Triumph 900 Scrambler - ROAD TEST

The ghost of Steve McQueen

Triumph 900 Scrambler on-road action front view

As your plane descends, it’s nice to look down on California and think of all the places you might go. In the coastal mountains, especially. You see these great fire roads that seem to go on forever, twisting and climbing across the rugged green terrain, and they look like a dual-sport version of Paradise. You ask yourself, “How did I miss that road, when I lived out here for 10 years?”

The answer, of course, is easy: You missed it because, most of the time, you were riding on a large, fast road bike with dropped bars, and the dusty turnoffs into those jeep trails looked about as inviting as a diesel spill on an exit ramp. You didn’t explore that road because you were on a highly specialized motorcycle, concentrating raptly on the next apex.

That shouldn't be the case on this visit, though. I'm flying into California to spend a week on the new 900 Scrambler, a bike that presumes to evoke Triumph's great Trophys of the 1950s and '60s, those stylish, all-purpose bikes that could tour, take you to the corner store or run across the desert and right up the unpaved side of Big Bear Mountain. It's an honorable tradition.

Street scramblers were a big thing in the Sixties, and Triumphs were the absolute kings of the class. They essentially invented the category with the TR5 Trophy in 1949, and then went on to dominate desert racing and enduro events for the next two decades. Steve McQueen famously raced a 650 "desert sled," then joined the Triumph-sponsored 1964 American ISDT team, along with the Ekins brothers, Dave and Bud, and Cliff Coleman and John Steen. McQueen even rode a Triumph, thinly disguised as a German army bike, in his attempted Great Escape–with Bud Ekins standing in for the famous fence jump. Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn raced Trophys in the desert. Bill Baird went on to win seven national enduro championships…well, you could go on forever.

Triumph 900 Scrambler static side view

Suffice it to say that when I was in high school, there was nothing–and I mean nothing–cooler than a high-pipe 500 or 650 Triumph Trophy. They had everything: stunning good looks, versatility, light weight and serious, race-winning performance. I've owned and restored a few myself, and they remain a touchstone to everything that was exciting about that era.

But, of course, Triumph quit making scramblers in the early Seventies, and then they quit making Triumphs altogether. So, let us now fast-forward past these bad times to the John Bloor era and Triumph’s Phoenix-like rebirth in 1991, and here we are again, in 2006, with an all-new Scrambler.

Founded on the basic architecture of the new-generation Bonneville, the Scrambler has a few stylistic and functional differences from the street-going Twins.

First the engine, an 865cc dohc eight-valve air-cooled vertical-Twin, has been revamped for a lower, flatter torque curve, with a loss of peak horsepower. Triumph switched from a 360- to a 270-degree crankshaft, as used also in the Bonneville America and Speedmaster, and the engine pumps out just 47 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 44 foot-pounds of torque at 5100 rpm. By comparison, the Thruxton (Triumph's hottest Twin) makes 57 hp at 7200 rpm and 46 ft.-lb. of torque at 6400 rpm.

Chassis-wise, rake and trail have been pulled in 0.2 degrees and 0.2 inch, respectively, to 27.8 degrees and 4.1 inches. Wheelbase is unchanged, but suspension has been raised for a 2-inch-taller seat height, at 32.5 inches, and more ground clearance. Tires are Bridgestone’s dual-sport Trail Wings, a 19-inch front and 17-inch rear, same sizes as the Bonneville’s pavement-only rubber.

All of this is hard to spot from a running horse, as my great aunt used to say, but not so the styling changes.

Triumph 900 Scrambler exhaust pipes

Most visible are the high side-pipes and mufflers, now on the right side of the bike. Late-Sixties Trophys had their ethereally beautiful pipes on the left, which I always thought was a shame because you couldn’t see them very well when the bike was on its sidestand. But now the pipes are on the “garage viewing” side. Good idea. They aren’t as clean and flowing as the old 650 pipes, but the heat shielding is much better, and passengers are no longer doomed to have their inner shins branded for life. This used to be the proud mark of the Triumph owner’s girlfriend, as the woman who reluctantly became my wife will tell you.

