2014 Triumph Thunderbird LT & Commander Test | Modern Tradition

2014 Triumph Thunderbird LT & Commander Test | Modern Tradition
2014 Triumph Commander

2014 Triumph Thunderbird LT & Commander Review

At the International launch of the 2014 Triumph Thunderbird LT and Thunderbird Commander models, Triumph North America CEO Greg Heichelbech and Triumph Product Manager Simon Warburton repeated common themes — tradition and history.

And, why not? The brand is as storied as any. Triumph rolled out its first Thunderbird model in 1949, powered by a long-stroke 649cc air-cooled OHC parallel twin designed by Edward Turner, and it is an indispensable part of Triumph lore.

The 6T Thunderbird was Triumph’s first 650 twin and the British motorcycle press couldn’t wait to trumpet—pardon the pun—the results of the first sustained high speed tests done at Montlhéry, France.

The September 29, 1949 issue of “The Motor Cycle” magazine reported that three factory-prepared production Thunderbirds ran the concrete course, all achieving average speeds of just over 92 mph for a 500-mile distance, followed by each averaging over 100 mph for a flying lap.

“The Motor Cycle” article author George Wilson summed up the Thunderbird this way: “A machine designed primarily for sustained high speeds on the vast, smooth highways of America, South Africa and Australia.” Wilson’s assessment is even more apt for the Thunderbirds of today.

Fast-forward 65 years to the new Triumph Thunderbird LT (Light Touring) and Commander models. The engine is still a parallel twin, but displacement has blossomed to a booming oversquare 1699cc. Triumph has touted it as the world’s largest parallel twin since its debut on the Storm in 2011, which the Commander replaces.

Liquid now cools the engine and double overhead cams have replaced the pushrod overhead valve system. Multiport sequential electronic fuel injection feeds the big twin through two intake valves per cylinder, replacing the single Amal carburetor on the original Thunderbird.

That high-speed vibration the British vertical twins were noted for is all but a memory due to dual counterbalancers. A six-speed transmission, with helical gears for 2nd through 6th, replaces a four-speed cluster, a toothed drive belt replaces a roller chain for final drive, and ABS disc brakes replace expanding drum brakes.

Even compared to previous modern Thunderbirds, the 2014 LT and Commander have been updated. The new Thunderbird twin in the LT and Commander produces a claimed 93 horse- power at 5400 rpm and a road-churning 111 ft/lbs of torque at a mere 3550 rpm; the 270-degree firing interval gives the Thunderbird the staccato sound favored by so many riders.

On the LT, that sound is produced with the help of elegant twin tapered tri-oval mufflers that cap the chromed twin-skin stainless steel 2-1-2 exhaust system. The Commander’s mufflers have a rather more bare knuckles appearance that Triumph has characterized as a “drain pipe” silencer. We don’t have any sound level data to confirm it, but the Commander subjectively has a slightly more boisterous exhaust note than the LT.

The engine is tall, yet has been wrapped into the twin spine tubular steel chassis design as a stressed member in such a way that seat height is kept at 27.5 inches on both bikes.

Maintaining the visual link to the historic air-cooled vertical twins of the past, the engine includes faux cooling fins over the water jacket; actual cooling is handled by a long, narrow radiator that is flanked by the exhaust headers that drop down each side of the front of the engine, with a balancer tube crossing below the radiator.

Engine heat is really not a problem even on a warm day, with the engine and radiator package isolating much of the heat for- ward and away from the rider. Lavish use of chrome with blacked out background highlights the lines of the engine, crankcase and transmission. Lost, of course, is the vintage pre-unit construction visual and function.

The LT keeps its connection to the past with 56-spoke wire-laced wheels, while the more modern Commander gets five- spoke aluminum alloy wheels. Tire width is predictably different, while the LT gets Avon Cobra whitewalls (the first radial white-walls, according to Triumph), and the Commander has Metzeler Marathon rubber.

The street-burning Commander gets a beefy 200mm rear tire, and the LT is issued a footprint 20mm narrower. Conversely, the Commander’s front tire is 10mm narrower than the LT’s fat 150mm front.

The engine and transmission package keeps the center of gravity and seat height low, while the rake is conservative—just a hair off of 30-degrees on both bikes. Being a tourer, the LT comes equipped with semi-rigid bags, quick-detach windshield, and a backrest/luggage rack, which adds 70 pounds to the Commander’s claimed wet weight of 766 pounds.

The result of these different configurations is that the Commander has an expected slight response edge to cornering inputs and acceleration gusto. Even with the consistent 65.5-inch wheelbase that both bikes share, the LT’s balanced tire widths make it more at home in sweeping corners and long touring straightaways, where the large footprint of the front Avon is appreciated.

Despite their size and weight, each iteration is surprisingly nimble. The handling of both bikes is light and neutral, even in hairpin corners at relatively low speed with no tendencies toward oversteer or understeer. The bike holds your cornering line with precision and ease.

