The road ahead rises sharply from the desert floor, the ribbon of asphalt snaking up the boulder-strewn mountainside. Despite the incline, the 1700cc Parallel Twin of the 2014 Triumph Thunderbird LT propels our group of riders effortlessly up the grade, its generous powerband keeping shifts to a minimum. Even when we’re lazy and let the engine drop down in the range, the forgiving Twin has no problem picking back up from low rpm without stuttering. As Montezuma Valley Road winds its way out of Borrego Springs, the Thunderbird LT flows up the mountain, the low, forward placement of its side-by-side cylinders and scooped-out seat keeps the motorcycle’s center of gravity low and makes transitions fluid and easy. This allows our seasoned group of motojournalists to maintain a spirited pace up the mountain as we eagerly seek the next opportunity to put the LT on the edge of its whitewalls.
“The Thunderbird, in general, was the one bike that put Triumph on the map and in the ‘50s and ‘60s led us to be the number one import brand in the United States. It was that bike, the 650, and of course variations of others that brought us to where we are today,” said Triumph’s CEO of North America, Greg Heichelbech during the press launch of the 2014 Thunderbird LT and Commander.
It is that quest to once again be the leading importer of cruiser motorcycles into the American market that compelled Triumph to expand its Thunderbird line to four offerings in 2014, with the LT and Commander joining the standard T-Bird and Storm variations. And while at a glance the two new versions look comparable to its predecessors, the list of changes to the Thunderbird platform is substantial.
“The engine stays the same, the fuel tank, the hand controls, brake discs and brake calipers and that’s it,” said Simon Warburton, Project Manager for Triumph Motorcycles.
The revisions include a stiffer steel tube twin spine frame with the engine serving as a stressed member. One reason for the frame modifications is to accommodate the new seat design’s extra 30mm of foam padding. The steel swingarm and suspension have also been updated, the LT receiving higher rate rear springs to deal with the added weight of its saddlebags and passenger backrest. The new Thunderbirds see the addition of fresh wheels and revised steering geometry courtesy of a steering neck that’s been moved forward. Rake on the LT has been reduced to 29.9-degrees while the Commander is a smidge longer at 30.1. The front end on the standard Thunderbird sports a 32-degree rake angle. While the Parallel Twin engine remains the same, the 2014 Thunderbird LT and Commander do receive a new airbox and exhaust.
Seeing how the Thunderbird’s engine is already the largest Parallel Twin on the market, it didn’t really need much tweaking. The oversquare powerplant has a huge 107.1mm bore and a relatively compact stroke of 94.3mm, with claimed power numbers of 95 bhp @ 5400 rpm and 111 lb-ft torque @ 3550 rpm. This gives the Twin much different character than the standard cruiser V-Twin configuration, the beat of the Thunderbird mill’s 270-degree crankshaft more of a snappy snare drum than the thundering bass of a Harley Twin Cam with its smaller bore and longer stroke. While it doesn’t have the same arm-stretching low-end hit as the High Output TC103 we recently tested, the Thunderbird LT still pulls strong off the line. To its credit, Triumph’s Parallel Twin does produce power a little bit longer, propelling riders up to 50 mph in first gear, its range around five mph broader than the output of most V-Twins we’ve tested. This trend continues in second gear. Whereby most standard V-configurations tap out around highway speeds, the Thunderbird’s Parallel Twin goes beyond, plateauing at 77 mph in second gear. The healthy spread of power includes a nice surge of midrange in the middle gears. The dual-overhead cam Twin doesn’t shut down entirely when riders hit redline as the oversquare engine still divvies out power as it waits for riders to grab another gear, unlike the flatline we’ve experienced on some V-Twins when they hit their peak.
The water-cooled engine with its twin balance shafts operates with minimal vibrations and engine noise. It produces a mild buzz in the bars at higher rpm, but beyond that is a model of efficiency. Having the jugs forward instead of right between a rider’s legs helps in heat dispersion, as does the large radiator tucked in behind the fork. As we already mentioned, engine placement also helps keep weight centered low and forward. The Thunderbird’s powerplant does double duty as a stressed member of the frame, bridging the gap between the downtubes and the rear frame rails. Aesthetically, machined fins and tall cylinder heads should meet the standards of even the most devout V-Twin purists.
