Legendary stuntman Bud Ekins makes his final jump

Bud and Betty

Bud with his wife, Betty, in the 1950s.

Photo courtesy the Ekins family.

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Bud Ekins, one of the true trailblazers in American motorcycling, passed away Oct. 6, 2007, at age 77. Although best known as Steve McQueen’s stuntman double, flying through the air on the famous motorcycle jump in The Great Escape, he was an accomplished rider whose racing career included a series of wins and records from which legends are built.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ekins was the undisputed "King of the Desert" and offroad races, with wins at all the major races including the famed Catalina Grand Prix in 1955, where he took almost 10 minutes off the race record time. He won the offroad Big Bear Run in California three times, most memorably in 1959, covering the 153-mile course over half an hour ahead of the second-place rider, despite getting a flat tire and breaking a wheel.

Ekins competed in seven International Six Days Trial (ISDT) events in the 1960s, winning four gold medals and one silver — all on Triumph motorcycles. In 1964, Ekins, his brother Dave, Cliff Coleman, John Steen and Steve McQueen led the international competition in the ISDT in Germany before McQueen suffered a crash and then Ekins broke his leg.

He was also a founder of the famous Baja 1000, making record runs down the Mexican peninsula. If it had dirt, Bud would ride it, and he was a force to be reckoned with.

In 1962, McQueen asked Ekins to do some stunt riding for the filming of The Great Escape. Ekins was in Germany working on the film, and it was at the end of shooting that McQueen and he came up with what is arguably the most famous motorcycle stunt of all time. That one jump led to Bud becoming one of Hollywood’s leading stuntmen, with a 30-year career that continued until he was in his mid-60s.

After retiring from the movies, Ekins went on to be one of the country’s leading collectors of vintage and rare motorcycles. At one time, his collection numbered over 150 motorcycles and was considered to be the most valuable in the country.

I first met Bud in England in 1961, when I worked at Triumph and he was competing in the ISDT. I was assigned by the legendary Edward Turner, Triumph’s managing director, to "take care of Bud." We had a lot of fun together during his visits in 1961, 1962 and 1963, and Bud gave me a view of America that a 19-year-old Brit would rarely get. When I stopped racing and left Triumph at the end of 1964, he encouraged me to come to America, and provided me with a place to stay until I got settled.

His generosity was boundless — and not just with me. Bud and his wife, Betty, opened their hearts and their home to countless icons including Roger DeCoster, Joel Robert, Dave Bickers, and Don and Derek Rickman. Ekins’ illustrious racing career covered not just a generation, but an era, the likes of which we are never likely to experience again.

I have heard people say that Bud was Steve McQueen’s stuntman. I like to think that Steve was Bud’s actor. Ekins was the real thing.