In the meantime, here is an interview with the T-Bird's American designer, Tim Prentice. A graduate from Art Center College in California and stylist of Yamaha's Road Star and Honda's VTX and outlandish Rune, Prentice spent the bulk of three years in England working on the T-Bird, and he continues to work for Triumph on future models.
Q&A with Tim Prentice – stylist
Los Angeles based Tim Prentice graduated with distinction from Art Center College of Design in the Transportation program in Pasadena, CA in 1990 and after graduation he worked for Honda R&D. During spring 2006, Tim Prentice founded Motonium Design, Inc., a design consultancy with a focus on vehicle design and development, specializing in motorcycles.
His previous work includes Yamaha’s Road Star, Triumph’s Rocket III Touring and Honda’s Rune and VTX. He started working on the Thunderbird project in August 2004.
How long did it take to get from initial idea to the final concept?
It took around a month to get to the approved 2D sketch stage. You can come up with a good design concept quite quickly, but the real work comes making that vision into reality and balancing the compromises you always have to make for production. The full-scale production mock-up took around seven months from the beginning to concept model signoff. The final production version of the Thunderbird is almost indistinguishable from the concept model.
What was the inspiration for the design of the bike?
I was given a minimal design brief which essentially asked for a “modern cruiser using a parallel twin engine.” The guys at Triumph didn’t want to add or speculate on any other details. They wanted the blanks filled in by an American who understood the cruiser market. At the time, there was no talk making a link to any previous Thunderbird. Triumph saw a gap in their lineup between the America and Speedmaster and the Rocket III. This midrange was seen as a large segment in the market.
What are the key design elements that define the bike?
Any cruiser is essentially defined first by the seating position: feet forward and low seat. Next are a few styling cues such as teardrop fuel tank and how the frame works as a structure for the body. Each part should not look like it’s trying to be something else. For example, we made the throttle bodies a styling element instead of hiding them with a cover. This allows one to clearly visualize the intake all the way through the end of the silencer – straightforward, honest and mechanical.
Is there any area of the bike in particular that you are proud of?
Actually, no. I am most impressed with how the Thunderbird turned out as a whole – which is really the ideal for a designer and often the most difficult to achieve. Another way to say this is that it’s more important to create balance than to focus too much on a few parts. The Thunderbird has a great balance between the engine and mechanical elements, the body work, the materials and finishes, and this was achieved by working very closely with the engineering team. But if I had to pick a couple of parts, I’d say the engine and fuel tank. Both are the most difficult parts for styling due to technical considerations, but these two parts are essential to describe the character of the bike.
What makes this bike a genuine Triumph?
This was a big question for us. If we made it overall very Triumph (or English) it simply wouldn’t work in the US market. Therefore, we focused on the Triumph parallel twin engine as the heart of the Thunderbird. This engine layout is almost unique to Triumph, especially in the cruiser market. It is a bit of a risk going away from the expected V-twin engine, but we believed that this gave us an opportunity to give the customer something more original and to impart some real Triumph identity and heritage. Not every type of engine can work in a cruiser, but I think the Triumph parallel twin is a strong alternative. So we took some cues from the Bonneville parallel-twin engines (such as triangular generator cover) but gave the engine cleaner and more modern surfaces.
Aside from the engine, the form is straightforward cruiser. For styling inspiration, I looked towards the 1960s muscle car. I did not try to make it a two wheeled muscle car, but I wanted a strong stance and muscular proportion that would look at home sitting next to a Shelby Cobra or ‘67 Mustang. We wanted the bike to be comfortably recognisable to the US cruiser market. The forms themselves are simple and honest, and are meant to work well with the mechanical nature of the bike.
How closely did you work with the engineers?
Extremely. This was the only way to keep the direction and style of the Thunderbird on track. It’s all too easy to let a design go wrong if you’re not directly involved at every step. The team provided me with all the tools necessary to do the design work, and also gave me excellent engineering and modelling support. Adrian Shaw was the project leader and was critical to making things work well between myself and the engineering team.
Was there anything that you had to change as a result of liaising with the engineers?
Yes, but by working closely with the engineering team we were able to keep the changes small, or in some cases make some parts even better. Again, the exposed throttle body of the Thunderbird became a styling feature instead of something to hide under a cover. There were many other changes, but these usually involved minor adjustments to surfaces. The engine had many adjustments made to it during its development, so we had to keep going back and refine each part to keep the overall look in line with the original vision.
It is completely expected to have things change once the full-scale concept mock-up model has been completed and signed off, but it’s the nature and amount of the changes that make it challenging. This is why it is so important to keep working closely with the engineering team as the design of each part is refined for production tooling, or to comply with the supplier or other homologation requirements. The success in developing the Thunderbird was that the many changes were quite small, or that we were able to work closely to find solutions that kept the final production Thunderbird essentially unchanged from the development mock-up.
What was the biggest challenge in designing the bike?
Balance. The styling challenge for me was to balance the need to make this very clearly a cruiser, yet impart enough uniqueness and Triumph identity to it. Also, customisation is a key element for the cruiser market, so another important factor to balance into the equation is to make the bike a starting point that allows riders to customise it, often in very different directions. Some people will make more of the performance image while others will push the look in a more classic or touring direction. Making that possible with one design is the key to making the Thunderbird successful.
Who named the bike the Thunderbird?
It was one of the few names that Triumph can use (without making something completely new) and has some great heritage value in the US market from back in the 50s. The previous 1990s model Thunderbird was not a strong or well known model in the US and has long since been discontinued, but the name was perceived to be a good fit for the American market due to its earlier heritage. The name Thunderbird did not “stick” until well after the production mock-up was finished.