Triumph Thunderbird


Triumph Thunderbird, Triumph Motorcycles, Triumph TR6, Triumph Bonneville

1963 Triumph Thunderbird 6T 650. The first year of unit construction. This one has the full "bathtub" treatment. Not very popular in the US.



THUNDERBIRD HISTORY
The Triumph Thunderbird was named by Edward Turner, who had stayed at the Thunderbird Motel while traveling in the US. He liked the sound of it & so named his new 650cc twin after it. The T-Bird has an interesting history amoung Triumph Motorcycles. The name has been used 3 times, the first which we will delve into here, the 6T ran from 1950 through 1966. The name was revived again in 1981 for the TR65, an entry-level bike made by destroking the Triumph Bonneville 750. And lastly, it was revived again in 1994 by the new Hinkley-based Triumph Motorcycles as the Triumph Thunderbird 900 triple.

FROM HOT TO NOT
Another interesting aspect of Triumph Thunderbird history is that it started out its run in 1950 as THE hottest Triumph motorcycle you could buy, in fact, maybe the fastest bike, period. By the mid-1950s, with the introduction of the Triumph TR6, the T-Bird became the more staid, fuddy-duddy model instead of the grand tourer. They came with full fenders & a headlight nacelle. Some even had "bathtub" bodies. Compared with the lean-and-mean stripped-down Triumph TR6 & the new Triumph Bonneville, the Thunderbird looked downright droll.

Triumph Thunderbird, Triumph Motorcycles, Triumph Bonneville, Triumph TR6

BORE & STROKE IT, BOYS
It all started with the seminal 1937 Triumph Speed Twin, the first true vertical twin that all others copied. By the end of WWII, several others were building 500cc vertical twins. The answer: More Power! A steady diet of developmental tweaks took it about as far as it would go. So, in 1949 Edward Turner took the venerable 500 twin, bored & stroked it out to 650 & created the 1950 Triumph 6T Thunderbird 650. The die was cast & everyone else in the industry soon followed suit.

NEW ENGINE, OLD FRAME
Part of the genius of the Triumph Thunderbird design was that it was really the same basic bike that they were already producing in their 500cc line (Triumph Speed Twin, Triumph Tiger & Triumph Trophy). The new 640 Thunderbird used the same basic engine castings, the same frame & running gear. A few styling & color changes differentiated the look, but otherwise, it was pure Triumph! While creating a whole new motorcycle in the eyes of the public, Edward Turner had really just rejumbled some parts on the bikes they were already building. Of course, this cut development time, money & risk. Just like the '37 Speed Twin had set the 500cc vertical twin mold as the standard in the industry for the next 14 years, the T-Bird recast it again as a 650 & soon the entire industry followed. Norton, BSA, Matchless & Royal Enfield all soon had their own 650 vertical twins.

Triumph Thunderbird, Triumph Motorcycles, Wild One, Triumph TR6



BRANDO & THE WILD ONE
Triumph got an unexpected marketing shot-in-the-arm when Marlon Brando rode a black 1950 Triumph Thunderbird in the movie "The Wild One". Triumph quickly responded by introducing an entire line of black T-Birds, aptly nicknamed the Triumph Blackbird.

TR6 STEALS LIMELIGHT
When the Triumph TR6 was introduced in 1956, it became the new performance leader with its stripped-down minimalist look. The Thunderbird continued on with its fully valanced fenders, headlight nacelle & in some cases bodywork. It became less the 'Hot Rod' & more the 'Everymans Commuter Special'. In England, where they are forced to ride in the rain more than in the US, the full-bodied design made sense. But it wasn't received as well in the US market.

Triumph Thunderbird, Triumph motorcycles, Triumph Bonneville


BODYWORK BOMBS IN U.S.
The final blow came when the 1959 Triumph Bonneville was introduced. It was originally styled on the Thunderbird mold, with big fenders & nacelle. It wasn't received well in the US (the biggest & most important market) & in fact many were buying the new full-bodied Triumph Bonnevilles, then before taking delivery, had the dealers strip it all off & replace it with TR6 fenders & headlight. By 1960, the factory had gotten it right & the Bonneville would from then on be styled just like the TR6.

T-BIRD IN THE SHADOWS
Left in the dust was the Thunderbird line, relegated in the US at least to the second string. It soldiered on through the transition to unit construction in 1963, but finally puttered out in 1966. By this time, it was all TR6 & Bonneville. But, the Thunderbird must be remembered as the first 650 Triumph & as such, it opened up an entirely new era.

Triumph Thunderbird, Triumph motorcycles, Triumph Bonneville


Triumph Thunderbird YEAR-BY-YEAR:


Triumph Thunderbird, Triumph motorcycles, Triumph TR6, Triumph Bonneville

TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD, PRE-UNIT
649cc OHV Vertical Twin
Model Years: 1950-1962

The 500cc Triumph Speed Twin was bored & stroked out to 650cc for more power. It completely changed the game. The Triumph 650 was born a Thunderbird. Pre-Unit Construction = separate engine, primary & transmission cases.


1950 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1951 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1952 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1953 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1954 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1955 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1956 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1956 TRIUMPH 6T BLACKBIRD
1957 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1958 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1959 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1960 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1962 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD


Triumph Thunderbird, Triumph motorcycles, Triumph TR6, Triumph Bonneville

TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
UNIT CONSTRUCTION

649cc OHV Vertical Twin
Model Years: 1963-1966

Unit Construction placed the engine, primary & transmission in one common housing. It was stronger, lighter, cleaner & cheaper to build. By this time, Bonneville & TR6 were stealing all the sales & the T-bird was killed off after 1966.


1963 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1964 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD
1965 TRIUMPH 6T THUNDERBIRD



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2018 Classic Triumph Calendar


Triumph Motorcycles: The art of the motorcycle


The Complete Book of Classic and Modern Triumph Motorcycles 1937-Today (Complete Book Series)


Triumph Motorcycles: From Speed-Twin to Bonneville


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British Motorcycles Triumph (Little Books)


Triumph Motorcycles in America


McQueen's Motorcycles: Racing and Riding with the King of Cool


Triumph Motorcycle Restoration


Illustrated Triumph Motorcycles Buyer's Guide: From 1945 Through the Latest Models (Illustrated Buyer's Guide)


Tales of Triumph Motorcycles and the Meriden Factory


Hinckley Triumphs: The First Generation (Crowood Motoclassic)

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