It’s the Revolutionary War all over again as we pit American and British cruiser motorcycles in a head-to-head comparison.
“The British are coming, the British are coming.”
This should have been the cry of cruiser motorcycle manufacturers upon hearing the news that Triumph Motorcycles was entering the mid-displacement cruiser market with the release of its 2010 Thunderbird. How dare they invade the demographic that was the prime territory of American manufacturing giant Harley-Davidson. Were the boys from Hinckley trying to reignite the Revolutionary War?
No, it was nothing as drastic as that, but if Triumph could whittle a bit into the sales of the American magnate, you’d get no complaints from John Bloor. Triumph’s intentions were fueled more on its need to fill a niche, albeit a very lucrative niche, between its middleweight Speedmaster and classic-styled America cruisers that are both powered by an 865cc engine and its monolithic Rocket III with its gargantuan 2294cc of displacement. In true Triumph tradition, it also resurrected a hallowed name for the marque, as the Thunderbird’s roots originated in 1949 and was popularized by the success of the 6T Thunderbird.
For this cruiser comparo, it’s the Revolutionary War revisited as we pit the British-made Triumph, with its liquid-cooled Parallel Twin engine, against the American-made air-cooled V-Twin of Harley’s Street Bob. Granted, the engines aren’t carbon copies of one another as the Thunderbird’s twin 800cc cylinders sit side-by-side, are bigger bored at 103.8mm and stroke shorter at 94.3mm while the Street Bob’s Twin Cam 96 is in a classic V-configuration with a smaller 95.25mm bore and longer 111.25mm stroke. But displacements are almost identical, with the T-Bird registering 1597cc to the Street Bob’s 1584cc. Both feature six-speed gearboxes with at least one helical-cut gear, electronic fuel-injection, are belt-driven, and feature similar suspensions in the form of twin exposed rear shocks. They also have comparable seat heights, with the Thunderbird’s 27. 5-inch measurement a tad higher than the Street Bob’s 26.7 inch-high saddle. Their wheelbases are
Triumph resurrected the Thunderbird name that was popularized by the 6T in its latest Parallel Twin-powered motorcycle.
comparable as well, with the Triumph coming in at a tighter 63.5 inches while the Street Bob features a 64.2 inch-stretch between wheels. All told, there were enough similarities to match them up in a little head-to-head showdown. Our test began by throwing them on the dyno to get some rear wheel power numbers and putting them on the scale. We then we took them out on some of our favorite local twisties to feel how they handled and wrapped it up by logging plenty of highway miles to see how they performed as daily riders.
On a side note, the parallels between the histories of the British and American marques also served as fodder for our comparison as the two ironically suffered very similar fates. Both almost succumbed to bankruptcy in the early 1980s. The Triumph Engineering Co Ltd went into receivership in 1983 and liquidation of the company’s assets had begun. The Meriden factory was slated to be bulldozed. But in its darkest hour, self-made millionaire John Bloor stepped in to save the company, updated its technology and manufacturing process, and continued Triumph’s tradition of producing motorcycles that dated back to 1902.
Harley-Davidson also went down the road to ruin. In 1969, it was bought by American Machinery and Foundry (AMF). The results were not good, and the quality of motorcycles produced during the AMF years was lackluster. The company ended up slashing the
workforce, labor strikes ensued, and like Triumph, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. But in 1981, 13 investors, led by the venerable Willie G. Davidson and Vaughn Beals, bought back the company. The company refocused its attention on building classic-styled cruiser motorcycles powered by V-Twin engines. Quality and engineering improved, customers came back, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Which brings us back to our cruiser comparison. Both companies stake claims as the longest continually producing motorcycle manufacturer in their respective countries with over 100 years in the industry, but who has learned the lessons of history better and is currently producing the better cruiser? Game on.