Triumph Motorcycles isn’t being coy with its long-term goals in the cruiser market. In his opening statement to the media gathered at the company’s world launch of the 2014 Thunderbird Commander and Thunderbird LT, Simon Warburton, Product Manager for Triumph, said, “We have a good opportunity to be a credible alternative to Harley-Davidson.”
Greg Heichelbech, CEO Triumph North America, echoed similar sentiments when he said, “Triumph’s back! We’re getting back to the roots of the brand and what we did in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s.”
According to Heichelbech, “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.” So, it should come as no surprise that the Thunderbird line plays an important role in the manufacturer’s plan to recapture some of the motorcycling history or – to use a term popular amongst the cruiser class – heritage that the company squandered in its 20-year absence from production, a time in which Triumph plummeted from being the brand of motorcycle that the famous and cool, like Marlon Brando, Buddy Elmore, Evel Knievel, Gary Nixon, and Steve McQueen, as well as lots of American dads had parked in their garages.
However, a lot has changed since that time. The market is much more segmented than before, but as Warburton made the case during his presentation, Triumph has always made cruisers – even before cruisers were a category. Additionally, Warburton pointed to the five models in its 2014 line which Triumph terms its Classics and said that all a rider needed to do was add a lower seat plus a feet-forward riding position, and they’d essentially have a cruiser.
Triumph has a heritage all its own that began in 1902. The engines offer the sought after Twin pulse and torquey power delivery while not aping all the other V-Twins in cruiserdom. What remains is the need to expand the cruiser line to encompass current cruiser trends.
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Framing the Issue
Since Triumph was content with the Thunderbird having the largest parallel-Twin engine in the world, the chassis was the focus of the majority of changes undertaken in the development of the Commander and LT. Compared to the previous generation frame, as evidenced by the Storm, the wheelbase grew about two inches to 65.6 in. Normally, you wouldn’t be able to see this type of change without lining a pair of bikes up side-by-side, but the length appears to have been applied primarily to the space between the tank and the triple clamp. This serves a dual purpose allowing for ample steering lock while maintaining space for the windshield and optional lowers that would be mounted on the LT.
The all-new, twin-spine frame utilizes the engine as a stressed member with the goal of minimizing chassis flex for a more stable ride. The Thunderbird also sports a new swingarm.
To make the handling more agile, the steering head geometry was updated. Interestingly, the wheel and tire combinations of the Commander and LT deliver slightly different rake and trail numbers for the models. The LT with its 16-inch wheel and higher profile rear tire combine to make for a larger diameter. Consequently, the LT’s rake is 29.9 degrees while the Commander with its 17-inch rim and low profile rubber yields a 30.1-degree rake. However, it is highly unlikely that the rider would feel this difference since it is largely outweighed by other factors, like tire profiles. The bikes’ trail numbers differ for the same reason, with the LT’s being shortened 0.7 in. (to 5.2 in.) from the Storm while the Commander’s trail measures 5.3 in.
With numbers like these, you’d expect the Commander and LT to feel essentially the same out on the road, but you’d be wrong. The Commander’s naked styling implies that it would be the sportier of the new T-Birds, and in this case, it lives up to preconceptions. However, before we discuss why this happens with such similar chassis geometry, we need to look at the suspension.
When describing the design goals for the Commander and LT, Warburton stated that Triumph paid particular attention to the chassis dynamics for improving handling and feel from the previous Thunderbirds. The desire was for the rider to experience a confidence-inspiring ride resulting from a stable platform that exhibited neutral but precise steering.
In addition to responsive steering, the new chassis needed to provide a comfortable ride for the rider and passenger. Perhaps nothing plays a greater role in keeping the rider comfortable than the bump absorption provided by a decent length of suspension travel. (Those who question this should read about how the minimal travel of the Harley-Davidson Street Glide Deluxe affected our opinion of the bike in its shoot–out with the Indian Chieftain.) Both the Commander’s and LT’s shocks offer a reasonably long 4.3 in. of travel, which allows for softer spring rates and a plusher ride.
Although a single, fairly soft spring rate would be ideal over smaller road irregularities, Triumph added a second, stiffer rate to the spring to help cope with large bumps. However, to keep the twin shocks visually simple, the tighter rate section of spring is hidden under the chrome caps topping the shocks. Preload is adjustable via a five position ramped collar adjuster.
Riding the Commander and the LT highlights how close Triumph came to its design goals. Both bikes are eminently stable mid-corner while still allowing easy line changes. Steering is responsive for both bikes, but as you might expect from a lighter bike, the Commander was the crisper handling of the two. This difference is most likely due to the more aggressive profile of the 140/75 ZR–17 front and 200/50 ZR–17 rear tires. The LT wears 150/80 R–16 and 180/70 R–16 front and rear tires, respectively.
Steering isn’t the only place that the difference in tire size differentiates the two models. Although the LT has stiffer spring rates (to accommodate the heavier loads the saddlebags allow), the Commander has a much tauter ride, feeling more in contact with the road. This consequence of the Commander’s low profile tires explains another suspension difference with the LT. Going over compression bumps, where the road surface drops away from the bike, causing it to G-out, elicits more rebound from the LT than the Commander through similar bumps as a result of spring-like bounce of the tire – not the shock – as it decompresses, making the Commander feel more stable when compared to the LT’s slight boinginess.
Unfortunately, both the bikes have handling performance that vastly surpasses their ground clearance. Admittedly, the floorboards touched down cleanly, but contact is early enough that even sedate riders may find themselves touching down on occasion. Push too much further, and the floorboards’ mounting brackets begin to grind.
