Motorcycle Road Test: 1998 Triumph Thunderbird Sport

This Triuph motorcycle's combination of nostalgia and performance may not move the cruisers of Main Street America, but it plays well in the boonies. From the December 1998 issue of _ Motorcycle Cruiser _ magazine.

There wasn't always an England, at least not for motorcycle enthusiasts. The British motorcycle industry entered a tailspin in the 1960s, leaving only a series of smoking holes by the 1980s. The best known and longest lasting of the original British motorcycle companies was Triumph, which finally succumbed to its failure to innovate and labor problems. But the power of its name, styling and image remained.

When a new company formed to build motorcycles in Britain in the late 1980s, it acquired the rights to use the Triumph nameplate and those of its various models. Unlike the original Triumph, which had produced designs minted in the 1930s in ancient facilities, the new Triumph builds modern motorcycles in new factories.

When this new company ventured into the U.S. market, it revived that wonderful name of the first Triumph motorcycle built with an eye on American tastes: Thunderbird. (Incidentally, Triumph was the first to employ the name, Ford used later.) This bike, reviewed in our previous issue, distinguished itself with nostalgic, cruiseresque style, which stand out among the sporting lines of most of the rest of the Triumph line. For 1996, the T-Bird was joined by the Adventurer, which amended the 'Bird's formula with a bit more chrome, a higher handebar and a solo saddle. Like the other bikes in the line, both used the same liquid-cooled double-overhead cam 885cc in-line triple.

This year, Triumph added a third machine to the Thunderbird series, the Sport. Framed by the same 62.2-inch-wheelbase chassis as the others with the same basic configuration, the Thunderbird Sport sets itself apart from the standard 'Bird by way of a number of changes. Dual discs, instead of the lone disc of the Thunderbird, stop the front wheel. The Sport's saddle rises over an inch higher than the "Bird's. The Sport gets, well, sporty suspension. The fork adjusts for rebound and compression damping and spring preload. The single rear damper gets adjustments for damping resistance both ways on top of the basic 'Bird's spring-preload adjustment.

Inside, changes to the carburetion, cam timing and exhaust configuration boost power by a claimed 20 percent beyond the T-Bird and Adventurer. The Sport also boasts six speeds. All the internal and external gear ratios are the same; the additional transmission rtatio slides in on top as an overdrive to make give more relaxed engine speeds on the highway.

Visually, the Sport separates itself from the standard Thunderbird with its exhaust system. Instead of the T-Bird's traditional mufflers, one on each side, the Sport carries two upswept reverse-cone megaphones stacked on the curb side of the bike. Triumph made may other styling changes, too. The Sport's engine is black and, instead of the chrome cover on the Thunderbird's airbox, it has some perforated chrome bands that mimic the air cleaners of the old Bonneville. The Sport uses a different tank badge, less chrome and no seat rail. In last issues comparison, we commented that the Thunderbird doesn't fall into "the approved mold" for a cruiser, and the Sport strays even farther from the stereotype. You can see it in the handlebar, which bends into just the barest rise, and the footpeg position, which is about six inches behind the T-Bird's already standard-bike position. This feet-back, canted-forward carriage may be a bit too sportbike-like to some cruiser enthusiasts. However, it's not as radical as a real sportbike, so your legs aren't as cramped and, because of wind pressure, there is no weight on your arms at highway speeds. In fact, the bike was quite comfortable at high speeds, and worked well in the city too boot. The 28-inch wide bar makes it easy to squeeze through tight spaces, and even though it carries a larger fraction of its weight on the front wheel than most bikes, steering is light and responsive.

We were less fond of the saddle, which feels right initially, but goes bad within an hour, and would be one of our first changes. A low-magnitude vibration sometimes intruded at fast highway speeds (in excess of 70 mph), but faded away when we shifted to sixth. Except for hobby-horsing on some sections of concrete-slab interstate highway, the ride was also commendable, with travel enough to handle large bumps and suppleness to smooth out small jolts.

Though the Thunderbird was among the best-handling of last issue's Flagships, the Sport is superior to it because of its more adjustable suspension. We could dial out the dive that we noted on the T-Bird and better adjust the suspenders to match anticipated conditions. However, it's also possible for someone who doesn't understand the effect of such adjustments to actually degrade handling with adjustments. Some riders commented on a slight tendency to fall into corners, but all liked the Sport's steady, solid feel while heeled over, the considerable ground clearance, and the precise, nimble steering.

Though it may not be what American cruiser owners want for rumbling up and down the circuit on Saturday night, the Thunderbird Sport is tremendous fun in the mountains on Sunday morning. Where typical cruisers feel awkward and start to drag floorboards, the Sport is at ease and ready to play. Cornering speeds that make you work on a typical American-style ride are relaxed fun on this machine. Chalk it up to nostalgia, since British bikes always were more winding-road friendly than were the Harleys that used to be their rivals. And the Sport is better a sport than either of the other machines from the Thunderbird line.

That double brake up front also establishes the Sport as the performance leader of the T-Bird club. Two fingers provide enough power on the adjustable lever to bring the Avon tube-type radial to near-lock-up despite its considerable traction. The drawback here is that you can get in trouble in a panic situation if you haven't trained yourself to control the power or if you panic.

Rearranging the 885cc triple's power characteristics makes first gear suddenly seem as tall as it is. A quick getaway from a stop requires more revs than the standard T-Bird, and you must slip the clutch a bit more too. We actually thought first gear was taller than the Thunderbird's until we checked the specs; in fact, all the ratios are the same. The Sport pulls smoothly from down around 1500 rpm, but doesn't completely gather itself until 3000 rpm or so. By 4000 rpm, you are rocket man. Though it will actually pull away from many bigger (and heavier) cruisers in sixth gear, the Sport feels a bit sluggish. If you click the smooth-shifting gearbox down a couple of cogs, it can fly past dawdling traffic. In fact, if you keep stirring the six-speed, you can't count on your thumbs the number of cruisers than can hang with it.