The new, taller seat is also a little thinner and flatter, almost of the old “ironing board” shape found on pre-unit Trophys, and the black-painted headlight is smaller. Behind the headlight, a round speedometer face (tach optional) looks back at you, flanked by some rather odd-looking ears with idiot lights on them. Handlebars are a new bend–rather awkward when raised to the stand-up-in-the-dirt position but quite comfortable if you drop them a bit.

In addition to these standard cosmetic changes, Triumph offers a wide array of options, including a solo seat, luggage rack, skidplate, centerstand, flyscreen and even a set of numberplates with 278 on them, Steve McQueen’s old ISDT number.

Okay, so we’ve got a nice retro effort here. But how does she ride?

To find out, I took off from CW's Newport Beach offices on a cool, clear morning and retraced the first ride I ever took in California, a mixture of freeway, mountain twisties and bumpy backroads with rock debris and water crossings. Over the Ortega Highway to Lake Elsinore, down to Temecula through endless new housing construction, over the narrow De Luz road to Fallbrook (with a stop on Main St. for the world's best taco at a corner take-out place), around Camp Pendleton to Oceanside and back up the Coast Highway. A little of everything.

Triumph 900 Scramblers in Johnson Motors store

High-pipers now and then inside the new Johnson Motors book/memorabilia store, not far from Triumph’s former Pasadena, California HQ.

Climbing aboard, the first thing you notice on the Scrambler is the taller seat height. You don't sit down in the bike quite as much as you do with the Bonneville. So the Scrambler is a little roomier and more comfortable for a person with my long inseam, but you can still get your feet flat on the ground, knees slightly bent. Nothing intimidating here. Nice standard riding position.

Pull the carb-mounted choke, thumb the starter button and the engine fires immediately, idling quietly with a slightly different shuffle than the 360-cranked versions. But as you pull out onto the highway, the sound of the 270-degree engine is not markedly different–at least not with these mufflers (Triumph’s “closed course” mufflers might add a little tone here). As it is, the engine note makes only a minor contribution to the bike’s character; it’s essentially quiet, smooth and whirring. The loudest thing you hear is primary-drive noise.

Swing into a corner and it’s immediately evident that the steering is lighter than the Bonneville’s, probably from a mixture of rake/trail changes and the semi-knobbed Trail Wing tires. The Bonneville takes a firm set in a corner and holds it, while the Scrambler flicks whichever way you desire with a light touch of the bars. It feels almost too light and flighty at first, but you get to like its quick maneuverability. Handling on mountain roads is effortless and composed, with only occasional jitters from really bad mid-corner stutter bumps.

Interestingly for a naked bike (don’t you hate that term?), the Scrambler is quite easy to live with at fairly high speed on the highway. The long, flat seat and moderate bar bend allow you to slouch comfortably in the 80-to-100-mph range without feeling as though you’re going to blow backward off the bike. The Triumph had no trouble holding a steady, indicated 90 mph (now the standard middle-lane cruising speed on Interstate 5), and I briefly ran it up to 107 mph before passing opportunities quit knocking.

Triumph 900 Scrambler IDST package studio side view

To go full-bore McQueen, order up the “IDST package,” including skidplate, solo seat, mesh light guard and rear number-plates–and a pack of Marlboros while you’re at it. You’re on your own with Ali MacGraw.

As mentioned, the Scrambler is supposed to be down on horsepower compared with the Bonneville T100 and Thruxton, but its willing torque delivery seems to mask or negate that difference. It didn’t feel slower to me, but then I didn’t ride it back-to-back with any of the other models. In any case, performance and throttle response are good enough to zip the Scrambler though fast-moving four-wheeled traffic with ease, and it feels lively enough in the stoplight wars.

On Day Two, I returned to the Ortega Highway but turned off on one of those dusty fire roads I'd admired from the airplane. The road climbed toward the top of Saddleback Mountain, metamorphosing from gravel to dirt, then to steep dirt with ruts and loose gravel. At one point, I met some mountain bikers who were pushing their bicycles uphill because the hairpins were too loose and steep!

