MOTORING: The Thunderbird is go

James Christopher finds harmony on his blind date with a Triumph
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The Independent Culture
THE ETERNAL problem for motorcyclists with a taste for acceleration, but an even greater desire to ride something with a classic pedigree, is the increasing rarity of finding those two ingredients in perfect harmony, indeed harmony of any sort. They are like oil and vinegar: devilishly hard to mix. Trying to find the right balance has been the history of the motorcycle ever since someone first strapped a sewing machine to a push-bike. You can find a bike that will go from 0 to 70 in three seconds but, out of the corner of your eye, the affordable ones have a tendency to look like giant muscle-bound insects. Bikes that can compete at the lights and still look good cost the earth or still have to be invented.

The blood-thirsty pursuit of that elusive formula is gradually freezing out the most precious ingredient of motorcycling, namely romance. The Marlon Brandos and Dennis Hoppers have long gone leaving us with celluloid fantasies of empty roads stretching into the distance. The people who can afford to ride Harley-Davidsons are not Hell's Angels, but city bankers.

The sheer vulgarity of some motorcycle designs which borrow their inspiration from the classics - take a bike like the Yamaha Virago - is truly awesome. The single most entertaining spectacle on self-styled bike tester, Steve Berry's latest video, Berry on Bikes (Polygram), is watching him pull one of these machines in half between a pair of articulated lorries, then torching the remains. Gratuitous, sure. But in this instance a surprisingly apt piece of subversion.

What happened to the thinking man's bike, the old upper-class romantic? They are, it transpires, around, but often in heavy disguise. Triumph is the Rudolph Valentino of great classic marques. Its new generation of bikes, represented by the Daytona T595 and the Speed Triple T509, is almost science fiction. But in most departments, Triumph has had the sense to hang on to several priceless distinguishing features while waging a war, with the Japanese, to upgrade its engines. The Thunderbird Sport is the result of one such experiment - an endearing but fallible mix of the old and the flashy new.

The Thunderbird Sport is one of the most comfortable and elegant bikes I've ever sat on. The chassis is more or less the same as the current Thunderbird with its beautiful old-fashioned curves and wonderful tear- drop petrol tank. The wheels bristle with spokes though the rims have been widened to take modern sports tyres. The famous three cylinder engine sprouts an exhaust system that is a symphony of sweeping chrome. The old radiator grill is its uncompromisingly square and refreshingly ugly self, while the 885cc engine has a decidedly cool matt-black finish.

But there are obvious novelties. The back end of the bike clears the racing wheel by a good six inches; the suspension has been greatly increased; and the braking capacity immeasurably improved with twin front discs and twin-piston calipers. The furnishings are simple: the torpedo chrome indicators and the adjustable round wing mirrors could have been designed by Conran. The two black clocks on the handlebars are unfussy and unremarkable. The chrome, unlockable and therefore stealable, petrol cap is a collector's item.

A stylist, a real connoisseur, would appreciate the bike. But would he or she want to keep it after riding it as Cilla Black might ask following a blind date? If I'd ended up on Cilla's sofa after my hot date on the M1, it would have been rather more embarrassing for me than for the Thunderbird Sport. I ran out of petrol twice. The second time I had to cut across two lanes as the power drained out of the bike in seconds. Never has the invention of the reserve tank been more appreciated as the petrol warning light only kicked in when the tank ran dry. For such a sophisticated bike, this seems a mad oversight.

But we did have our moments. The pick-up on the bike is impressive - not as impressive as the T509 - but fast enough to leave most comparable pretenders loitering. The bike handles beautifully and has that wonderfully deceptive feeling of moulding itself to your shape. Impossible, of course, but that's how comfortable it is. At speeds over 75mph, you would be wise to invest in a small wind/insect shield. More than 95mph and you feel in danger of being plucked off the back and thrown on to the motorway. I took it up to 110mph twice and felt more spookily vulnerable than I had for an age.

A motorcyle rider has to fuse intimately with his machine if he is going to stay alive long enough to enjoy it. I fused with most of the Triumph Sport. Given more time and experience we might have fused completely. But there were real and obvious problems, even taking into account my incompetence. This is a bike that needs a garage. It can be a thankless task to get it moving on cold mornings. A combination of sleet, and my flooding the engine, did not good chemistry make. Changing down gears was a fraught business. Used to several quick clunks on the gear pedal, I found I had to tamp down with undue deliberation to get the bike into first. Conversely, the slightest squeeze on the accelerator and you get the high dry whine of a jet-propelled Hoover.

Combine this with an elusively early biting point on the clutch and you have a temperamental set-up that takes a lot of getting used to. Some small common sense alterations on my part would have gone a long way to turn romance into marriage. But what makes great lovers romantic is, in part, their fickleness. In this the Thunderbird is ideally suited. We've swapped numbers and we'll definitely stay in touch. !

AUTO BIOGRAPHY

THUNDERBIRD SPORT: pounds 7,999

Colours

Racing Yellow and Jet Black

Engine

885cc, liquid-cooled, 3 cylinder

Gearbox

6-speed

Seat height

31.1 inches

Weight

224kg (dry)

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