10 Things That Make A Scrambler Motorcycle A Scrambler Motorcycle

What Is A Scrambler Motorcycle And What Makes Them So Special?

Updated August 27, 2018

Another day, another scrambler motorcycle on the market, but what makes a scrambler a true scrambler motorcycle? Are these modern models built for real off-roading or are they merely aesthetic? Here are 10 things that define a real scrambler motorcycle, and they’re important things to consider if you ever feel like building your own. But before we get into the heart of listing the defining characteristics of one of the most popular motorcycle trends of the past decade, let’s learn a little bit about the humble scrambler motorcycle and how it came to be.

A Little Scrambler History…

Scrambler Motorcycle - History 2

While the modern scrambler scene is easily defined by turn-up jeans, fashionable haircuts, and excessive price tags, there was a time when scrambling was about the act of actual off-road riding rather than Instagram pictures and retro clothing. When motorcycles were first becoming popular, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of variety between models. You either had a motorcycle or you didn’t. And like all forms of transport, people wanted to push what they had to their limits in the form of challenges and races.

Scrambler Motorcycle - History

In the early days, particularly in the late 1920s in Britain, riders enjoyed racing from check point to check point across the countryside. Rules were few and far between but the general aim of the game was to get from one place to another in the fastest time, over whatever obstacle and terrain happened to be in the rider’s way. Fields, hedges, hills, streams, woodland, and a lot of rain – those the primary ingredients of the British countryside, and since the motorcycles of the day weren’t particularly adept at churning up dirt and thrashing across unpaved roads, conventional road-focused motorcycles needed to be specially adapted to their new purpose. Thus the earliest scramblers were born.

Scrambler Motorcycle - History 3

Naturally, evolutionary refinement didn’t take long, especially since this kind of riding started to become popular and accessible in the United States too. With the advent of more scramble-style competitions, enduro races, and motocross, by the 1960s scrambler motorcycles were at their pinnacle. But then something happened in the 70s: genuine, factory produced, purpose-built, dirt bikes emerged. These new dirt bikes were lighter, better, and cheaper to buy and manufacturer than the scramblers of yesteryear…and so the scrambler disappeared. That is, until it rose from the ashes in the current style trend that we see today. So what about these modern scramblers then? Are they any good?

Modern Interpretations Of The Scrambler Motorcycle

Scrambler Motorcycle - Modern

It’s easy to think that modern scrambler motorcycles are more form over function, and while that’s true to a degree, it’s more down to the rider rather than the machine. For example, if you’re a rider really looking for a modern motorcycle that can handle roads and dirt tracks in equal measure, and you really do want to take your bike off road, you could buy a modern scrambler, but the chances are that you’d buy a dual-sport motorcycle instead. Similarly, it’s easy to argue that the modern scrambler motorcycle is nothing more than a fashion accessory, hinting at being a formidable off-road weapon that’s likely to never see a patch of dirt in its life. That’s not true though. In the right hands, they can perform exceptionally well. However, their high price tags make their owners a little reluctant to wander out of their comfort zones.

Don’t take our word on that though. Here are some modern takes on the classic scrambler motorcycle that we urge you to take out for a test drive to experience for yourself.

The Triumph Street Scrambler

While the old school Triumph Scrambler has a place in our hearts, it wasn’t actually that good, so when Triumph announced a dedicated Scrambler model within their Street Twin range, we were eager to see what they’d do. The new 900cc parallel twin might seem a little underpowered with a maximum power output of 54hp @ 5,900 rpm and a maximum torque figure of 59 lb-ft @ 3,230 rpm, but for a scrambler it’s bang on the money. Light and lithe on dirt tracks, fantastic for city riding, and capable enough on the highway, our only real gripe about this fantastic looking machine is the price tag, with models starting from $10,800 for this scrambler motorcycle.

The BMW R nineT Scrambler

Scrambler Motorcycle - BMW R nineT Scrambler

The R nineT range is full of great models, but the Scrambler is something else. While a boxer-twin might not seem to be the obvious choice for a scrambler motorcycle, BMW have managed to build an exceptional scrambler around the unusual powerplant. The engine itself is a classically air-cooled affair, with 1170cc on tap, with 110 horses and 84 lb-ft of torque at its disposal, but that’s not what makes the R nineT Scrambler so appealing. BMW know how to style a motorcycle and they got it 100% right with this one. With telescopic forks, a raised up exhaust, a larger diameter front wheel, a slightly smaller tank, simple and stripped back controls and ergonomics and a classic paintjob to boot – it’s not hard to see why the BMW R nineT Scrambler is held in such high esteem. With prices starting from $12,995, its not cheap, but it’s very, very appealing.

The Ducati Scrambler

Scrambler Motorcycle - Ducati Scrambler

And then we have the obvious choice: the Ducati Scrambler.  Ever since it first rolled back onto the scene in 2015, it has been a runaway success spawning no less than nine separate model variations. All but one of those models is powered by the same 803cc L-twin engine that’s capable of producing around 75 horsepower and shooting out about 45 lb-ft of torque, depending on who’s talking. While it’s arguably the poster boy of the movement, the Ducati Scramble family gets a big of a hard time from old school riders because of its rather sickeningly youthful advertising campaign – but the vast majority of buyers are over the age of 50, so Ducati are doing something right. Traditionalists also like to shun it because of the lack of a high mounted exhaust and the expensive price tags – but you should give one a ride before casting judgment, because you’ll be impressed.

Other Scramblers To Look Out For

Scrambler Motorcycle - Benelli Leoncino

Any manufacturer worth their salt has some kind of scrambler motorcycle or bolt-on scrambler kit in their line up, but if we had to choose a “best of the rest” to look out for, then we’d urge you to take a look at the Yamaha SCR950, the upcoming Benelli Leoncino, the Moto Guzzi V7 II Stornello, Husqvarna’s Svartpilen technically which counts as a scrambler, and Honda’s rather tasty looking Honda CBSix50 concept too. There are plenty, plenty, of other models out there but those are our favorites. But what about if you want to build a scrambler motorcycle rather than buy one? Where would you start?

What About Building One Of Your Own?

Scrambler Motorcycle - Custom Yamaha

In the old days, if you wanted a scrambler motorcycle you’d have to convert a conventional street motorcycle in one. And there is absolutely nothing stopping your from doing that today. However, you might want to ask yourself whether you want a motorcycle that looks like a scrambler or one that performs like a scrambler should. If you want the former, you can find yourself a nice 70s roadster and start converting it into something that looks the part, but if you want a real scrambler motorcycle, you might want to invest in a real dirt bike as a donor model. If we were building a real off-road going scrambler motorcycle, we’d try and track down one of these existing dirt bike models for a sturdy base to work off of.

The Kawasaki KLR650

Scrambler Motorcycle - Kawasaki KLR650

The Kawasaki KLR650 is one of the most well-established dual sport motorcycle in the industry and enjoyed a decent twenty year tenure in the Kawasaki line-up. Since it was first launched in 1987, and until it was axed in 2007, it experienced very little in the way of change. Why? Because it was good at what it did, and it did it exceptionally well since day one. Powered by a bullet proof 650cc single cylinder engine, with a modest 37 hp on tap, the KLR650 was a widely respected motorcycle that could perform brilliantly both on and off road. Because of that, it sold very well, and you can pick them up for cheap these days, and with access to all kinds of original and aftermarket parts. The frame, like the engine, is nice and simple, and ripe for modding. If you can find one of these in your price range, snap it up.

The Honda XR/XL Series

Scrambler Motorcycle - Honda XR600R

Honda’s XR series is another one of those long-lived dual-purposes platforms that perform just as well today as they did when they first came off the production line. Even after years of abuse, a good XR will still perform exceptionally well on the trails and the highway. Same as above really: parts are easy to procure, the technology is easy to master, and even better, the engines come in a wide range of sizes from 125 and up. We recommend another mid-sized single, like a 500cc, 600c, or 650cc. If you can find yourself an XL model, then even better. The XLs were more dual-purpose in nature than the more trail-oriented XRs but the ergonomics and ride experience are largely the same. Ditch the 80s plastics n favor of some 70s inspired hardware, and you will have a very capable and mean looking scrambler motorcycle in your garage.

