The Best Bikes for Scrambler Builds

Yamaha XT500 Scrambler Restomod
Yamaha XT500 by Motorelic

Scramblers are one of our favorite types of motorcycles here at BikeBound. The origin of the term goes back to 1920s England, when shed and garage builders would modify their primitive road-going motorcycles for cross-country races that followed no set trail or track. Rather, they were point A to point B races across the rough, varying terrain of the English countryside.

Rumor has it the phrase ‘Scrambler’ came from a British race announcer describing the act playing out before his eyes as ‘quite a scramble.'” —Toad & Co.

Triumph T140 Scrambler
Triumph T140 Scrambler

Over time, these races evolved into closed-circuit hare scrambles and motocross courses, though desert racing in the American West would keep the open-range format alive for many years to come.  During the 1960s, California desert racers could be found modifying 650cc Triumphs and other street bikes to survive the extreme punishment of off-road racing.

Soon, aftermarket frame kits like the Rickman Metisse became available, which incorporated such innovations as oil-in-frame design for better cooling, heavy-duty Ceriani forks, nickel-plated tubing, reinforced stress points, and more. These could be purchased to accommodate engines from Triumph, Norton, Matchless, etc.

Metisse Desert Sled
Rickman Metisse by Chelsea B.

By the 1960s, manufacturers were beginning to offer production scramblers, which were derived from street-legal models and lightly modified for some off-road use. Examples include the Honda CL and Ducati Scrambler series. These were really “street scramblers,” and their off-road prowess was limited.  Still, these production scramblers signaled the riding public’s desire for dual-purpose machines that could be ridden both on and off the road.

Honda CB360T Scrambler
Honda CB360 Scrambler by Slipstream Creations

In 1969, Yamaha introduced the 250cc two-stroke DT-1, which would take the market by storm. Now a lightweight, true dual-purpose machine was widely available and affordable for the average consumer:

“Prior to the release of the Yamaha DT-1, reliable, reasonably powerful and inexpensive dirt bikes simply didn’t exist. The various — mostly British — scramblers on the market tended to be big and heavy, and while companies like Greeves, Montesa and Penton offered purpose-built dirt bikes, they were expensive and quirky. The DT-1 changed all that.”

Yamaha DT1
Yamaha DT-1

A new breed of machine was born, the dual-sport or enduro — a cheaper, lighter weight, single-cylinder alternative to the scramblers of yore.

So What is a Scrambler Motorcycle?

Triumph Scrambler Custom
Barbour International Triumph Scrambler by Unik Edition

Here at BikeBound, we generally define as a scrambler as a street bike modified for light to moderate off-road duty. Defining traits often include some combination of the following:

  • DOT-legal dual-purpose rubber, from 50/50 to 90/10
  • Taller, longer-travel front/rear suspension
  • Skid/Bash plates and rock protection
  • Motocross handlebars / footpegs
  • Accessory lighting / luggage
  • Full mudguards / fenders

We’re reluctant to pigeonhole this breed of bike inside a strict definition or set of defining traits, but these are the traits most recognizable in today’s new wave custom scramblers — one of our favorite types of machine to feature here at BikeBound.

In recent years, this scene has exerted a profound influence on the major manufacturers, many of which have begun to offer production scrambler models. The Ducati Scrambler and Triumph Scrambler are the most obvious examples, though both have received flak for being “scramblers” more in name than function.

Perhaps in response, they’ve begun to offer more aggressive, long-travel off-road editions, such as Ducati’s Desert Sled and Triumph’s 1200 Scrambler — truly capable machines in the dirt.

Best Donor Motorcycles for Scrambler Builds

We’ve seen scramblers built from a staggering array of donor motorcycles, some more successful than others. Below, we list some of our favorite platforms to help you decide the base bike for your next build. These are in alphabetical order, not any kind of ranking.

Harley-Davidson Sportster

883 Sportster Scrambler
Sportster Scrambler by K&H Co.

In continuous production since 1957, the Sportster has long served as Harley’s most lightweight, performance-oriented V-twin offering outside the Buell series, available with the Ironhead engine until 1985 and the Evolution after that. While this 500+lb cruiser may seem like an odd choice for a scrambler conversion, these bikes have been ripping down dirt roads since their inception, while the American television series Then Came Bronson helped establish the Sporty’s scrambling potential in the public mind. A number of aftermarket companies now supply off-road parts for modern Sportsters, and builds such as Biltwell’s Frijole 883 desert race bike and the Carducci Dual Sport S3 Adventure have displayed the surprising potential of this platform. Hell, we even built and ride a Sportster scrambler ourselves, Blitzen!

