Triumph Thunderbird Racer

Gordon writes – When I started racing in the VMCC back in 1970, I used my 1947 500cc Triumph Tiger 100. This was my everyday ride to work bike, totally standard, and still fitted with lights, dynamo & even some tools in the toolbox! After my first season competing I had won the North West Vintage Racing Championship on the bike and continued t


o race it in ‘standard trim’ for the next few years. VMCC rules stated that

machines had to be at least 25 years old to be eligible to compete, so for the 1974 racing season I built a 1949 650cc Thunderbird. Now this was technically getting a jump on everybody else who was still using 500cc Triumphs at that time, as the rules stated 25 years old from date of manufacture and the Thunderbird was released for sale on the 1st January 1950, so in order for Triumph to have the bikes ready for sale they had to have been manufactured in late 1949!

This was no ride to work machine…… Weighing in at under 300 lbs & fitted with 10.5-1 High Comp pistons & E4220 cams with ‘R’ followers, a ported cylinder head, Amal TT carb, straight through exhaust pipes & a pukka close ratio gearbox it really flew! Performance wise, it would blow a CB750 Honda into the weeds and was genuinely on a par with Kawasaki’s mighty 900cc Z1. I raced it a few times but never really thought of myself as a ‘proper racer’, (I was always happier twirling the spanners) so lent it to friend of mine who really could ‘motor’ & he won the Championship on it that year and the year after….

Always happy to lend the bike to any racer who fancied a blat around on it during lunchtime parades at race meetings, the Thunderbird’s been used and abused by such luminaries as Mick Grant, Roger Munsey and Percy Tait to name but a few. Now my memory is a bit hazy after 1975 as I was now running 2 separate businesses and life was just a bit hectic. Several different lads raced the bike, still with success and to cut a long story short the rigid, Thunderbird was retired from racing in 1979. Its engine and gearbox was fitted into a later swinging arm frame in the quest for better handling.

A couple of years later I had all but packed in with the racing due to work commitments,although I’d still been having the odd outing on the 1947 Tiger 100 in Standard Class meetings (the equivalent of Vintage Production Class racing), and also using a 1978 T140 Bonneville that was raced in the Modern Production bike class, just for a laugh! Up against the Big Jap Superbikes of that Era like GS1000’s, GPZ1100’s, CB900’s & 1100 Katanas.

Jump forward to 2006, my son Rod was now 34, he was only a little boy when I originally built & raced the Thunderbird, but he fondly and vividly remembers us going to Burtonwood Aerodrome at weekends to test the bikes, with him sitting on the petrol tank holding onto the middle of the handlebars while I sat behind him (to stop him falling off) thrashing the bikes up and down the deserted concrete runways at the side of the M62. Is it any wonder that 30 years later he’s still such a Speedfreak?

Rod suggested that we drag out what was left of the original Thunderbird racer from storage in the loft of my garage and rebuild the bike, not to race but to sprint it and do the odd parade or Track Day. Nowadays, the orignal super strict VMCC rules of eligibility don’t apply as they did back in the early days so we decided for ease of the bone to use whatever bits we had lying around. It’s still using the original frame, forks, handlebars, engine cases, mysterious BSA petrol tank and my homemade primary chaincase, but as the bike runs in the unlimited class the engine is now using T140 Bonneville barrels and a 10 stud alloy head, so it’s 724cc not a 650. It runs twin 32mm Amal concentric carbs for ease of starting and it’ll tick over nicely, which the original GP carb had no provision for. Electronic ignition replaces the original magneto but those straight through exhaust pipes had to remain!

The bike was finished & first used in Anger at the Hoghton Tower Sprint in 2007, where Rod won his class the “Pre 1960 Unlimited (ie – Over 500cc)”. He repeated the win the next year and won his class at our Aintree Sprint which is a full 1/4 mile. Ironically, I raced the Thunderbird at the very first Hoghton Tower Sprint, winning my class and setting the FTD, at the 30th Anniversary Sprint Rod raced the same bike and won his class too! Not bad results for 30 years apart…. I must’ve taught him something after All! So this bike, that gave me so much pleasure all those years ago, now still gives that same pleasure though obviously with Our Rod on board!

Our highlight of every year comes with the Festival of 1000 Bikes at Mallory Park, words cannot describe how I felt the first time I saw our lad using the Thunderbird in Anger around the original, proper open layout of Mallory. Last year proved to be the best yet, the bike was really flying and never missed a beat, mixed with the glorious weather and massive crowds plus it’s so lovely to be seeing so many friendly faces from the past and chatting to old pals about racing and bikes in general. It’s a weekend that I’ll always treasure and never forget and to put the icing on the cake Rod fitted a small video camera onto the handlebars and the footage has to be seen to be believed! Especially watching him accelerate hard out of the hairpin where the grunt of the Thunderbird leaves all those pukka Grand Prix single cylinder Manxes & G50’s for dead….

We look forward to Every event together, ‘Dads & Lads’ fettling the bike by day and enjoying a beer in the evening. Using a bike as it was intended, Brilliant? You Bet !