The Suzuki DR650

Since it was first introduced in 1990, the Suzuki DR650 has been a key part of Suzuki’s off-road range. It’s such a good dual-sport machine that it’s still in production today – but we recommend you get an older model to use a base for your custom scrambler motorcycle. Powered by a simple, air-cooled, 650cc single-cylinder engine that produces a good 46 hp and about 39.8 lb-ft or torque, depending on what model year you turn up, but somewhere in that zip coast at least. Again, since it’s a stalwart model and industry mainstay, parts are easy to come by. But we like most about the DR650 is its simple frame design, which makes it nice and easy to convert into a full blown scrambler motorcycle. Plus, there’s plenty of easily available literature on how to do it – study some of these stories on BikeExif and Pipeburn for some readily available and apt inspiration.

Other Potential Donors

Generally, you can turn anything into a scrambler with enough cash, know-how, and enthusiasm but we think the best approach is the simplest: find an already capable off-road motorcycle and then make it fit the scrambler motorcycle aesthetic that’s currently en vogue. That way, no one can accuse you of being a poser, and most importantly, it will be able to do a fair amount of scrambling. Old dirt bikes are fantastic options, but if you want to be a purist, we recommend that whatever you choose has a nice air-cooled single cylinder engine. Maybe a parallel twin. But not an inline-four. There are some things that should be sacred. But engines aren’t the only thing you’re going to need to consider when building a scrambler motorcycle. There are a few key rules you need to follow…

10 Key Characteristics Of A Scrambler Motorcycle

If you prefer the built not bought side of the fence, then there are a few golden rules you need to follow. We’re firm believers that you can do whatever you want, but there are some characters out there who like to be called “purists” who will think that your motorcycle is nothing unless it conforms to the rules. These are the same kind of motorcyclists who say that a café racer isn’t a café racer unless it has rear-sets, or that a flat-tracker isn’t a flat-tracker if it still has a front brake…you know the type of people. Dicks, I think they’re called, aren’t they? Either way, if you’re building a scrambler motorcycle, there are a few guidelines that we advise you to follow, less you incite the wrath of the purists. And here they are:

#10. The Correct Engine

Scrambler Motorcycle - Big Single

We mentioned this a little bit earlier, but we didn’t explain why it’s important. While the idea of an inline-four scrambler sound interesting, it’s probably not going to be that practical or useful. You don’t hear of many inline-four off-road motorcycles and there are a few good reasons why. Of course, the simpler the engine, the easier it is to fix if you’re out in the wilderness – but that’s not the real reason single or twin engines are used. It’s all to do with power delivery and firing order, and the regularity of stronger engine pulses, for stronger power at regular intervals. There’s a lot to say on this, and we haven’t got the words to go into depth but do some research because it makes for compelling reading. Since all of the big manufactures use singles or twins in their dirt bikes and factory built scramblers, you probably should too. But if you’ve got a triple in mind, who are we to stop you?

#09. Torque

Torque is much more important than horsepower in the scrambler game, as you’ve probably guessed already. If you’re using a dirt bike engine as a base then you’ve probably got a nice amount of torque to play with: you might have noticed that the dirt bike models listed above might be packing plenty of cubic centimeters, but there horsepower figures were quite low in comparison – that’s because they prioritize torque over top end power. That being said, a decent amount of horsepower is required since scramblers need to be effective both on and off-road, and when you’re on the asphalt you need enough power to help you keep up with the rest of the traffic.

The best way to increase torque is to play around with your carburetor and air intake; a smaller carb and a longer intake can increase low-end torque, but at the expense of power and revs. A bigger carburetor with a shorter intake pipe can really improve your torque, but you’ll have to give the engine a whole overhaul because things get a lot more complicated. We suggest keeping it simple by starting with a tried and tested engine like we mentioned above.

