The Desert Sled: 1967 Triumph TR6C

Original and unrestored, this Triumph TR6C Trophy is a survivor after 52 years, but it still sees the road.

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by Nick Cedar

1967 Triumph TR6C Trophy

Engine:649cc air-cooled OHV parallel twin, 71mm x 82mm, 9:1 compression ratio,45hp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed:90mph (est.)
Carburetion: Single Amal Monobloc 389/239 carburetor
Transmission: 4-speed, chain final drive
Electrics:6v, energy transfer system
Frame/wheelbase:55.5in (1,410mm)
Suspension: Telescopic forks w/dampening rods (only used on TR6Cs and TT Specials) front, Girling dual shocks rear
Brakes: 8in (203.2mm) SLS drum front, 7in (178mm) SLS drum rear
Tires:3.5 x 19in front, 4 x 18in rear
Weight (dry): 360lb (163.6kg)
Seat height: 30.5in (775mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG:2.5gal (9.45ltr)/40mpg (est.)
Price then/now: $1,150/$6,000-$15,000

To say that Southern California’s Big Bear Run was a popular race in the 1950s is an understatement.

In 1958, there were 851 entries for the offroad, mostly desert race, despite the fact that it was a really tough trip. Only 145 riders finished, with Bud Ekins taking the win. Ekins, the other top five finishers, and the majority of the other riders on the track were aboard Triumphs. The model chosen by most competitors was a single carburetor 649cc twin with high pipes and an easily detachable headlight — a Triumph TR6. Racers called it The Desert Sled.

No one quite knows how a bike set up for racing in the arid badlands became known as a Desert Sled, but the name stuck. Single carburetor 650cc Triumphs rocked and rolled Southwestern desert racing through the 1950s and 1960s. If you wanted to compete in the Catalina Grand Prix, the Greenhorn Enduro, the Barstow to Vegas run, and the hare and hound racing that was sponsored by several of the local clubs, you went out and bought a TR6, with the high pipes. Prominent racers Ed Kretz, Jr. and Eddie Mulder, and racer turned movie star Steve McQueen ran Triumph TR6s. Even Elvis Presley was photographed riding one through a pond.

The bike that was filmed doing that jump in The Great Escape was a Triumph TR6C — the 1960s version of that high piped, single carb 650. It is now on display at the Triumph factory in Hinckley, Great Britain. Although Steve McQueen did most of the riding in the movie (and doubled as some of the German guards chasing McQueen’s character) Bud Ekins did the jump as a stunt double for McQueen after the producer had a fit about the star doing his own jumps.

Most riders kept the engine stock, but rewired the machine, replaced the stock fenders with sheet steel, added a serious skid plate, removed the mufflers and re-shoed their ride with a Dunlop 4 x 19-inch Trials Universal in front and a 4 x 18-inch Sports Knobby in back. More serious competitors might alter the chassis, add tucked in pipes and upgrade the shocks.

Our feature bike

This particular 1967 TR6C was purchased from Burbank Triumph in Southern California, and still has the Burbank Triumph license plate holder. Jack Hateley, (father of racer John Hateley) the owner of Burbank Triumph, was Eddie Mulder’s sponsor. The first owner of this bike was a prison guard who wanted to ride in offroad events. Unfortunately, he soon learned that he had bought the wrong motorcycle. By 1967, all his friends were riding lightweight 2-stroke Husqvarnas offroad. The owner wanted to be competitive with his friends, so he bought a Husky for competition and rode to work on his Triumph. A short time later, he was out with his buddies after work (he said he only had two beers) and fell over in the parking lot. The owner’s wife banned riding to work after that.

Fast forward 30 years. The bike had been passed on to the first owner’s nephew. The nephew understood that he had something special, but he was married, his wife was eight months pregnant and they had no medical insurance. The bike was the only thing that they could sell, so the nephew put a “For Sale” ad in the local free paper. Scott Dunlavey saw the ad and brought home the bike in a pickup truck. It took a minimum of work to get it running, and Scott has prized it — and ridden it — since then. “I rode this 6C to my wedding. My in-laws saw the bike and wanted to ride it. They had a great time taking turns riding around the block on it.”

Triumph fan

Scott Dunlavey started messing around with Triumphs when he was in high school. This soon led to him starting a racing career, carrying National flat track racing number 96 and becoming a serious desert racing competitor. His best result was third overall and first in the Over Thirty class in the 2001 Baja 1000. As time went on, Scott began to concentrate on the wrenching and organizing end of the race team effort. He was hired as builder and logistics adviser for the movie Dust to Glory in 2003. “The Dust to Glory motorcycle [a race-prepped Honda XR650R] is in my garage.” Scott has also worked with Honda Racing and Johnny Campbell Racing on the Baja 1000, and has built engines for numerous racing efforts. “I get screams for help from as far as Colorado.” Eddie Mulder is his daughter’s godfather.

