Common Tread

How good were the original scramblers? Steve McQueen tests the best of 1966

Feb 02, 2017

Lately there has been a lot of talk about scramblers. 

Historically, "scramblers" were bikes originally designed for street use whose owners customized them for better performance off-road. OEMs caught wind of the craze and began producing scramblers of their own (sound familiar?). These bikes, which provided the foundation for the modern dirt bike, are often viewed through rose-colored glass. But how good were they really? 

A few weeks ago, I found myself walking home from the bar with the help of a few bourbon cocktails. I rarely find myself out past the witching hour these days, so I was surprised to stumble upon an all-night used bookstore. (A better description would be a dimly lit, abandoned warehouse, stuffed with enough aging books and magazines to keep the Fire Marshal awake at night.) Having grown up in a home littered with motorcycle magazines, it should come as no surprise that my current house is decorated in a similar fashion. I immediately gravitated to a stack of crumbling Popular Science magazines dating to the 1960s.

The prize selection of the night was an issue from November 1966 with Steve McQueen on the cover sitting atop an old desert scrambler. The title of the article, “Motorcycles: What I Like in a Bike and How I Pick ‘Em,” only told half the story. As it turned out, Steve had taken the good folks of Popular Science out to one of his favorite desert spots to test the hottest off-road machines of the day.

BMW R nineT Scrambler
There's a lot of discussion about how capable today's scramblers, like the BMW R nineT Scrambler, are off-road. For perspective, we looked back at the original scramblers. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Lately, we have seen "scramblers" being released in a variety of shapes and sizes from nearly every OEM on the market. What's old is new again, in a big way. My biggest takeaway from reading this article was to put modern scramblers and ADV bikes in perspective by directly comparing them to the bikes they are based on. Steve explained that all of the bikes were tested on a six-mile loop consisting of “cow trailing with a top end close to 70 m.p.h.; a sand wash with some rocks (to be avoided at all costs); sand dips of the washboard type with a depth of two feet maximum; several high-speed jumps of the TT variety; and a lot of fast trailing with quick changes, both up and down and side to side.” As you read along, think about how a modern "scrambler" or ADV machine would fare in similar terrain. 

In no particular order, the following are the top six dirt bikes of 1966 as evaluated by Steve McQueen, along with my thoughts about bikes of today. I've added the prices, adjusted for inflation, to provide perspective about what your money would get you now as compared to 1966.

The BSA Hornet

Price: $1,215
Adjusted for 2017: $9,050.74

Steve McQueen BSA Hornet
BSA Hornet. Image from Popular Science.
Steve talked fondly of the 650 cc engine and how impressed he was with the air cleaner. That's right, the air cleaner. When is the last time you read a review where someone called out a bike for having a great air cleaner? You probably can't remember, because the reality of living in 2017 is that all bikes have great air cleaners. Manufacturers wouldn't be able to get away with not having a great air cleaner. Case in point, there was an article in Cycle World a year or two ago where Ryan Dudek used what was an essentially new KTM 1190 Adventure R in an Adventure Rally in California and the air filter failed to keep the dust out. The result? A complete top end rebuild. Internet forums had a field day and KTM scrambled (no pun intended) for a solution. I remember thinking, "How can KTM allow an air filter in their flagship adventure bike that would let this happen?" We are clearly spoiled.

The Norton-Metisse

Price: $2,000
Adjusted for 2017: $14,898.33

Steve McQueen Norton Motorcycle
Norton-Metisse. Image from Popular Science.
As the most expensive bike in the group by nearly $1,000, McQueen described the Norton-Metisse as “a handful.” He cited the Harmon and Collins camshaft and dual Amal Monobloc carbs as being responsible for the nearly 60 horsepower this bike was putting down. Imagine paying nearly $15 grand for a "scrambler" in 2017 that makes 60 horsepower and has around three inches of suspension travel. You can almost buy two Yamaha SCR950s for this price and they'll have about the same business going off-road (if not more).

The Triumph Bonneville TT Special

Price: $1,274
Adjusted for 2017: $9,490.24

Steve McQueen Triumph Bonneville
Triumph Bonneville TT Special. Image from Popular Science.
McQueen starts by letting the reader know that the 650 cc Bonneville twin was his favorite choice of motorcycle for riding off-road until “the lightweights started to nip at its tail.” In today's modern landscape of powerful and lightweight dirt bikes, it’s hard to imagine that a 650 cc Triumph was once the most popular choice for racing off-road. While today's scramblers are better in just about every way, they are not lighter. This 1966 Bonneville was listed as having a weight of 350 pounds. Can you imagine if I had returned from Spain regaling you with tales of a new Triumph Street Scrambler that weighed 350 pounds? Triumph would have won hands down at "scrambling," based solely on releasing a 350-pound street bike. 

The Honda 450 (Super Sport?)

Price: $1,100
Adjusted for 2017: $8,194.08

In the article, it was a bit unclear exactly which Honda motorcycle Steve was testing. The Honda 450 Scrambler wasn’t introduced until 1968, as it was originally introduced in 1967 as the Honda CB450 Super Sport. As this issue came out at the end of 1966, I am guessing it was the original 1967 version that McQueen had his hands on. Steve had very little to say about the Honda, good or bad, but he did commend it for its electrical system, suspension, and powertrain, stating, “It’s a keen bike, for the money.” Some things don't change.

The Montesa La Cross

Price: $815
Adjusted for 2017: $6,071.07

Steve McQueen Montessa La Cross
Montesa La Cross. Image from Popular Science.
The La Cross was a 250 cc two-stroke machine manufactured in 1966 and 1967 before the Cappra replaced it in 1968. Steve raved about the suspension and handling, stating that the fork impressed him the most, with almost six and a half inches of travel. Think about that. We live in a world where street-oriented ADV bikes like the Tiger 800 XR or BMW F 700 GS get six inches of travel and dirt bikes are pushing 12 to 13 inches of travel. With nearly eight inches of travel, the new Ducati Desert Sled has the most travel of all the new "scramblers," which is more than the most advanced dirt bike suspensions of the 1960s.

The Greeves Challenger

Price: $920
Adjusted for 2017: $6,853.23

Steve McQueen Greeves Challenger
Greeves Challenger. Image from Popular Science.
McQueen noted that the Greeves had “more beans” than the other two-stroke in the test, the Montesa. He immediately followed that up by stating that "These two-strokes have a lot going for them, but frankly I am too attached to four-strokes to be completely won over." Fifty years later, Lemmy and I are still having the same debate. He keeps preaching the virtues of lightweight two-smokers and I keep smiling as I blast down dusty trails on torquey four-strokes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So what have we learned about Scramblers?

Mainly, we've learned that we should all be damn thankful we live in 2017, where we have access to a slew of relatively affordable machines that are bulletproof and reliable compared to the bikes of yesteryear. The next time I see a guy whining on Facebook that he's never buying a Triumph again because his Tiger Explorer swallowed a valve at 43,000 miles, I am just going to respond with a link to this article. I'm also going to remind him that Peter Egan got his start at Cycle World by writing an article about how his brand-new Norton swallowed a valve on its first trip away from home.

Could you imagine if Egan swore off British bikes after that? He would have had a very short career and we would all be worse off for it.

If you would like to read the original article, but can’t picture yourself perusing used bookstores at 2 a.m. after a night of drinking, you’re in luck. Google Books has the entire November 1966 issue of Popular Science available online for your reading pleasure. Make sure to take some time to enjoy the old-time advertisements while you’re at it.