Are you loving the Scrambler motorcycle looks but unsure exactly what they are or are capable of? Here I look at the history of the Scrambler. From its origins in the countryside of England and the desert of California, to the duel purpose Classics of the 70’s and 80’s and finally a review of the current modern day retro Scramblers.
What is a Scrambler motorcycle? Before the arrival of the purpose built off road motorcycles the term Scrambler was used to describe any motorcycle modified for off road capabilities. Today ‘Scrambler’ describes a motorcycle style rather than a function.
So, that’s the short answer. It is worth noting that the modern retro Scrambler may look like it is built for off road riding but in reality is designed for the urban environment and some ‘light’ off road use only.
For more details about the Scrambler motorcycle such as how they got their name, the classic crossover motorcycles of the 70’s and 80’s and the modern retro machines of today read on…..
Table of Contents
- CLASSIC SCRAMBLER MOTORCYCLES OF THE 70’S AND 80’S
- CLASSIC SCRAMBLER EXAMPLES
- CUSTOM SCRAMBLERS
- RETRO SCRAMBLER MOTORCYCLES
EARLY SCRAMBLER MOTORCYCLES
Long before modern Adventure bikes were all the rage, before MX motorcycles, before Enduros and even before dirt bikes there were Scrambler motorcycles. Road bikes of the day customised by their owners to go anywhere they wanted, including off the beaten track.
It’s early 20th Century England, a group of young motorcyclists are sat outside a small village pub sipping Gin and Tonics.
“I’ll race you scoundrels back to the clock tower in town,” pipes up Edward. “Which route are we going Teddy?” asks one of his pals. “Any route you jolly well want,” states Edward as his Matchless 350 takes off across the farmers field opposite the pub while his friends scramble to their own machines – and a new form of motorcycle racing was born.
Mixing on and off road riding to get as fast as possible from point A to point B soon became popular with the British motorcycling crowd of the day. It is said an announcer at one of these race meetings declared over the tannoy that the ‘riders were having quite a scramble’ and the name stuck.
It soon became apparent that the Matchless, Triumph, Nortons and BSA’s of that era couldn’t cope well with the off road sections of these ‘as the crow flies’ races and so riders would customise their machines. In much the same way as the Cafe Racer builders of the 60’s would do, they adapted their motorcycles to suit their own needs.
Pretty soon the Scrambler motorcycle look emerged.
On the other side of the pond the American desert racers were doing much the same to their rides. Despite the weight of the American motorcycles those early desert Scramblers (the racers called them Desert Sleds) were generally modified Harley Davidsons and Indians.
Back then, the priority was to simply finish a desert race. The logic being that if you could actually get to the end then you had a good chance of winning the race because not many made it to the finish.
Later though, people like the Ekins Brothers were taking Triumph twin 500’s and 650’s and turning them into Desert Sleds. Once the suspension and handlebars had been extended, none essentials chopped and knobbly tyres fitted, they were lighter and handled better than the American motorcycles.
These custom Triumph’s would achieve legendary status in the desert during the 60’s and early 70’s thanks to the Ekins and their pal Steve McQueen.
Although some small manufacturers had been producing specialist rigs such as Derek and Don Rickman, by the mid to late 60’s the big manufacturers were starting to introduce race teams with purpose built scrambler motorcycles.
It wouldn’t be long before the British twin cylinder 4 stroke Scrambler motorcycle on both sides of the Atlantic would be struggling to keep up with the next generation of machines. Husqvarna in particular were at the forefront of producing light, agile single cylinder motorcycles built for off road competition.
Later, people like JN Roberts would go on to prove that small, nimble 2 stroke machines were the future of off road racing.
STEVE MCQUEEN?S DESERT SLED
You couldn’t talk about the history of Scrambler motorcycles without mentioning Steve McQueen and his Desert Sled.
It started life as a standard 1963 Triumph Bonneville which Bud Ekins converted for his close friend. It was to become one of Steve McQueen’s favourite motorcycles. He rode it extensively during his racing years and as you can see in the photo below, it still carries the scars of battle.
The pair had become friends after McQueen had wandered into the Ekins brothers Triumph dealership. It was towards the end of the 1950’s and by this time Bud Ekins was already a successful off road racer. Bud would coach McQueen in off road riding and with similar backgrounds and a love of motorcycles, they clicked and remained best friends for the rest of McQueen’s life.
