Triumph's shattering 1963 Thunderbird 650
“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”
“What’ve you got?”
Immortal lines from a cocky yet brooding Marlon Brando in 1953’s cult classic The Wild One. The tale of a biker-gang invasion of a small town in middle America did more than just create a bad boy image for bikers – it captured a generation’s leather-and-motorcycles rebellion against the blandness of post-war conformism. His role: leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club. His ride: a Triumph Thunderbird 6T.
Enough said, one would think, about one of Triumph’s greatest machines. Maybe it was no coincidence that the British manufacturer grew this landmark motorcycle out of the 500 CC Speed Twin for the stars-and-stripes market. Even its christening had American connections, arising after Triumph boss Ed Turner stayed in the Thunderbird Motel in South Carolina. But then, the Yanks always wanted the ultimate, and in the Fifties, the T-bird fit the superbike bill with affordable 100 mph (160 kph) performance. It inspired the big twins from Norton, BSA and Enfield. “It was simply a great motorcycle: the Z1 or Fireblade of its time,” writes Mac McDiarmid in Triumph: The Legend.
Instead of a helmet and my armoured synthetic jacket, I wanted an aviator’s cap, black-leather bomber jacket, skin-tight jeans and boots as I ran my hand over the glossy paint of K S Ramaswamy’s
mint 1963 Thunderbird. Clean, beautiful lines, freshly-moulted from the clunky-looking 1960-62 Bathtub versions. A 120-mph (192 kph) Smiths speedo with an rpm/ gearshift-speed dial mounted in the head-lamp nacelle. The harmonica badge overlooking an Amal-fed 34 bhp, 650 CC air-cooled parallel twin.
A decade after Brando’s boys terrorised the celluloid town of Wrightsville, the Thunderbird had also acquired a unit-construction engine, a duplex frame, AC ignition and lighting, swingarm rear
suspension in place of the sprung hub, and of course, more power. Four decades after that, this bike had found its way to Bangalore, acquired a proud owner and superb restoration.
I, in turn, was ready to acquire some chest hair. Pressing my knees against the thick tank, whitening my knuckles on the ends of the flat, straight bar, and twisting the throttle of Thor’s own 650 CC twin, I was powerful, I had the world at my feet – blurring by them actually. I imagined black-and-white passersby cringing in awe and terror, and my forty boys gunning their engines behind me, unleashing the sound of a thousand supernovae.
The Bird has that effect on you, and what do you expect – its high-performance version was the 42 bhp Tiger 110. Perhaps you’ll better know the name Bonneville? A streamlined, tuned Tiger piloted by Johnny Allen clocked an incredible 344 kph on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah (though the feat didn’t make it into the record books on a technicality). In road guise, the Bonnie gave you 177 kph and perhaps the most evocative name on two wheels.
No wonder then, that the T-bird also saw duty as the 6T Saint police bike. Coppers chased down no-gooders on regal white-liveried Saints – ‘Stop Anything In No Time’, coined the wags.
By the time the Thunderbird I was riding was made, though, the writing was on the wall for BSA-Triumph, and the rest of the Britbike industry. Complacence, under-capitalization, over-dependence on the American market, under-estimation of the Japanese threat... the story is oft-told but still, every time, evokes a tinge of sadness. Neither the 750 CC Bonnies nor the Trident triples could prevent the Meridien company sinking through a quicksand of misjudgements, into eventual bankruptcy. Triumph sputtered through the late-70s,
finally coughing its last in 1984.
Not quite. UK-based building magnate John Bloor poured in $50 million to resurrect the marque. He set up an ultramodern factory at Hinckley and turned out a modern range of capable bikes from 1990 on – possibly the only born-again-Britmarques success story in recent times. And behold, in 1994, the new Thunderbird: a retro-cool street-cruiser with the old harmonica badge – and a 885 CC liquid-cooled triple making 69 bhp and 7 kgm, enough to cut air at 195 kph.
I haven’t ridden one, but certainly it must be a quick and interesting machine. Still, it won’t sound and feel like the old Bird, the original wild one – a series of hammerblows to the head that leave you viscerally dazed. In Johnny’s words, then, and he could well be speaking today: “My old man hits harder than that.”