Transferring all that Parallel Twin-produced power to the rear is a slick-shifting six-speed gearbox with helical cut gears in second through sixth. Clicking down into first, the transmission exhibits an audible thunk, but upshifts are smoother and quieter. Downshifts provide a decent amount of engine braking without excessive fork dive. Similar to the engine, the gearbox is fuss-free and efficient, with engagement solid, reliable and smoother than the notchy transmissions on American V-Twin cruisers. We’ve already mentioned first gear’s wonderful spread of power, whereby second is much more compact. Most of our cruising miles are spent in fourth because it can pick itself up from low in the rpm range, provides plenty of roll-on, and delivers power over a generous spread.
While the transmission of the 2014 Thunderbird LT won us over, its braking package leaves an even more positive impression as Triumph has created a top-notch set of binders for its Thunderbird platform. At its core are big 310mm discs, two front and one rear, with 4-piston Nissin fixed calipers on the front and Brembo 2-piston floating calipers on the back. Braided steel brake lines provide instant feedback at the lever, the initial bite firm but not grabby. Keep the lever squeezed and pressure remains even with no noticeable fade. If riders grab only a big handful of front brake, the ABS exhibits a healthy throb at the lever. Use them in tandem with the rear though, and it’s not as noticeable. The pulse at the rear is more subtle, and Triumph has the ABS dialed so riders maintain control the majority of the time as the anti-locking system only engages under more aggressive applications. The brakes’ combination of power and feel helps riders keep the big cruisers under control, with Triumph claiming stopping distance from 80 mph to 0 at 70.1 yards.
Our time on the 2014 Thunderbirds consists of two days riding through a combination of wonderfully winding mountain roads around Julian, California, to the edges of the desert in Borrego Springs on a 170-mile jaunt aboard the LT the first day. On the second day we piloted the Thunderbird Commander on an even more challenging mish-mash of meandering side roads through the mountains northeast of San Diego topped off with a 162-mile cruise along the beach in Carlsbad. In our 330-plus miles in the saddles of the new Thunderbirds, the stout front fork keeps the front end firm and the bike composed. Spring rates are spot-on, the 47mm Showa fork never out of sorts. On the rear, bumps in the road seldom get past the tightly wound upper portion of the dual-rate springs of the twin Showa rear shocks. Even when actively seeking out bumps to run over at speed, the rear rarely hits the bottom of its 4.3-inches of travel.
While hustling down the twisted stretch of Mesa Grande Road on our way to Lake Henshaw Resort, the 2014 Triumph Thunderbird transitions fluidly. It’s easy-to-manage character is a result in part to its low center of gravity. Steering is relatively light and the motorcycle grabs a line and holds to it without wavering. Floorboards were scraping down the Mesa Grande grade, the pace of our group more spirited than you’d expect for a band of cruiser riders. Though we’d love to have a bit more lean angle, at least Triumph designed the bike’s floorboards with removable wear plates that seldom catch on uneven asphalt. With rubber bump stops and anti-rattle bushings, the floorboards slide and scrape instead of catching and grating like traditional metal-only boards.
The more time our riding group spent aboard the new Thunderbirds, the more a consensus is reached – the new seat on the LT and Commander is one of the most comfortable among factory offerings. Triumph thought this factor was important enough to modify the frame to accommodate an extra 30mm of seat foam. The seat features twin layer construction, a firm main layer underneath teamed with a softer top layer, all covered by a special elastic material. A lumbar pad support is separate from the main seat. Triumph reps said it is the most time the company has dedicated to developing a seat, and it pays off in a very comfortable riding experience. The standard pressure points and accompanying numbness is almost non-existent. While the bike’s floorboards are small and don’t allow for much shifting in the saddle, the wonderfully crafted seat prevents it from becoming an issue. The high levels of comfort provided by the seat allow for longer days in the saddle.