Since 1987, Scott has also been a partner in the Berkeley, California, Honda, Yamaha and Husqvarna motorcycle dealership. He has never lost his soft spot for Triumphs, though, and works on and rides them in his off hours. “I am blessed that I can work on them. There are several other businesses near my shop who can help with a restoration. There is such a high level of knowledge around here.” Although Berkeley, California, has a reputation as a college town, there is an industrial area that is home to wizards in metal fabrication, welding, engine building and paintwork.

Over a period of several years, Scott has put together a collection of all four of the 1967 Triumph 650s, including this TR6C Trophy. This bike is extra special — it was never modified for racing, never beat up over rocky trails and has never even had the cylinder head off. To say that this bike is a survivor is an understatement. From headlight to taillight, except for the tires, this bike is original. It also runs and rides well.

The U.S. market

Triumph had been building bikes expressly for the U.S. market since 1949, when the company came out with the 649cc Thunderbird, an enlarged version of Edward Turner’s Speed Twin. The 500cc Speed Twin had transformed the British motorcycle industry in the 1930s, but it was underpowered for long American roads. A sports version of the Thunderbird, the Tiger 110, with swingarm rear suspension, appeared in late 1953. Another Triumph product popular in the U.S. was the TR5 Trophy, a 500cc twin with high pipes that could be used in offroad events with some quick wrench work. The headlight was attached to the wiring harness with a multi-pin connector: all the rider had to do was pull it out and find someplace safe to put the headlight.

Someone at Triumph had a brainstorm, and announced the TR6, at first called the “Trophy bird,” a name that was shortened some years later to Trophy. Basically an upgraded Thunderbird engine shoehorned into the TR5 frame, the first-year-model 1956 TR6 had an aluminum alloy head, the quick connect headlight, a 3-gallon gas tank and a wider back tire. The frame and forks were also improved, with a redesigned steering head on the frame and changes to the forks to prevent bottoming out under heavy braking. 1957 saw a full width front hub, a Lucas competition magneto and an 8-inch front brake. The TR6 now came in an “A” (street) version, a “B” (scrambler) style and a “C” (economy) model. 1959 saw a new forged crankshaft and a new frame with dual downtubes. Edward Turner, still very much in charge at Triumph, was at the 1960 Big Bear race (won by Eddie Mulder, see sidebar) when a young rider died after the frame on his Triumph broke. Turner went back to England and ordered that the steering head be beefed up.

In 1961 and subsequent years, the “C” model was the scrambler, with high pipes. Meanwhile, Triumph had started producing the dual carburetor Bonneville, to much praise and high sales. The company took the Trophy out of production for a few months to revamp it as a single carburetor version of the Bonnie, with floating brake shoes, sports fenders and battery and coil ignition. By the end of 1962, the TR6C was back, with a unit construction engine, and an aluminum cylinder head with larger fins. The frame reverted to a single downtube in 1963. This new frame and a rebalanced engine reduced vibration. If the odometer is to be believed, this bike has just a little more than 1,300 original miles on it.

Triumph had two U.S. importers during the late 1950s up through the 1960s: Johnson Motors (popularly referred to as JoMo) in the West and TriCor in the East. Motorcycles intended for the West Coast market often had different colors and trim than East Coast Triumphs. In 1963, in response to requests from Triumph’s West Coast distributor, Johnson Motors, Triumph started producing the TR6SC, a factory Desert Sled, with straight pipes, no headlight and alloy fenders. Unavailable on the East Coast, the TR6SC boasted 45 horsepower and came with a centerstand and a parcel grid on the tank, both items not included on the TR6C. A contemporary Cycle World test praised the bike. “It’s such fantastic fun to ride,” said the report, “with more hair on its chest than King Kong.”

Turner retired in 1964. That was the start of a downward spiral at Triumph, as the company began to be run by committees of managers who had no experience with motorcycles or motorcycle people. These “scientific” managers made some very expensive mistakes, the most serious of which was failing to upgrade the machinery that actually made the motorcycles. As a result, the British product began to fall further and further behind their European and Japanese competitors in both quality control and product innovation. The fact that by the late Sixties Triumph was no longer the bike to ride in competitive offroad events was only one symptom of a general malaise.

