2010 Triumph Thunderbird | Feature

Rebirth of the Cool

The Helvetic Air Fokker 100 touched down at BHX. Edges of morning sunlight over Birmingham dispelled the myth of gloomy English weather. Twelve hours overnight from Montreal via Zurich, I felt no fatigue-only excitement at plunging into the cauldron of iconography that is the legend of Triumph Motorcycles.

Founded in 1902, Triumph is one of the world’s oldest living motorcycle makers. The final bastion of embattled British brands, as Norton Villiers Triumph, it is reborn in robust enterprise. In addition to 700 retailers worldwide, its recently built manufacturing facilities in England and Thailand are state of the art. However niche Triumph may be perceived, its business model is sharply focused.

Triumphs have always been cool. Cool, like English understatement. Or like Miles Davis cool, playing just enough notes and letting the spaces between do the rest. Like the cool anti-stars of Hollywood and pop music, who rode Triumphs because they owned them and loved them, and not because they were product placement. Steve McQueen’s character, The Cooler King (of course), jumping barbed wire fences in The Great Escape. James Dean, revving his Triumph in a rage outside the church where the love of his life wed another. Elvis. Ann-Margret. Clint Eastwood. Bob Dylan in his Triumph t-shirt on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited.

The anticipation swirled during the trip from the airport to the Hinckley Island Hotel. Here I was, where the legend was recast as a line of motorcycles that people clearly want. So how is Triumph doing it? And what did the new, much discussed, Thunderbird 1600cc parallel-twin powered cruiser mean to the company?

Paul Taylor, the company’s PR and Communications Coordinator, an affable Scotsman in a Triumph blue button-down shirt, logo discreetly embroidered over the breast pocket, sat with me in the hotel’s Triumph Pub. We discussed the agenda: one-on-ones with key people behind the new Thunderbird, a factory tour, and a ride through the countryside that would include a visit to the National Motorcycle Museum. I looked around at the tables constructed from engine parts, and the bikes displayed above the bar. Cool, I thought.

The dimensions and sleekness of the Triumph factory at Hinckley Industrial Park eradicate all the old notions of English bikes built by rustic rabble cobbling together bits and pieces. The new Triumph speaks world-class. "Give credit to John Bloor," Taylor told me. "He had the vision, and the means. He’s the reason we are where we are today."

Bloor is a success story that embodies the famous British tenacity-from humble beginnings as a plasterer, Bloor became the UK’s leading home constructor and built a fortune. Without resorting to shareholder capital, he acquired the moribund Norton Villiers Triumph group in 1983. The remains of the English motorcycle industry were barely breathing.

Taylor pointed out that patience was a cornerstone of Bloor’s business plan: "He took the time and made the investment to make sure we re-entered the marketplace with products that were right, and manufactured to the highest standards."

Bloor made the Triumph workforce feel like a family. Instead of laying off personnel after a disastrous factory fire in 2002, Bloor instead kept them employed in the rebuilding. "In a sense, that setback was a blessing for us," Taylor continued. "We could scrap the outmoded and start with a clean slate."
Clean-and-lean are well-paired when describing the headquarters and main plant. The lobby displays the latest models in rarely seen custom finishes. A gallery of vintage black and white photos evokes the golden age of British motorcycles-spirited youth, in ducktail coifs and weathered leather, racing from café to café to a soundtrack of Eddie Cochran’s "Summertime Blues" and "Apache" by The Shadows.

Taylor smiled at my fascination with the images. "That Ace Cafe heritage is wonderful, but we realize we have to move beyond that." While the company recognizes its iconic status, it does not want to market, or manufacture, nostalgia. "We want to present a complete line of bikes," Taylor says, "and now, with the Thunderbird, we do."

Triumph’s Product Manager Simon Warburton explained how the Thunderbird enshrines the company’s hopes as its most important model to date, the development process spanning some five years and an estimated £7 million: "An exacting look at our mission-critical market-the United States-revealed we needed a motorcycle for the core client, who wants a belt-driven twin in the middleweight cruiser class. After extensive focus groups, prototyping, testing, and design input from the industry’s best, we rolled this model out only when we were absolutely ready."

Look and feel being fundamental, enter renowned designer Tim Prentice. The soft-spoken Prentice is a major creative force in motorcycling. Known for his work on the Guggenheim-honored Honda Rune, he and his California-based firm Motonium are solicited by manufacturers as diverse as KTM and Indian.

Prentice spent six months in the UK to hatch the new bird and speaks of the new Triumph with obvious pride: "It’s usually the goal of design to create something very new and impactful or impart some aspect that has not been seen before. The challenge in this case was to make a classic style bike have a modern feel, while balancing its Triumphness with elements attractive to the U.S. market."

Asked to cite his favorite thing about the new Thunderbird, Prentice adds, "Overall balance. It may sound simple, but it must be difficult, because I rarely see it done on motorcycles. Often there is too much made of specific areas-too many part lines, too many plastic bits, all competing for your attention-instead of adding to the overall balance."

As we reviewed the Thunderbird’s development dossier, Warburton elaborated on the fusion of technology and aesthetics: "With the Thunderbird, we’ve achieved cumulative efficiencies-a weight savings here; a higher degree of finish there; the placement of a switch to make it more ergonomic; the padding in a saddle to blend comfort with control. The styling is deliberately low-key. It’s all part of thorough, harmonious design and product development."

Tue Mantoni, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, contradicts the clichéd image of "the motorcycle guy." The Danish-born Mantoni projects elegance and intellectual rigor. A Goldman Sachs and McKinsey alumnus, he became CEO after Bloor was so impressed by Mantoni’s consulting project for Triumph, Bloor engaged him to implement the project’s recommendations. "When Mr. Bloor hired our team from McKinsey to do a business process analysis and strategic plan, I didn’t know much about motorbikes," Mantoni admits, "but that might have been a good thing. Because I looked at it, not as an insider, but as someone who could bring an objective view, and make it a sustainable enterprise."

