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Triumph America – Name Says It All (Review)

Though the Triumph America middleweight cruiser seemed like a response to a fad, it has endured where some expected it to fail. Born in uneasy times, the America is nothing if not a survivor and it’s a testament to its enduring ironic legacy that more is available for progressively less.

Born Under A Bad Sign

There’s a back-story to the Triumph America. Launched seven autumns ago near Atlanta, Georgia, the 790cc cruiser was the end product of years of cultural study and 120 separate concept drawings from which Triumph engineers summarized what they felt they knew about American preference. Triumph’s people also thought they then understood how and why a certain style of motorcycle could stand as proxy for the heartbeat of America. Triumph Motorcycle America Road TestThat’s not the back-story though. Rather, it’s the painfully exquisite timing of the press launch itself: Sept. 9 to 11, 2001. If the America was Triumph’s attempt to probe the American psyche, and consequently tap into the lucrative middleweight cruiser market, then the dates selected for the bike’s introduction to press could not have been more ironic. Nine-eleven was, if nothing else, a complete rejection of Western influence in general, and all things American in particular.

Not here though. On this side of the border the Triumph America continues to be the factory’s single top-selling unit, so says Triumph Canada General Manager Chris Ellis. That was the case in the fiscal year immediately following 2001, and that trend continues today.

All of which comes as something of a personal surprise. Though I was charmed by its first iteration, I never truly believed the America would stick. In my view, Triumph was only dabbling in a trend that didn’t befit its heritage, expertise or enthusiasms and that in three or four model years the America would be relegated to a place now occupied by the ‘90s-era Thunderbird: obscurity. When the sleeker, sportier, more capable Speedmaster was introduced in 2004 the final nail had been driven, so I assumed. I expressed these thoughts to Mr. Ellis and frankly suggested the Speedmaster, though more costly, made the America redundant. His response to that demonstrated a broader scope. How many variations of a 1340cc V-Twin does the world require, he asked.

Subtle as well as substantial changes have been made. In 2007, a displacement boost to 865cc, cast aluminum wheels, upper fork shrouds and adjustable clutch and front brake levers among other upgrades tuned the America in noticeable places. The adjustable brake lever might seem like a minor feature, but the fixed version squeezed down too far and regularly trapped dangling fingers. The upper shrouds lend a beefier look to the 41mm forks and were among the revised cosmetic elements that included a black engine. The increase in engine capacity is the most difficult change to appreciate, especially in the 2008 rendition, which is made even more sophisticated by throttle body fuel injection.

Contemporary standards have trained consumers to expect engine upgrades will necessarily bring power gains as the normal course of events, and that fuel injection will work miracles of delivery and economy on the order of Jesus feeding the masses. That’s not quite the case for the Triumph America. The carbureted 2001 version actually boasted a faster top speed: 110 mph (177 kmh) according to my notes from that year. In the 2008 variant, the best I could manage was 97.5 mph (157 kmh) after pinning the throttle in top gear. The current model was windshield equipped and this would surely account for some stolen highway performance but Mr. Ellis is willing to admit, that yes, the America has lost a step or two in terms of pure top-end. But, he makes a critical point. Power, he says, is now congregated where the rider is most likely to make best use of it. Not where he could theoretically use it, but where he actually “will” use it. Cruisers riders are a heavily studied bunch with well-documented habits and needs. First and foremost, they like motorcycles that allow the luxury of simply “enjoying the ride” and the road, and occasionally indulging in short, sharp bursts of acceleration. Nothing prolonged of course, but certainly dependable, predictable and authoritative. To that end, the 865cc engine now outputs 61 bhp at 6,800 rpm and 55 ft/lbs. torque at 3,300 rpm versus the former model which was positioned to produce 61 bhp at 7,400 and 44 ft/lbs. torque at 3,500 rpm. The same horsepower and greater torque arriving earlier than before yield not an ultimately faster bike, but certainly one that’s quicker in light-to-light or highway roll-on situations.

Triumph America beauty shot side

Fuel injection is a benefit for Triumph Motorcycles, which is obliged to conform to Euro 3 emissions standards, and for the potential owner seeking hassle-free starts. Visually, the throttle bodies are styled to look very much like the former twin carbs including a drilled chrome air cleaner and a sliding choke-like lever that pulls out to set the system on fast idle. Cold engine running is subsequently smoother under fuel injection but in terms of economy, well, is that truly an issue or even a legitimate expectation of a middleweight cruiser? For perspective though, before I’d even so much as tumbled the ignition key I fully expected the fuel supply warning light to come on around 240 kilometres. There were no surprises; the light flickered almost precisely on cue, after which I splashed in 3.17 gallons (14.425 litres) of mid-grade into the 4.24-gallon (19.3-litre) tank.