In 2007 Bud Ekins recalled “He saw all those Triumphs at the back with no headlights and was curious about those, too. I agreed to take him out and show him the ropes.”
In return McQueen would get his friend work as a stuntman in the movie business and Bud Ekins famously did the barbed wire jump as Steve’s double in The Great Escape.
McQueen hadn’t been riding off road for long and although he was keen to do the jump, his inexperience coupled with the insurers and Producers objections meant Bud Ekins got the nod.
“A lot of people thought it was me making that jump but I’ve never tried to hide the truth about it. I could handle the jump now, I’m sure. Back in 62 I just didn’t quite have the savvy.” Steve McQueen talking about the famous scene a decade after the movie was made.
Steve McQueen’s Desert Sled has had several owners and recently changed hands again after it fetched $103,500 at a Bonhams auction in 2016.
Incidently, his Desert Sled was painted by another of McQueen’s long time friends Kenny Howard (AKA as Von Dutch).
CLASSIC SCRAMBLER MOTORCYCLES OF THE 70?S AND 80?S
Although the early home modified Scramblers had been consigned to history by purpose built off road motorcycles, some manufacturers realised that their was still a market for Scrambler type bikes.
These new machines weren’t marketed at the amateur racer though, these were for people who wanted a dual purpose motorcycle. Something they could go to work on during the week and then hit the woods at the weekend.
MX motorcycles these were not but some of the manufacturers did a pretty good job in producing machines that could handle the trail as well as perform well on the roads.
There are still plenty of these machines from the 70’s and 80’s knocking around, a testiment to how well they were made. Because so many of them were sold and survive today there are bargains to be had, especially for those that can handle a wrench. Parts are fairly easy to come by too so restorations are cheap.
A word of caution for the inexperienced riders: unlike modern retro Scramblers, a Classic from the 70’s or 80’s will still be travelling down the road long after you hit the brakes while its modern retro counterpart would have pulled up on the proverbial dime.
They’ll generally also be kickstart only and will need plenty of regular maintenance…. Just something to consider before you splash the cash.
CLASSIC SCRAMBLER EXAMPLES
You can pick one of these up in ride away condition for around £3500 and you can still find mint examples at around £4k. I’m told they are much cheaper in the USA.
Built from 1974 until 1989 so there are plenty about. I purchased a second hand early model around 1980 and the thing took some hammer both on and off road.
The XT500 made my top 5 best classic motorcycles to buy last year and if there was room in the shed I wouldn’t hesitate picking another one up.
500cc twin four stroke and renowned for their reliability. There’s also an XL185 which is ok for a first motorcycle but lacked the power for off road. The XL250 was a good compromise and I almost bought one as a 17 year old as 250cc was the maximum you could have at that age back then.
The 500cc is the one to go for though if you plan on doing a bit of green lane riding. Can be picked up cheap as chips. This guy in the video paid $400 for his and he ended up with a fine classic Scrambler that offers loads of off road fun.
TRIUMPH TR6 TROPHY
This 1971 model is available for £5950 on ebay classifieds. It has matching engine and frame numbers and the seller ships worldwide. More info here. The Triumph TR6 Trophy was a popular choice for the amateur off road racer.
It has the badge and the heritage which is why it also has the price tag but looked after it should only increase in value.
THE ORIGINAL DUCATI SCRAMBLER MOTORCYCLE
Produced from 1962 to 1976 in various engine sizes, these single cylinder go anywhere Scrambler motorcycles were built for the American market.
Some 40 years after the last of these rolled off the production line Ducati would take inspiration from its original duel purpose best seller and launch the all new Ducati Scrambler range.
It was 2006 when Triumph decided to pay homage to Steve McQueen and the thousands of unnamed thrill seekers of the 50’s and 60’s by releasing a new Triumph Scrambler. The Scrambler styling was introduced to yet another generation and before long Scramblers were the motorcycle to be seen on.
Almost all the custom houses started building Scramblers and some, like ‘Down & Out’ in England have got it down to a fine art. The majority of custom Scrambler motorcycles though are DIY shed builds.
Like the home built Cafe Racers, there are plenty of options when it comes to donor bikes and custom parts. And like the Cafe Racer, Scrambling a motorcycle is all about stripping none essential parts away rather than adding them so it’s relatively inexpensive.
THE SCRAMBLER LOOK
If you want to give a motorcycle the Scrambler vibe then giving it a stripped down look will only get you so far. There are several things that simply are must do’s to achieve your goal.
- For an authentic 50’s and 60’s look you need an air cooled engine
- Either a single or twin cylinder
- It should have a bench seat
- A skid plate
- High mounted exhaust or exhausts
- Spoked wheels with large knobbly tyres
Addititionally, if you wanted to take it further you could fit a smaller headlight, speedo and tank. As the custom Scrambler below (built by Down & Out) shows though, these steps aren’t essential to create the rugged, go anywhere look.
RETRO SCRAMBLER MOTORCYCLES
As mentioned, it was the Triumph Scrambler in 2006 that set the ball rolling. Other manufacturers were slow on the pick up but eventually the likes of Ducati and BMW released their own Scrambler motorcycles.
Until recently, this new wave of Scramblers were all about the style. As newer models have improved though, most are capable of some moderate off roading. You cannot expect to go tearing across the desert on one but if you slow down and choose your line carefully you can enjoy some weekend fire track riding.
Both Ducati and Triumph have recently launched Scramblers with genuine off road capabilities but at the end of the day they are still road bikes capable of off road riding. They are not enduro or MX motorcycles.
THE TOP 10 RETRO SCRAMBLERS AVAILABLE TODAY
These are what I consider to be the best retro Scramblers available. All of these can cope with at least some fire road riding.
TRIUMPH SCRAMBLER 1200CC
The latest Triumph Scrambler has the same 1200cc engine that powers both the Triumph Bobber and the Thruxton.
Available in two variations, the XC and the higher spec. XE. Triumph claim both are built for on and off road riding with the XE able to cope with ‘full on’ scrambling. So far the reviews seem to verify this with Bike World (see video) going as far as to say the XE has genuine go anywhere adventure bike capabilities.
At 205 kg it feels like an Adventure bike too.
TRIUMPH STREET SCRAMBLER
For those who just want a Scrambler motorcycle look with a Triumph badge but don’t need full blown off road capabilities there is the new Street Scrambler. It comes with the smaller 900cc water cooled twin but still has more than enough power to make it a fun ride.
I’ve sat on both the 1200cc and the Street Scrambler and the Street feels the lighter and more capable off road machine even though it’s not.
With a price tag of £9300 it’s £2000 less than the 1200cc Scrambler and would be my choice if you were only going to be doing some occasional fire road riding which it is more than capable of handling.
THE DUCATI SCRAMBLER DESERT SLED
It’s rumoured that the Ducati Scrambler motorcycle range launched in 2014 saved the company from going under. With over 55,000 Scrambler motorcycles sold it is their most successful model and more than likely the best selling retro motorcycle to date.
Ducati followed the Triumph formula by taking inspiration from their original single cylinder Scrambler of the 60’s and 70’s. It was then marketed as ‘the land of joy’ with the heritage and badge to attract the Hipsters.
The Ducati Scrambler uses the old 800cc L-twin air cooled Monster engine although this year they have released an 1100cc version. There’s also a 400cc A2 licence ioption for the European market.
At the last count there were 8 versions of the Ducati Scrambler but I’ve gone with the Desert Sled as it’s the only one with genuine off road capabilities. The suspension has more travel than the other models and the swing arm has been strengthened so it’s more than capable of some mild fire track riding (see video below).
I almost bought an Icon back in 2014. I went down to the dealers once they were in the showroom with cheque book in pocket. It looked better than it had in the magazines but I just couldn’t pull the trigger on something called a Scrambler that couldn’t go off road. If the Desert Sled had been available back then I would have had it.
DUCATI SCRAMBLER MODELS
- Ducati Icon – Ideal model if you’re looking for something to park outside the coffee shop.
- Desert Sled – Featured above – only version with full off road capabilities.
- Cafe Racer – There’s something just wrong with a Scrambler dressed as a Cafe Racer.
- Full Throttle – Flat track inspired Scrambler.
- Sixty2 – The A2 licence version
- 1100 Icon – Bigger, more powerful icon version.
- 11oo Sport – Better performance than above
- 1100 Special – Black frame, chrome exhausts, Aluminium parts
BMW R NINET SCRAMBLER
The Scrambler version of the popular retro R NineT Roadster to go with the R NineT Racer (Cafe Racer styling).
A gravel driveway is about as close to off road as you would want to go with this particular Scrambler. Suspension is very basic none adjustable front and rear and definitely not up to dirt track riding.
