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!

Adventure Sportster Harley-Davidson XL1200 “Adventure Sportster” - A Go-Anywhere Sportster from FrenchMoto…  Even as Harley-Davidson promotes their liquid-cooled Sportster S, the air-cooled Evolution-powered Sportster is experiencing something of a renaissance in racing circles. Built from 1986 to 2020, the Evo Sportster is […]
883 Sportster Scrambler Strollster: Custom 883 Sportster - Impala-blue XLH883 Sportster from RULER…  Since its release in 1957, the Harley-Davidson Sportster has proved itself as the most adaptable motorcycle in the Motor Company’s bloodline — and perhaps the most versatile American motorcycle of […]
Sportster Scrambler Street Tracker On The Mark: Harley Sportster 1200S Scrambler - MX-inspired Sportster scrambler from Purpose Built Moto…  Last week, we featured the Sportster 1200 Adventure Scrambler from Australia’s Purpose Built Moto, built for workshop owner Tom Gilroy to ride across Tasmania for the film Wide […]

 


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 CL200 Scrambler Slipstream Creations: 1974 Honda CL200 Scrambler - As most of you are well aware, the CL series was Honda’s line of CB-based “street scramblers,” which often featured larger diameter front wheels, higher fenders, high-mount exhausts, and dual-purpose tires. While the larger displacement […]
Honda CL350 Scrambler Custom Slipstream Creation: Honda CL350 Scrambler - “All of the little, BIG details…” The Honda CL350 was the scrambler version of the beloved CB350 twin, featuring several off-road-inspired elements such as high pipes and larger 19-inch front wheel. While it was more […]
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 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 Street Tracker Memory Maker: Honda Dominator 650 - Fit for a Prince: Ellaspede’s Honda NX650 Dominator…  Ellaspede is one of our favorite builders not just in Australia, but worldwide. The workshop started as a small home garage operation, which went under (literally) with […]
Honda NX650 Baja Baja Dominator: Honda NX650 “Domi Baja” - Soli Moto builds the Baja Dominator that Honda never did…  In the 1980s, Honda was a dominant force in both the Baja 1000 (victories in 1982 and 1984-87) and Paris Dakar Rally (victories in 1986-1989), […]
Honda NX650 Dominator Scrambler Rascal Moto: Honda NX650 Dominator - Big-Bore Ripper from Latvia! The Honda NX650 Dominator remains one of the most popular donors for customization in Europe and beyond. Introduced back in 1988, the Dominator was something of an urbanized trail bike or […]

 


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 XR628R Honda XR628R: Street-Legal Baja Tribute - Hot Rod XR from Italy’s GPgarage Moto…  Introduced in 1985, the Honda XR600R was destined to become one of the most successful off-road bikes in motorcycling history. The air-cooled thumper would win the Baja 1000 […]
Baja Red: Honda XR628 Desert Racer - GPgarage Moto builds a ’90s Baja dream racer…   Introduced in 1985, the Honda XR600R was destined to become one of the most successful off-road motorcycles in history. In a recent retrospective on the mighty […]
Honda XR250 Tornado Scrambler Tornado 293: Honda XR250 “Pig Tracker” - Rodando Sur builds a burly 293cc Tornado…  While Honda’s lightweight dual-sport in the US and European market is now the liquid-cooled, fuel-injected CRF250L / CRF300L, the company has continued to produce the air-cooled XR250 Tornado […]

 


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 T100 Bonneville Bobber Scrambler Classic Meets Off-Road: Triumph T100 Bonneville “Sigma” - A Hybrid-Style Triumph from Tamarit Motorcycles…  The Triumph Bonneville T100 combines the retro style and character of the 1200cc T120 with the lighter weight and quicker-revving engine of the 900cc Street Twin. As the old […]
Triumph Bonneville Scrambler EXO-llent: Tamarit’s Triumph Scrambler - Tamarit Motorcycles of Spain continues to be one of the most prolific builders on the planet. Though they specialize in Triumph builds, they don’t churn out cookie-cutter customs — they’re always trying to push the […]
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 […]

 


