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Fast and Wild: The Legacy of the Triumph Thunderbird

The Thunderbird’s legacy began in 1949 when Triumph General Manager Edward Turner saw the Thunderbird motel in Florence, South Carolina, while traveling from New York to the races in Daytona Beach, Florida. Turner thought the name “Thunderbird” was perfect for Triumph’s newest model.

This 650cc motorcycle, based on the popular 500cc Speed Twin, debuted in 1950 and won accolades for its speed and handling. The Thunderbird was the first motorcycle designed and produced by an overseas OEM specifically for the U.S. market and quickly became Triumph’s #1 seller.

In 1951, Triumph’s rich heritage of land speed racing was born when a Thunderbird set a land speed class record of 144.32mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

This inspired Marlon Brando to ride his personal Thunderbird in 1953’s cult classic film “The Wild One”, and aided in generating a whole new legion of fans. Ironically, the Triumph management team tried to halt Thunderbird’s placement in the film because they feared it would portray motorcycling in a negative light.

In 1955, Dallas, Texas dealer Big D Cycles built the Thunderbird-powered Devil’s Arrow streamliner and Johnny Allen piloted it to a world land speed record of 193.72mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats.  That same year, Ford Motor Company licensed the Thunderbird name from Triumph for its iconic new sports coupe.

The Big D team returned to the Salt in 1956 and set a new record with the Thunderbird-powered Texas Cee-gar streamliner at 214.7pmh. This success led Triumph to be known as the “World’s Fastest Motorcycle” and when it came time for Triumph to name its new model in 1959, the fastest production motorcycle of its time, they chose the name Bonneville in honor of the Texan’s accomplishments.

The Thunderbird continued as a hallmark of Triumph’s modern era success. In 1995, the Thunderbird 900 was instrumental in Triumph’s successful return to the North American market. When the Thunderbird was re-introduced in 2009 as an American style cruiser, it won Cycle World magazine’s “Cruiser of the Year” for its power, handling, and style for two consecutive years.

Rider magazine says that the updated Thunderbird Commander and Thunderbird LT have “quite possibly the most comfortable motorcycle saddle this rider’s ever cruised upon” and “their parallel-twin engines set them nicely apart from the pack.”

See what more North American press had to say about the new Thunderbirds at its global press launch.

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