Here is one area where some compromise was most likely forced by the desire to have a low seat height and a relaxed riding position. Raising the floorboards would cause the riding position to become more crowded. Move the seat up, and the ’Birds lose their attractive 27.5 in. seat height.
While the primary emphasis was on the chassis with the Thunderbirds, the powerplant wasn’t completely ignored. Yes, the 1,699cc mill is mechanically unchanged. The bore and stroke remain 107.1mm x 94.3mm, and the cylinders are fed by EFI, with the resulting power traveling through a six-speed transmission to the belt final drive. However, the power delivery was refined with a new airbox and exhaust system. The 2-into–1-into–2 pipes are particularly interesting in that the Commander’s and LT’s look quite different, but they are functionally identical. Only the exteriors differ, with the LT’s terminating in a tapered, tri-oval tip. The exhaust note is throaty while being kept within noise requirements by an active exhaust valve that stays open at low engine speeds but closes up at higher speeds to keep from frightening the horses.
With the engines being identical in every way – even down to their ignition and fuel mapping – you’d expect the Commander and the LT to behave, well, identically, and once again, an assumption proves to be wrong. While the LT is no slouch, delivering ample power for most riding situations, particularly the ones associated with its job description of light-duty touring, the Commander feels like a different motorcycle. At first blush, this seems impossible, but after some careful thought, the perceived disparity between the engines can be traced back to a combination of small but significant factors.
The most obvious contributor to the Commander’s sprightlier attitude is the 70 lbs. of weight it doesn’t have to carry compared to the LT. However, even that differential doesn’t explain what the seat-of-the pants points out. According to Warburton, the LT, thanks to its larger rear tire diameter, is geared slightly taller. Add to that – or, more accurately, subtract from that – the Commander’s lighter wheels, meaning less rotating mass to accelerate. Finally, the Commander doesn’t have a windshield or saddlebags acting as an air brake. It’s beginning to make sense, now, isn’t it?
The difference between the Commander’s and the LT’s power delivery are still more a matter of amplitude. The underlying character of the two parallel-Twin engines is essentially the same. Power delivery is smooth, with massive amounts of torque available throughout the rpm range. According to Triumph, the torque peak of 111 ft-lb is reached at 3550 rpm and is above 80 ft-lb at around 1500 rpm! Peak power checks in as 93 bhp at 5400 rpm.
The EFI does a mostly masterful job of communicating the rider’s intentions to the throttle bodies. Acceleration comes on in rheostat form. Neutral throttle is easy to maintain – even making slight adjustments. However, when transitioning to off-throttle or back on-throttle, the beefy Twin delivers its sole hiccup in the form of abruptness. While occasionally noticeable, it never upsets the chassis, relegating itself to a nit that journalist-types must pick.
Shifting requires a little effort – as seems popular among cruiser fans – but the LT we rode also has some notchiness and a louder shifting clunk in the lower gears. Neither the Commander I rode nor another LT ridden by other journalists suffered from such problems, so this is most likely an issue with the individual LT unit. We’ll check this out on another LT in the future.
Any mention of power delivery requires the inclusion of how you slow down from the speed the engine generates. The T-Birds have ABS standard and gets their whoa from three 310mm discs. The front two are floating units squeezed by Nissin 4-piston calipers. The solidly mounted rear disc mates with a Brembo 2-piston caliper.
The brakes offer plenty of easy-to-modulate power for quick speed adjustment. The rear weight bias of the bikes makes the powerful rear brake welcome, and the ABS inserts itself when required with no drama.
Other than the wheels and tires, only a few things differentiate the LT and Commander. First, the Commander’s handlebar is a tad wider at 38.9 in. and a little further forward to give the rider a more aggressive lean into the wind. Meanwhile, the LT’s handlebar measures 37.6 in. tip-to-tip. The rest of the differences are related to touring.
The windshield height is low enough for riders 5’-foot-8 or more to easily see over. Remarkably, almost no wind turbulence reaches the rider’s head – even at speeds above 80 mph. Also, the windshield is easily removable with a healthy tug from the front. An accessory lock is available for those who want to make sure that the windshield remains on the bike overnight.
Each 26-liter (7.5-gal.) saddlebag is made of 2.5mm leather with full plastic linings. Plastic clips hidden behind metal buckles ease opening. The forward and rearward edges of the bags are secured by stout hook-and-loop fasteners, which I can’t help but wonder if they will collect dirt. Removable waterproof liners are standard equipment with the LT. The bags are easily removable, provided you have the proper size Torx bit for your ratchet. However, when the bags are removed, the LT looks just as good as it does with them mounted.
The Commander and LT share the same seat, while the LT also receives a passenger backrest. Without resorting to hyperbole, I can safely say that Triumph has developed a seat that many manufacturers are going to attempt to copy.
While the rider’s perch is well shaped and has the right combination of different densities of foam to give a comfortable all-day ride, the lumbar support is so good that riders will wonder why nobody thought of it sooner. By putting the lumbar support on a separate cushion from the seat itself, the support stays in the proper position as the rider sinks into the seat’s padding. Without the separation of the pads, the rider’s weight pulls the lumbar support down, reducing its effectiveness. LT passengers get floorboards while the Commander’s pillion has pegs.
With the release of the Thunderbird Commander and the Thunderbird LT, Triumph has simultaneously increased the depth of its cruiser line and addressed the light-tourer market. I can’t help but wonder if a hard bagger version is already being developed to plant the Triumph brand in that popular segment.
Arriving in dealers in March, the 2014 Thunderbird Commander will be available in Crimson Sunset Red/Lava Red and Phantom Black/Storm Grey starting at $15,699. The 2014 Thunderbird LT pricing starts at $16,699 in choices of Lava Red/Phantom Black and Caspian Blue/Crystal White.