1953 Triumph Thunderbird
Of Blackbirds, black leather and Brando
What do black motorcycles, mandatory leathers for competitors making speed-record attempts, and Marlon Brando have in common?
They all have a connection to this Triumph Thunderbird.
Light, agile British machines began to make significant inroads into the American market following World War II, and Triumph was among the most successful. In fact, after 1950, more Triumphs were sold in America than in any other country.
The big bike in the line was the Thunderbird, a 650cc vertical twin introduced in 1950. The next year, motorcycle speed-record attempts began taking place under the direction of the Southern California Timing Association on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and in a few years, a Triumph rider would change the sport forever.
At the time, it was common for riders to strip down to bathing suits in an attempt to lower aerodynamic resistance. Around 1953, 18-year-old Tommy Smith was wearing just a bathing suit and tennis shoes for a record run aboard a Triumph Thunderbird. He got into a wobble and bailed off at 130 mph, suffering extreme skin injuries that required several grafts and more than two years to heal.
After that gruesome incident, racers were required to wear leathers.
In spite of that crash, record runs helped establish Triumph’s reputation for building fast, lightweight motorcycles. But the Thunderbird also helped define Triumph’s image in two other ways.
In 1953, the year this motorcycle was made, all Thunderbirds were blue. Americans wanted them in black, though, so the factory complied, creating a tougher-looking, U.S.-only version known as the Blackbird.
But the most famous element of the Triumph Thunderbird image came from Marlon Brando’s performance in a 1954 movie called “The Wild One.” Riding his own 1950 Thunderbird, Brando portrayed motorcycle-gang member Johnny in the film that started the biker-flick genre.
A still shot of a leather-jacketed Brando, astride the bike, with a stolen dirt-track trophy attached to the headlight, has become one of the most enduring images of motorcycling from the ’50s.
This particular Thunderbird, made in the midst of that historic time, is now owned by Dick Brown of Ashville, Ohio, and was previously on display in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio.