A Triumph TR6 Trophy “Desert Sled”

Lyle Ellerbee

The Triumph TR6 650 Trophy was already a highly regarded motorcycle in 1964 when Steve McQueen and Bud Ekins formed a team of off-road motorcycle racing specialists to compete in the International Six Days Trial – arguably the toughest motorcycle competition in the world.

The TR6 Trophy was nicknamed the “Desert Sled” thanks to its well-known abilities as a race bike in the deserts of Southern California. The bike had been piloted by riders to wins in all the major off-road races, and the modern retro scrambler trend owes much of its existence to the tough old TR6.

Fast Facts – The Triumph TR6 Trophy

  • The Triumph TR6 Trophy was originally released in 1956 as the “Trophybird” to accompany the 650cc “Thunderbird” model in Triumph’s model line up. The Trophybird name was dropped in 1961, it was simplified to just “Trophy.”
  • In many respects the 650cc TR6 Trophy was developed as a larger-engined big brother to the popular 500cc TR5 model. Both were frequently used in off-road racing both in Britain and the United States.
  • American racers embraced the TR6 Trophy and made it their own, with a number of simple modifications the bike became the de facto “Desert Sled,” winning all of the major desert races of the era.
  • The motorcycle you see here is a TR6 Trophy that’s been given a period-correct desert sled rebuild, with the lighting all deleted for weight savings, a pair of high-exit straight pipes fitted, a thickly padded single-occupant seat, and a front fender delete.

The Triumph TR6 650 Trophy

In the 1950s the British motorcycle industry was a dominant force, the country was producing more motorcycles than any other nation, and many of the world’s fastest motorcycles were built there.

Above Video: Steve McQueen was riding a Triumph TR6 Trophy during the famous chase scene in The Great Escape, the bike had been dressed up to better resemble a German military motorcycle for the sequence.

This dominance would continue well into the 1960s of course, helped along by strong demand from customers in the United States who just couldn’t get enough of the big singles and parallel twins from England.

The biggest market for Triumph Motorcycles at the time was the USA, and the biggest market in the USA was California. Triumph has always had a special relationship with the Golden State, and one of the reasons for that is the motorcycle you see here – the TR6 Trophy.

It’s not known exactly how many examples of the TR6 Trophy (and earlier Trophy-bird) were sold in California over the 1956 to 1973 production runabout it was enough for the model to become a ubiquitous sight in essentially all off-road races that were held, with both professionals and amateurs often preferring the model.

The actual engineering that went into the TR6 was relatively standard for the era, with a tubular steel frame, an air-cooled unit construction parallel twin driving a 4-speed transmission with a chain final drive.

Triumph TR6 650 Trophy Desert Sled 9

Image DescriptionStandard examples of the TR6 Trophy would be modified with straight pipes, thickly padded single seats, a lighting delete, and some other changes to turn them into successful off-road racing desert sleds.

Suspension consisted of hydraulic forks up front with rubber gaiters, twin shock absorbers in the rear, and braking was accomplished with front and rear drum brakes.

There were changes over the course of the model’s production run of course, 5-speed gearboxes later became an option, and from 1971 onwards the new (and not particularly popular) oil-in-frame model was introduced.

American riders would often modify their TR6s into desert sleds by adding high-exit straight exhaust pipes, swapping out the original two person seat for a thickly padded single seat, removing the lights, adding a bash plate under the crankcase, adding racing numbers, and some also deleted the front fender.

TR6 Trophy desert sleds would win an almost absurd list of off-road races including the Big Bear Run, the International Six Days Trial, the Catalina Grand Prix, the Greenhorn Enduro, the AMA National Hare and Hound Championship, the Peoria TT, the East Coast Scrambles Championship, the Hi-Mountain 200-Mile, the AMA Cross Country Championship, the Barstow to Vegas 150-Mile, and countless others.

Triumph TR6 650 Trophy Desert Sled 16

Image DescriptionThe 650cc parallel twin is a relatively simple affair, with two pushrod actuated valves per cylinder, a single carburetor, a 4-speed gearbox, and it produced approximately 45 bhp.

Today there are many who still build and ride these motorcycles off-road, for the visceral and purely analogue experience it gives you.

The 1969 Triumph TR6 650 Trophy Shown Here

The bike you see here is a 1969 Triumph TR6 Trophy that has been built up to proper period correct desert sled specification.

As a 1969 model this bike is pre oil-in-frame, which makes it more desirable for many, and the listing states that although the lighting has all been removed at present the wiring is still there, allowing it to all be re-fitted if the new owner so wishes.

The odometer currently shows just 5 miles, believed to be the accurate mileage since the rebuild was completed. The bike is road-legal in the UK and bit’s currently being sold out of Walton On Thames, Surrey.

If you’d like to read more about this motorcycle you can visit the listing here on Collecting Cars.

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Images courtesy of Collecting Cars

Triumph TR6 650 Trophy Desert Sled

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