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!

Sportster Scrambler “Soulbreaker” Sportsters by Lord Drake Kustoms - The Harley-Davidson Sportster has long been one of the world’s most popular bikes for customization. We’re seeing a lot of Sportster scrambler builds these days, but the idea isn’t exactly new. After all, a 1969 […]
The Wheeler’s Life: “Knocky” 883 Sportster -   RULER builds a dual-purpose Sportster… A lot of motorcycles have come and gone since the first Sportster rolled off the factory floor way back in 1957. While riders and journalists have been decrying the […]
883 Sportster Scrambler Shaken, Not Stirred: “Seventy” Sportster by Lord Drake Kustoms - LDK builds a Sportster inspired by Martini Racing… In the history of sports car and rally racing, few liveries are as iconic as those of Martini Racing, featuring dark blue, sky blue, and red stripes […]

 


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 CL350 Custom Scrambler All The Little, Big Details: Honda CL350 Scrambler - Slipstream Creations builds a more versatile, capable Honda Scrambler… Introduced in 1969, the Honda CL350 was the factory scrambler version of the CB350 twin, one of Honda’s most successful machines. The 324cc, 33-horsepower parallel-twin engine […]
Honda CL350 Brat Scrambler Honda CL350 Brat-Scrambler by Offset Moto - Going Equilateral: Long-Armed CL350 from San Francisco… The Honda CL350 was the scrambler version of the beloved CB350 twin, featuring a high-mount exhaust and 19-inch front wheel. While the 346 curb weight and 33 horsepower […]
Honda CL350 Scrambler Best in Show: Honda CL350 Scrambler by CEM - Recently, we had the pleasure of attending the 2018 Victory Moto Show in Savannah, Georgia — one of our favorite places on earth. The rise of Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) has given […]

 


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 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 Dominator Scrambler Fear Nothing: Honda NX650 Dominator “Witaca 001” -   A Honda Dominator built for the path, not the destination… When Honda introduced the NX650 Dominator in 1988, we can safely assume they had no idea this “urbanized trail bike” would become a favorite […]
Honda NX-TT 650 Street Tracker 650 Twin-Shocker: Marmisto’s TT-NX Street Tracker - The Honda NX650 Dominator has become one of the world’s most custom platforms. The 45-hp four-valve single has plenty of punch, coupled with electric start and a reputation for rugged reliability. But for stonemason, author, […]

 


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.

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 […]
Honda XR350R Vintage Motocross Honda XR350R “Hoodoo” by Buscadero Motorcycles - Drool-worthy XR built for vintage motocross… The Honda XR350R debuted to a good bit of fanfare in 1983. Together with its big brother, the XR500R, the big red enduro would help change the way people […]

 


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 Motocross Strictly Business: ’67 Triumph Bonneville Scrambler - Not a Desert Sled: Street-legal vintage Triumph motocrosser! In 1963, the Triumph T120 Bonneville received an all-new 650cc unit-construction engine — it was lighter, stronger, easier to build/maintain, and remains one of motorcycling history’s best-looking […]
Triumph T100 Bonneville Scrambler McQueen Machine: Triumph 865 by Absolut Motorcraft - Built for exploring the hidden paths, coves, and beaches of Ibiza… In the climactic scene of 1963’s WWII epic, The Great Escape, USAAF Virgil Hilts, played by none other than Steve McQueen, guns his stolen […]
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 […]

 


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 XT600E Scrambler Yamaha XT600 Army Scrambler - LDK’s Spanish workshop builds a military-inspired XT600 scrambler… Available from 1990-2004, the Yamaha XT600 was the latest evolution of the four-valve air-cooled singles that began with the legendary XT500, winner of the first two Paris-Dakar […]
Yamaha XT600 Scrambler Retro Thumper: Yamaha XT600 “113” by Unik Edition - A 70s-style scrambler built for the mom of a motocross racer… In 1984, Yamaha released the XT600, the latest in the company’s XT series of four-stroke dual-purpose machines that began with the famed XT500, winner […]
Yamaha XT500 Scrambler Restomod Dirt Road Ripper: Yamaha XT500 by MotoRelic - “Foot down and elbows up! Braaap!” The Yamaha XT500 is one of the most successful dual-purpose machines of all time, a big-bore four-stroke that proved itself in professional desert racing and on thousands of miles […]

 


Recent Scrambler Builds

Honda 150 Street Tracker Bombardero: Honda CG150 Cargo by AZFER Customs - A Honda 150 built for both town and country… Launched all the way back in 1975, the Honda CG125 would become one of the world’s most popular learner machines and lightweight commuters, remaining in production […]
Cheney Triumph Tiger Cub Scrambler Pure Nostalgia: Cheney / Triumph Tiger Cub - Best of British: Cheney / Triumph Tiger Cub built to battle the two-strokes… If you dig very far into the history of motocross and scrambles, you’re sure to come across the name Eric Cheney, an […]
Honda CBX750F Customs Quatro Galos: Four Honda CBX750F Customs - Four CBX750F customs from Grego’s Customs of Brazil… In 1983, the Honda CBX750 appeared, an evolution of the beloved CB750 that offered a 93-hp DOHC inline four engine and the boxy styling that would become […]
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 […]
Honda CX500 Scrambler Dune Runner: Honda CX400 Scrambler - LE VAN VAN énervé — The Pissed-off Van Van… The Honda CX500, once derided as the “Plastic Maggot,” would go on to achieve cult status as a nearly unbreakable instrument of the two-wheeled professional: “It […]
Yamaha SR400 Custom High-Spec Thumper: Yamaha SR400 by DOTi - Vietnam’s DOTi Motorcycle builds one of the hottest SR’s we’ve ever seen… Introduced in 1978, Yamaha SR400 was, essentially, a street version of the legendary Yamaha XT500 — the air-cooled four-stroke thumper that won the […]
Triumph Bonneville Motocross Strictly Business: ’67 Triumph Bonneville Scrambler - Not a Desert Sled: Street-legal vintage Triumph motocrosser! In 1963, the Triumph T120 Bonneville received an all-new 650cc unit-construction engine — it was lighter, stronger, easier to build/maintain, and remains one of motorcycling history’s best-looking […]
BMW R65 Scrambler Budget-Built Bomber: R65 Airhead Scrambler by Gold Stroke Motors - Gold Stroke Motors: BMW Airhead scramblers for the next generation of riders… In 1969, BMW introduced what would be the first of their “Airhead” motorcycles, the Slash 5 series featuring the company’s new air-cooled flat-twin […]
Yamaha XT600E Scrambler Yamaha XT600 Army Scrambler - LDK’s Spanish workshop builds a military-inspired XT600 scrambler… Available from 1990-2004, the Yamaha XT600 was the latest evolution of the four-valve air-cooled singles that began with the legendary XT500, winner of the first two Paris-Dakar […]
Sportster Scrambler “Soulbreaker” Sportsters by Lord Drake Kustoms - The Harley-Davidson Sportster has long been one of the world’s most popular bikes for customization. We’re seeing a lot of Sportster scrambler builds these days, but the idea isn’t exactly new. After all, a 1969 […]

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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