Past Perfect

Triumph Scrambler asks the question: can a retro bike try too hard? 

The gentleman farmer taps his forefinger to the brim of his hat, nods approvingly at the Triumph Scrambler, and glides slowly past on his vintage John Deere tractor. My impromptu photo shoot complete, I ride past his farmhouse (modern, metal-clad, with the traditional proportions of a farm outbuilding), notice the vintage Ford Bronco in the drive, and glimpse, deep in shade in the barn, a modern Porsche 911. His weekday car, from down in the city. I toot the horn, and the man, as handsome in his middle age as Paul Newman was in his, waves without breaking stride as he crosses the barnyard. The Scrambler is among friends.

Imagine walking into a Porsche dealership and spotting a newly manufactured 1954 356 Speedster next to SUVs and our farmer’s 911. Or finding a fresh-off-the-assembly-line 1961 Continental convertible (notable for ferrying President Kennedy to his doom) with a downsized 2020 Continental at a Lincoln dealership. While auto manufacturers dabble in retro (PT Cruiser anyone?) the retrobike is determinedly displacing the cruiser as the de-facto standard motorcycle of our age.       

New Scrambler is like the new Beetle. Faithful to the original only to those who've never seen the original. 

The key to immortality? Commercial worth. If you're an asset to corporations, you'll live forever. Triumph pitchman Steve McQueen is in fine health, despite having died 40 years ago. 

Spoked-wheel Scramblers nestle against wildly-winged Panigales at Ducati. Retro R nineT roadsters (and, soon, the vintage-vibe R18 cruiser) share floorspace with the S1000RR superbike at BMW. Indian covers the past with a replica of a 1950s Chief, and Harley-Davidson just got wind of an incident in Dallas involving the presidential motorcade. But few brands are as heavily invested in the past as Triumph.

 

Triumph’s profit-savvy, press-shy owner John Bloor unapologetically builds whatever people want. Which is why sport bikes have dwindled from Triumph’s lineup, and why half the 2020 range self-identify as “modern classics.” Triumph (prior to Bloor’s purchase) collapsed in the ’80s, in part, because of an antiquated model range riddled by obsolete technology. Today’s Triumph retrobikes—in a delicious twist—underpin antiquated styling with modern technology dressed-down as to appear obsolete.

Unlike the beloved-by-boomers cruiser, retrobike appeal is broad. Older riders love them for the same reason they love Farrah Fawcett posters—savage nostalgia for their youth. To the young, the appeal is nostalgia for unlived experience. A paean for a world before 3G cellular and universally available WIFI, when oddities like paper road maps, lunchtime martinis, and stable employment were commonplace.

 

Retrobike enthusiasts unifying cry is disdain for the technological breakthrough known as the perimeter frame, in which a motorcycle’s headstock is joined to its swingarm pivot in a direct (more-or-less) line. The benefit of this innovation is improved chassis stiffness (the engine is gripped firmly midway through the frame spar’s run), but the perimeter frame’s collateral damage is the destruction of the key element in a motorcycle’s visual language.

 

The horizontal line that runs along the bottom of a fuel tank—and is extended rearward by the seat—unites the profile of machines as disparate as a 1930 Indian Four and a 1973 Candytone Purple Kawasaki H2. But post perimeter-frame, the historically flat-bottomed fuel tank triangulates, like a wedge of cheese, to allow the bisecting frame spar passage. The motorcycle would never be the same again.

Details, details, details. Scrambler has a lot going on. In shields and guards alone, the man hours of labour spent slaving over design software must have numbered in the thousands.       

The unfamiliar can be off-putting. To the Western ear, the intervals within the scales of Eastern music sound out of tune. It takes time, and hard listening, to acclimate to the unfamiliar. Some never do. To many riders, old and young, a long flat horizontal line on a motorcycle in profile looks right in the same way that a C major scale in music sounds familiar even if you can’t identify it—it’s in our bones. The re-release of the Triumph Bonneville, in 2001, was our reintroduction to the motorcycle as we once knew it.

 

But the 2001 Bonneville emulated the bike that inspired it—the 1959 to 1970 Bonneville—only when viewed through dense fog. When the sun shined the ruse came undone. The primary cover looked like a cheap tin stamping. The exhaust pipes sagged at the muffler junction, like a worn leather belt overtaxed by a pot belly. The reincarnated Bonneville was plump and shabby where the original was lean sinew. But that was then. Triumph, for the 2016 model year, redesigned the retro range in its entirety, with a much keener eye upon fidelity to the original inspiration.

 

Despite a jump in displacement, to 1,200 cc, the Scrambler—a high-piped Bonneville variant—convincingly apes the 1960s 65o cc originals. The primary cover is lean, hugs the engine’s flank, is evocative of forward motion, and has a finish deep enough to dip a ladle into. And the induction system is tucked behind an aluminum shield pretty enough to be displayed on the mantlepiece. And, oddly, it’s in these details that the bike falters.

The design of the Scrambler’s exhaust-pipe heat shield is self-consciously fussy. Starting at the pipe’s head, the first guard, in natural aluminum, is bisected by three angled, elongated holes, covered by mesh tight enough to thwart a curious mosquito. The next guard, in black, has screened horizontal holes. The third guard, for the passenger, is drilled with round holes. Now look overtop the pipe, to the cover disguising fuel injection, and notice the round holes echoed. On to the fork, where the small aluminum cover atop the spotlight has slashes angled as those on the first exhaust cover. The Scrambler is trying far too hard.

Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about this. Sartre cites a waiter self-consciously aware that he is a waiter. He acts like he believes a waiter should act. He holds the serving tray ostentatiously high, and he’s overly solicitous, too keen to please. The waiter plays an actor, playing himself.

In exploiting its lineage, the Scrambler overshoots the mark. Contrast the Scrambler’s exhaust to the pipes of the period Triumph in the reproduced ad. The 50-year-old heat shield—compactly, discretely, elegantly—isolates the leg from grilling, whereas the shields of the new bike bow first to the gods of styling. These details betray the Scrambler. It’s exposed as an elegant fake—a motorcycle that’s cribbed an identity from another machine.

 

After my encounter with the gentleman farmer, I spend the rest of the day riding. First, I tear down the Beaver Valley road at a mad clip. But the Scrambler is so smooth and docile and gently sprung that I lose enthusiasm for speed. Then I loop around and down a dirt bike trail. Although the Scrambler’s weight is hidden to the eye, it’s revealed in the tight going—the Scrambler really isn’t up for scrambling. Eventually, I take smooth gravel roads at a pace just a tick faster than Paul Newman drove his John Deere.

 

On a flawless Saturday the Scrambler is a faultless host. Its clutch is Honda light. The gearshift, knife-through-yogurt smooth. The fueling without hiccup. The exhaust note a parallel-twin rasp burbling from beneath a generous pour of bourbon.

 

The Scrambler is not a descendant of the lean, raw, stripped-down and hotted-up Triumphs that tore up the California desert, before urban sprawl and the superiority of the two-stroke put an end to them. The Scrambler is a Suzuki V-Strom dressed in coveralls and a straw hat, up from the city for the weekend, willing to kick up a little dust so long as it’s hosed down and polished up in time for cocktails at sunset.