His own relaxation being running hundred-mile marathons, the 30-something Mantoni had no qualms about taking the long view. He has transformed Triumph from a cottage industry to a best-practices organization with Kaizen at the core of its quality control.

"Being the CEO of a company like this is an endless series of ultimate marathons," Mantoni smiled. "When you think you’ve run further and better than you ever have, there’s another race to run, challenging you to go beyond what you imagine you’re capable of."

Since his accession, Mantoni has become a committed rider as well. He sees the parallels in both of his passions, and applies them to the business: "It’s not necessarily about ‘getting there’ quickly-it’s about finding a steady, smooth pace."

This is Triumph’s new reality: adapting to the demands of the marketplace, rather than clinging to intransigent tradition. While the get-on-with-it Britishness remains, this is a company as global as it is local.

Mantoni also confirms that the new bike, with limited production, will not become commoditized. "Keeping the bikes rare is one of our main objectives," he says. "After all, if everybody has one, what’s the point?"

The next morning, two rare Thunderbirds are waiting for us in front of the factory under mottled skies. In the metal, the bike has more visual heft than photos suggest. Nothing extraneous here; it flows from prow to tail. The use of chrome is a mere accent. Balance-Prentice’s mantra-comes back to me.

I saddle up, choosing the black beauty over its companion in silver blue with a white racing stripe. Doing my pre-flight check, I scan the controls, shift in the seat, and get comfortable quickly. The tasteful fascia with the Thunderbird logo features both analog dial and digital readout. The word balance comes to mind again. "The bike feels big at first," says Taylor, "But you’ll soon find the weight disappears under you."

With a bass rumble like a roll of timpani, the parallel twin fires up. I follow my host, into the Leicestershire countryside. How can I be so at ease, so soon, on a motorcycle I hardly know? Gliding over hill and dale, I learn that unlike some machines, the Thunderbird does not tell you how to ride; it rides with you.

The s-curves, hairpins, and camber changes of the narrow carriageways flavor the journey, the Thunderbird’s chassis managing each mile without fuss. The throttle, gearbox and brakes are supple and precise, in keeping with the character of Triumph’s sport bikes and grand tourers. A cruiser without clumsiness, the Thunderbird is as suave and subtle as a pair of Church’s Oxfords, stepping lively and lightly as we go.

The engine has urge without urgency, and just enough bite in its sound. "It’s not just the numbers," Warburton had told me, "It’s about how it delivers the power. The parallel twin is an ideal solution: you feel the thump, but without any hard edges." He cited Triumph’s decision to use a torsion damper to eliminate engine vibrations. As we roll along, I sense this is a motorcycle I can easily spend the day on.

Stopping at the revered racetrack of Mallory Park to shoot some photos, we meet Jack Valentine, who prepared many of the Triumph racers during the days of the TT, and the Transatlantic Challenge run in this very spot. He gives the Thunderbird a thumbs-up.

We carry on. The wind in my helmet sounds like "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" as the Midlands unfolds its blanket of green. The view is sprinkled with thatched roves, curlicues of chimney smoke, sheep grazing. The roads weave through villages with names like Fenny Drayton and Sheepy Magna. Pub signs etched with hand painted silhouettes and heraldic symbols invite one to forget time. Stop into The White Horse for a spot of tea, a lunch of grilled sole with prawns, scrub off the chill. Resume the journey, feel the adrenaline. The T-Bird and I are now fast friends.

If Triumph is the delta for the history of British motorcycles, Birmingham’s National Motorcycle Museum, a privately owned institution celebrating the nation’s two-wheel treasures, is the source. Strolling twixt the rows of immortal iron horses, it struck me how the species had evolved.

A pair of 1949 Thunderbirds were there, as if they had been waiting for us to arrive. I remembered something Warburton had told me: "The new Thunderbird is the ’49 Thunderbird, 60 years on. There’s a desire for this kind of motorcycle. What made the original successful in its time, elicits the same questions as we launch it today."

The late afternoon was golden as we galloped back down the motorway filled with cars and tractor-trailers. When they dared intrude upon our space, the Thunderbird roared back at them. The sun and wind whipped my face, and the sting of tiny stones flying up from the tarmac felt good.

I was McQueen, I was Dean, I was Brando in The Wild One; I was cruisin’, cooler than Cruise. The Thunderbird and I laughed together at the ones in the four-wheel cages, at their envy, at our pact of individuality and freedom. This was not their road anymore. It was our road.

You want cred? The ‘Bird has it. It will elicit desire, from Derbyshire to Daytona Beach, Milan to Malibu.

Taylor had told me why this model evokes Triumph’s "Go Your Own Way" philosophy-slash-marketing-platform. "We don’t feel we need to shout," he says. "So it’s a motorcycle for the individual who feels likewise." The Thunderbird is the individual that speaks with cool authority.

And this muscular cruiser triggers all kinds of motorcycle fantasies. I imagine pulling up on my black ‘Bird to The Rock Store on Mulholland Highway in Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains. A Sheryl Crow clone lofts a look in my direction. Cue the music. Like Steve McQueen, all I need’s a fast machine, and I’m gonna make it all right. "Hey handsome," she says. Of course, she means the machine.

The cruiser is cool again. Its name is Thunderbird.

Photography by Jason Critchell

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One of the few moto journalists based on the East Coast, Ron Lieback joined the motorcycle industry as a freelancer in 2007 and is currently Editor at Large at Ultimate Motorcycling. He is also the author of 365 to Vision: Modern Writer's Guide (How to Produce More Quality Writing in Less Time).