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Sparks still fly

The Royal Enfield Thunderbird’s all-new engine doesn’t improve things by much, but that’s not the point really...Read more...

autos Updated: Dec 23, 2008 20:27 IST

The Royal Enfield Thunderbird’s all-new engine doesn’t improve things by much, but that’s not the point really, writes Rishad Cooper. may just be the biggest technical leap forward for Royal Enfield in its history. The Chennai-based company has made some useful technical developments in the past decade, including aluminium construction for its trusty 346cc single-cylinder motor, a five-speed gearbox and transistorised coil ignition (TCI), but the introduction of an all-new Twinspark engine in the Thunderbird promises to make a biggest difference. Why?

Because the company claims it’s been optimised to deliver hassle-free motoring with minimal maintenance, something most Thunderbird lovers have longed for. But is there a price to pay for this new-found efficiency? Has the bike lost any of its charm, that intangible element which is a large part of the reason why the Thunderbird is still so popular? We’re about to find out.

At first glance, or in silhouette at least, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the Twinspark and any other Thunderbird. Until, of course, you look at the engine. It’s a modern-looking powerplant by Royal Enfield standards, with an integrated crankcase and a gearbox intended to reduce oil leakage.

Every other bit is as you remember it: the round headlamp, twin instrument pods, front disc brake, swooping seat and pillion backrest, all exactly the same as the regular Thunderbird’s. What does immediately catch your eye, though, is the shorter muffler that we got on our test bike.

It looks so much better than the ghastly mile-long muffler that comes standard with this bike. The quarter panels below the seat feature a tiny ‘Twinspark’ sticker, which is the only indication of this major technical leap forward in the bike. Also on either side, just below the tank, are round reflectors — a useful touch when you’re emerging from a side road onto a highway. But, if anything, Royal Enfield really should’ve grabbed this opportunity to give the Twinspark a more distinctive visual identity.

A good place to start would’ve been the fuel tank. The sheet-metal lange welded below it is an eyesore, while the fuel tank cap looks straight out of a history book. A redesigned tank would really work, especially with that meatier-looking engine lurking underneath. The Twinspark does well to offer snail-cam chain adjusters, as against the more conventional system used in most Indian models.

Paint lustre, fit-finish and overall, this Royal Enfield could still do with a large shot of quality but, as with all models from this badge, die hard fans will steadfastly insist this only serves to add character on a classic motorcycle like this.

The big news about this bike is its power-plant. An all-new engine, it features twin-spark plugs firing together, an automatic decompression facility and unit-construction that the company claims has taken care of the oil seepage that was a major hassle with the old engine.

Although a lot does remains identical, other significant changes include a high-flow trichoidal oil pump, hydraulic tappets, an automatic primary chain tensioner and a drive chain assembly that’s been moved to the right to reduce transmission loss.

The bore, stroke and compression ratio are all exactly the same. The Twinspark benefits from TCI ignition for a good spark. You get 2 bhp more, which now means an output of 19.8 bhp, and 2.85 kgm of torque, a negligible 0.1 kgm more than on the older version. Does that translate into discernible benefits on the road? No.

Sling a leg over it and it feels the same. Thumb the starter and you notice a smoother feel near idle; the handlebars don’t judder in your hands just yet. Select first gear and as you let the clutch out, it feels a bit better than what you’re normally used to. A six-plate clutch instead of four makes its presence felt.

As you accelerate through the gears, this smoothness diminishes, replaced with vibrations typical of Royal Enfield, which amplify as the engine nears its red-line — this is where things start getting really rough, and it’s obvious that thrashing the engine is not the way to ride this bike. It feels at its brisk best shifting up just past maximum torque.

Shift action is relatively lighter, but still nowhere as good as what you get on contemporary bikes in India. A heel-and-toe lever would be appreciated by dandies who don’t like to scuff their riding boots on a toe-shifter.

A constant-velocity carburettor provides smooth response with every twist of the wrist, and throttle action is fluid, but the amount of twist needed for throttle actuation should be a little less.

The figures give you an idea of how similar a Twinspark performs relative to a regular Thunderbird: the sprint to 60 kph is less than a tenth of a second quicker.

The riding position of the Twinspark is typical cruiser fare, and its saddle is a reasonably nice place to be on long rides. The seating geometry tends to place weight on the base of your spine, which then starts to ache much before your wrists or shoulders do.

The Thunderbird uses those familiar tall, kicked-out forks and an extended single-downtube frame. Its gas-charged dampers at the rear are par for the course for motorcycling in India, but even on their softest setting tend to bounce when the bike is pushed to its limit — they work best when the bike is properly loaded.

Stretches of rippled and rutted tarmac, so common on our roads, need you to throttle back or risk being thrown off line. The front end is not very nicely behaved either, and takes up more than its fair share of rider concentration. The new T’bird, like most Royal Enfields, isn’t a bike that corners with élan.

The Thunderbird Twinspark is rather a burden in city traffic, but a stable bike on the highway thanks in some measure to its 19-inch rims. The handlebars provide enough leverage for city riding, but there’s no escaping this bike’s heft and rangy wheelbase in the city. The Twinspark handles like the earlier Thunderbird, with a heavy, suspect amount of front-end grip.

It does warns you early before running out of grip, giving you breathing time to back off and save the day. The rear stays pretty much planted, which inspires confidence when riding two-up, and even does a good job when burdened with a pair of heavy saddlebags.

The brakes are a front disc/rear drum combination, and the bike brakes from 60 kph in 18.14 m, which is good considering its considerable weight. Some more feel from the front end would be nice, though.

Fuel economy is not a subject of relevance for Royal Enfield bike lovers, who will buy the Twinspark more for its lifestyle value than any need for economy. For the record, the Twinspark returns 35.7 kpl in the city and 36.8 on the highway, which is actually pretty good for this class of motorcycle.

Judged with the head, the Thunderbird Twinspark would not score very high marks. The lacklustre overall quality, hefty price tag and dated technology make it fairly impractical to own. Yes, the new engine is improved and more modern, but then these are changes that should’ve been made a long time ago.

We do feel Royal Enfield needs to do considerably more for its motorcycles before they become true classics, and to be able to compete with the current crop of Indian motorcycles.

But looking at the Thunderbird Twinspark as A to B motorcycling is missing the point completely. This is a bike you buy with your heart, for your heart. It is a bike you buy when you want character, exclusivity and old-world charm in today’s hurried times.

First Published: Dec 23, 2008 19:58 IST