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SuperDave's Classic Bike Reviews
1965 Triumph Tiger 90



  • Sporty 350cc twin cylinder, twin cam, pushrod 4 stroke.
  • Baby Bonneville looks.
  • Classic British Thunder bike.
  • Assaults all 5 senses.
  • Big fun for tiny money.


As chosen by Steve McQueen and the Fonz.

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In the '60s the Triumph Bonneville was King.
Low budget rockers could get the same looks for less money with the 500cc Tiger 100 and the 350cc Tiger 90. The 90 refers to the top speed and 90 miles per hour is a lot quicker than any Mod on a scooter.
Owned by SuperDave from 1981 to date.


What's it like:

The Tiger 90 is a classic British bike.
It's mechanically noisy, vibrates, leaks oil and kicks like a mule but the sound it makes from the twin pipes is pure stereophonic thunder. You can blat about town on this thing and everyone notices you but no one complains. The exhausts are straight-through cherry bombs that produce a loud but deep and mellow throbbing. If this bike were human it would be Barry White. The motor pulls strongly from idle and it is easy to get ahead of the traffic at the lights. You can squeeze right along side the front cars confident that you can launch it instantly the lights change - and you can't do that on an RD250 because it is likely to bog down on take-off. Once you are on the move you get the full Brit-Thunderbike experience along every stretch of road. Because it is a small motor, you get to work it hard through its four speed wide ratio gearbox without running out of road too quickly or breaking the speed limits by too much.
The midrange is flexible and mostly you use the 2500 to 4500 range. Twist the throttle in any gear and she's off. Upper mid range doesn't have much more to offer and just produces more vibration - I need to work on this. This baby does like to rev though. A 7500 redline may not seem much to you but when you hit it you know it. This is the sporting version of the Triumph 350 motor and from 6000 to 7500 it really goes. The cacophony of noise, vibration and discomfort assaults every sense. You feel like you're doing the ton past the Ace Cafe even though you're only actually doing 70. After a 30 mile thrash with my brother on his Bonneville I looked and felt like I'd come last in the Paris-Dakar rally. To him it was just a gentle cruise. The brakes are weak. Fortunately you don't need them. Engine braking is strong. The front is a non-standard 8 inch single leading shoe drum (the original is 7 inch) and needs a hard pull to have any effect. The rear brake is a 7 inch SLS drum and is quite good having a very long pedal. You can actually lock it up. The suspension is stiff and unforgiving. Despite a great deal of effort and various different grades of fork oil I have never managed to get much damping effect in the front forks. You hit every bump hard so you carefully scan the road ahead to avoid the worst of the potholes. A full time job given the dreadful state of London suburban streets. The roads have had 35 years of damage since this bike was made. Triumph handling was always considered poor compared to Nortons of the same era but I have to say that the T90 is not that bad. The thin large diameter tyres make cornering totally predictable. Sure, potholes throw it off course but we avoid those don't we. This bike is great for hammering round tight bends and thundering off up the road.


Where it's good:

The Tiger 90 is best on slower roads deep in the bosom of suburbia.
You can work the motor through the gearbox out of every turn.
It feels like you're doing the ton when you're nowhere near it.
It's noisy, vibrates and leaks oil.
Comfy sit-up-and-beg riding position.
Musical exhaust note. If you like Barry White.
Light action 4 speed wide ratio gearbox with novel low tech analogue gear indicator.
Unbelievably totally reliable. Easy to start once you've got the knack. Easy to work on.
Rubbish 6 volt electrics can be converted to 12 volts for next to no money.
The cheapest transport possible in the UK. No road tax. Classic insurance. 60 miles per gallon. Parts are cheap and easy to get. It needs four star fuel but I've fitted a Broquet fuel catalyst and it has now been running for the last 4000 miles on unleaded with no problem
You get plenty of admiring looks from the bus stop on pension day.


Where it's bad:

Heavy traffic makes it overheat causing the idle to become unreliable.
There are no indicators so you have to stick your arms out in the breeze.
If it stops it always starts again first kick.
Fast open roads are not where it's at for the T90.
90 miles per hour? You're joking right? I tried it once but never again - I thought it was going to fall to pieces and chuck me down the tarmac. 75 mph is a realistic safe top whack.
The brakes could be better. I might fit the excellent later 8 inch twin leading shoe as used on the Bonneville.
Harsh suspension.
Hard seat with 40 year old foam.
Feeble 6 volt electrics.
Rust is a problem.
Instruments are small and point to the sky.
Speedo wavers about 10 mph either way.
Admiring looks could be 3 or 4 decades younger.


Famous Triumph lump. Mine's got an analogue gear indicator.

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This bike was bought as a non runner in 1981 when British bikes were deeply unfashionable. It was put together and used as student transport by my brother for 3 years. It then spent the next 14 years or so gathering rust in my garage under a heap of junk. One day I thought I would try and get it running - just for the hell of it. The fuel in the tank had been standing so long that it had turned to a stinking light oil. The piston rings were rusted to the bores and had to be soaked in WD40 to get them free. I wasn't going to spend any money so I smoothed the ridges left by the rusty rings with emery cloth. I did buy new rings though. The 6 volt battery had long expired and was replaced as was the oil. When the great day came and it was ready to run, a crowd of kids had gathered round. I really didn't expect it to start but there was a spark so it was possible. For three kicks it felt promising then on the forth the beast awoke with a thunderous roar. A cloud of rust poured from the exhausts, children scattered, the younger ones in tears. I was instantly hooked and a biker again. A bit more tidying and it was back on the road.
The performance though was dismal. The thing felt heavy and lifeless with a top speed of not much over 50mph.
The idle was unreliable and it coughed and failed when you blipped the throttle. The Amal Monobloc carb was full of rust from the fuel tank and completely knackered. I struggled for a year with it trying various combinations of jets and needle positions none of it making much difference. I had terrible problems with pinking. Then one day I found an unused Amal Concentric carb under a birds nest in my dads garage. I think it came off an old Ducati single. What a difference it made. It felt like a different bike. Revvy with a punchy mid range where it had been flat before. The down side was that it was almost impossible to start and the idle was even worse.
One great thing about these old bikes is that they are easy to work on and experiment with. It takes less than 2 minutes to change the main jet and the jets are so cheap that you just buy a wide range of them and find which one is best. Simple - except that (unlike an RD250LC) small changes in carburation do not make much difference so it's hard to tell if things are better or worse. Salvation came from a detailed article on the Amal Concentric published in Classic Bike magazine. I discovered that mine was jetted for a 2 stroke! The difference being the needle and needle jet. I fitted the correct parts and the difficult starting was cured as well as the dodgy idle and poor pickup from idle. Excellent. The carburation is now quite good. There is a still range from 4500 to 6000 where it doesn't exactly encourage you to go and I need to sort this. The idle still fails when it gets hot in traffic
I have converted it to 12 volt electrics and the next job will be to fit electronic ignition. Ignition timing is hit and miss on this bike. The contact breaker points have to be set to precisely the same gap then the backplate turned to approximately the right position. There are no strobe timing marks and without a dial gauge you have to go by feel. I set it by advancing it until it just pinks under load then back it off to the point where the pinking stops. I'm hoping that electronic ignition will improve my slight flat spot and the still not perfect idle. this space.