By Peter Henshaw: Edited by Paul d’Orléans

Street scrambler – lovely name, isn’t it? Evoking images of a rugged machine to thread between rows of snarled traffic, bunny hop off over gridlock and power up the nearest set of steps to park – cool as you like – in front of the office. The street scrambler’s prime time was the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when motorcycles were selling a movie-fed dream. Films like The Great Escape and On Any Sunday hinted that bikes could leap their way to freedom, and that an endless summer of dirt paths and desert dunes with movie stars were yours for the price of a motorcycle.

The King of Cool, Steve McQueen on the actual 1964 ISDT Triumph TR6 Trophy he rode that year as a member of the US team, tooling around the streets of England before the event in East Germany. [‘McQueen’s Machines’]
The fact that desert trails were only within reach of riders living in LA (or Marrakech) didn’t matter, because the suggestion of a bike that could do rugged off-road stuff if you wanted (if the rider had skills to match) was an alluring ideal. And it all fitted well with the ‘getaway’ culture of the time, a desire to escape the humdrum daily existence of modern worklife.   The origins of the street scrambler style reach much further back than the 1960s, to the original multi-use machinery, typically called Clubman models, offered by various factories beginning in the late 1920s.  Much like 1960s street scramblers, these were machines that could be ridden every day, but the addition of slim mudguards and high exhaust pipes made them suitable for off-road trials or dirt trail riding, to the standards of the day.

Even George Brough knew the appeal of street scramblers: his original 1924 Brough Superior SS100 had high exhaust pipes, and were ridden extensively in off-road endurance competitions.  George himself was a regular winner at such trials, as were riders in other countries, like Germany in Austria, as here.  [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The key points of what made a street scrambler then as now are the same.  Design cues typically included high-level exhaust pipes (exiting one side or both) with a stylish heat shield, wide handlebars, and often a smaller fuel tank and small headlight.  Trials tires (Dunlop Universals or Goodyear Grasshoppers) were the final cue, although few Japanese street scramblers of the 1960s bothered, in an acknowledgement their machines were designed for style over actual functionality.  Before the 1960s, if a motorcycle was styled as a street scrambler or enduro or trials machine, it was as good as you could find, given the technology, except for a few standouts like the original 1949-58 Triumph TR5 Trophy.  The split between ‘real’ enduro motorcycles and street scramblers, while they were visually nearly identical, didn’t happen on a mass scale until the 1970s, when motorcycles became more specialized, suspension travel lengthened, and a motorcycle labeled ‘enduro’ was expected to be suitable for competition.

The off-road Clubman style, á lá Francais: a 1936 Peugeot 515 with high pipes. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Street scrambler style was long associated with British twins, with models labeled ‘C’ (competition) or ‘T’ (trophy or trials) or ‘CS’ (competition scrambler) to indicate their intended use.  As I’m a big fan of Triumphs in particular, it’s the Meriden bikes I’ll focus on in this article. But of course Japanese manufacturers found their greatest success in the 1960s with street scramblers, especially Honda’s CL series, which sold in the hundreds of thousands.  Street scrambler style even played a part in the look of the Harley-Davidson Sportster. What street scramblers never did was cross the border into four-cylinder territory: there was no high-piped Honda CB750CS, and while the street scrambler look might have been strictly cosmetic, even fantasies have their limits.

1930 enduros, Swedish style: a pair of experimental Husqvarna OHV V-twins used for the ISDT that year, but sadly never offered to the public. Their engines were developed into their famous GP racers, as ridden by Stanley Woods. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
An American Story

To find the origins of the street scrambler we have to rewind nearly 100 years, to pre-war Britain. As early as the late 1920s, British and European factories offered high-pipe ‘sports’ or ‘competition’ models that could be ridden off road, that were equipped with trials tyres, slender mudguards, smaller tanks and small headlamps. When Edward Turner revamped Triumph’s singles (originally designed by Val Page) in the mid-1930s, he added high pipes to the Tiger 70, 80 and 90. Together with a good dash of chrome and flashy paint, he established a look that Meriden would draw on for another 40 years… and Hinckley Triumph styling does to this day.  Turner’s gorgeous lines were inspired by English trials bikes, singles that were small and lightweight, and the contemporary Clubman style of mixed-competition machines. Street scramblers I would argue came from adaptation for American competition  – desert racing in the West, enduros in the East.