In the flesh

This TR6C was built in 1967 before the rot really started to set in. Scott says that the ’67 was the last competition-oriented TR6C. “Later bikes were posers and street scramblers.” It has the 649cc engine that Edward Turner believed to be the largest that a vertical twin engine could be built and still provide a comfortable ride, a 9:1 compression ratio,  an ET (energy transfer) batteryless ignition system, improved drum brakes, telescopic forks with dampening rods (only used on TR6Cs and TT Specials), and a better oiling system. The slimline tank held 2.5 gallons. It came only in a pretty mist green and white. Scott’s bike runs fuel through an Amal Monobloc. Later in the model year, the carburetor was changed to an Amal Concentric. “It’s super rare to find an ET that works,” Scott says. “1967 was the last year. I rebuilt it, and it should have taken me three hours, but I was rusty. It took me eight.”

Two years after this bike was built, Honda pulled the curtain back on the 750 Four, with overhead cams, an electric start and a front disc brake. Honda was able to manufacture the Four at a reasonable price due to a massive investment in modern machine tooling. Triumph, still running on machine tooling from the 1950s, went from being the bike everyone wanted to ride to a minor player bought by a niche market of enthusiasts. After a great deal of turmoil, including a sit-down strike by the workers and transformation into a cooperative, Triumph went out of business in 1983. The trademarks were bought by John Bloor, who made the investment in a state-of-the-art factory and the best engineers locatable that Triumph should have made 20 years earlier. As a result, Triumph is, once again, a popular motorcycle.

The high-pipe exhaust, complete with leg shields.

The fact that this TR6C has survived 52 years “unmolested,” as Scott Dunlavey says, has not caused its new owner to put it in a nitrogen-filled box. “I took it to Pikes Peak, where I was racing, to ride up and down the hill. Eddie Mulder saw the bike and said, “Holy crap — don’t touch that bike!” I was riding it around the Lake Cachuma rally and John Healy (head of the Triumph International Owners Club) saw it. He said, “Don’t touch that bike!” I am not going to restore this bike. Not only does it not need it, but those guys would kill me.”

Although Scott would never dream of restoring this TR6C, he still changes the oil and checks the timing — he wants it to continue to run well. “You have to stay on top of the maintenance. Replace worn items BEFORE they fail. Don’t let the bike sit with ethanol fuel in the tank.” He likes Kendall 20/50 oil, and changes it every thousand miles. “It’s a constant labor of love.”

“The 6C has tons of low end torque, no centerstand and solid mount bars. It’s not as nice of a street driver as the Bonneville, but single carb bikes are sweethearts. The mist green tank is gorgeous. It’s THE Triumph dirt bike, and the last of Triumph’s real competition bikes. Anyone with a dirt background appreciates this bike. This motorcycle needs to survive.” MC

Legend Eddie Mulder remembers desert racing in the 1950s and 1960s

Eddie Mulder, AMA Hall of Fame inductee and National Number 12, got his start desert racing in the high country east of Los Angeles. The son of the Lancaster Triumph dealer, he rode his first desert event at the age of 8. When his Triumph Cub broke down, he got picked up by none other than Dot Robinson, Motor Maids president at the time and top offroad racer. “She hauled me in. I kept poking her shoulder, “You’re going too fast!”

Eddie soon learned to go fast himself. He won his first desert race at the age of 15, with a last minute pass on Bud Ekins. At the time, Eddie’s father had sold his shop and was working as the parts man for Bud Ekins’ Triumph dealership. Shortly afterwards, Eddie went to the dealership with a broken gearbox and asked Bud if he could find a replacement. Bud said he wouldn’t replace the gearbox,  he would introduce Eddie to Johnson Motors, the West Coast Triumph distributor. Johnson Motors agreed to help Mulder. “Shortly afterwards, I had three brand-new Triumphs.” Mulder won the 1960 Big Bear race and then went into flat track competition. “Flat track was where the money was.” After he hung up his iron shoe, he started doing stunt work for film studios. “Bud Ekins introduced me to the right people in the film industry too.”

“In the old days, the motorcycle clubs put on all the races. In my area, there were the Checkers (my club). Shamrock and SoCal, among others. Races were more of a social event, and people brought their families. Most of the racers were guys in their 20s and 30s, although a few women raced. All sorts of people would show up. I remember once I got to the finish line, and there were Steve McQueen, Keenan Wynn and Lee Marvin, drunk as skunks. It was almost all British motorcycles — about 80 percent Triumphs, mostly TR6s. Some people had BSAs or Ariel Red Hunters, and there were a few Nortons.”

“It was fun — a whole different atmosphere. It didn’t get too rowdy, because people had their families there. It was also a whole lot cheaper to race than it is now. There were no toy haulers, no motor homes. A brand-new Triumph was $800 and gas was 21 to 23 cents a gallon. The clubs would compete — it was club versus club — but everyone watched out for each other.  If a bike broke down, someone would go get them and haul them in with a rope.” — Margie Siegal


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