Back in 2012 I bought a Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350 (see “The Search Begins“) and have ridden it quite a bit ever since.
Today the motorcycle looks like this.
Apart from the engine and chassis, I have changed just about everything else. I’m not the kind of person who likes to spend time, money and patience customizing a motorcycle to make it look good. Just about every modification was made with a very specific functional purpose in mind.
I have a serious problem with Royal Enfield calling the Thunderbird a cruiser. Their web site promotes this pathetic ZigWheels review favoring the Thunderbird over the Bajaj Avenger, calling it the best cruiser in India. The so called review is in itself a bad joke. The so called reviewer listed a bit of history, spat out some specs and arrived at a verdict. There is no evidence to suggest that he/she actually rode either motorcycle for a long distance.
The most important thing in a cruiser is its riding posture. Everything else comes later. I’m going to use the pictures of the ZigWheels review to make my point.
Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350. Pic courtesy: ZigWheels
Bajaj Avenger. Pic courtesy: ZigWheels
Notice the way both riders are sitting on the motorcycles. Notice the inclination of their backs and the way they stretch out their arms to grip the handlebars. The Thunderbird rider is leaning forward and his elbows are bent. The Avenger rider is leaning back and his arms are straight out like Superman with fists punching through the air. The Avenger riding posture is the right cruiser posture. I have owned an Avenger in the past and my Harley-Davidson Fat Boy has a similar posture. I’d like to add that I have done some serious cruising on my Fat Boy (see “The Golden Quadrilateral“).
The problem with the Thunderbird’s riding posture starts and ends with the design of the handlebar.
You can’t see the handle grips in the picture above, but they droop down and point to the ground. The other problem is that the handlebar is not wide enough. So although you start riding sitting upright, after about 50 kms your elbows start to bend and you lean forwards just like the Thunderbird rider in the picture above. Then slowly your back starts to arch. You end up getting a neck ache first which is followed by a back ache. Whoever designed the Thunderbird’s handlebar doesn’t know the first thing about cruising on a motorcycle.
I bought a custom wide handlebar with ends pointing sideways instead of downwards and welded a pipe across to mount my GPS, USB charger, GoPro camera and anything else. It has worked wonderfully for me and I can easily ride my Thunderbird all day for days on end. There isn’t a single Thunderbird owner I’ve met who hasn’t complained about the riding posture of the motorcycle, and yet Royal Enfield has done nothing to change its design.
Center Of Gravity
A cruiser needs to have a low center of gravity as it makes the motorcycle more stable on the road at cruising speeds. Unlike crotch rockets, cruisers are not expected to negotiate sharp corners at high speeds. So their ground clearance can and should be a less as possible. It is also important to note that when you sit on a motorcycle the combined center of gravity of man and machine gets moved higher. So its important that the rider sits as low as possible to the ground. The longer wheelbase (distance between front and rear axle) of a cruiser lends itself beautifully to a low seat height because the engine is placed in front of the rider giving the designer the freedom to move the seat lower.
Now look at the image of the Thunderbird above and you will find that none of the above hold true for the motorcycle. Instead of lowering the center of gravity, the Thunderbird designer actually increased it. The engine sits at the same height as previous Royal Enfield motorcycles, if not higher. The fuel tank is inclined and placed higher. The front forks are taller causing the instrument cluster and the handlebar to sit higher. Looks like the designer misread the requirement from management and worked on a design for an adventure motorcycle – tall and high. Then said to himself, “Oh! They asked for a cruiser? No problem, I’ll add this ridiculous handlebar and call it a cruiser. What do they know?” Royal Enfield actually marketed the tall design of the Thunderbird as a function of it being a cruiser. Nothing could be more blasphemous in the world of motorcycle design.
I didn’t want to mess with the chassis of my Thunderbird. So there was nothing I could do about the high center of gravity and high ground clearance. On a positive note, whenever I need to go over a speed breaker I stand on the foot pegs as if I’m riding an adventure motorcycle without fear that the crank case will scrape the crest of the speed breaker. I could not do that with my Avenger and cannot do that with my Fat Boy. If the speed breaker is too sharp and steep, I sometimes need to put one or both feet on the ground and get some weight off the motorcycle so as to increase the ground clearance of the Fat Boy. That way the lower tubes of the Fat Boy chassis don’t scrape the crest of the speed breaker. I will go so far as to say that if Royal Enfield decides to design an adventure motorcycle (which is diametrically opposite to a cruiser), the Thunderbird chassis would be a good start point. That’s how bad it is.
Cruisers are not meant to criss-cross through traffic and hence do not need thin tires. Fatter tires yield a larger contact patch which again adds to the stability and braking of the motorcycle at the cost of agility. This is perfectly acceptable and actually desirable in cruisers. My 2012 Thunderbird 350 came with a shameful 90 mm wide tire. Aesthetically it didn’t even suit the big build of the motorcycle, let alone being functionally a disaster. The motorcycle looked as ridiculous as a body builder wearing the shoes of a ballerina.
I immediately changed my rear tire to a 120 mm wide one. Thankfully the Thunderbird of the day comes with a 120 mm wide tire, which is still 10 mm narrower than that of the Bajaj Avenger. I wanted to put a rear tire wider than 120 mm. But again I was restricted by my decision of not messing with the chassis, in this case, the swing arm. Which leads me to believe that the designer of the newer Thunderbird also decided not to mess with the chassis and went for 120mm wide tires as well.
In my earlier post titled “Truimph Thunderbird LT – First Impressions” I wrote this about cruising.
“You really don’t start cruising when you reach cruising speed, whatever that speed is for you. Cruising really starts a few minutes later when your mind has had the time to settle into a comfortable zone. The rumble of the engine blends into ambient noise. The wind feels as if its part of your riding gear and the sound of the tailpipes are the only thing that reminds you that you are in motion.”
A cruiser has a perfectly balanced engine which is impeccably mounted on a chassis that is designed to be in harmony within the entire spectrum of operating frequencies of the motorcycle. Triumph’s Thunderbird LT, the Indian Chief Classic and the Harley-Davidson Softail range of motorcycles all have the cruiser feel. Even my Bajaj Avenger didn’t do bad in the feel department. But you ride any Royal Enfield, not just the Thunderbird, more than 60 kmph and every bloody thing starts to first vibrate and then rattle. From the handlebar to the foot pegs and everything in between and around. The rear view mirrors rattle so much that they become completely useless. As far as solutions to the problem go, I got nothing. I sorry to say but Royal Enfield will need to scrap everything they have done for all these years and start from scratch if they ever want to create a motorcycle that has a feel of a cruiser. I know I sound harsh. But there really is no way to sugar coat this.
Recently, Royal Enfield hired Pierre Terblanche, as head of Industrial Design. Pierre has designed motorcycles at Ducati, Piaggio, Norton and Confederate. I can visualize him looking at the drawings of the Thunderbird and having a forehead slap moment. I’m a Mechanical Engineer by profession and have made my living mainly by writing Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. I haven’t received any formal training and neither do I claim to know much about motorcycle design. But I do know something about cruisers and cruising long distance. If I were Pierre I would scrap the Thunderbird completely and start with a clean slate. In my opinion the differences between the Royal Enfield Thunderbird and what a cruiser should be are way to huge to reconcile. Period.