In this bad-road environment, the Triumph works pretty well. A combination of excellent low-end torque and spot-on carburetion allows you to pick your way through the rough stuff, standing up on the pegs, at a walking pace. The 19-inch front tire does a reasonably good job of trundling over small rocks without deflecting you into the canyon abyss, and the tires are, well, not knobbies, but they’re okay on packed dirt and gravel. When things got really steep, however, I decided to turn around.

Good thing, too, as the Triumph feels its 494-pound dry weight, as it does the lack of true knobs when the going gets gnarly. I had both ends sliding with the brakes locked up and one foot dragging through the steeper downhill turns. Fortunately, I did not drop the bike but merely perspired like a bomb-squad technician.

Essentially, the Scrambler makes a perfectly adequate fire-road bike, but a fairly mediocre dirtbike, which is what any rational person might have expected. No modern-day McQueen or Ekins is going to take one of these to the ISDE or racing in the desert. It’s about 100 pounds heavier, with fuel, than my old TR6C.

In effect, the 900 Scrambler is what I would call a good "real estate exploration bike," i.e., when you're wandering around on backroads and see a realty sign with an arrow pointing up a bumpy gravel road, you do a quick U-turn and head up into the hills without a second thought. The Scrambler will go where only bulldozers have gone before. This is something you just don't do on your Suzuki GSX-R or Ducati 999.

Triumph 900 Scrambler action angled photo

In fact, on De Luz Road, I motored up a long, steep driveway to look at a nice Spanish-style hillside home with a red tile roof and orange trees around it. I picked up a real estate brochure, and they were asking only $1.4 million for the place. “Gee,” I said to myself, “we could sell our place in Wisconsin, and we’d need only another million dollars. I could have it paid off in just 1000 years!” Then I realized I’m 58 and won’t live that long.

Nevertheless, the Scrambler got me up that driveway. And a lot of other places.

In the next two days, I hit all my favorite guitar shops in Southern California, and the Triumph proved to be a perfect bike for just running around. Everywhere I went, people were charmed by it–longtime riders as well as newcomers to the sport (my old riding buddy John Jaeger wants one). It’s a bike that makes everyone smile.

Friday was History Day. I rode up to Pasadena with photographer Brian Blades (on his newfangled 750 Katana) to visit one of the ancestral homes of Triumph in North America, Johnson Motors, the legendary JoMo. Founded by America's most enthusiastic Triumph exponent, Bill Johnson, this served as both a motorcycle shop and Triumph's American distribution center (later, western U.S. only) in the Golden Era of 1945-1966, before they moved to Duarte during the twilight years. Many pictures of new Triumphs were taken in the doorway of Johnson Motors, some with McQueen, the Ekins brothers, et al.

And that doorway is still there, at 267 Colorado Boulevard, but the place is a luxury car dealership now (Audi, Bentley, Jaguar, Porsche, etc.) called Rusnack.

In Pasadena, we rendezvoused with my old friend Bill Getty, who runs a British parts distribution company called J.R.C. Engineering and has owned (and owns) more Triumphs than most of us have had hot meals. Bill showed up with his beautiful 1957 TR6B Trophy in the back of a pickup truck. (O ye of little faith.) He unloaded his bike and we photographed it with the new Scrambler in the doorway of Johnson Motors.

Triumph 900 Scrambler studio side view

While Brian snapped pictures, Bill apologized for the un-originality of his bike–reversed paint scheme, upgraded, nine-bolt top end and a 1970 front wheel with a twin-leading-shoe drum that actually stops the bike. Shocking stuff. Beautiful bike, though, and Bill does ride it.

He fired it up and we Vertical-Twinned our way a few blocks down to 36 Colorado Blvd., stopping at yet another famous shop called Johnson Motors. This little establishment, which sells British car and motorcycle books and memorabilia, is owned by an expat Brit named Sean Kelly (sounds suspiciously Irish), who bought the Johnson name. He also purchased rights to the Steve McQueen image, and sells posters and T-shirts of The Man. Kelly is co-author, along with Rin Tanaka, of a beautiful book on the 1964 American ISDT effort called 40 Summers Ago, which is chock-full of great photos.

