A genuine scrambler, even if you don’t know it yet

Story: Donovan Fourie

BMW have joined Triumph and Ducati in releasing a bike called a Scrambler. They have done this by giving their R nine T Roadster a good going over, making it even more retro with the addition of a classical off-roady styling. To celebrate, they hosted a launch down the road from their factory near Munich in Bavaria, with a host of journalists including four from South Africa.

Why Scrambler?

Naturally, while on the launch, we did some profound iPhonography of the bike, put those pics on social media with a host of filters so that it looks like we are professionals and got lambasted with criticism.

Obviously not against us – South African motorcycle journalists are perfect human beings in every way, obviously – but the bike. Mostly they went along lines of: “How can they call it a Scrambler? That thing can’t go off-road!”

One particularly enthusiastic fellow even accused BMW of “giving the bike a name that they cannot live up to.”

While giving a bike a name that traditionally insinuates off-road capabilities and then making it not at all off-road capable doesn’t bother me in the least bit, the reason that three respectable manufacturers did this is somewhat perplexing.

BMW R nineT Scrambler Alps
The Scrambler in the Austrian Alps.

Normally, while dwelling in the sunshine at the bottom of Africa 10,000km from the people who make the naming decisions, this question would remain unanswered, but this time we conveniently asked that question in Bavaria, the place where these people happened to be on-hand to answer these sort of questions. It happened while we were all around a table chewing on some scrumptious eisbein, and was nonchalantly brought up: “why do you call this bike a scrambler when it clearly isn’t one?”

The chewing stopped. They looked at me with that panicked, quizzical look of a bunch of engineers stuck in a massive PR conundrum. They all looked wild-eyed at each other, hoping one of them knew what this South African was talking about.

The fact that they looked so puzzled was even more puzzling to us. It’s a fairly straightforward question; so why the lack of a straight forward answer?

Eventually veteran journalist, and BMW engineer sympathiser, Alan Cathcart, who was luckily at the table with us, filled us all in. Apparently, the word “scrambler” was used in Europe when bikes were first taken off-road, and were then nothing more than modified road bikes.

They rode around on dirt tracks, and on the rare occasion that they did manage to get both wheels off the ground, the wide-eyed crowd would gasp in amazement, and the bike would land with an almighty THUNK.

This newfangled scrambling of dirt was endearingly called scrambles, because people back then had a very literal approach to naming. After some time, the word motocross gained popularity, a term that was coined by combining the French word motocyclette (meaning motorcycle) with the English term cross country, which was the greatest collaboration of the French and English until Concorde. By 1965-ish, the word scrambles was completely gone in Europe, but it did continue in South Africa, even nowadays.

This explains the perplexity in the Germans – why is he saying that it isn’t a scrambler (meaning an off-road bike from before 1965) when clearly it is?

How to build a Scrambler

With that, we get to BMW’s real, authentic, properly named Scrambler. It started life as an R nine T Roadster, BMW’s retro, cafe racer styled naked bike that has had more than 23,000 units sold so far, contributing hugely to BMW’s record 136,000 total units sold last year.

It was always BMW’s intention, from when they first conceptualised the R nine T, to branch it out into different sub-models, which is one of the many fun advantages of building a retro bike. They had around ten different ideas to branch the R nine T into, and first on that list was a scrambler, thus when the R nine T Roadster was launched and settled into full sales swing, a scrambler was in full development phase..

The Scrambler version has two main features that make it desirable, before it is even ridden – it has retro off-road looks, and it is cheaper than the R nine T. This was all cleverly done by simply changing a few items, mostly reducing them.

The higher, scrambler-styled silencers are contradicted slightly by the inclusion of aluminium cast wheels, whereas the Roadster, ironically, was released with spokes. The reason for this is to save costs and make the overall price of the bike cheaper. Spoked wheels are available in the aftermarket catalogue.

The most obvious change is the twin exhaust silencers, that are raised up to just below the tailpiece in a classic off-road style, which is exactly what BMW are going for. They are attached to a BMW 1170cc air/oil-cooled boxer engine, the same as that on the Roadster, but re-tuned to comply with Euro-4 emissions, and despite this bureaucracy it still pushes the same 110hp and 116Nm of torque.

