Memorable MC: Triumph Thunderbird 650

March 24, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Cash in hand and fresh off the battlefields of WW2  many GIs were attracted to the Triumph Thunderbirds styling and performance.
Cash in hand and fresh off the battlefields of WWII, many GIs were attracted to the Triumph Thunderbird’s styling and performance. 

The Second World War is over and the GIs are streaming home from the Pacific and European battles. They are young, fit and have led exciting – if somewhat dangerous – lives. Burning holes inside their uniforms are demobilization gratuities. They want toys to brighten their lives: sexy, stylish, exciting toys to celebrate being civilians again. What they want are light, fast, beautiful motorcycles. What they want is the most desirable bike on planet earth – the 650cc Triumph Thunderbird.

Let’s re-wind the tape slightly. In post-war America there was, in reality, only one manufacturer and that was Harley-Davidson. Yes, a few all American Indians were sold but in terms of what we would recognize as a dealer network there was H-D – and that was it.

British manufacturers had sold a few – a very few – bikes pre-war but these dribbled out mainly through British American Motors operating out of a tiny, and not very attractive, facility in Los Angeles.

In 1937, Attorney at Law William E. “Bill” Johnson saw a four-cylinder Ariel “Square 4” and fell in love with its complexity and elegant design. The four-cylinder Ariel looked outstandingly modern compared with the rather dull, side-valve Harleys with which he was familiar in his Hawaii home and Johnson was instantly hooked.

He bought a “Square 4” himself and, according to legend, purchased British American Motors simply in order to ensure a steady supply of spares for his new exotic toy. For the princely sum of $1800, Johnson became the sole importer for Ariel machines in the US.

Marlon Brando  seen here starring in the 1953 film - The Wild One - pushed sales of the TBird by appealing to the rebel in everyone.
Marlon Brando, seen here starring in the 1953 film – The Wild One – pushed sales of the Thunderbird via product placement. 

With the Ariel franchise came, for free, Triumph – and the company’s autocratic, some would say despotic, Chief Executive Edward Turner. By some quirk of fate the urbane, sophisticated, Harvard educated Johnson and Turner, the ex-Merchant Marine seaman, self-taught engineer and hustler par excellence, became good friends. It was Turner who persuaded Johnson to take motorcycle importation seriously – and he did. Out went British American Motors and in came Johnson Motors Inc.

The relationship should have prospered sooner but the horrendous hostilities of the Second World War intervened.

Immediately after the war Turner left Meriden and went on the hunt for new markets. Whatever his failings as a designer, and even more so as a manager, Turner had the Midas touch when it came to recognizing markets and knowing, instinctively, what motorcyclists would buy. He saw the next Gold Rush happening in the Golden State – but this time it was a two-wheeled Mother Lode.

Not that Turner drove too hard a bargain. In 1946, he offered Johnson the sole rights to sell Triumph motorcycles in the US – provided Johnson Motors sold at least 12 bikes a year. The 12 machines could be sold anywhere in the 50 states. This was the perilous condition of the American bike market in 1946.

Johnson moved his business to the iconic setting on the junction of Vernon and Colorado Streets in Pasadena and opened what was, by the standards of the day, a high-tech luxury facility with large glass windows and air-conditioning. Johnson had launched modern motorcycle importation.

Pre-war, the 500cc Triumph Speedtwin, and its hotrod brother the Tiger 100, had been strong sellers for Johnson Motors. The problem was that these bikes were very British in look and feel: great for off-road riding and competition but high revving and frisky compared with Harleys. What was needed was a bigger capacity bike which retained all the verve of the smaller Triumphs but emulated the torque of Harleys.

The Thunderbird was equipped with an improved motor from the pre-war 500cc Speedtwin  which improved power output up to 34 horsepower while barely increasing the bikes weight.
The Thunderbird was equipped with an improved engine, which increased power output up to 34 horsepower while barely increasing the bike’s weight.
Triumph Thunderbird 650  The Triumph Thunderbird powerplant was a 71mm x 82mm engine capable of 34 hp @ 6300rpm.

Turner need little convincing and in 1949 produced the 650cc Thunderbird. This was not, as it is now sometimes said, a bored out Speedtwin but a new engine in its own right – albeit with extremely strong links to the pre-war Speedtwin he had designed.

