Triumph bakes an American pie
Certain riding buddies of mine don't appreciate it when I show up aboard a Harley-Davidson, presumably because of all the tribal lifestyle baggage attached to the brand.
So it was huge fun to fool them with the new Triumph Thunderbird LT.
They'd spot the Milwaukee-inspired style of the Trumpet coming towards them, take in the hand-applied pinstripes and white-walled tyres of the bike, then launch instantly into their usual anti-Hog admonishments as soon as I rolled to a stop.
Then they'd notice the huge 1.7 litre parallel-twin engine in the midst of the T-bird, and halt the hate-speak mid-sentence with a sudden "... oh, it's a Triumph."
Observing the instantaneous change in their attitude from vehement condemnation to almost total acceptance proved that brand matters more than I thought it did, especially in the cruiser segment.
The LT only looks like a Harley, and this is either going to boost or limit its appeal, according to the prejudices of those who observe it. It doesn't matter that it is a better bike dynamically than the real thing, nor that it is arguably better made, and offers far better value at its precisely targeted $27,990 price position. That's quite a few hundy less than the $28,595 Harley-Davidson Dyna Switchback, equipped with the smaller 1584cc version of Harley's two big-inch twins.
Yet the 1699cc LT is more comparable to the 1690cc $31,995 Softail Deluxe in terms of its engine capacity, performance and standard equipment. It therefore offers a potential saving of more than four grand; not that this would slow the step of any potential Harley buyer in their relentless march towards one of the motor company's dealerships.
For buying a bike is almost a secondary consideration when buying a Harley. What the Harley Owner's Group faithful are really investing in its membership - of a certain family with a certain dress code - even if it means that they all look the same, and join a social tribe so prolific and populous that expressions of one's individuality become almost impossible.
This is where the LT hopes to find a market - among those who don't have quite the same herding instinct, and can identify a good bike from a merely mediocre one.
Using the acclaimed Thunderbird 1700 cruiser as a platform for a lightly dressed tourer is an inspired move for Triumph. It means that it can add an extra model to the range for little development cost - bar that of a new two-tone paint scheme, a new set of wire-spoked 16-inch wheels, old-school leather saddlebags with buckles and some shiny baubles in the form of new fork shrouds, a quick-detach windscreen, extra chrome plating, new handlebar, new seat and a revised frame that sites the rider a little closer to the ground.
When Blighty's last remaining maker of motorcycle tyres, Avon, developed the world's first set of white-walled radials for the LT, it added a crowning touch that would make Harley riders jealous if only they'd be willing to climb aboard the Triumph. For the Avons deliver more trustworthy grip than the Harley-branded Dunlop Elites fitted to their bikes.
Equally, the Triumph's big-block in-line twin has the potential to widen the view of any ardent V-twin fan. The well-considered levels of vibration add sensation to the riding experience with little opportunity to annoy, and torque flows to the LT's belt final drive with all the irresistible forcefulness of a river in flood.
There's no rev counter aboard any Thunderbird, but nor is there any need for one. On paper, the world's largest parallel-twin engine delivers some 151Nm of thrust at 3350rpm. But you can't really identify that 3350rpm moment in the rev range, as it feels like all 151 of those Newtons are present all the time. It all adds up to thudding good fun, capped by a top end that will whisk the 360kg LT past slower traffic with Gold Wing-like ease.
The Triumph's more neutral steering and more generous ground clearance than the cruise-cycle norm are the real trump cards of the revised Thunderbird chassis.
The LT roll-rotates into turns with a light counter-steering nudge of the bars, and is adaptable and amenable to changes of line mid-bend, with little of the understeer that rear-weighted cruiser motorcycles are prone to develop. Helping in this regard is that the profiles of 150/80-16 front and the 180/70-16 rear are more compatible than those of many cruisers, which often marry a skinnier front to an over-wide rear in the interests of style.
Ride quality is another highlight; the wide high-profile tyres adding the squish of their sidewalls to the suspension action to deliver one of the best rides in the business.
Completing the dynamic picture are the Triumph's top-shelf brakes, which are well up to the task of arresting nearly 450kg-worth of rampant motorcycle and rider, and come with the back-up of ABS.
So if you like the art deco-style of a 1930s-inspired American tourer, but want to limit the dynamic compromises that usually come as part of such a package, the LT is definitely worth a look. Just expect it to often be mistaken for something else, OK?
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 1699cc liquid-cooled DOHC 8v fuel-injected parallel twin; 71kW (94bhp) at 5400rpm and 151Nm of torque at 3350rpm.
Transmission: six-speed sequential gearbox, belt final drive.
Frame: Steel-tube spine frame with box-section steel swing-arm, 47mm unadjustable Showa front forks, twin Showa rear shocks adjustable for spring preload.
Hot: Triumph add lashings of American art deco style to the evergreen T-bird and come up with one of the most dynamic and desirable lightly dressed cruiser bikes.
Not: Currently being sold for $29,490 as a launch package with roughly $1500 worth of questionable add-ons, of which only the pillion backrest/luggage rack is a keeper.