Only the hardcore rider will want to travel further on the Triumph America without a rest. Though the fuel-injected parallel Twin is a responsive and flexible platform, vibrations are deceptively muted at high rpms, and tingly hands at roadside stops are a reminder that both man and machine are working. And while the 15-inch-wide saddle seems capable, the stock forward pegs and 34-inch buckhorns set on two-inch risers push the rider’s weight fully onto his lumbar. The pleasure of the prolonged ride is then solely dependent on an individual’s pain threshold.
That’s not meant to diminish the America’s inherent refinements. Those same broad buckhorns easily lever the 497-lb. (226-kg) America through corners while the 12-spoke 18-inch Metzler Lasertec front and 15-inch Marathon rear tires silently hum along the asphalt. Generous ground clearance, an arguably class-leading power-to-weight ratio and competent double-shock rear suspension offer a wholly satisfying experience in smaller easy-to-digest chunks. But pushed further than day-ride use, the shortcomings become pronounced. Though the rear-set preload adjustable shocks suspend the double-cradle frame adequately over most paved surfaces, and allow 3.77 inches (96mm) of wheel travel, encounters with irregularities will produce harsh strikes. This is to be expected of the middleweight cruiser class, and actually the America fares better than most. But truthfully, I feel that too much is asked of the genre. Like all middleweight cruisers, the Triumph America is variously poised as a boulevard prowler, interstate trawler, testament to a distant past and show bike, all in one package, depending on your choice of options.

Triumph America riding 2008

Are you in the mood for matching pink slips? Then hook on a set of the factory’s so-called “closed circuit competition long silencers.” The performance pipes will set you back $481.59. Planning a big trip to the coast? Then bolt up a mid-height windshield ($391.99), 18-litre saddlebags ($660.79) and, in case you’re taking someone special, the tall version of the sissy bar and rack combo selling for $447.99.
Doing the retro thing? Perfect! Vintage badging ($119) and floorboards ($358.39) can be plucked from the accessories catalogue.
Entering the local show ‘n’ shine this summer? Then you’ll want the chrome wheel kit ($1,455.99), solo seat with chrome rail ($ 235.19), the teardrop style mirrors ($156.79), and custom flame paint job ($935.29). The leather tank bib will set you back $64.79 but the show judges will comment on the cellphone-size holder and award extra points for the feature. A deeper commitment of cash will return a chrome package that includes engine covers and so forth. Though specifics will change as the accessory catalogue grows, the one constant will be that every chrome part sold by Triumph has been subjected to 240 hours of salt spray testing. I have no idea what that means. Those may be consecutive hours or not, and why the number 240 is significant I simply couldn’t say. Still, it sounds very impressive and may well be the industry gold-seal standard for all I know.

What’s worth mentioning though is that all these modifications are only so-so in actual application. The accessory pipes deepen an otherwise raspy exhaust note, but for real performance values they’ll need to be complemented by further tuning that may or may not produce appreciable results. As Mr. Ellis himself points out, extra horses without proper placement on the power curve may well be effort out of context. Further, the harmonics just aren’t all that rich. In fact, I would argue that the only parallel Twin Triumph manufactures that sounds functionally better with the accessory pipe is the Thruxton—and in that format it truly is a thing of beauty.

The long-travel accessories only approximate that. The most capacious saddlebags available are 17 inches long, 7.5 inches wide (though they will stretch) and 10 inches deep for a capacity of nearly four gallons (18 litres). Not enough for a full-face helmet obviously and to date nothing in the cruiser category matches the clamshell panniers of Kawaski’s big Nomad for storage space, form and function. Triumph’s leather bags are okay, they seal tightly and are handsome enough, but you have to keep the price in mind, and the optional luggage rack is rated to only seven pounds (three kg). That’s generally the way of things when cruisers have been pressed into touring duty with items that are generically available through the catalogue, as opposed to being dedicated fixtures.

The same criticism can be leveled at cruiser windshields. The 13.5-inch-tall unit fixed to the press bike supplied by Triumph Canada through its soon-to-be new dealer, Custom Cycle and Marine in Saskatoon, performed as expected, blocking the majority of the wind charge while leaving behind a buffeting stream that annoys the rider’s forehead. Better than nothing at highway speeds, but a windshield, unless it’s integrated into a fairing or other bodywork, should be easily detached, as it is with Harley’s quick-clip system. The Triumph windscreen is solidly fixed at four points, while the saddlebags are fastened to their D-shaped frameworks with nylon straps and plastic buckles and a main strap running under the pillion.

In this grand era of intense specialization we can afford to be demanding and splitters of hairs. In another time, another place, any rider on the street would have been thrilled to own a motorcycle with the America’s versatility. Not even the cynic would have then pointed to the chain drive and suggested that it was out-of-date for the category or that the new cast rims are not in keeping with the spirit of the classic lines, and would you kindly return the wire wheels.

But this is now, and armchair critics abound. Does Triumph care? Probably not. After all, the customer votes with his wallet. As an interesting aside, the Triumph America was originally priced at $11,500. The 2008 version carried a $10,299 sticker (for the single-colour choice, the two-tone was an extra $200). Now, with the 2009 model year at hand, the MSRP has been set at $9,699. The realities of the current mercurial economy certainly play a role in the declining cost of Triumph’s top-seller but it seems a function of the bike’s continuing ironic legacy that more is available for progressively less.

– John Campbell


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