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.clarkesclassics.co.uk).
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