Sat on the golf course, we were of course thousands of miles from any desert. And it takes some thinking, and some research, to figure out just how this bike is a desert racer, as against a normal dirt bike – and exactly what the attributes of a desert racer are.
Desert racers back in the 1960s were an American thing, more particularly a Californian thing. One hour out from Los Angeles and literally all around Las Vegas is the Mojave Desert. It straddles the state and even creeps into Nevada and Arizona. And if you head due south, desert continues out on to the Baja peninsula too. It’s one big old ‘nothin’. And for motorbikes it’s one natural born playground. It’s worth adding that a lot of it is also flat and while occasionally bumpy it’s not all whooped-out the way motocross tracks and even enduro trails get today. And it’s a little known fact that the Baja 500/1000 desert race in its original format was for some 25% of its length a surfaced road. Another good portion was classified as fire road (like a gravel road) and even after those you can feature in dry lake beds too.
So you can see long travel suspension wasn’t necessarily high on the list of requirements for a desert racer. Nor necessarily was light weight. But a motor that could go long distances, haulin’ say a good 100mph or so – now that’s a useful tool. And that was in essence the 650cc TR6 motor. Designed by the British engineers specifically for the American market, it was capable of 100mph right from the get-go in 1949. The aforementioned TR6SC was a later limited edition – detuned – version and while some have thought the SC stood for ‘special competition’ it’s just as likely to stand for single carb, for that’s a key identifier. The SC ‘desert sled’ was built for reliability as much as performance. That 100mph potential came at some sacrifice mind, for while the slower TR5 500cc twin favoured in European enduro competition made for a machine weighing in at around 114kg (260lb), the TR6 was a proverbial tank of 147kg (325lb). But in the desert the power, and speed, advantages of the 650 outweighed, quite literally, its increased bulk.
It should also be said at this juncture that desert racing was big business. Southern California had up to 20,000 licenced desert racers at any one time, nearly all amateurs. The famous Barstow to Vegas race at its peak in 1971 attracted 3000 racers – and tough race that it was, only 615 finished. You can but imagine the size of the sweep crew.
Against this backdrop, for two decades (through the 1950s and ‘60s) the TR6 and derivatives therefrom, like the Rickman Metisse, were the desert racers to have. To coin the Americanism, it was the winningest bike in desert racing history. And needless to say ex-Marine Steve McQueen rode one.
And given the size of the market it’s no surprise the Rickman brothers, obviously savvy marketeers, took their Triumph-engined Metisse (mongrel, in French) racer to the Californian desert races. Winning desert races, as they did, certainly helped the canny Brits to export units. And so it was that the Ekins brothers, Dave and Bud – both highly respected desert racers and bike dealers – were importers of the Metisse frame kits. And it’s through them that their business partner McQueen acquired his frame.
The Metisse was quite an upgrade from a stock TR6 too. While McQueen in his magazine article would revel in the technological breakthrough that (apparently) was the oil-in-the-frame feature – aiding cooling and so reliability – it’s fair to say he would have equally appreciated the integrity of the altogether more purposeful frame (fabricated in Reynolds 531 tubing) and the near 30kg (60lb) weight saving the conversion allowed over the donor machine.