What is a Desert Sled? A History and Definition

MOdern-Triumph-Desert-Sled
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
Vintage-Triumph-Desert-Sled
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

Triumph Scrambler Triumph “Whitehall Scrambler” by Acre Moto - Classic style, modern performance…  For a long time, we’ve been fans of restomods — vintage motorcycles whose period aesthetics are largely retained while the bike’s suspension, brakes, electronics, and overall performance are boosted to modern […]
Rickman Metisse Steve McQueen Desert Sled The Cool One: 1971 Rickman Metisse 650 Desert Sled - Clinton Hill Classics recreates Steve McQueen’s Metisse desert racer! In the 1950s, brothers Derek and Don Rickman were successful UK motocross riders who decided to turn their passion into a business, building off-road chassis kits […]
Plush Sled: Kawasaki W650 Desert Sled II - DDM returns with one stunning desert sled…  At the end of 2020, we featured a Kawasaki W650 desert sled from Rick Hannah of London’s Dirty Dick’s Motos, a semi-pro shed builder who said he got […]
BSA Hornet Desert Sled Mexican 500 Machine: BSA Hornet Desert Sled - Scott G Toepfer’s NORRA 500 Beezer…  Introduced in 1964, the BSA Spitfire Hornet was destined to become an icon of California desert racing. While the sooty streets of industrial England may seem a long way […]
Triumph TR6C Desert Sled Come Correct: 1968 Triumph TR6C Desert Sled - Joey Yedowitz builds a period-correct ‘sled down to the nuts, bolts, and washers… The Triumph TR6C was the 1960s version of the company’s single-carb, high-pipe 650 scrambler. Not only did it perform the most iconic […]
Triumph T100C Desert Sled All Parts Fun: ’66 Triumph T100C from Tamara Raye - A Disneyland engineer and rockstar bassist builds a desert Tiger… While the 650cc Bonneville may have been the big seller for Triumph in the 1960s, the 500cc Tiger 100 range remained extremely important to the […]
Honda XL600 Desert Sled Prairie Dog: Honda XL600 Desert Sled - Marmisto’s take on the classic Desert Sled – the Prairie Dog There are custom bikes with build sheets that read like expensive shopping lists, outfitting the machine in a dizzying array of high-spec bling, and […]
BSA B50MX Vintage Warhorse: 1973 BSA B50MX - “This bike is like a owning a horse…. Whisper softly to her and she might get you home.” The BSA B50MX was the motocross version of the beloved B50, which would be the last of […]
Bud Ekins Desert Sled Bud Ekins Desert Sled by Ace Classics - Ace Classics builds a faithful replica of Bud Ekins’s desert sled… James Sherwin “Bud” Ekins was an accomplished motocross, desert, and enduro racer from Southern California who would become one of Hollywood’s most famous stuntmen, […]
Johnny Campbell Tribute: Honda XR628R Baja! - Desert King: GPgarage Moto builds a tribute to the King of Baja… Johnny Campbell is a living legend of off-road racing, a man known as “The King of Baja” for his 11 Baja 1000 victories […]
BSA Victor 441 Desert Beezer: 1967 BSA Victor Enduro 441 -   Rock drummer Jorma Vik builds and races a classic Beezer… In the 1960s, BSA motocross star Jeff Smith convinced the factory that it was time to develop a lighter, all-new machine to replace the […]
Kawasaki W650 Desert Sled Posh Sled: Kawasaki W650 Scrambler - Dirty Dick’s Motos builds a fast & reliable modern desert sled… Produced from 1999 to 2007, the Kawasaki W650 was a retro throwback to the British twins of the 1960s, featuring a 50-hp parallel twin […]
Honda NX650 Desert Sled Desert Dominator: Honda NX650 ‘Sled - “A lighter, more powerful, more aggressive, go anywhere version of the Dominator…” The Honda NX650 Dominator has become one of the world’s most popular custom platforms, featuring an XR-based 644cc four-valve single-cylinder engine, twin stainless […]
Triumph New Bonneville Scrambler Burly Bonnie: Triumph Bonneville “Laia” by Tamarit Motorcycles - The Triumph “New Bonneville” has proven to be one of the most versatile contemporary platforms for customization. The straight-twin roadster competes directly with the 883 Sportster: “The Triumph Bonneville is unquestionably the better motorcycle. The […]
Kawasaki KX500AF Baja Tribute Modern Baja Tribute: Kawasaki KX500AF “Purple Monster” - A 500cc two-stroke monster built in the image of the Mean Green Baja kings… The Kawasaki KX500 is one of the most legendary, if not notorious, off-road weapons ever created. The performance numbers are still […]

 

 

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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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