Introduced in 1962, the Scrambler 250 was the Italian motorcycle maker’s first and only entry into the American off-road motorcycle market and quickly became popular among dirt specialists (riders who prefer natural terrain to driving on the streets) for its agility and well-constructed frame. Eventually, the Scrambler came in 350cc and 450cc models, but by 1974, four-stroke engines—like the Scrambler’s—had been superseded on the motocross circuit by lighter two-stroke models, and Ducati phased out the Scrambler. Now, after 41 years in the motorcycling wilderness, Ducati’s beloved off-roader is back.
The company has high hopes for the model. “The Scrambler will be for Ducati what the Sportster 883 has been for Harley Davidson,” says Steve Radt, owner and general manager of Ducati New York. “This is going to be the least intimidating, most accessible Ducati ever.” Swing a leg over the new Icon model and it certainly does inspire confidence. The balance of the bike is impressive, and with the low 31.1-inch seat height—which is surprisingly comfortable for a Ducati—and wide handlebars, it’s the perfect setup for a beginner. Add the fact that all four models come with ABS, and the Scrambler is poised as the most exciting entry-level bike on the market.
But to understand why Ducati would enter the retro fray with updated versions of its only off-road bike, it’s important to know the lure and history of the classic scrambler motorcycle. Because it isn’t mere ridability that Ducati is aiming for with this new Scrambler, it’s also about “a return to the pure essence of motorcycling.”
As motorcycles became synonymous with outlaw gangs in the 1950s and ’60s, a lot of riders disassociated from that element by simply leaving the paved road behind. Perhaps the biggest proponent of that philosophy was legendary movie star and motorcycle racer Steve McQueen. In an effort to curb the outlaw stereotype, McQueen financed the classic Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday, which featured legendary off-road riders like Malcolm Smith. It also featured McQueen himself racing in the Lake Elsinore Grand Prix. “Most bike flicks in the past concentrated on the outlaw crap,” McQueen told Sports Illustrated in 1971. “Hell’s Angels and all of that stuff, which is about as far away from the real world of motorcycle racing as I am from Lionel Barrymore.” Added McQueen: “Brando’s movie The Wild One in the early 1950s set motorcycle racing back 200 years.”
Fortunately, the King of Cool did a lot to salvage the image of motorcycling during the 1960s and ’70s. And the primary tool in his arsenal—before the advent of the two-stroke motocross bike—was the scrambler. The name comes from off-road blitzes, raced across sand and rock, known as desert scrambles. These were especially popular in the American Southwest, where the pioneering cowboy spirit had fused with a desire to go really fast.
Initially, off-road riders modified standard bikes like the Triumph Trophy TR6, adding long-travel suspension, wide handlebars, skid plates and knobby tires to suit their needs. But by the early 1960s, Honda, Bultaco and Montesa were building off-road-specific bikes. In 1962, Ducati joined them.
Although spiritually connected to the original, this incarnation of the Scrambler is less about playing in the dirt and more about tapping into that popular retro—or as Ducati likes to call it, “post-heritage”—motorcycle market. Due to hit showroom floors this spring, the Scrambler will feature four different models, each with their own retro take on the original—the Icon, the Urban Enduro, the Classic and the Full Throttle. And all will be powered by Ducati’s 803cc, desmodromic air-cooled, L-twin cylinder.
Radt says the 2015 Scrambler is the most eagerly anticipated new Ducati his store has ever had. Its popularity is a testament not only to the lure of the old scramblers, but also to the fact that smaller, easy yet fun-to-ride motorcycles will always be in demand. And it’s Ducati’s aim that this new incarnation of the Scrambler will fill that demand.With that in mind, there is one more way to view this bike, one that Radt articulates perfectly, and one that Ducati is no doubt counting on: the Scrambler as “a gateway drug.”
- ALL PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF DUCATI