#08. Long Travel Suspension

Is long travel suspension essential? Well, that depends on whether you’re serious about going off-road or not. True, regular suspension handles quite well off-road, but if you’re actually giving it some, it will bottom out and make riding over the rough quite an unenjoyable experience. Long travel suspension gives your suspension more room to play with, which translates as better handling off-road, the ability to ride faster and more confidently in the rough, and gives you a smoother ride experience overall. Is it an absolute essential? If you’re serious, then yes. If you have no plans to go off-road then you can give it a miss…however, an extra 60mm of suspension travel will make your bike a much more versatile beast, transforming it into a true scrambler motorcycle.

#07. The Exhaust

Scrambler Motorcycle - Exhaust

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to have a raised exhaust pipe to be a true scrambler, since many of the original scramblers from “back in the day” didn’t, but the vast majority of them did – and since we’re in the business of ticking boxes, high pipes are an essential. However, you should take care and take a lot of factors into consideration when you work out the exhaust’s placement. If the pipes are incorrectly routed, you could end up damaging your bike at best, or burning your inner thighs at worst. Don’t skimp on shielding them properly, because whatever money saved by cutting corners now, you’ll end up spending on burn cream later.

Aside from the obvious burn related issues, make sure you take care to route your pipes in a way that gives you the most ground clearance. Unlike street bikes, scrambler exhausts generally exit the engine up high and stay up high, because otherwise they’ll be the first things to make contact with an obstacle. High pipes aren’t an essential, but they’re pretty useful when installed correctly.

#06. Wheels & Tires

Scrambler Motorcycle 2

Again, you’ve got to work out what you want from your new scrambler motorcycle before investing in news rims and tires. A classic looking scrambler will come equipped with spokes for better flex and durability, and while they’re not as light or stiff as modern alloys, the spokes give an extra shock-absorbing motion that scrambler motorcycle can benefit from. So, spoked wheels are an essential. What about the rubber? If you’re not that fussed about going off-road, then you can settle for road tires, or maybe a set of dual-sport to give you some options. However, if you really want to scramble up grassy hillsides and dry river beds, road tires ain’t going to cut it.

The current trend favors a nice square tread pattern, which looks the part and also performs admirably off-road too. Be warned though, they’re not fantastic for fast road riding, but what did you expect? Smaller bikes benefit from trial-inspired tires and they’re worth considering, though regardless of engine size, we think a chunky rear tire looks awesome, regardless of how many cc’s you’re packing.

#05. The Gas Tank

Scrambler Motorcycle - Tank

With the engine, suspension, exhaust, tires, and wheels taken care of, it’s time to look at some of the most obvious parts of your scrambler motorcycle. First up, let’s take a look at the tank. The gas tank of a motorcycle is one of the most important visual aspects, but for something like a scrambler, you’ve got to think about more than simple aesthetics and fuel volume. Since a scrambler is a dirt bike, a retro shaped dirt bike tank isn’t a bad idea, perhaps taller in profile to give you a bit of extra room for fuel – but whatever you choose, don’t forget that you may be putting a lot of weight over it when you’re out on the trail. And you will most certainly be landing on it with more force than you’d like every now and again, so steer well clear of any dangerous looking shapes or anything that looks like it would hurt should you land crotch-first onto it. Take time choosing your tank, because it’s the first thing most people notice. If you’re in doubt, a nice rounded number from the mid-seventies should set you in good stead.

#04. The Saddle

Scrambler Motorcycle - Saddle

Most “proper” scramblers are equipped with a short and stubby seat. This is primarily because off-road riding doesn’t require a lot of sitting down, and also because you don’t want to be taking any passengers either. However, this is where you can make a compromise. While it might look cooler to have an authentic stubby seat, it’s not exactly practical. Say you want to go for a little multi-day road trip and need to secure some luggage – you can’t wrap a backpack around the back of your seat with a bungee strap if there’s nowhere for it to hold on to. Even so, say you need to put some serious miles down on the road, do you really want to be squished into a tiny saddle? Probably not. Oh, and then there’s the obvious real world situation where you might find yourself needing to take a passenger…that little seat suddenly looks like a bad choice, doesn’t it? But what you choose is up to you, just don’t go putting some unwieldy lookin’ stepped seat on it, like you’d find on an 80s cruiser. That’ll be silly.