Harley Enduro: XL1200 Sportster “Adventure Sport” - Jake Vintage builds a 70s enduro-style Sportster for city and trail…  In 2020, we featured one of our favorite bikes of all time, a 1936 Norton V-Twin Special powered by a monstrous 1320cc J.A.P. V-twin […]
Sportster Scrambler Sportster “Martini” Scrambler by Lord Drake Kustoms - Italian distillery Martini & Rossi, makers of the well-known Martini vermouth, began sponsoring motor racing teams way back in 1958, when Count Metello Rossi di Montelera founded the Martini International Club. During the 1970s, Martini […]
Harley XR1200 Enduro La Poderosa: Harley-Davidson XR1200X Enduro - The Powerful One: Animal Motor Company x Amarillo Motorcycles In 2008, Harley-Davidson released the XR1200, the most performance-tuned Sportster the factory had ever produced. Inspired by the legendary XR750 — “the most successful race bike […]

 


Honda CB/CL/SL Twins

Honda CL360 Scrambler
Honda CL360 Scrambler by Inglorious Motorcycles

The Honda CB350 was one of Honda’s bestsellers from 1968-1973, featuring a 36-hp twin-carb parallel-twin engine that earned a reputation for reliability. In fact, it’s still one of the most popular motorcycles in vintage road racing.

“The 350 Honda twin was anvil reliable, with over 300,000 copies being sold in the USA alone, it was one of the most popular motorcycles ever produced.” —SuperHunky

The CL350 was the production street scrambler variant, offering a high-mount exhaust and larger 19-inch front wheel. The SL350 was even more dirt-oriented from the factory, especially the 1971-73 models, which had a 21-inch front wheel and weighed 50+lbs less than the 1969-70 versions.

“When the SL350 got some knobbies strapped to it, and decent shocks bolted on the back, the bike became an unstoppable woods weapon, as nothing short of an atomic blast would cease the rear wheel from spinning.” —SuperHunky

Any of these models make great scrambler donors, as do the larger displacement CB/CL360 and CB/CL450 models. They are heavier and less capable than some of the single-cylinder, mono-shock machines below, but they are well-built, reliable, easy to maintain, and have a vintage charm that some of the modern donors lack.

HOnda CL360 Scrambler Slipstream Creation: 1974 Honda CL360 Scrambler - Slipstream Creations builds a leaner, more refined CL… From 1974-76, the Honda CL360 was available as the street scrambler version of the CB360. While these lightweight twins shared the same 34-hp / 356cc engine and […]
Honda CL350 Scrambler Kolor Me Purple: Honda CL350 Scrambler - Kosmoto Customs builds a Kandy Purple CL…  Earlier this month was the fifth annual Victory Moto Show in our hometown of Savannah, Georgia. While we showcase bikes from all around the world, we’re always amazed […]
Honda CL350 Honda CL350 “Moonbeam” by Mazi Moto - “This is a CL, it should look like it wants to rip around in the dirt…” In 1968, Honda introduced the CL350, a Scrambler version of the popular 324cc CB350 twin. The CL featured high […]

 


Honda NX650 Dominator

Honda NX650 Scrambler
Honda NX650 by Matt Butts

The Honda Dominator was a more street-oriented dual-purpose motorcycle derived from the XR series, featuring a 44-horsepower air-cooled single-cylinder engine and five-speed transmission. It was produced from 1988-2003, but only available in the US market for two years. In Europe, it’s become one of the most popular donors for custom scrambler builds due to its ruggedness, availability, low purchase price, low cost of ownership, good power, and off-road potential. What’s more, the 650cc engine’s dual exhaust outlets  mean that custom high-pipe dual exhaust setups are common. For US builders, the Honda XR650L is a readily available alternative that shares the same engine and many of the same parts and character traits.