Front suspension on both bikes uses shrouded 47mm Showa forks with 4.7 inches of travel; at the rear there are preload-adjustable Showa twin shocks with 4.3 inches of wheel movement. At both ends, the springs are dual-rate, but the LT gets a slightly stiffer spring formula in the rear to accommodate passenger and touring load.

The suspension provides a posh ride when cruising, and there is no wallowing, even during spirited cornering. Under firm braking situations, the Thunderbirds stay straight and nearly level.

That said, the LT more than holds its own and shines when the road opens up for long straightaways. There, the look-over windshield and relaxed ergonomics demonstrate the LT’s touring design emphasis.

I rode the LT with the optional taller windshield and found the shorter windshield particularly good—of course, that is to each rider’s size and taste. Lower wind deflectors are available as options.

A spacious backrest/luggage-rack combo and quick detach windshield complete the touring array on the LT. Touring accessories can be fitted to the Commander, as well, for a personalized machine.

The progressive throttle linkage allows precise power control, and the six-speed transmission makes it easy to match engine speed to demand. The torque comes on low rpm, so it is possible to accelerate in any gear, even from very low speed without feeling the engine lug or lurch. Just dial up the power and away you go.

Rolling the throttle on in third and fourth gear is a particularly rewarding experience, as the pace goes from leisurely to lunging in a couple of seconds—but only if you want it to.

When you do shift, the wet, multiplate clutch is very light and engages smoothly. The six-speed transmission clunks a bit going into first on both bikes, and then clicks quietly and easily from gear to gear.

Finding neutral required a couple of passes of the lever initially; over time, it became instinctive. The heel-toe shifter restricts foot position on the footboard, but the shifter is adjustable.

Rider and pillion floorboards on the LT are equipped with rubber contact surfaces that prevent foot slippage and minimize vibration. The passenger gets footpegs instead of footboards on the Commander. Rider floorboards on both bikes have replaceable inserts under the outside edge to allow plenty of spirited cornering wear.

Seating position differs slightly from Commander to LT. The Commander handlebars tend to bring the rider into a bit of an aggressive forward lean, while the LT set-up produces a more upright touring position that lends itself to longer riding intervals between breaks behind the classic-style windshield.

Triumph reports spending considerable design time perfecting the seat. Featuring double-layer dual density cushioning, the saddle shape is wide with flared sides and lumbar support to maximize the area of rider support. There is enough breadth and length to allow some position changes for the rider, which works to help prevent pressure point sore spots on long rides.

The lumbar support pad emblazoned with the Thunderbird name works to create support up the back of the rider’s pelvis. On long rides, the seat is very comfortable and all but forgotten across the miles—a sign of success.

Both bikes feature fuel tanks holding nearly six gallons, with off- set filler cap. As is recent tradition with Triumph, two small bars inside the opening of the fuel tank make filling up a tedious exercise.

Tank-top instrument panels house a large analog speedometer and fuel gauge and LCD twin trip meters, odometer, clock, and range-to-empty indicator—all scrollable from a handlebar control.

The hand controls are easy to use, even with leather riding gloves on, but tank-top location of instrumentation and indicator lights requires taking your eyes far off the road. Although the instrument faces are readable at a glance, this can be a little trickier on mountain roads that demand complete rider focus. Neither bike came equipped with cruise control—an oversight on the LT, certainly.

The LT equipment included semi-rigid 2.5mm leather saddle- bags with a maximum load capacity of 15 pounds and 7.5 gallons of space. The bags include lift-out nylon zipper-closure totes, and quick-release buckles concealed behind the traditional style metal buckles.

The saddlebags are not lockable, so that can be a bit of a dis- advantage if you need to stow any expensive gear at an event or rally; neither bike has a helmet lock. The right side bag includes a 12-volt socket and two storage pockets for charging all those mobile accessories we haul around these days.

The LT and Commander share LED tail lights but the LT has a triple light arrangement up front, while the Commander has dual headlights similar to earlier versions of the Speed Triple. Paint, chrome and overall finish appear flawless throughout the bikes. To underscore the traditional workmanship in the product, Triumph painstakingly hand paints the pinstriping on a Thunderbird tank.

In staying true to its heritage, Triumph has developed a new Thunderbird platform with the classic lines that reflect the brand’s history, as well as the performance that has been a hallmark of the Triumph name.

Whether your 2014 Thunderbird preference is the power-cruiser Commander or light-touring LT, Triumph has presented you with two motorcycles that are as impressive to ride as they are to look at.

Photography by Alessio Barbanti & Paul Barshon

  • Helmet: Joe Rocket RKT-Prime
  • Jacket: Joe Rocket Speedway
  • Gloves: Joe Rocket Windchill
  • Pants: Joe Rocket Pro Street
  • Boots: Joe Rocket Big Bang 2

Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; for subscription services, click here.