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The Wild One roars into the Nineties

The Triumph Thunderbird, originally made famous by Marlon Brando, is now a modern bike with traditional style, says Roland Brown
If the new Triumph Thunderbird makes as much of an impact as its predecessor did in the Fifties, it will be a roaring success. Marlon Brando made the original Thunderbird famous. Brando's character, Johnny, rode a 650cc Thunderbird twin in Stanley Kramer's The Wild One, the 1953 film that put bikers and black leather jackets into the public consciousness - despite being banned from British screens for years. The Thunderbird was one of the old Triumph firm's best-selling models, especially in the important American market.

And now the Thunderbird is back - as an all-new retro bike, created by the revived Triumph company to spearhead its return to the States this year. The modern Thunderbird features a sophisticated 885cc, watercooled three-cylinder engine and up-to-date chassis. Its styling, including the rounded fuel tank with trademark mouth-organ badges and traditionally shaped exhaust silencers, has been lifted straight from models of the Fifties and Sixties.

The Thunderbird represents a big step for the Leicestershire firm, which has produced a string of increasingly distinctive bikes since its return in 1991. This is the first to move away from Triumph's cost-cutting modular format, whereby most components are shared by several different models. Although the basic layout of the Thunderbird's watercooled, twin-camshaft, 12-valve engine is that of the eight other three-cylinder models in the range, many engine and chassis parts are unique.

Some engine changes, such as the big cooling fins and shiny covers, have been made for cosmetic reasons. Others, including new camshafts and a lowered compression ratio, are to detune the motor to give a maximum of 69hp, from the 97hp of Triumph's basic three-cylinder unit. Triumph's thinking is that low-rev response is all-important and that most cruiser riders do not want more outright performance.

The Thunderbird's frame changes have been made to lower the bike, as previous new-generation Triumphs have all been rather tall. A new rear section is used in conjunction with the retained large-diameter steel main spine. Suspension is conventional in style and fairly basic, consisting of non-adjustable front forks and a single rear shock absorber, both from the Japanese firm, Kayaba. Wheels use old-fashioned wire spokes with a single disc brake at each end.

Triumph's stylists have done a fine job and the Thunderbird radiates period charm with a look that is very much the marque's own. The riding position is bolt upright, gripping high handlebars and with feet well forward. Inevitably, the engine fires up at the press of a button, not an old-fashioned kick, and the sound is more of a modern watercooled warble than a traditional air-cooled rattle and roar.

Most of Triumph's recent 900cc triples have been notable for generous mid-range power and the Thunderbird has even more, which makes it a very relaxing bike to ride. A simple flick of the throttle gave crisp, instant response even at very low revs, allowing easy pottering in traffic and effortless overtaking with little need for the excellent five-speed gearbox. Performance was much less impressive at higher engine speeds, but the Thunderbird is easily capable of the "ton" and has a top speed of 120mph.

By cruiser standards, Triumph's suspension is firm. In combination with reasonably grippy Michelin tyres, this allowed enjoyable cornering at most speeds. Hard riding, particularly over a series of bumps, sometimes revealed the chassis's limitations with a slight twitch. The single front disc brake was adequately powerful, although serious stopping required help from the rear disc.

Some practicality has been sacrificed to style. This bike's fuel tank holds 3.3 gallons, compared to 5.5 gallons of other Triumphs, limiting range to a little over 100 miles. By then the wind-blown riding position will normally have made the rider glad of a stop, despite the motor's smoothness and the comfortably broad dual-scat. This is a bike that excels in town and on short trips.

Triumph's range of accessories includes lower handlebars, a screen and panniers, so the Thunderbird can be made more practical. But most owners will probably be more keen to add cosmetic accessories. Although, at pounds 7,549, the Triumph is expensive for a bike of moderate performance, it is handsome, great fun to ride and extremely well made. Riders looking for a modern bike with traditional style will not be disappointed.