An American compromise? Definitely an adventure in style: this is ‘Jack’, who built several British-based customs in the 1940s in California, with definite street scrambler style, with a bit of American bob-job cues thrown in. It’s a c.1948 Norton ES2 with high pipes and inverted Velocette fishtail mufflers! [The Vintagent Archive]
With the exception of the International Six Days Trial (ISDT), a typical British or European trial tended to cover fairly short distances over very difficult terrain.  American off-road events like the Big Bear Scramble tended to be long-distance endurance races, with less nadgery low-speed going, and more relentless high-speed rides over rough terrain. A typical British or European trials bike was small, light and manoevrable, but an American desert racer needed speed and power as a high priority, along with ruggedness and acceptable weight. In the 1950s, there was one British bike that fitted this bill better than any other – the Triumph Trophy line. The Meriden twins dominated desert racing in the States through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and did more than any other brand to inspire the street scrambler look, though early on in the 1950s, Triumph styling was all about function rather than form.

The original and still best? The 1950 Triumph TR5 Trophy, with rigid frame and square-barrel all-alloy top end derived from the wartime generator unit. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Triumph that rough-riding Yanks first loved wasn’t designed with them in mind at all. The TR5 Trophy was intended as an ISDT competitor, and very successful it was too, winning on its 1948 debut. But the production Trophy came fully equipped for the road, and turned out to be a supremely versatile bike, able to compete in hill climbs and club racing as well as trials and scrambles, not to mention commuting to work during the week. Although it had been designed for a purpose, it undeniably had a beautiful form as well as functionality. The siamesed high-pipes on the left-hand side, its silver tank, and tidy square-barrel 500cc twin-cylinder motor, were all set in a short-wheelbase rigid frame that gave a compact and purposeful look, while Edward Turner’s styling set it all off.

The Trophy, evolved. The 1957 TR6 Trophy, with 650cc engine, built to cater to the American hunger for more power and off-road use. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Americans loved the Trophy, as well they might, given the alternatives: it had a responsiveness and balance that a heavyweight Harley-Davidson or Indian could only dream of. A Matchless G80C single had more power for the longer desert races, but the low compression TR5 Trophy (just 25bhp from a 6.0:1 compression) was easier to ride, and still fast enough to be competitive. And perhaps most importantly, it made a decent road bike.

Bud Ekins was the most famous endurance rider in the US in the late 1950s, and was contracted to ride Triumphs…because they were winners! Here he sits with his highly modified pre-unit Triumph after winning the Big Bear: note the massive dents in the front rim! American long-distance racing was no picnic, and the experience gained served Bud Ekins and his brother Dave well in the ISDT. [The Vintagent Archive]
Soon the Americans wanted more power than a 500cc motor could provide, and Meriden obliged with the TR6 Trophy-Bird, so called because it married the beefy 650cc twin of the Tiger 110 (and a new alloy cylinder head) with a Trophy-style chassis, plus a smaller fuel tank, quickly detachable headlight, 20-inch front wheel and waterproof magneto. The Trophy-Bird really worked too, taking the top three places in the gruelling Big Bear Enduro of 1956. One of the riders was Bud Ekins, who would long be associated with Triumph, and made that famous leap in The Great Escape when Steve McQueen’s insurers allegedly forbade the star from doing it himself. The TR6 Trophy-Bird was a real hit with Western US competition riders, but in the East, where enduros were shorter, the lighter TR5 was still preferred. But Triumph still managed to sell ship-loads of TR6s to the Easterners, by giving it road tyres, smaller wheels and an 8-inch front brake. Designed to ride on the road, but with the same rugged looks as a desert sled, this was arguably the first true street scrambler.

The Harley-Davidson XLC was sold for one year only as a pure Scrambler in 1958, then lights were added the following year to make the most popular motorcycle in the H-D lineup, the XLCH. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
With British 650 twins dominating desert racing in the late 1950s, Harley-Davidson noticed it was missing out. It still did well in traditional flat-track racing, but really needed something to rival Triumph in the deserts as well. The new-for-1957 XL Sportster was too heavy and had weak forks, but a group of Californian dealers persuaded Harley-Davidson brass to build a competition version.  In 1958 the XLC was a stripped-to-the-bare-bones sports machine, with a tiny fuel tank and a solo seat. Only a few hundred were made, but it did lead directly to the XLCH road bike, which looked much the same – in some years it even had high pipes. The bijou fuel tank incidentally came from the Hummer, Harley’s 125cc copy of a pre-war DKW 125 two-stroke. Brochure pictures showed the XLCH dashing along forest trails, and of course very few did that, but they had the street scrambler look, something of which has stayed with the Sportster ever since.