Combine the Thunderbird’s capable suspension with an ultra-comfy seat and a relaxed, upright riding position and you’ve got an all-day comfortable motorcycle. Forward-placed footboards, a scooped 26-inch seat height and naturally placed bars make for an upright, at-ease riding position for a six-foot-tall rider. The stock windscreen shields well. There’s a little wind at the crown of my head, but the windscreen creates a pocket of still air in front of the rider and buffeting is minimal. The rider’s triangle does keep me sitting fairly perpendicular to the ground, so it takes a deliberate downward glance to see the speedo even though it’s mounted high on the tank console. The small numbers in the speedo don’t help the situation. Instrumentation is fairly sparse, the large analog speedo teamed with a small digital window where riders toggle through dual tripmeters, a clock, and gas range indicator. There’s no tach or gear indicator, additions we wouldn’t mind having. The LT also does not come with cruise control, a fairly standard feature for bikes built to log long miles on. The final touring-friendly component is an EPA-friendly exhaust that is relatively quiet at speed.
On the fit-and-finish side, the 2014 Triumph Thunderbird LT matches up favorably to the benchmark established by its primary American counterpart. Its paint holds high luster, Triumph going as far as having the pinstripes on its tank applied by hand. Copious amounts of chrome reflect every glimmer of sunlight, from the sheen on the tank console to the chrome housings of its headlight and auxiliary lamps. You could use the reflection off its engine covers for a mirror. Its whitewalls are the result of a special collaboration with Avon that resulted in the production of the world’s first whitewall radial tire used on the LT, a special version of Avon’s Radial Cobra Tires. The saddlebags on the LT have 7.5 gallons of capacity each and come standard with liners. The right-side saddlebag includes inner pockets for items like cell phones and is ready for an accessory 12V power socket. The LT can be converted from a tourer to solo rider with minimal effort. All the windscreen requires to remove it is a good yank forward. And while no tools are required to take the windscreen off, each bag has two Torx screws holding it into place. Triumph did take measures to ensure the 2014 Thunderbird LT looks sharp without the bags, too, as removal of the bags leaves the spoke wheels, whitewalls, and high quality paint of the rear fender on display.
Or you can skip all that and just buy a Commander. While it’d be easy to dismiss the changes between the LT and 2014 Thunderbird Commander as a windscreen, saddlebags, and passenger backrest, there’s a long list of subtle differences between the two. The Commander gets more of a power cruiser stance courtesy of a shrouded fork, a fatter rear tire and different handlebars. The two Thunderbirds have different pipes, too, the LT running a tri-lobed tail pipe design while the Commander gets rounded tips. The LT sees a bit firmer suspension settings on the rear to accommodate the added weight of the bags and backrest, and has passenger footboards instead of pegs. Whereas the touring-oriented LT has 16-inch spoked wheels shod with whitewalls, the Commander runs 17-inch tires outfitted on five-spoke, cast aluminum wheels. Then there are minutiae like different trim on the seat, fenders, tank badges, and contrasting headlights too, the LT running a solo light while the Commander features Triumph’s twin arrangement.
The two-up package on the 2014 Thunderbird LT equates to a motorcycle that’s 70 pounds heavier than the 2014 Commander. Jump on the Commander and the difference is immediately noticeable. It launches with even more authority, so much so that we asked if there were any major differences between the two engines, especially low in the powerband, to which Triumph assured us there wasn’t. Without the windscreen and bags, you can definitely hustle the Commander around more. Different tire profiles and a stiffer carcass favor the Commander in handling. Laden seat heights are almost identical, the Commander a touch lower at 25.8 inches. But both have that splendid saddle. It boils down to whether riders will be biding their time rolling solo or intend to invite someone along for the ride.
The 2014 Thunderbird Commander and 2014 LT will be available in dealers come March. Triumph already has a long list of factory-made accessories for its latest models, including a tall quick-release windscreen, lower wind deflectors, a deluxe passenger backrest that’s wider, deeper and taller than the stock one as well as an auxiliary 12V socket. As Triumph puts it, the 2014 Thunderbirds offer “a credible alternative” to the cruiser market. But with the unique character of a Parallel Twin, smooth-shifting tranny, and what we believe are class-leading brakes, the 2014 Thunderbird LT and Commander have the potential to be a consumer’s primary choice instead of a credible alternative.