some serious weekend fun just cruising around, buy the Commander.
A pair of great cruisers, which ride far better than you would ever imagine. They come with the added attraction of the Triumph name and heritage. Plus you get all of that together with excellent build quality and great performance at a really competitive price. If you’re into cruisers this is a no brainer – the hard part is whether to opt for the LT or the Commander.
Triumph has said this is only the start of their new product plans and these two new bikes are just taste of some really exciting things that we can expect from the UK that will be coming down the pipeline very soon. We can’t wait.
RideApart Rating: 9/10