Scramble the Bonneville

The 1965 Triumph T120C Bonneville Scrambler with optional high-pipes – useful on the bayou streets of Louisiana! [Peter Henshaw]
A few years later, Triumph had hit trouble with the original T120 Bonneville. Why? Because Britain’s flagship hot rod twin was, in its debut 1959 year, (whisper it) a bit of a lemon. Not in its rip-roaring performance, but because Triumph dressed it up like the touring Thunderbird, with valanced mudguards and graceful headlight nacelle. Sales failed to take off in the States until it was restyled for 1960 along Trophy-Bird lines: slimmer mudguards, gaitered forks, chrome headlight and with low or high-level pipes to order. With high pipes, it was called the ‘Bonneville Scrambler.’

A competent enduro motorcycle used primarily as a street scrambler by current owners: the Rickman-Triumph Metisse was so good-looking it remains in production even today. [Mecum]
Of course, Triumph wasn’t alone in catering to trends in this way. BSA, Norton, Matchless, AJS and others all produced their own desert sleds – real or replicas – at first for the American market only. Norton offered beautiful 500cc and 600cc twin enduros in the 1950s (the original N15 and Nomad models), before building the hairy Atlas-powered Scrambler in the mid-60s, and the hybrid P11 and G15 models.  In the 1970s, the Commando S and SS also had high pipes in proper street scrambler style. BSA’s take on all this was the Firebird 650, a high-pipe version of the road going Lightning.  BSA entered  the 1950s with the genuine desert sled version of the A10, the Hornet, but later models gradually became a styling exercise.

Other brands, other street scramblers: the 1959 Norton Nomad was a beautiful and rare model, built for two years only, using the Dominator 500 or 600cc motor, in the ES2 swingarm frame, with long Roadholder forks, slim alloy mudguards, a small tank, and siamesed exhaust. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Japanese were paying attention too. Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki all offered street scrambler versions of their two-stroke singles and twins in the late 1960s, but Honda got there first. From 1962 onwards, the CL series were street scrambler versions of Honda road bikes, complete with Triumph-like forks, smaller tanks and all the usual styling cues. To launch the model, they asked Bud Ekins to ride one from Tijuana to La Paz in Baja, but Bud’s contract with Triumph made that impossible.  His brother Dave Ekins actually had more ISDT Gold medals under his belt, but was not as famous (not the sailor-swearing, hard-drinking best pal of McQueen like his brother Bud), but was free for the promotional ride.  He brought Bill Robinson Jr, another experience desert racer, along for the ride, and Honda’s Wester Sales Manager Walt Fulton flew a plane to deliver supplies along the way, as the route lacked towns, fuel, food, and even roads for much of the 1000 miles down the Baja peninsula.  The success of this ride, the first ever motorcycle trip down Baja, launched the CL72 to huge sales success, as well as kickstarting the whole Baja racing concept that carries on to this day.

Dave Ekins in La Paz, Mexico, on the completion of his 1000-mile non-stop run down the Baja peninsula in 1961. The bike is a Honda prototype of the CL72 Scrambler, and the run was a promotional stunt dreamed up by the US Honda importers. Note the missing taillamp: Dave’s bike got off easy , but his partner’s machine holed a piston after an air cleaner was knocked off halfway down the road. [BudandDaveEkins.com]
Clearly, while not a proper motocrosser, the little Honda was capable of being ridden off-road, and in 1961, there was still not much difference between a street scrambler and a scrambler or enduro bike. Eventually Honda offered a complete range of CL street scramblers, in 125, 250, 350 and 450cc versions, and a modified CL350 won the Baja 1000 in 1971.  The same year that Honda won the Baja, BSA/Triumph launched its much trumpeted new range, which in reality was the old one in new clothes. But there were street scrambler versions of just about everything including a promised all-new 350cc twin. Projected as a Triumph Bandit and BSA Fury, this DOHC 350 never reached production, but if it had, there would have been street scrambler versions in both BSA and Triumph forms.

