Tri­umph Thun­der­bird 650


We ride the iconic Tri­umph fea­tured in the equally iconic 1953 movie The wild One

'Amer­ica had played a cen­tral part in the Thun­der­bird story, as that coun­try did with so much that sur­rounded Tri­umph in the 1950s. While the Bri­tish home mar­ket was strug­gling, the Meri­den fac­tory’s boss, Ed­ward Turner, was a fre­quent vis­i­tor to the States. Turner’s en­thu­si­asm led di­rectly to one of Tri­umph’s most sig­nif­i­cant mod­els'

THERE ARE FEW MORE fa­mous mo­tor­cy­cling images than that of Mar­lon Brando lean­ing against the tank of his Tri­umph Thun­der­bird 650 in the 1953 hit film, The Wild One. Brando's char­ac­ter, Johnny, com­plete with cap, black leather jacket, and rac­ing tro­phy, was the hero of the film — based on events at a rally in Hol­lis­ter, Cal­i­for­nia — that caused con­tro­versy with its por­trayal of bik­ers as gangs of beer-drink­ing hooli­gans.

Johnny's hard-rid­ing and hard-fight­ing char­ac­ter struck a chord with many mo­tor­cy­clists and Tri­umph's fast and stylish “T-bird”, as the bike be­came known, was the per­fect ac­com­plice. 'What are you re­belling against?' a girl asks Johnny in the film. 'What have you got?' he fa­mously replies, sum­ming up a com­monly held feel­ing in the days be­fore the term “teenager” had even been in­vented.

Sixty-five years later, it's hard to un­der­stand how a film which, by modern stan­dards, as tame as The Wild One can have been con­sid­ered vi­o­lent and “sin­ful” enough to be banned from Bri­tish cin­e­mas for 14 years. The ap­peal of the Thun­der­bird all those years ago is far eas­ier to com­pre­hend — es­pe­cially be­cause the Tri­umph, with its new 649-cc en­gine, was the most pow­er­ful and quick­est par­al­lel twin in the mar­ket when the orig­i­nal model was launched in 1950.

Iron­i­cally, Bill John­son, head of John­son Mo­tors, Tri­umph's US West Coast oper­a­tion, had been very crit­i­cal of The Wild One be­fore its re­lease. John­son had writ­ten to the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica's pres­i­dent to com­plain that 'this film is cal­cu­lated to do noth­ing but harm, par­tic­u­larly to a mi­nor group of busi­ness peo­ple — mo­tor­cy­cle deal­ers through­out the USA… I urge that you give the fore­go­ing com­ments your un­bi­ased con­sid­er­a­tion, with a view of [sic] stop­ping pro­duc­tion of this film'.

Di­rec­tor Stan­ley Kramer went ahead, but John­son need not have wor­ried. Far from harm­ing Tri­umph's busi­ness, Johnny's mode of trans­port helped sell large num­bers of Thun­der­birds across Amer­ica. Be­fore The Wild One, bikes had ap­peared in movies with their badges cov­ered up, but the Tri­umph wore no such dis­guise, and ev­ery biker knew it was a T-bird.

Amer­ica had played a cen­tral part in the Thun­der­bird story, as that coun­try did with so much that sur­rounded Tri­umph in the 1950s. While the Bri­tish home mar­ket was strug­gling, the Meri­den fac­tory's boss, Ed­ward Turner, was a fre­quent vis­i­tor to the States. Turner's en­thu­si­asm led di­rectly to one of Tri­umph's most sig­nif­i­cant mod­els — be­cause it was largely Amer­i­can de­mand for larger en­gine ca­pac­ity and more horse­power that per­suaded Turner to cre­ate the Thun­der­bird.

Es­sen­tially, the T-bird was a 650-cc ver­sion of Tri­umph's ex­ist­ing 500-cc Speed Twin, the sweet-run­ning and hugely suc­cess­ful par­al­lel twin with which Turner had rev­o­lu­tion­ized the mo­tor­cy­cling world fol­low­ing its launch in 1938. En­larg­ing the pushrod-op­er­ated en­gine to 649 cc gave a peak out­put of 34 PS at 6,300 rpm, a gain of 7 PS over the Speed Twin (4 PS over the sportier Tiger 100), plus a healthy in­crease in torque through­out the range. This re­sulted in a sig­nif­i­cant per­for­mance boost be­cause, at 175 kg, the Thun­der­bird weighed barely more than the smaller mod­els.

Tri­umph launched the Thun­der­bird at the banked cir­cuit of Montl­héry, near Paris, where the first three bikes off the pro­duc­tion line were rid­den for 500 miles (805 km) at an av­er­age speed of over 92 mph (148 km/h), with a last lap of over 100 mph (161 km/h). Apart from mi­nor mod­i­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing fit­ment of rear-set foot-rests and rac­ing tyres, they were stan­dard, so it was an im­pres­sive in­tro­duc­tion.

Pre­dictably, the T-bird was well re­ceived in Bri­tain and abroad. More even than its top speed, it was the torquey 650's abil­ity to main­tain a high av­er­age that im­pressed testers. 'So fast is the Thun­der­bird that dur­ing the test the max­i­mum speed at which the ma­chine could be cruised, with­out en­gine fa­tigue be­com­ing ap­par­ent, was never de­ter­mined,' re­ported The Mo­tor Cy­cle. 'When road con­di­tions per­mit­ted, speeds of 80, 85, 90 mph [129, 137, 145 km/h] were of­ten held for as long as the rider could with­stand the buf­fet­ing force of wind pres­sure.'

In Amer­ica, Cy­cle magazine's test de­clared the T-bird al­most fault­less, though the orig­i­nal model's blue colour was un­pop­u­lar. 'The

rid­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics leave noth­ing to be de­sired and if it's ac­cel­er­a­tion you crave, there are few stock, fully equipped ma­chines that could jerk your cork if you're on a Tri­umph Thun­der­bird,' one re­port said. Tri­umph's Amer­i­can ad­ver­tis­ing also em­pha­sized the per­for­mance, scream­ing 'See the most ex­cit­ing mo­tor­cy­cle ever!' from the pages of the 1950 New York Show pro­gramme. 'Why be sat­is­fied with sec­ond-rate per­for­mance, choose a Tri­umph and get ahead.'

The 649-cc en­gine proved re­li­able and was changed lit­tle in the early years. Han­dling was im­proved in the mid-1950s when Tri­umph in­tro­duced a new twin-shock frame, re­plac­ing the ear­lier model's stan­dard hard-tail or op­tional sprung-hub rear sus­pen­sion. Which brings us to this very clean 1956-model Thun­der­bird, freshly re­stored and look­ing gor­geous in its Crystal Grey paint­work, bor­rowed from the mouth-wa­ter­ing line-up of Tri­umph twins owned by UK spe­cial­ist, Phil Clarke (www.clarkesclas­

As a fan of old Bri­tish par­al­lel twins in gen­eral and Tri­umphs in par­tic­u­lar, I ex­pected to en­joy rid­ing one as clean as this, and I was not dis­ap­pointed. The mo­tor fired up eas­ily with a fairly gen­tle prod of the kick-starter, its 360-de­gree lay­out giv­ing a typ­i­cally tune­ful and not par­tic­u­larly loud sound through the twin si­lencers. Vi­bra­tion lev­els had not been dra­mat­i­cally in­creased by the 649-cc en­gine's 50 per cent en­large­ment (as would hap­pen when it later grew again to 744 cc), and the T-bird felt very light and ea­ger as I let out the clutch to pull away.

The Tri­umph's straight-line per­for­mance was lively enough to make me think just how quick this bike must have felt back in the '50s, es­pe­cially in the ea­ger mid-range power de­liv­ery that would have been the T-bird's main ad­van­tage over 500-cc twins. From about 65 km/h up­wards the Tri­umph surged for­ward given a tweak of its throt­tle, im­press­ing me not only with its flex­i­ble power de­liv­ery but also with its four-speed gear­box, which shifted sweetly, if slowly, un­der the com­mand of my right boot.

Vi­bra­tion wasn't a prob­lem at those en­gine speeds; and even when used hard, a well-built Tri­umph 650-cc mo­tor can be pleas­antly smooth. The only as­pect of this en­gine that was less than im­pres­sive was a slight hes­i­ta­tion at times, due to slightly over-rich car­bu­ra­tion. Phil Clarke had not had time for a ride to check such set­tings fol­low­ing the bike's restora­tion. Af­ter my ride, he treated the SU carb to an over­haul, in­clud­ing a new nee­dle and jet block, which cured that prob­lem.