Honda Dominator Custom Honda Dominator “EVO3” by Morex Custom - When Honda launched the NX650 Dominator in 1988, they surely didn’t expect that the urbanized trail bike would become a darling of the new wave customs scene 40 years later. The Dominator had a bored […]
Honda NX650 Supermoto Joy Machine: Honda NX650 Dominator Motard - Custommade C.A. builds an 80/20 street weapon… The Honda NX650 Dominator has become an unexpected favorite of custom builders across the world. While it was only available from 1988-89 here in the States, it remained […]
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 […]

 


Honda XR / XL Series

Honda XR600R Scrambler
Honda XR600R “XLsinore”

As stated above, the Honda Dominator is rare in the US market, but Honda’s venerable XL and XR series provide a great alternative. In the early days, the XL was the company’s range of street-legal dual-sports, complete with electric start, blinkers, license plate brackets, batteries, and more. Meanwhile, the XR was the purpose-built off-road series, typically kickstart only, with the headlight and taillight run directly from the stator — no battery. Later, the XL models were folded into the XR series, and the street-legal models were identified by the “L” suffix, such as the XR250L and XR650L. What’s more, many early XR models can be found on the used market with license plates and street-legal titles. The XL600R and XR600R are probably the most popular donors for scrambler models, but the smaller displacement models should also be considered.

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 […]
Honda XR400 Rat Bike Honda XR400R “Rat Bike” from R.L. Allman’s Peter Pan - In this darkly re-imagined new series, Peter Pan flies on two wheels… Ronnie Allman is a young filmmaker whose fascination with motorcycles can be traced back to his boyhood days.  He grew up in Texas, […]
Honda Tornado Scrambler Honda XR250 Tornado Scrambler by LBC Motorcycles - Retro Enduro built by Argentina’s Low Budget Customs… The Honda XR250 Tornado was a Latin American equivalent of the XR250L, sporting an air/oil-cooled 4-valve DOHC tuned for better low-end torque and slightly less peak power […]

 


Triumph Bonneville

Triumph T100 Bonneville Scrambler
Triumph Bonneville by Absolut Motorcraft

The first-gen Triumph Bonneville and its predecessor, the TR6 Trophy, were some of the most popular machines in California desert racing in the 1960s. Today, the third-generation Hinckley Triumph Bonneville, produced from 2001 onward, remains a popular donor for scrambler builds. The parallel-twin engine serves up a decent dose of horsepower and low-end torque — a prime prerequisite for off-road antics — and companies such as British Customs have been testing and developing a broad range of parts for the Triumph Bonneville Carb, SE, T100, T120, and more.

Triumph Bonneville T100 Scrambler King Wolf: Triumph “Mardanis” Scrambler -   Lord Drake Kustoms builds a wild Triumph Scrambler…  The Triumph T100 Bonneville is one of the most popular modern platforms for customization. It’s easy to see why. The retro lines hark back to the […]
Triumph T100 Bonneville Scrambler Sunrise Bonneville: Triumph T100 Roadster - The sun rises on FCR Original’s Triumph T100…  In 2012, engineers Mathieu Ménard and Sébastien Guillemot founded French workshop FCR Original, quickly demonstrating their skills with victories in the French Dragster National Championships. In 2017, […]
White Helmets Triumph White Helmets Tribute: Triumph Bonneville T100 “No.2” - White Helmets veteran Oli Blount builds one stunning tribute machine… For nearly a century, the Royal Signals Motorcycle Display Team — better known as the White Helmets — was a team of soldiers from the […]

 


Yamaha XT / DT Series

Yamaha XT550 Street Tracker
Yamaha XT550 “She-Wolf” by Francis Von Tuto

The Yamaha DT series (two-stroke) and XT series (four-stroke) are two of our favorite motorcycle platforms, bar none. These single-cylinder dual-sport/enduro bikes are more capable than most factory scramblers in stock trim. In fact, the XT500 won the very first Paris-Dakar Rallies in 1979 and 1980. At the same time, they are quite capable road-going machines, especially in the 250+cc models. With a few stylistic customizations, such as custom seat/bars/tank/crash protection, they look great, and their performance potential is huge, with upgraded suspension, 12-volt electrical systems, and more available.

