Recapturing the elusive past is often a risky business, whether it is skinny dipping into romantic waters with an unrequited high school crush at a 40-year class reunion, or acquiring that long sought after motorcycle you lusted for during your undercapitalized youth. The collision of hazily distorted memories with the unflinching starkness of current reality is an ugly accident not so patiently waiting to happen. Perhaps it is a wiser choice to pursue a contemporary item that possesses the essence of your memory, rather than the original object of your affection.
Just as the risks often outweigh the rewards in personal nostalgic excursions, these same dangerous consequences can befall a motor company hoping to tap an ancient gold mine for one last mother lode. Destined to be niche machines, as they will rarely play successfully to a young audience, brands from Japan, Italy and England have all tried to capture the spirit of eras past, with varying degrees of success.
Due to the inherent “soul” of European motorcycles, retro bikes from across the Atlantic Ocean often do better in the marketplace than their cousins on the west side of the Pacific. One only needs to look at the affare di amore we relished with the Ducati SportClassic GT1000 in our last issue and compare it to the Kawasaki W650’s nearly instantaneous entry and exit from dealership floors at the turn of the millennium. (Click image to enlarge)
Although the current makers of Triumph motorcycles are not the same Meriden, West Midlands gentlemen responsible for the bikes that they tap for modern classics, the machines manufactured in Hinckley, Leicestershire, indeed capture the historical aura of the British marque. Most recently, that presents us with the Triumph Scrambler 900 to consider.
While no direct ancestor sired the Scrambler moniker, the 865cc air-cooled twin unmistakably brings to mind the Triumph Trophy TR6C 650 of the late 1960s and early ’70s. The TR6 series, of course, is more than just another lineage. Not only did Bud Ekins use the bike for his epochal jump in The Great Escape (doubling for Steve McQueen), but these versatile motorcycles were often converted to off-road use by southwestern Americans, earning the affectionate moniker, “desert sleds”, and by easterners who entered their Trophys in enduros. McQueen and Ekins competed in the 1964 International Six Day Trials on a pair of TR6s in 1964. In fact, the new Scrambler 900 is associated so closely with McQueen that number plates with #278 on them (McQueen’s ISDT digits) are available from Triumph as a factory option.
Is the Scrambler 900 the same do-anything machine that defined the TR6C? Triumph answered that question for us when I, in a fully deadpan voice, informed them that we planned to strip the lights off the Scrambler, slip on some full knobby tires and enter it in an AMA District 37 desert race. After a long pause, we were asked by Triumph to keep the Scrambler on the pavement, as it is not a dirt bike, despite the promise of its appearance. Weighing in at over 450 pounds sans liquids, and suspension travel less than half of that of a modern desert racer, Triumph need not have worried that we would compete off-road on the Scrambler—it is clearly not suited for the task. Or is it? (Click image to enlarge)
Despite Triumph’s directive to keep the Scrambler out of the dirt, we quite simply could not resist the temptation to pretend, for just an afternoon, that we were Steve McQueen of 40-odd years past. As it turns out, the Scrambler is a much better off-road bike than Triumph apparently wants you to know. We dropped the air pressure in the semi-knobby Bridgestone Trail Wing tires to 20 psi and did some light trail riding—which meant jumping the Scrambler (substitute Ekins’ feet for our inches) and getting a little sideways in the loose stuff. In many ways, the Scrambler is a more-capable off-road bike than many so-called “adventure” bikes. Thanks to the dirt-worthy Trail Wings, wide bars and no view-blocking fairing, we were able to easily traverse some fairly technical trails. Certainly, we kept it from rocks and thick brush, as we didn’t want to damage the “street only” bike, but that absolutely did not stop us from having a great time off-road. Triumph calls the Scrambler a road-only modern classic, but we know better!Regardless of our enthusiasm for the Scrambler as a light-duty off-road bike, its natural habitat truly is the street. One may look askance at the advertised horsepower maximum of 56 at 7,000 rpm and consider the character-over-performance 270-degree firing sequence of the DOHC, eight-valve vertical twin to be signals warning of an uninspired mount. Enthusiasts demanding raw acceleration will certainly be disappointed, as the Scrambler is designed to be a pleasant, not potent, ride. With that in mind, the Scrambler is a delightful ride when approached appropriately.
The Scrambler is a textbook case of the sum of its parts exceeding their individual value. With the notable exception of appearance, it could be argued that the Scrambler does nothing particularly well. Yes, it is slow by modern standards. The ergonomics are somewhat ungainly, as the toasty twin side-pipes force your right leg into a bow-legged stance, restricting access to the brake pedal. The suspension is perfunctory—neither giving cause to complain or compliment. The Trail Wing tires are not pure street tires, and perform accordingly. Braking is unquestionably not alarmingly good. (Click image to enlarge)
Yet, all is somehow forgiven when these attributes are combined with the agreeable attitude of the Scrambler and its essentially neutral handling. This is a bike that enjoys being ridden at the pace of a cruiser—in no hurry to get anywhere in particular, and all the while looking impeccably good. Given that, the Scrambler is more of a riders’ bike, as it is much lighter and considerably more agile than a true cruiser. And, thanks to the upright seating position, it makes an outstanding daily commuter ride.
What you get with the Triumph Scrambler 900 is a motorcycle that captures the zeitgeist of an exciting time for motorcycling in general, and Triumph in particular. The styling of the Scrambler captures the intended mood, and the performance is balanced in a way that recalls the glory days of multi-purpose motorcycles. Riding the Scrambler takes you back to a time of lower expectations and higher satisfaction. And, as a bonus, every time you swing your leg over the saddle and push your knees against the tank pads, you are Steve McQueen. It is a fantasy-fueled machine that delivers a splendid reality.