Due to the mo­tor's re­cent re­build, not to men­tion the age of the bike in gen­eral, I didn't get car­ried away in in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Thun­der­bird's high-rev abil­ity. The bike cruised at a seem­ingly ef­fort­less 100 km/h, jus­ti­fy­ing The Mo­tor Cy­cle tester's com­ment that its quiet­ness and smooth­ness be­tween that speed and 70 mph were 'quite ex­cep­tional'. Two-way av­er­age speed, as tested by that magazine in 1950, was 156 km/h (97 mph), so the T-bird was just ca­pa­ble of gen­uine “ton-up” per­for­mance in stan­dard form.

Per­haps more im­pres­sively still, the Tri­umph proved very re­li­able

de­spite some se­ri­ous provo­ca­tion. 'Dur­ing the days when at­tempts were made to ob­tain the max­i­mum speed fig­ures, the en­gine took such a flog­ging as is un­likely ever to come the way of a ma­chine in the hands of even the hard­est of ev­ery­day rid­ers,' the magazine's tester wrote. 'The en­gine was on full-bore al­most con­tin­u­ously for three or four hours at a stretch on four con­sec­u­tive days. It gave no signs of abuse… and not the faintest trace of oil ap­peared out­side the en­gine or gear­box.'

Han­dling with the orig­i­nal Thun­der­bird's rigid rear end or sprung hub lay­out (lit­er­ally small springs in­side the rear wheel hub) had been re­garded as good by the stan­dards of the day. But Tri­umph had in­tro­duced a new frame with twin-shock rear sus­pen­sion in 1954, also us­ing it for the new T110 Tiger model, which had a tuned ver­sion of the 650-cc en­gine. The T110's ar­rival rel­e­gated the 6T Thun­der­bird to a less sporty role which, in the days when rel­a­tively few peo­ple owned cars, of­ten in­volved pulling a side­car.

Some rid­ers com­plained that in solo form the more pow­er­ful Tiger mo­tor could pro­voke a high-speed weave from the new frame, es­pe­cially when swingarm bushes be­came worn. But most Thun­der­bird rid­ers were happy enough, and so was I with this freshly re­stored ma­chine. The Tri­umph was sta­ble at the rel­a­tively re­strained speeds I rode it at and steered with a pre­cise and fairly light touch, de­spite its tra­di­tional large-di­am­e­ter 19-inch front wheel which, like the rear wheel, wore an Avon Speed­mas­ter tyre.

The T-bird chas­sis' only real flaw was a slight vi­bra­tion when I slowed us­ing the front brake. This was due, Phil Clarke con­firmed when he'd had a chance to in­spect the bike, to the steer­ing head bear­ings be­ing slightly loose. The 178-mm sin­gle-lead­ing-shoe drum front brake it­self was ad­e­quate but no more than that, need­ing a firm squeeze to have much ef­fect. I wasn't sur­prised to learn that Tri­umph up­rated it the fol­low­ing year, 1957, with a full-width hub that in­cor­po­rated cool­ing fins.

A big­ger boost to the han­dling came in 1960 with the adop­tion of a stronger frame with twin front down­tubes, but it was that year's other ma­jor in­tro­duc­tion that gen­er­ated most in­ter­est. Along with the T110, the T-bird was fit­ted with Ed­ward Turner's con­tro­ver­sial fully-en­closed rear end, which be­came known as the “bath­tub”.

The bath­tub rear end's rather bulky ap­pear­ance em­pha­sised the fact that by this time the T-bird had been rel­e­gated to a tour­ing role — by the T110 Tiger and more so by the pre­vi­ous year's ex­cit­ing 650-cc ar­rival, the T120 Bon­neville, with its twin car­bu­ret­tors. But the Thun­der­bird's place in Tri­umph's his­tory was as­sured. And so, thanks to Mar­lon Brando's ex­ploits on the sil­ver screen, was its star­ring role in one of mo­tor­cy­cling's most fa­mous scenes.

649-cc par­al­lel-twin of­fered am­ple torque through­out the rev range

178-mm sin­gle-lead­ing­shoe drum pro­vided stop­ping power

"Tri­umph 650 Twin" badge dis­played proudly

Twin shock ab­sorbers man­aged the rear

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