The immortal Ducati 450 R/T, as seen in the Concorso Eleganza Villa d’Este in 2019. Street scramblers at a Concours? You bet! [Paul d’Orléans]
This Italians were watching too, hoping to catch a few sales in the American market by offering stylish street scramblers.  Even MV Agusta built the the 250B Scrambler, an extraordinarily expensive, high-style street scrambler: you know a bike was never meant for competition when the added weight of twin exhaust systems is considered a styling bonus.  Ducati also had its eye on the US market, and beside its famous 1960s single-cylinder cafe racers (the Diana/MkIII/Desmo line), were their more popular Scramblers, with longer suspension travel, smaller tanks, high handlebars, and high exhaust pipes.  Yes, a few were raced in the USA, but mostly they were coveted for their looks.

The 1968 MV Agusta 250B Scrambler: too much style (and too much expense) for some: only 52 were built. [John Goldman Archive]
The early 1970s was the beginning of the end for the street scrambler, at least in their first incarnation. As two-strokes began to take over off-road competition on both sides of the Atlantic, the glamour of big-twin desert sleds began to wear thin, and any aspiration of a street scrambler towards passing as a competent motocrosser looked silly. With the advent of a new generation of 750cc road bikes, the 650 twins weren’t the fastest thing on the road any more.

The Triumph TR5T of 1973 combined the chassis of the BSA B50 MX with the Triumph single-carb 500cc twin motor, making a surprisingly good off-roader with terrific street scrambler styling. The factory built a few with ultralight components, and won Silver in the 1973 ISDT. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Triumph revisited the street scrambler concept with the under-appreciated 1973/4 TR5T Trophy Trail (which did well the 1973 ISDT, albeit in a highly-modified factory form), and then inflated it 1980s style with the silly and extremely rare 1981/2 TR7T Tiger Trail.  But these were extremely limited-production machines, and were ridiculed in their day for not being pure enduros or capable of winning races, and the whiff of failure hangs about them still, deserved or not.  Today, we are having a second look at these machines, and they are rising in collectability from rock-bottom to cult status, with a consequent rise in demand.  All because…

They’re Back!

As with just about every other aesthetic trend of the 1960s and ’70s, street scramblers have come back. The first signs of the revival appeared in the early 2000s, with new takes on street scramblers being one important facet of the booming independent custom scene, or ‘alt-custom’ scene, made famous at Wheels&Waves, the Handbuilt Show, and the Vintagent’s own ‘Custom Revolution’ exhibit at the Petersen Museum. For a new generation, the big factories built boring motorcycles, and were too deeply up their own behinds in designing only ever-faster sportsbikes, fugly cruisers, and middle-aged tourers, each covered in all-plastic-everything.  In a world of ever-busier and more restricted roads, the priorities of motorcycling were edging away from hyper-performance that no one could use, to making a personalized aesthetic statement. Street scramblers became an important part of a customer-led revolution in motorcycle culture, as customizers transformed totally unsuitable street bikes into knobby-tired, fenderless, high-pipe faux-enduros.

BMW’s double take on the custom motorcycle scene: the prototype RNineT Scrambler with graphics by Ornamental Conifer, and a surfboard! As seen during the 2015 edition of Wheels&Waves in Biarritz, France. [Paul d’Orléans]
It took a few years, but the big factories finally woke up to the contrast of their own slowing sales versus an exciting custom scene. Triumph was far ahead of the rest of the industry when it introduced their Scrambler in 2006. It was no more than a standard Bonneville with high pipes, but just like in the 1960s, it pressed all the right buttons, became a hit, and is a best-selling part of Triumph’s line up to this day. In 2019, TT racer Guy Martin even recreated the Great Escape leap on a brand new Scrambler, albeit with a lot of weight taken off. Other manufacturers large and small got in on the act, including BMW and most notably Ducati, who launched their own Scrambler as a complete sub-brand in 2015, with styling cues taken from its own 1960s single-cylinder Scrambler.  It’s Bologna’s biggest selling model, which must say something about the desire for a Great Escape in the 2010s.

David Beckham posing with a new Triumph Scrambler. [Triumph]
With motorcycle genres so distinct today, and hyper-functionality required for every style of machine (sportbike, enduro, MX, tourer, etc), the street scrambler is a welcome alternative.  They are popular for the same reason they were the biggest sellers in the 1960s: they’re cool and fun.

It’s no wonder Fonzie rode a Triumph Trophy: it was always the coolest. And, Bud Ekins supplied the 1952 Triumph TR5 Trophy to the producers of ‘Happy Days’. [eBay]
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