The Desert Sled
the evolution of a California Concept
What do you think of when you think of a Desert Sled?
The idea is simple. It’s a motorbike that you can ride anywhere. Fast. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the desert. It just so happens that the places where you’re most likely to be allowed to ride for long off road distances without fear of reproach from the law are in California. Or places like that. Where there’s desert.
The idea dates from a time of open western vistas and a fundamentally DIY aesthetic. You stripped down a heavy old street bike, put trails tyres and a skid plate on it, and crammed every available nook and cranny and pocket with tools, spares and good-luck charms in case of meeting an unfriendly rock, rut or stump.
But we’ve come a long way. And the the long distance off-road motorcycle has of course evolved into the mutant hi tech machines you see today from the likes of KTM, based on the machines raced from Paris to Dakar. But they have gone through a series of evolutions – from the Indians and Harleys of the ’30s and ’40s USA – through to the classic British twin-pots upon which you picture Bud Ekins and Steve McQueen thumping through Californian dry river beds.
We might not all aspire to live in California. But own a Desert Sled and you’ll probably wish you did.
The BSA Spitfire Scrambler was always going to be a brawny, butch issue. It’s ironic that some of the best British bikes of the 1950s were created with the American market front and centre. BSA’s A10-powered Spitfire Scrambler was a response to the American scrambler scene demanding a suitable off-roader, and BSA obliged. The standard 650 A10 twin was tweaked and housed it in a ‘lightweight’ frame. Bars were wider , mudguards were smaller, pipes were raised. A gorgeous, desirable machine.
Named after the famous lake in Southern California that was home to one of the most famous offroad races in the world the Honda CR250 ‘Elsinore’ was a game-changer alright. Arriving in March 1973 It was the first ground-up, purpose built off road bike Honda ever produced – as well as the first 2-stroke race bike. Coming with 29 BHP, it weighed only 229lbs thanks to chrome-moly frame and aluminium bodywork and plastic mudguards and other componentry. Though the frame was notoriously flimsy, sales soared when it claimed the AMA Motocross title in its first year. Look at it. Classic good looks.
The BMW R80G/S was the first large-displacement multisport bike on the market. It was released in 1980 and came with an 800 Boxer engine fitted into a modified frame from BMW’s R65. There was a single-sided swing arm and a drive shaft. Rear dampening was provided by a single shock absorber. Achieving immediate success in the Paris-Dakar races of the very early eighties, it quickly became popular and remains a classic. A pristine version of this bike will fetch a huge sum and still retains appeal as a stock bike – in fact it remains one of the few stockers that you can turn up for a ride with your custom-rocking mates without them pulling a grimace.
If you were anywhere on the summertime roads of Europe, even the dustier environs of the southern extremities and into the North African desert, you would have a legion of Yamaha XT600 Ténérés out there. This amazing looking, swollen-tanked machine became, by the end of the eighties, the most popular dual-purpose bike sold. Launched in 1983 the acutely named bike scored its moniker from the most difficult section of the Paris-Dakar Rally. That 28 litre fuel tank and long-travel (255/235mm) suspension started a trend in the market and set the tone for years to come.
It might not have the ramshackle appeal of earlier Sleds, but KTM’s 690 Enduro R will take you anywhere, anytime – probably more quickly, reliably and safely than any machine the planet has ever seen. But not only can this thing make mincemeat of the dry river beds of the world, three power map settings makes this a usable commuter as well as a green lane basher in less desert-like environs. This is the state of the art multi-purpose bike. It’s just a shame about that colour scheme.
CLICK TO ENLARGE