What is a Desert Sled? A History and Definition

Modern Desert Sled by British Customs

Desert sleds…a bike that few know much about. Ironmen like Steve McQueen and thousands upon thousands whose names have not been recorded in history loved to race them, but what exactly is a desert sled? Is it simply any heavy 500cc or up bike with a skid plate and sundry tools slapped on, or is it a spirit, a need to conquer?

Perhaps Bill Bryant of Chop Cult said it best:

“Long before modern heroes backflipped for TV cameras and energy drink contracts, tough men thrashed modified street machines in the lonely deserts of the Southwest USA and Baja.”

Early Desert Sleds

Early desert sleds were built by a rider concerned with only himself and his ability to finish a race. Even when built on the same platform, each bike turned out with a distinct personality provided by a wide spectrum of lucky charms, religious medallions, and kisses from a beautiful girl. All this in hopes of warding off the evil spirits, hidden rocks, and obscured mine shaft openings that could end a race–or rider–prematurely.

Harley KRTT Desert Sled
Harley KRTT Desert Sled

These bikes could have been Harleys, Indians, or any type of home-built contraption that a rider could piece together. British rides made rare appearances, but struggled to finish. No homologation rules to worry about, so zero f#*ks given. During early competitions, no one worried about getting there fast, just getting there. As Matt Cuddy of Super Hunky says:

“These machines were not so much about going fast through the mighty desert, but just finishing the ride without a major break down, or crash.”

The British (Sled) Invasion

Triumph TR6 Desert Sled
Triumph TR6C once owned by Motorcycle Hall of Famer Mike (Party Animal) Parti. Campaigned in 1969 and 1970.

No one worried about getting to the finish line quickly because the lightweight British bike had not invaded the desert sled culture yet. The few that came around early were too quirky to be reliable in the sand. Eventually, many fans of the desert sled recognized the benefits of a sled that could be picked up easily and was faster than the old style American bikes. That led to a wave of 650cc twin-cylinder Brit rides hammering around the desert during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Even with the majority of the bugs worked out, the most important tool in a riders kit was a tow rope.

The Desert Sled:  An American Icon

Elvis Desert Sled
Elvis on a Desert Sled

During this time, Steve McQueen developed his love and loyalty for the Triumph brand, earned in the lonesome, unforgiving deserts of Baja. In the filming of The Great Escape, McQueen famously would not allow anything but Triumphs on the set. Using a BMW for the stunts and filming was out of the question. Elvis himself was photographed on a Triumph desert sled, further solidifying the sexiness of the ‘sled.

Steve McQueen's Desert Sled
Steve McQueen’s Desert Sled
Steve McQueen on a Desert Sled
Steve McQueen on one of his ‘sleds

Two-Stroke Desert Racers

An ever evolving and adaptable breed, desert sledders are always on the prowl for the next edge…the bike that will not only let them finish a run, but in the best possible time. What out does a lightweight twin-cylinder? A two-stroke of course, or so it seemed at the time. Soon dirt bikes like the Yamaha 360, Pursang 360, and the Husqvarna 400 were dotting the dry landscape like it was their sole purpose in this world. These bikes ushered in a heyday for desert racing. These were the years when true men of the sand ran from Barstow to Vegas, hammered through the Moose Run, and beat themselves up to win the Elsinore GP. The scene was totally dominated by bikes sporting Curnutt rear shocks, Don Vesco fuel cells, and the heaviest ply knobbies imaginable. One thing remained the same, though. Every bike had a tow rope onboard!

Desert Racers Today

Irony rules the desert today. Harken back to an earlier paragraph…we told you how the four-stroke was replaced by the two-stroker. Well, the four-stroke has taken over again. Granted, these are far better bikes than the original, but a caterpillar lays dormant before emerging as a butterfly.

The new four-strokers can cost a fortune to maintain, with the engines barely making it through 30 hours of run time before a factory-trained tech has to tear them down. Today, desert sleds cost a small fortune to maintain, the Bureau of Land Management is clamping down on events, and housing developments are popping up where races used to be run. Hopefully, this is not a death knell for the sport.

Vintage Desert Sled Builds

Currently, we are seeing two types of desert sleds in the custom scene. First, there are the traditional sleds, typically built on vintage Triumph platforms to look and perform like they did in the 60-70s heydays.  They typically have high-pipes to protect the exhaust from rocks and flung debris, skid plates, fork brace, number plate, and often a clunky seat that nevertheless protects the rider’s posterior over endless miles of rough terrain. Examples include this Xcrambler Triumph Sport Tiger and Steven Robson’s 1978 Triumph T140 Scrambler.

Triumph Tiger Desert Sled
Triumph Sport Tiger T100SC Desert Sled by Xcrambler Motorcycles
Steven Robson’s T140 Scrambler


Modern Desert Sled Builds

We’re also beginning to see a trend emerge, a new genre of modern street sleds inspired by the vintage desert-racers of old.  Examples include the MX EVO Bonneville and this sled-inspired British Customs Scrambler. In fact, British Customs has an entire guide on how to build a desert sled. Perhaps our favorite modern desert sled is the Stasis Scrambler 900 by Cliff Fisher of Stasis Motorcycles, which he describes as “long-legged, knobby, cattle-guard jumper for the rural Texas dirt roads.”

Triumph Thruxton Desert Sled Scrambler
Triumph Thruxton Desert Sled by Stasis Motorcycles
MX EVO Desert Sled
MX EVO Desert Sled

What is a Desert Sled:  A Definition

Most great works of art defy classification, and the same can be said of many of the best custom bike builds we see. That said, it’s a human need to classify and label our world–and hell, it can be fun.  Here’s our definition, which applies both to vintage and contemporary desert sleds, and helps differentiate them from similar machines.

