By definition “recidivism” is a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior. For Triumph’s unveiling of the Thunderbird LT and Commander, it is a return to being the biggest, baddest bike around. Slipping back to its old ways, Triumph plans to take back the American marketplace with a parallel twin … make that a BIG parallel twin.
“Nobody has our heritage,” Triumph North America CEO Greg Heichelbech told the media types gathered at Southern California’s Rancho Bernardo Inn for the launch of the Thunderbird Commander and it’s LT (Light Touring) stablemate. In addition to the media, Triumph invited a group revisionist history writers, including Brian Klock, the Castrol Land Speed Record streamliner and the guys from retro classic specialists British Customs, LLC. “We now have an opportunity to write a little history of our own,” claims Heichelbech.
The original history of the Thunderbird is uniquely American – including the “Thunderbird” name itself. According to Heichelbech, Triumph’s boss Edward Turner stayed at the Thunderbird Lodge on Route 66 during a fact-finding trip to America and the name stuck. (Little known fact, Ford had to license the T-Bird name from Triumph for its iconic cars, not the other way around).
The Americans had been pressuring Turner for a larger displacement bike than the old Meridien-made 500s, so the 650cc Thunderbird TR6 was launched in 1949. In the U.S., bigger always seems to be better and the “new” Thunderbird beat hometown hero Harley in terms of torque and acceleration. Fast-forward to February 2014 and Triumph returns to this “bigger is better for the Americans” philosophy.
The recidivist strategy seems to be working. By tapping into history rather than avoiding it as Triumph did when the brand was first brought back into the U.S. in 1994, Triumph has improved profitability 200 percent, boosted revenues 80 percent, and increased retail sales by by more than 50 percent. The secret? “We got here by designing and executing a new strategic plan to accelerate growth by enhancing dealer profitability, promoting brand heritage, significantly increasing awareness, expanding the distribution network and streamlining the infrastructure.”
In other words, they succeed the same way they originally did in the U.S. More important is the dealer’s role in this success. Last year Triumph’s network of 225 franchised dealers retailed roughly 13,000 units and Heichelbech’s team is forecasting big things for 2014, hoping to exceed 16,000 bikes in an otherwise flat market. The key to these big plans is an expansion to 300 dealers. Opportunity is knocking for the right retailers.
“A bike like this was not even remotely fathomable when we brought the brand back,” says former Triumph exec Michael Lock. After starting with Triumph’s export sales department in 1991, Lock later went on to become the first CEO of Triumph North America, personally recruiting the original dealer network in this country. “I think the statute of limitations has expired, so I guess I can be telling you this,” laughs Lock. “Honestly we didn’t fully understand America’s nostalgia fascination.
When John Bloor brought the brand back in Europe, it was based on performance and capability for a hardcore group of riders, having a sense of history was not a driving factor in design or model mix.”
Lock now admits what worked in Europe didn’t work as well for Triumph over here. “We were selling reliable transportation in Europe, not a leisure past time, which motorcycling is for many Americans.” Despite these inherent limitations, Triumph managed to make some inroads into the U.S. market before Lock left in 1997. Having the advantage of hindsight, he has a unique perspective on what Triumph has been able to achieve in recent memory.
“The easy thing is to design the bike, difficult thing is to make the U.S. customers feel a sense of authenticity and have some heritage they can tap into. The buying audience is over 40 years old and they are asking themselves, ‘do I see this motorcycle in my life…it is not a commodity or product in a box, it really is a lifestyle.” He adds that the European brands headed by BMW, Ducati (Lock also help engineer the Italian’s turn-around from 2002-2010, but that is a story for another time) and Triumph are succeeding in engaging the American consumer with a sense of history and selling a lifestyle.
“Mind you, this isn’t actual history,” he notes. “Triumph never had a 1,700cc twin in its past! However, there is a certain believability to the mystique of Triumph offering a big parallel twin and the concept of massive amounts of torque makes old punters get misty-eyed remembering riding back in the 1950s,” explains Lock.
This modern day mythos just seems to work. The fact of the matter is Triumph claimed 45 horsepower for the original TR6 Thunderbird, but it was the incredible torque that was the hallmark for that machine. History re-writes itself as the new 1,700cc Commander and Thunderbird LT deliver on the promise of tons of torque. “It felt as if I could turn the globe on its axis when I left the stop light,” says MPN’s resident road tester Eric Anderson. “I fully expected to be able to see the sunrise again as the torque monster turned time back.”
Okay, so that is a little bit of an exaggeration … but not much! The new Commander produces more than 105 pound-feet of torque and 83 horsepower on the Cycle World dyno. Eric wasn’t the only one impressed with the Thunderbird Commander. “…with solid handling, instant and copious amounts of power, superb comfort and excellent fit and finish, they’re credible options to the me-too V-Twin machines populating the market now,” said Andrew Cherney in Motorcycle Cruiser’s May 2014 issue. “The Triumph Commander nails the classic cruiser formula,” concludes Cherney. Looks like history is set to repeat itself.