The fascinating story of scramblers

They came to be by transforming road bikes in order to race off-road and they also became famous thanks to Steve McQueen

Home Road Motorcycles Classic The fascinating story of scramblers

It is impossible to trace the actual coining date of a series of motorcycles, whether they are racing bikes, café racers or scramblers. When it comes to vintage series, which date back quite a few decades, there is no specific date and history gets mixed up with legend. But we like this, motorbikes mean thrills, not the solution to a mathematical equation: a little imagination is appreciated.

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If you think of the scramblers however there is one firm fact: the first bike that springs to mind is Steve McQueen's Triumph used in the cult movie On Any Sunday and in The Great Escape. Much of the charm is due in fact to the films and the presence of the actor, but let's not forget that Steve was also a genuine racer and that he drove Triumph-based off-road bikes in numerous desert races between California and Mexico and also at the International Six Days Trial (ISDT) in 1964, held in East Germany, as a racer for the American Vase team who was officially representing the United States for the first time as an F.M.I. (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) affiliated team.


Of course, motorcycle races were born as soon as the second motorcycle was built, so let's move on to the mix of history and legend. It seems that the origin of the scramblers dates back to the early 20th Century in England, where the first motorcyclists challenged one another in a singular race held partly on asphalt surface and partly on dirt road. This is because the rule was very simple: you start from point A, the winner is the rider who reaches point B first; the rider chooses their route. There were not that many asphalt surfaced roads and so many stretches were actually raced on dirt road, sometimes it was fine, but others not so much, as the bike remained bogged down.

In this regard it would seem that the term scramble was used for the first time by a sports commentator to describe a critical moment of a race and in this case the most fitting definition, which truly reflects the actual circumstances these primordial racers found themselves in, appears to be as follows (from the Cambridge Dictionary): “to move or climb quickly but with difficulty, often using your hands to help you”.

However, the best-known interpretation of scramble is “mix-up”, which was adopted because a scrambler is in fact a mixture of styles, since it is basically an off-road bike obtained by transforming a road bike.

The first scramblers

At the time there were no bike categories like there are today; there were only road bikes and therefore to adapt them to the new on-off fashion, riders made do with modifying them in a more or less effective way. Since there weren't even any special parts catalogues either, the modifications were limited to rough jobs: by extending the suspension, mounting wider fenders to prevent the wheels from locking due to mud, installing wider handlebars for easier riding and if they could be found, tyres with more pronounced tread knobs.

The English turning point

To find the first “genuine” scrambler in the series you have to wait until the Fifties. The Triumph opens the way, building it on the basis of the two-cylinder Trophy, Bonneville T-120TT, T120C and TR6 SC. They were the best bikes at the time, the fastest and it was the American Bud Ekins who introduced them to the racing world and won several races from the mid-50s onwards. Bud was a friend and stuntman of Steve McQueen, known in particular for being the rider who jumped over the barbed wire in the film The Great Escape and the pair made the British twin cylinder bike famous all over the world, officially launching the scrambler segment. However, in the scenes prior to the jump Steve did not do too badly on that Triumph…

How were scramblers made?

Scramblers launched the category of specialised off-road bikes, but they originate from road bikes and the style of the first racing bikes was quite rough albeit charming: by eliminating anything that was unnecessary, lights, dashboard, fenders; the electric system was reduced to the bare minimum, a smaller tank was fitted, as well as a well-padded single seat to help the rear suspension, with limited effectiveness. The carburettor was protected with a good filter against dust and sand and the exhaust pipes were brutally sawn off, as noise was not a problem. Finally, puncture-resistant tyres with a knobbed tread were fitted and the more experienced riders modified the suspension, to increase the gap on the ground and the ability to absorb bumps.

In American desert races, the most important thing was reliability and the goal was to make it to the end: with the bikes that were available in the Sixties this was not easy and this helped to consolidate the legend at the time, making the scramblers extremely popular.

That's why leading motorcycle manufacturers such as Honda started to offer models that were ready for  dirt roads, similar to today's off-road bikes and that's why scramblers can be considered the predecessors of motocross bikes, just like café racers are the predecessors of current sports bikes.