Now for the good stuff – It looks fantastic, BMW have absolutely nailed the classic Scrambler motorcycle look. It handles great on the road and it can shift too. The air cooled 1200cc Boxer engine is the older version which has plenty of character and is practically bullet proof.
You will want to opt for the road tyre option though when you place your order. The standard boots look great on a Scrambler motorcycle but the general consensus is that they handle tarmac poorly. Having said that, The Missenden Flyer (who’s video review is below) found the tyres noisy but didn’t mention any problem with them on the tarmac.
Adding the R NineT Scrambler to its heritage range was a no brainer for BMW but they took direct aim at the urban commuter who happens to love the Scrambler looks. And that’s no bad thing because they nailed it.
NORTON ATLAS RANGER
This isn’t due out until later in the year but I had to include it. I mean, just look at it!
A 650cc twin engine providing 85bhp, that’s more than the larger Street Scrambler and the Ducati Desert Sled. With 200mm travel on both front and rear suspension and a dry weight of just 178kg it also sounds like it will have genuine Scrambling ability.
Simon Skinner, head of Norton design says:
“The Atlas Ranger is designed to be completely fit for purpose. You really can take it down some greenlanes and get it messy, and it’s designed to be robust enough to keep going if you fall off. You can get to all the fuses and relays easily, and if you bend the subframe, you can take it off and get it straightened out because its steel, not aluminium.”
Comes with a reported price tag just shy of £12k.
Image Courtesy of Norton Motorcycles
INDIAN FTR 1200 S RALLY
Packing a 1200cc V-Twin engine with 120hp it is inspired by the FTR750 flat track race bike.
It’s a motorcycle that I know nothing about but when I first saw it I thought it was a cool looking machine. It looks like the Rally option can handle the dirt track too.
With the Rally collection as seen in the video below it comes with spoked wheels, high mount Akropovic exhaust, different seat, radiator guard etc. for a total cost of $21,229
It also comes with a sports collection, a flat tracker collection and a touring collection.
When BSA refused to sell a works Scrambler to Alan Clews in 1970 he turned his hand to building his own competition bike. A keen amateur Scrambler and Trials rider Alan knew his way around an off road motorcycle so it was no surprise his own build proved a success.
Other riders started asking him if he could build them a Scrambler and Clews Competition Machines (CCM) was born. CCM motorcycles were soon winning races in multiple off road disciplines such as Scrambles, Motocross, flat track and Trials.
The CCM Spitfire range are hand built at the original factory in Bolton, North West England. They use a husqvarna 600cc Single cylinder water cooled engine producing 55bhp.
There are currently 6 Spitfire versions available including a flat tracker and an RAF Benevolent Fund Spitfire Edition of which only 100 will be made. Each of the other editions are limited to 250 of each made.
The base price is under £10k for each apart from the RAF special which costs £18,000 with £1k of that going to the RAF benelovent fund.
The first edition Spitfire and Spitfire Scrambler have already sold out. The one shown below is the Spitfire 6 which is a kind of blank canvas on which you choose which seat, colour scheme etc. you want for it.
BENELLI LEONCINO TRAIL
The ‘all terrain’ version of the Leoncino street bike. The Leoncino Trail shares the same 500cc twin water cooled cylinder engine producing 48hp which means it’s A2 licence compliant for Europe.
Benelli are now made in China and then shipped to Italy where they are quality checked and put together. This is obviously a move to keep costs down but Benelli certainly haven’t skimped on the quality.
LED lights and indicators, LCD dash, spoke wheels with Pirelli knobbly tyres, double disc front brake with two-piston floating callipers, 6 speed box, plenty of ground clearance and adjustable suspension front and back.
Not bad for just £5,200
The only reason the Benelli Leoncino Trail is not a lot higher up in this list is because the skid plate is missing and the exhaust isn’t high enough.
I gather it’s not available in North America which if correct is a shame. While the Benelli Lion emblem may not be as famous as the Ducati badge, it has a strong Italian heritage and with a price of around $7500 I’m sure would attract a new fan base.
YAMAHA SCR950 SCRAMBLER
Another Scrambler motorcycle that is no more than a styling exercise. There’s limited ground clearance and suspension travel and at 252kg it’s way too heavy.
The SCR950 can handle fire roads but you wouldn’t want to be taking it through the woods or up a mountain trail with that kind of weight.
That big V-twin sounds nice too but there are plenty of better options.
When I first saw this back in 2016 I was more than a little impressed, so were most of the industry magazines. It shows how much the Scrambler has moved on in the last 3 years.