Yamaha XT600 Scrambler 70s-Style Yamaha XT600 “Arbiana” Scrambler - Rivertown Custom Cycles salvages a botched XT…  Back in 2019, we featured a Buell XB12-powered Sportster drag bike from the likes of Mirko and Nena Nicic, the husband/wife duo behind Croatia’s Rivertown Custom Cycles. They […]
Yamaha SRC600 Scrambler Road Cross: Yamaha “SRC600” - A Dutch motocross racer builds himself a dual-terrain ripper…  In 1983, Kawasaki and Yamaha decided to challenge Honda’s domination of the big-bore dual-sport class.  Kawasaki introduced their KLR600 and Yamaha their XT600 — a bike […]
Yamaha XT600E Scrambler Thumper Bee: Yamaha XT600 by Motoworks.gr - “A vintage enduro with all the comforts of new-age bikes…” The island of Crete, the largest and most populous of the Greek Islands, has an incredibly rich and storied history — it’s the mythical birthplace […]

 


Recent Scrambler Builds

Harley Enduro: XL1200 Sportster “Adventure Sport” - Jake Vintage builds a 70s enduro-style Sportster for city and trail…  In 2020, we featured one of our favorite bikes of all time, a 1936 Norton V-Twin Special powered by a monstrous 1320cc J.A.P. V-twin […]
Yamaha SR400 Custom The Thumper: Sandi Piper’s Yamaha SR400 - A Maltese Thumper from Sandi Piper / Choppershack…  The Yamaha SR400 is one of those bikes that riders seem to bond strongly with. Perhaps it’s the heartbeat-like thump of the short-stroke single-cylinder engine, the classic […]
Yamaha XT600 Scrambler 70s-Style Yamaha XT600 “Arbiana” Scrambler - Rivertown Custom Cycles salvages a botched XT…  Back in 2019, we featured a Buell XB12-powered Sportster drag bike from the likes of Mirko and Nena Nicic, the husband/wife duo behind Croatia’s Rivertown Custom Cycles. They […]
Best Scramblers 2021 Top 10 Scramblers and Desert Sleds of 2021 - Here at BikeBound, it’s no secret that we’re big fans of scramblers, desert sleds, rally bikes, and enduro machines. So are you, our readers, as several of the machines that made our list of the […]
Honda Dominator Custom Honda Dominator “EVO3” by Morex Custom - When Honda launched the NX650 Dominator in 1988, they surely didn’t expect that the urbanized trail bike would become a darling of the new wave customs scene 40 years later. The Dominator had a bored […]
HOnda CL360 Scrambler Slipstream Creation: 1974 Honda CL360 Scrambler - Slipstream Creations builds a leaner, more refined CL… From 1974-76, the Honda CL360 was available as the street scrambler version of the CB360. While these lightweight twins shared the same 34-hp / 356cc engine and […]
Yamaha 225 VMX Scrambler Tropic Thumper: Yamaha 225 “Stiletto” Scrambler - Bali has become a hotbed of custom motorcycle culture. The volcanic mountains, rich jungle trails, and endless miles of beach simply beg to be ridden on dual-purpose machines, and the custom scramblers and trackers built […]
BMX with Engine 190cc Reckless Racer: 190cc BMX Scrambler! - S.M.F. x Mooneyes Taiwan build a 190cc BMX for Reckless Race…  For so many builders we talk to, their love of motorcycles started with bicycles, especially BMX (Bicycle Motocross). That should come as no surprise, […]
Kawasaki Z650 Scrambler The Z: Kawasaki Z650 Scrambler - SW-MOTECH Cofounder Jürgen Swora’s Z650! The Kawasaki Z650 was designed by none other than the grandmaster himself, Gyoichi “Ben” Inamura, designer of the legendary Z1. Introduced in 1976, it quickly earned as reputation as the […]
Honda NX650 Supermoto Joy Machine: Honda NX650 Dominator Motard - Custommade C.A. builds an 80/20 street weapon… The Honda NX650 Dominator has become an unexpected favorite of custom builders across the world. While it was only available from 1988-89 here in the States, it remained […]

2 Comments

  1. 1st place goes to the Honda XR600R “XLsinore”. Last place goes to that POS HD.

  2. I have an 83 XL250R …would love any advice I can get whilst planning on making a scrambler out of the bike ..its in fairly poor condition but nothing some $$plus some TLC shouldn’t fix ….happy for any feedback ..cheers

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