The July 4th holiday period in 1947 was a wild time in America. An alleged UFO crashed outside Roswell, New Mexico, and in Hollister, California, an assortment of “gypsy” motorcyclists attending a rally became so raucous that a small army of state police got involved. The actual degree of insurrection in Hollister was paltry, but sensational coverage led to inflated claims of chaos, and in 1953 a film was released based on the incident. The Wild One, now a cult classic, starred Marlon Brando and his 1950 Triumph 6T Thunderbird as the leaders of the pack. This exposure did wonders for Triumph sales in the U.S., and also boosted sales of black leather jackets like the one Brando wore. Triumph continued to build Thunderbirds off and on through 2004, but—unlike the original with a parallel twin engine—the T-Bird had grown a third cylinder and basically lost its rebellious mystique.
Sixty years after Brando purchased the bike he would eventually ride in the film, Triumph has re-created the Thunderbird based on the engine architecture of the original. But where the 6T had a wee 649-cc twin, the 2010 Thunderbird roars through town with 1,600 ccs of brawny British hooliganism. The engine is not only larger than that of the Brandomobile, but it’s loaded with the latest technology, including liquid cooling; multipoint sequential fuel injection; a 270-degree firing order for a cool, seductive cadence; and twin counterbalancers to smooth the vibes. The result is a civilized yet potent mill that has a feel and sound quite unique in the big cruiser genre (and packs 85 horsepower and 108 foot-pounds of torque). Such muscular numbers wouldn’t be much fun if you had to wring the engine mercilessly to get the power, but the big Bird has a broad, flat plateau of power that starts just off idle and extends nearly to the 6,500 rpm redline. The six-speed transmission has a very high top gear for effortless highway cruising, and the final drive is a reinforced belt (Triumph’s first since the 1940s). A meaty 200-series rear tire gets the rubber to the road and adds to the bike’s big-boy presence. This is a substantial motorcycle, and many parts that are typically made of plastic these days (like the turn signals and assorted small bits) are metal. Enhancing the visual experience, the massive chrome headlight housing reflects the countryside like a floating crystal ball as you motor along.
As stretched-out as the T-Bird looks, its wheelbase isn’t so vast that maneuverability suffers. Indeed, the bike responds instantly to inputs to the wide bars and corners well, as long as you remember that it’s not a sport bike. The standard brakes are excellent and ABS is available (a feature Brando’s Johnny would have appreciated when he needed to stop to pick up his girl), and there are lots of accessories on tap for your customizing pleasure.