The place is Triumph Central and a virtual shrine to the McQueen era. Kelly looked at the new Scrambler and sighed. “I’ll probably have to get one of these,” he said.

After basking in the glow of his shop for a while, we headed up the nearby Angeles Crest Highway late in the afternoon for more photos. Bill followed me on his TR6, and I was surprised how easily it kept up with the modern item on the long, uphill straights. Proof that you can afford to be down 9 horsepower if your bike is 100 pounds lighter. The old Triumph sounded wonderful, too. Snotty, mellow and mean, all at the same time. A serious engine at work.

And that is one place where the new Scrambler disappoints just a bit. It’s reasonably quick–and vastly more reliable than the old Twins–but it needs a little more kick and thunder. This is an 865 Twin, after all, a lot of cubes, motorcycle-wise. There’s no reason it shouldn’t project the same edgy sense of performance and danger the old 650s had. The new engine is very nice, but that’s the problem. It’s too nice. What we’ve got here is the Dave Clark Five, when we want the Rolling Stones.

You can’t help wondering how much added luster the new Scrambler would take on it if it were a little less of a styling exercise and a little more of a true dual-sporter. What if the bike lost 50 pounds and had 20 more horsepower? What if Triumph announced a race team for the Baja 1000? Or the ISDE? The mind reels. Right now the Scrambler celebrates legend but doesn’t add much to it.

Triumph 900 Scrambler on-road action

That said–and my personal biases vented–Triumph has probably made exactly the right bike for our time and for its projected market. We already have plenty of good dirt and dual-sport bikes, after all, and this is a street scrambler. They claim to be aiming at an unusual, offbeat mixture of older traditionalists and fashion-conscious young riders who might be looking to graduate from their Vespas–or buy a first bike just because the Scrambler is so damned cool.

It just might work. Our neighbors have a 14-year-old kid who plays guitar and has just recently gone totally nuts for early Stones stuff. You can never underestimate the power of a good concept to come around again.

So the hip scooter kids might like it. But what about those graying traditionalists, such as yours truly?

Well, I can only speak for myself here, but I like this bike a lot, just as a standard motorcycle. Basically, it fills a unique niche that no one else has really noticed. It’s a reasonably competent trailie that’s not so tall and clumsy you hesitate to move it around the garage or run to the store, but it’s also a practical everyday road bike–air-cooled, simple and with no exotic maintenance requirements. It looks good, is relatively inexpensive, has nice paint and chrome for that non-disposable aura, and it’s English. Also, you can ride it off a curb without destroying any bodywork. No small thing.

The Scrambler’s not a killer high-performance bike on either the street or the dirt, but that’s okay. Sometimes it’s fun just to ride around, explore the backroads you’ve missed–and look at real estate. Of which there is a great deal in this country.