#03. Lightweight Components

Scrambler Motorcycle - Lights

Now that you’ve got most of the essentials in place, it’s time to look at refining your overall design. The best way to add more performance to your scrambler is to shave weight wherever possible. The best way to do this is to replace whatever you can with lightweight aftermarket parts, and discard all but the essentials. Since your scrambler motorcycle will also have to function on the road as well, you’re going to have to leave behind the stuff that keeps it road legal – but that doesn’t mean that they have to be the same heavyweight units from the factory, does it?

Swapping everything from the handlebars to the headlight, or the foot pegs to the fixings will help shave off unnecessary weight. Don’t forget that the original scramblers were race machines, where weight saving is everything. The lighter your scrambler becomes, the better performance and handling you’ll experience when riding it!

#02. Simple Ergonomics

Scrambler Motorcycle - Ergonomics

Similarly, while you’re replacing your original factory parts with lightweight, aftermarket equivalents, you should also consider streamlining your remaining components and making your ride experience as simple and easy as possible. Again, since scramblers are supposed to be stripped down, no-nonsense, bare-bones machines, you might want to ditch the original factory switch-gears for simpler ones, or remove all the old wiring that you’re no longer using, or swap that unwieldy instrument cluster for smaller gauges for an uncluttered vibe.

This is also the time to consider changing things like your levers and mirrors for stronger, more durable units – just in case you drop your bike while you’re on the rough. This is a great opportunity to ditch those old protruding turn signals for integrated units too. These steps aren’t exactly essential, but they will make your life much easier in the long run. Having to swap levers again because you took a slow speed spill gets really boring really fast.

#01. Don’t Forget What You’re Building

Scrambler Motorcycle - Off-Road

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of making your scrambler motorcycle look nice, whilst simultaneously forgetting to make it good at its primary function. At the end of the day, these are motorcycle built to be put through their paces and punished – so a wise builder will make sure that everything is ship shape and Bristol fashion before calling the job complete. If there are seals that need replacing, replace them. New bearings all over won’t hurt. Same with the bushings, and all the fixings in general. We’ve seen a lot of amateur builds let down because the builders have overlooked these tiny details – and like everything in life, the devil is in the details.

And that leads us to our final point in this section, and a warning we can’t stress enough: for the love of god don’t throw away your fenders. Yes, your scrambler looks really aggressive without a front mud guard, and yes, the rear end looks nice a sleek without that rear fender poking out…but think logically before you do away with them completely. Tires have a habit of spinning and throwing up whatever they’ve gathered. If you’re out on the dirt, that means they’re going to be throwing a lot of dirt around…and you don’t want that flying up into your face, or making an attractive splatter down the back of your jacket. Having no fenders might look cool, but having a dirty back doesn’t.

But Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

Scrambler Motorcycle - Unorthodox

While those are the main things to consider whilst building a scrambler motorcycle that will please the purists, understand that you can build whatever you want, however you want, and the only person you need to please is yourself. So, if you want to build yourself a funky scrambler built around a 1200cc inline-four engine, with short-travel suspension, a café racer seat, clip-on handlebars, with a stretched Harley-Davidson tank, that runs on racing slicks, then go for it. As long as you ride it with enthusiasm and take it off-road every now and again, we’d still class it as a scrambler motorcycle. It might not be a traditional interpretation, but we prefer to see something outlandish being ridden properly than seeing a purpose-built factory scrambler languishing outside of a coffee shop any day of the week.

Got any other suggestions or think we’ve missed something, or maybe we’ve included something that you don’t agree with? Let us know in comments.

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Joe Appleton
About Joe Appleton

I’ve done a bit of work here and there in the industry – I’ve even ridden a few bikes for actual money but what it comes down to is this: I ride bikes, build bikes and occasionally crash ‘em too. I like what I like but that certainly doesn’t make my opinion any more valid than yours…

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