In more pedestrian moments, the Sport starts easily with little encouragement from the handlebar choke lever. It warms quickly and idles smoothly with a distinctive three-cylinder sound that just gets sweeter as the revs rise. The hydraulic clutch is light and progressive, and neutral is easy to locate.

Our test unit's engine did uphold one tradition of the old Triumphs that would be best banished to the past. It began to leak oil past the base gasket at about 900 miles, staining the pipes. This would presumable have been fixed under warranty. The right turn signal's warning light signed off about the same time.

Though we complained about the T-Bird's instrument-panel lights being hopelessly dim, we had no such complaint about this machine, which appears to have the same instrument layout (including a tachometer). We didn't miss the chrome trim appended to the Thunderbird's warning light panel which has been omitted here. This bike has round mirrors instead of the horizontal items on the Thunderbird. The stalks also direct the mirrors up more than out past your arms, leaving you with very little useful rear view.

Those two megaphone mufflers stacked up the right drew the largest number of the many positive comments the bike's styling drew. Color and nostalgia also attracted smiles, though many felt that the simulated Bonneville air-filter cans were hokey. Most of the bikes shapes, especially the fuel tank and engine cases, which recall classic Triumph counterparts, drew praise as well, but the oversized taillight looks completely out of place and was voted most likely to be round-filed.

Though its unique blend of performance and nostalgia takes the Thunderbird Sport well off the beaten boulevard, we can't fault it for that, even though many conventional cruiser riders immediately wrote the bike off because of its performance orientation and more sporting ergonomics. Though performance and cruiser styling are rarely combined, there is no reason not to offer that option, and as more experienced, performance-minded motorcyclists are attracted to the comfortable ride of cruisers, we expect to see a larger selection of muscular cruisers to welcome them. In the meantime, those looking for classic style with a British flavor or punchy performance without kiddy color schemes and jungle-gym ergonomics (or both) have a fresh alternative. And you get it all for the same $8995 price of the rest of the Thunderbird family.

High Points: **Not a standard-issue cruiser, handling far superior to most cruisers, strong top-end power, great brakes with good power.
**Low Points: **Not a standard-issue cruiser, limited-distance seat comfort, fake air filter treatment.
**First Changes: **Replace or modify saddle, replace bulbous taillight.

1998 Triumph Thunderbird Sport

Designation: Thunderbird Sport
Suggested base price: $8795
Standard colors: Red/black, yellow/black
Extra cost colors: NA
Standard warranty: 24 mos., unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 12,000 miles
Triumph website:
Factory-sponsored owners group: Riders Association of Triumph (RAT)
Independent owners group: Triumph Owners Motor Cycle Club

Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse, inline triple
Valve arrangement: DOHC; 2 intake, 2 exhaust valves; shim adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 885cc, 76mm x 65mm
Compression ratio: 10.0:1
Carburetion: 3, 36mm Mikuni CV
Lubrication: Wet sump, 4.2 qt.
Minimum fuel grade: 87 octane
Transmission: wet multiplate clutch, 6 speeds
Final drive: Chain, 2.529:1

Wet weight: 540 lbs., 51% rear wheel
GVWR: 972 lbs.
Wheelbase: 62.2 in.
Overall length: 88.6 in.
Rake trail: 27 degrees / 4.13 in.
Wheels: Wire-spoke, 17x3.5 front, 17x4.25 rear
Front tire: 120/70R17 Avon AV27 tube-type radial
Rear tire: 160/70R17 Avon AV281 tube-type radial
Front brake: 2, single-action, 2-piston calipers, 12.6-in. discs
Rear brake: single-action, 2-piston caliper, 11.2-in. disc
Front suspension: 43mm stanchions, 5.9 in. travel, adjustable for spring preload, compression damping, rebound damping
Rear suspension: Single damper, 4.3 in. travel, adjustable for compression and rebound damping
Fuel capacity: 4.0 gal., (1.0 gal reserve)
Handlebar: 28.2 in. wide, 7/8-in. diameter
Seat height: 29.5 in.

Charging output: 300 watts
Battery: 12v, 14 AH
Forward lighting: 7.0-in 55/60-watt headlight, position lights
Taillight: Two bulbs, license light
Instruments: speedometer, tachometer, odometer, tripmeter; warning lights for high beam, left turn signal, right turn signal, neutral, oil pressure

Fuel mileage: 31 to 42 mpg, 38.0 mpg avg.
Average range: 152 miles
RPM at 60 mph, top gear: 3900
200-yard, top-gear-acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 77.3 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 12.81 sec., 105.2 mph

The Triumph Thunderbird Sport performed quite well in our April 2000 comparison of sport-cruisers.

Additional motorcycle motorcycle road tests and comparison tests are available at the Road Tests section of

Photography by Fran Kuhn
The narrow bar isn't very cruiserly, but it is comfortable at high speeds without a windshield. The idiot lights read well in sunlight.
The unique three-into-two exhaust has since been replaced by a three-into-one design.
Like the fork, the single rear damper offers an array of adjustments. The Avon tires are a rare combination of radials with inner tubes (for the wire wheels).
Strong brakes and good traction offer impressive stopping power.
The engine remains tractable and predictable despite a power boost from the basic Thunderbird. Chrome covers on the intakes mimic the individual air cleaners of classic Triumph twins.
The two-muffler exhaust made it easy to distinguish the Sport from the standard T-Bird.
The 2004 model (above) has changed little from the 1998 model tested here, but at $8499, it's $300 less expensive.