SPECIFICATIONS
GENERAL
LIST PRICE $7,999
MANUFACTURER Triumph Motorcycles America 385 Walt Sanders Memorial Dr. Newnan, GA 30265
CUSTOMER SERVICE PHONE (678) 854-2010
WARRANTY 24 mo./unlimited mi.
ENGINE & DRIVETRAIN
ENGINE air-cooled, parallel-Twin
BORE & STROKE 90.0 x 68.0mm
DISPLACEMENT 865cc
COMPRESSION RATIO 9.2:1
VALVE TRAIN dohc, two valves per cylinder, shim adjustment
VALVE ADJUST INTERVALS 12,000 mi.
CARBURETION (2) 36mm Keihin
OIL CAPACITY 4.0 qt.
ELECTRIC POWER 324w
BATTERY 12v, 10ah
CHASSIS
WEIGHT: TANK EMPTY 494 lb.
WEIGHT: TANK FULL 522 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.4 gal.
WHEELBASE 59.5 in.
RAKE / TRAIL 27.8° / 4.1 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.5 in.
GROUND CLEARANCE 6.9 in.
GVWR 946 lb.
LOAD CAPACITY (TANK FULL) 424 lb.
SUSPENSION & TIRES
FRONT SUSPENSION:
MANUFACTURER Kayaba
TUBE DIAMETER 41mm
CLAIMED WHEEL TRAVEL 4.7 in.
ADJUSTMENTS none
REAR SUSPENSION:
MANUFACTURER Kayaba
TYPE Twin shocks
CLAIMED WHEEL TRAVEL 4.1 in.
ADJUSTMENTS spring preload
FRONT TIRE Bridgestone Trail Wing 100/90-19
REAR TIRE Bridgestone Trail Wing 130/80-17
PERFORMANCE
1/4 MILE 14.68 sec. @ 87.31 mph
0-30 MPH 1.8 sec.
0-60 MPH 5.6 sec.
0-90 MPH 15.5 sec.
0-100 MPH na
TOP GEAR TIME TO SPEED
40-60 MPH 4.5 sec.
60-80 MPH 5.2 sec.
MEASURED TOP SPEED 104 mph
ENGINE SPEED @ 60 MPH 3335 rpm
FUEL MILEAGE
HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE 43/37/39 mpg
AVG. RANGE INC. RESERVE 172 mi.
BRAKING DISTANCE
FROM 30 MPH 35 ft.
FROM 60 MPH 139 ft.
SPEEDOMETER ERROR
30 MPH INDICATED 27 mph
60 MPH INDICATED 54 mph

EDITOR'S NOTES

DON CANET, Road Test Editor
It's like a blast from the past emerging out of the dust. Back in the pre-MX era, when adult off-road riders were busy scramblin', I was just a grade-school pup scurrying about on my Schwinn Stingray. Riding Triumph's new Scrambler has offered a taste of what I was too young to experience the first time around.

I have to believe, however, while the bike’s styling is fairly faithful to the original, the experience is nothing of the sort. The big difference as I see it? The original Trophy scramblers were pretty serious performers for the time and thus evoked a certain level of competitive spirit and hard riding. Today, something like a dual-sport Suzuki 400, with long-travel suspension and a better power-to-weight ratio, will leave the Scrambler for buzzard-feed out on the trail. The Triumph offers little more than a relaxed ride down memory lane.

Sometimes, though, we all could use a great escape from the 21st-century rat race.

MATTHEW MILES, Managing Editor
Triumph says that its entire 2006 allotment of Scrambler 900s is spoken for. This is likely in response to the bike's stylish appearance and reasonable price. While it's encouraging to see consumer interest in what is essentially a warmed-over retro model, I wish Triumph would have given higher priority to on-the-road function.

Maybe I’m spoiled by modern fuel-injection, radial-mount brakes and fully adjustable suspension. But the Scrambler’s carburetion is soft, especially down low in the rpm range, the single-disc front brake requires a firm squeeze on the lever to bring the bike to a quick stop, and, for me, the suspension too lightly damped and sprung. As for the exhaust-pipe heat shield, first time out, I scorched the leg on my fancy riding suit. Not good.

Of course, these shortcomings could be easily fixed with a shop manual, basic hand tools and a trip through the aftermarket. Could owner involvement be back in vogue? That, I would applaud.

PAUL DEAN, Senior Editor
I like the Scrambler, but I must admit to being somewhat biased. Back in the late '60s, I sold, repaired, rode and raced Triumph 500s and 650s, including the high-pipe Trophys, so this 900 speaks to me in a language I understand. That's why I don't expect it to be anything other than what it is: a reasonable modern-day interpretation of those originals. In some ways it's not as good, in others it's better. Yeah, it's heavier, but it also has superior electrics, sits on more-sophisticated suspension and is less maintenance-intensive. And the feeling I get when riding it is close to what I experienced almost 40 years ago.

Besides, the Scrambler 900 makes perfect sense. Aside from Harley-Davidson, no marque has maintained a more loyal following than Triumph-–a phenomenon that persevered even when the company was belly-up. H-D has made millions selling updated versions of a popular 1936 motorcycle, so a rehash of a beloved 1950s’ model seems a perfectly rational idea.

Action #1

Exhaust.

Static side view.

Group static.

Action #2

Action #3

ISDT package.

Studio side view.