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 XT550 Scrambler La Bastarda: Yamaha XT550 Restomod Scrambler - In 1982, Yamaha released the XT550 as the next evolution of their four-stroke dual-purpose single-cylinder motorcycle. The 550 had big shoes to fill, as the XT500 it replaced was a multi-time winner of the Paris […]
Yamaha XT600 Street Tracker B-Road Baddie: Yamaha XT600 Street Tracker - Hoxton Moto’s 1992 Yamaha XT600 Street Tracker…  Introduced back in 1983, the Yamaha XT600 would remain in production until the early 2000s, earning a reputation as a worthy, rock-solid successor to the original twin-shock XT500 […]
Yamaha XT600 Scrambler Lord Drake Kustoms: Yamaha XT600 Scrambler - Introduced in 1984, the Yamaha XT600 would become one of the most venerated big-bore “trailies” of all time — a rugged, no-nonsense dual-purpose machine that performed equally well on grocery runs and trans-African expeditions. “The […]

 


Recent Scrambler Builds

KTM 400 Scrambler Urban Play Bike: KTM 400 “Street Tiger” - KTM 400 EXC Scrambler from Loko Dream Factory…  Introduced in 2000, the KTM 400 EXC was closely based on the 400cc factory racer that Italian rider Giovanni Sala rode to victory in the 1999 World […]
BMW R1100RS Custom Brave New Beemer: BMW R1100RS - Custom Oilhead from Moto Adonis…  In 1993, the BMW R1100RS sport-tourer was the first BMW to use the new “Oilhead” boxer engine, which combined BMW’s traditional air-cooled cylinders with oil-cooled four-valve heads — a concept […]
Yamaha XT550 Scrambler La Bastarda: Yamaha XT550 Restomod Scrambler - In 1982, Yamaha released the XT550 as the next evolution of their four-stroke dual-purpose single-cylinder motorcycle. The 550 had big shoes to fill, as the XT500 it replaced was a multi-time winner of the Paris […]
Adventure Sportster Harley-Davidson XL1200 “Adventure Sportster” - A Go-Anywhere Sportster from FrenchMoto…  Even as Harley-Davidson promotes their liquid-cooled Sportster S, the air-cooled Evolution-powered Sportster is experiencing something of a renaissance in racing circles. Built from 1986 to 2020, the Evo Sportster is […]
Honda XR628R Honda XR628R: Street-Legal Baja Tribute - Hot Rod XR from Italy’s GPgarage Moto…  Introduced in 1985, the Honda XR600R was destined to become one of the most successful off-road bikes in motorcycling history. The air-cooled thumper would win the Baja 1000 […]
Velocette Scrambler Father-Son Special: Velocette 350 Scrambler - Velocette Scrambler from South Africa…  In 1933, the Velocette 350 MAC was born, featuring a 349cc single-cylinder high-cam pushrod engine capable of running the 280-lb machine up to ~75 mph. None other than Phil Irving, […]
Top 10 Scramblers and Dirt Bikes of 2023 - Here at BikeBound, we’re big fans of scramblers, desert sleds, dirt bikes, rally bikes, and adventure machines — anything with knobby tires, skid plates, and an appetite for dirt. So are you, our readers, as […]
Suzuki GS400 Turbo Scrambler Grin Machine: Suzuki GS400 Twin-Turbo Scrambler! - Twin-Turbo Scrambler: “Manic Melina” from Doctor Motorcycle…  Introduced in 1977, the Suzuki GS400 may have looked much like its middleweight twin rivals on the outside, but the engine boasted dual overhead cams, 180º firing order, […]
Triumph Tiger 900 Scrambler Like a Bear with a Shotgun: Triumph Tiger 900 Scrambler - “Dead End” Triumph Tiger from Cool Kid Customs…  In 1993, Triumph entered the adventure bike market with the Tiger 900, powered by a re-tuned version of the same 885cc liquid-cooled triple as their Daytona and […]
Suzuki VanVan Scrambler Father-Daughter Duo: Suzuki VanVan 200 Scramblers - From Slipstream Creations: “All the Little, Big Details…Twice”   The Suzuki VanVan 200 has to be one of the funkiest production bikes on the market, a fat-tired air-cooled dual-sport that seems like a runaway from […]

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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