“A desert sled is a non-dirt bike based custom, typically in excess of 650cc, which has knobby tires, skid plate, enduro bars, a number plate or caged headlight, and high pipes.  Often, it has a larger gas tank than a comparable scrambler or enduro, and/or a toolkit for trail-side repairs, and does not have the fairings and windshield of an adventure bike.”

Desert Sled Motorcycles

Africa Four Africa Four: Honda CRF1000R by Brivemo - A 145-hp, ADV-inspired rally raider from Switzerland! The Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin is one of the world’s most formidable adventure bikes, a modern revival of the V-twin desert machines that won the Paris-Dakar Rally four […]
Yamaha SR500 Scrambler “Dusty Classic” Yamaha SR500 by Le Motographe - The Yamaha 500 singles are some of our favorite air-cooled thumpers ever built. The street-oriented SR500, introduced in 1978, was available in the US until 1981 and Europe until 1983, though it remained available in […]
Metisse Desert Sled Rickman Metisse Desert Sled by Chelsea Borchert - A street-legal Rickman Metisse desert sled influenced by Steve McQueen… In the early 1960s, the deserts of Southern California were alive with the sound of Triumph twins, BSA singles, and other British-built machines streaking toward […]
BMW R80RT Desert Sled Cool It: BMW R80RT Desert Sled by Dust Motorcycles - “Cool It” — a Desert Sled inspired by the King of Cool… In the final chase scene of The Great Escape (1963), Steve McQueen’s character jumps a stolen German motorcycle over a fence into Switzerland. […]
BMW R80 Desert Sled BMW R80 Desert Sled by Dust Motorcycles - “Bounty” — a BMW boxer built for the deserts of Dubai… The desert sled may have its roots in the cross-country races of 1960s America, where heroes such as Steve McQueen, Bud Ekins, and Malcolm […]
Moto Guzzi V65 TT Desert Sled Moto Guzzi V65 TT Desert Sled - A Moto Guzzi built to ride 2500 km through the Moroccan desert! The Scram Africa is a 10-day, 2500-kilometer ride across the deserts and mountains of Morocco, from Tangier to the very southern end of […]
Kawasaki KZ400 Desert Sled “Womp Rat” Kawasaki KZ400 Desert Sled - A scrambler built for the deserts of Tatooine! “Rescue, Rebuild, Recycle.” This is the motto of Tempe, Arizona’s AspiRe Cycle. Founder Chris Elliot certainly put those words into action with this 1978 Kawasaki KZ400, which […]
Triumph T100 Scrambler Street Sled Triumph T100 “Street Sled” by Modulus Moto - A street-legal Triumph built for trophy truck territory… Dave Guerrant of San Francisco’s Modulus Moto has one of our favorite mission statements in the industry: “We are pushing boundaries. Maybe even farther than they should […]
Yamaha XT600 Desert Sled Scrambler Tracker Yamaha XT600 Desert Sled by Pancake Customs - “All purpose stealth scrambler…even James Bond would be stoked to ride.” Boy Janssen of Pancake Customs is a full-time, self-taught builder who builds original, high-quality customs out of his small shop in Rheden, in the […]
Kawasaki W650 Brat Tracker Kawasaki W650 Custom by Pancake Customs - A Dutch-built Kawasaki W650, designed for a veteran BMX rider… We first ran across this amazing Kawasaki W650 custom when our friends Rusty Gold Motorshop of Amsterdam snapped a shot of the bike sitting outside […]
Honda CL360 Scrambler Honda CL360 Scrambler by Offset Motorcycles - A $1000 Dirtbag Chopper gets turned into a Big Sur banger… Jason Lisica of San Francisco’s Offset Motorcycles has been involved with the city’s Dirtbag Challenge. The challenge, which has been the subject of two […]
Honda NX650 Scrambler Honda NX650 Scrambler by Moose Garage - The Honda NX650 has become one of our favorite platforms for curb-jumping urban enduros and weekend service road blasters. Enter Martin Kvarnhult (Moose Garage) of central Sweden, who built this NX650 scrambler — his first […]
Harley Sportster Desert Sled Sportster Desert Sleds by El Solitario - Article by Rick Brown of BikeBound.com. Most people would not select Milwaukee iron as their first choice to tackle crossing the Sahara, but David Borras of El Solitario (The Lone Wolf) definitely travels to the […]
Triumph Bonneville T100 Scrambler Triumph T100 Scrambler by Purpose Built Moto - Tom Gilroy of Purpose Built Moto started his business in 2015 to design, build, and sell parts for custom bikes. Previously we featured his Suzuki GN250 scrambler. Now the man is back with another bike […]
Triumph TR6 Desert Sled Triumph TR6 Tiger Desert Sled - The Triumph TR6 is one of the most iconic motorcycles of all time. Built from 1956 to 1973, the “desert sled” carved its name into history competing in — and winning — major off-road races […]



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One Comment

  1. James Russell

    Pretty accurate description.
    One thing an old desert sled had that very few modern versions show is a thicker seat.
    With the lousy suspension our sleds had the seat was extremely important.
    Most of us old riders laugh at the stupid ironing boards people call a seat on the modern customs.
    And IF we ran a front fender it was low mounted, not up high.
    That second bike shown above that belonged to Steve McQueen is a Rickman Metisse, the best sled to be had until Husky and the other 2 strokes entered the scene weighing about half as much.
    I still have my Triumph 650 Rickman Metisse…

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