BMW have ditched the upside-down forks on the Roadster for a set of rightway-up ones, kitted with old-school wavey, plastic fork covers, re-asserting the scrambler look, plus they increased the fork travel to 125mm giving the bike yet more scrambler credentials. The rear shock travel has also been increased to 140mm.

The 17L tank is now sheet steel instead of brushed aluminium, and has been given a matt-black lick of paint. The headlight is still a circular, retro unit that fits nicely with the small, circular dash.

The ergonomics have been rearranged to give a more laid-back feel, with the handlebars now higher and further back, the footpegs are lower and further back, and the single seat, now with a brown leather look, is slightly lower, making the seat height 820mm.

The wheels, weirdly, are aluminium cast, unlike the spoked R nine T, and although confusingly steers the bike away from the scrambler theme, were chosen to help reduce the overall cost of the bike. To make up for it, the front wheel has been increased to 19 inches, and BMW do offer spoked wheels as an optional extra.

Scrambling in the Alps

Before the Scrambler launch, we filmed a ridiculous feature for The Bike Show about retro bikes that included the R nine T Roadster, so with the feel of it still fresh in my fingertips, we set off on the Scrambler and the immediate thought was “chopper”.

This is an over-exaggeration, but the new front end means an increased steering angle and wheelbase, and a front end that is a good deal more extended than the Roadster is deeply apparent, especially as we manoeuvred out of the parking lot. More so, the lower seat, higher bars and lower footpegs mean a less racier seating position than its cafe racer brother.

BMW R nine T Scrambler waterfall
One of the advantages of riding a naked bike is the unobstructed view. Somehow, the rider feels more part of the scene.

This is not to say that the Scrambler is a sluggish handler, just a little slower to tip into corners than the Roadster.  This is not necessarily a bad thing – while it does mean slower lap times should you stray onto a race track, it also means a greater feel of solidity, which is probably more desirable to most road users.

Bavaria is a federal state on the South-East end of Germany, and riding through it is much like riding through a child’s drawing. Except for the odd Alp, it is mostly flat. The grass is crayon green, the sky is crayon blue, the white clouds are puffy and the houses are square with square windows and triangular roofs, much like a child’s drawing.

Instead of the follow-the-marshal approach, as is traditional on bike launches, BMW equipped each bike with a GPS, set the route and told us to meet them at the lunch stop. They were also good enough to tell us that Bavaria has begun a war on speed, and the thought of encountering a German police officer was frightful at least, thus we took special note of the speed limit signs and spent the rest of the time watching the speedo as though it were a lion that has not yet noticed that you have fallen into its cage.

The problem with travelling through Europe is that it takes forever. The roads are scenic, but narrow, congested and there is a town every ten kilometres. There were 30-odd journalists riding in this launch group, and the GPS navigation meant we were free to ride at our own pace and at our own time. The problem was this new-found fear of the German Authorities, so we were all riding in a big group at 2km/h below the speed limit for fear of our lives.

This is indeed a problem, but the sort of problem in which the Scrambler thrives. It has absolutely no wind protection, but our average speed for the first hour of riding was probably 40km/h, and at this pace the light breeze is delightfully refreshing, especially in the German summer. The boxer engine sits wonderfully in its meaty, low-end torque, holding the speed without breaking a sweat, and without trying to lunge forward, as is the way with the more impatient sport bikes.

BMW R nineT Scrambler Seat
The Scrambler-styled seat comes standard with a single unit, and a passenger seat in the aftermarket catalogue.

At 820mm, even the deeply (if that is the right word) vertically challenged rider is close enough to the floor to have both feet on the ground with both knees slightly bent, meaning ducking between cars in little Bavarian towns in effortless.

As we went on, the towns became more sparse, traffic lessened and the mighty monoliths that are the Alps loomed ever closer. The roads started slithering in bigger oscillations, but we still sat in a group, fearful of the wrath of The Fuzz. It takes a both a brave and experienced man to break the mould in Germany, and thankfully Alan Cathcart was on the trip.