The Speedtwin’s 63mm x 80mm motor was replaced by the much meatier 71mm x 82mm engine which gave an immediate power increase from 26 hp @ 6500rpm to 34 hp @ 6300rpm. But, in typically clever Turner style, the weight was barely increased, rising from 362 pounds to only 397 pounds – and this despite having a new gearbox, heavier duty clutch and a sprung rear hub.

Just as clever was that although the new crankshaft was housed in beefed up crankcases, these were externally of the same dimensions as the earlier engines and so fitted in the same frame used for the 500cc Speedtwin and Tiger 100.

Turner had a lot of confidence in the new bike and so set up a publicity stunt which was intended to get world attention. Three of the new bikes would be ridden from Meriden to the steeply banked, concrete speed bowl at L’Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry south of Paris. Turner had a lot of faith in the new bike – but still took no chances. He sent a test team to the track with disguised Thunderbirds to ensure that his ideas would work out in practice.

The test proved to be critical because the rough concrete surface at Montlhéry wore out the Dunlop rear tires in under 400 miles – a disaster when the public target was going to be a 500-mile speed test. The Triumph factory riders changed their riding styles to coax more mileage out of the Dunlops – and the stunt was on.

Part one was to ride three Thunderbirds from Coventry to Montlhéry – some 400 miles. The bikes did this effortlessly. The next aim was to set an average speed of over 90 mph for 500 miles – and that would be no mean feat on a modern Superbike. The first T-Bird ran at 90.30 mph; its sister machine at 90.93 mph and only the third bike had problems with a split fuel tank caused by the hammering handed out by the crude French speed bowl. Including repair stops, this bike still averaged a truly astonishing 86.07mph.

Triumph Thunderbird 650
New telescopic forks improved the Thunderbird’s handling.

The three bikes were given a check over, and new tires, and set off for flat out laps of the circuit. Their speeds were just as impressive with all three averaging just over 100mph.

The stunt proved that not only was the new engine fast and reliable but the handling, courtesy of the new telescopic forks and rear sprung hub, was well up to high-speed use. The bikes were then ridden back to the factory without any problems – and the Thunderbird legend was born.

Bill Johnson was delighted and buying every Thunderbird the factory would sell him – but there was another slice of incredible marketing luck about to fall in his, and Triumph’s lap.

In 1953, Marlon Brando starred as the outlaw gang leader Johnny Strabler, in “The Wild One” – the first post-war bike film to have an audience outside the motorcycle community. Johnny’s attitude to life is summed up when a girl asks him: “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” Johnny sneers, “Whaddaya got?”

Clearly, as cool as liquid nitrogen, Johnny chooses not to ride a Harley, or Indian, but a Triumph Thunderbird. Product placement like this would cost $25 million today but, in public at least, Bill Johnson didn’t see the association as being positive for Triumph and threatened to sue the film’s producers. Behind the glass walls of Johnson Motors, things were very different and no-one was turning away orders from Brando wannabees.

So what of the T’Bird today? It’s a story of good news – and even more good news. The first good news is that the Thunderbird is one of the most pleasant, rideable and thoroughly charming classic bikes available. The engine spins into life with a single, easy kick and then the bike will do everything from potter around a bike rally at 5 mph to a genuine, reliable 70 mph cruising on the Interstate.

Triumph Thunderbird 650
The Turner-designed sprung hub may cause problems if it isn’t well maintained, but overall the rear suspension gets the job done.

The clutch is light, effective and reliable and the gearbox is sweet too.

Compared with later classics, the handling is not impeccable but this is not a problem. The Turner-designed sprung hub, a very early – not to say crude – form of rear suspension causes problems if it isn’t in perfect condition but we’re not talking about a rival to a Manx Norton or Matchless G.50, rather a thoroughly competent all-rounder. The front forks are fine and the brakes, again judged within their context, are safe for modern traffic conditions.

Only its appearance militates against the Thunderbird being one of the great classics. The blue-grey Thunderbird Blue is not the most attractive color ever to leave Meriden and a shortage of chrome in post war Britain meant that the bike had a rather utilitarian appearance.

This leads to the second piece of good news. Currently, a really nice Thunderbird is going to cost around $10,000 – and that is one of the great bargains in the current classic market. If you want a practical, reliable classic the Thunderbird is the bike. Add a leather jacket, sunglasses and a sneer and you could be a retro film star too.