The two of us were sitting a little behind the main group, because riding in a slow bunch is about as much fun as sleeping in a cactus garden, but as the road started clearing up and becoming more interesting, Sir Alan appeared to come to a decision – he changed down a gear and overtook the guy in front of us, then overtook the next two, and so on, all the while having the audacity to go beyond the German speed laws.

What a rebel! I liked it.

By the time we got to lunch, we were among a group that had broken away from the rest, following our new sainted leader, Sir Alan. While we had sped up, we were by no means going fast, not in an African sense. As the topography grew the courage to leap out more and more, the roads became twistier, meaning real high speeds were limited by that annoying physics thing, but this was fine for the Scrambler.

The boxer engine is not about high speed, but rather about gaining speed from a low speed quickly, which is what we were doing. The torque, for which this motor has become famous, thrived in these sort of conditions, and we sat down to lunch in high spirits.

This bit of riding was amusing, but it was simply a palate cleanser for the main course.

After lunch, we rode into Austria. We knew we were in Austria because there was a little sign that simply said “Austria”.

BMW R nineT Scrambler Riding Alps
Cruising through the Alps – the Scrambler reverts to traditional forks with slightly more travel and a 19-inch front wheel.

The Austrian Alps are famous for more than alliteration. Before long the looming hills became towering cliffs, encroaching on every side, and we found ourselves riding in a massive gorge, the smooth, narrow road following the meandering river that snakes between its mountain overlords. It’s here that you appreciate not having a fairing and screen to get in the way of all this scenic glory. Also, on as sinuous a road as this, you never get far beyond 60km/h, and a screen would simply be unnecessary, if not stifling.

By now, the quick steering of the Roadster was long forgotten, and the Scrambler was beginning to feel more homely. Many journalists said that they thought the Scrambler was more nimble than the Roadster, although I fear that they hadn’t ridden a Roadster in some time, and memory of its sharp handling was fading.

This is still a compliment for the Scrambler, because it means that its handling is far from slow, just slower than the Roadster. Where the Scrambler does have the upper hand, especially for riders not attempting their best Michael Dunlop impersonations, is that the Scrambler does feel more solid, more connected to the road.

The boxer engine was still thriving, blasting down the short gaps between the hairpin bends, even lifting the front wheel out of the first gear additions. During the ride back to Munich, there was a long, straight section that is commonly known as the Autobahn that, unlike South African roads, is famous for not having many accidents, not seeing many fatalities and not having any speed limits.

BMW says that the top speed of the Scrambler is 200km/h. On the speedo, I saw 215. Does that mean I’m better than BMW?

The biggest black mark against the Scrambler name is the seat. It isn’t real leather, but your backside really won’t tell the difference as much as your wallet, but what your backside will feel is slightly numb after about 45 minutes in this seat. Contrary to popular belief, the most comfortable position is not sitting bolt upright with all your weight on your rear end. This is not great, but at the same time this is not a touring bike, and it’s unlikely to do many trips beyond 45min.

For the very pedantic critic, the front forks are not the most sophisticated, but only people like Michael Dunlop would actually notice this, and the average Scrambler buyer would prefer the longer travel and the heavier wallet.

The future of Scramblers

The Scrambler is a cheaper, more retro, more rustic version of the R nine T, but will still accomplish 99% of what the Roadster will do, all the while looking ever so cool. As is the way with any Scrambler, it’s very likely that the long catalogue of aftermarket bits will soon be delved into by owners, plus some other non-catalogue additions.

BMW R nineT Scrambler corners
The steering on the Scrambler is slightly more sluggish than the Roadster, but it feels slightly more planted. The extra travel on the forks probably mean a better ride over bumps, not that there are any in Germany.

On the narrow roads like those in Bavaria, the Scrambler will achieve everything you could ever want from a motorcycle. This also true for  many of the streets of the Cape, KZN and probably every other coastal road. Even the streets of Joburg and Pretoria would enjoy a bit of Scrambler. The fun bits of Mpumalanga, maybe.

If however you live in, say, Lichtenburg, with nothing but wide, straight roads stretching for miles in every direction, you might want something with a screen.

That, or move to Cape Town.