McQueen’s Machines(Motorbooks, 2007) by Matt Stone celebrates major motorhead and famous actor Steve McQueen and his passion as a car enthusiast, racer, and motorcyclist. Get a close-up look at the automobiles and motorcycles in McQueen’s garage, those he drove in movies and others he raced. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “McQueen on Screen.”
McQueen on Two Wheels
“A Husqvarna 405 at about 12,000 rpm–that’s music. In bike racing, I specialize; I do rough-country riding, the long-distance kind of thing. With a cycle, you’re dealing with natural terrain, you learn to read the earth. . . I like being out there in the desert on a set of wheels. You’re really alive out there.”
–Steve McQueen, from Star on Wheels, 1972
It was inevitable that Steve McQueen and motorcycles would form a lifelong link. His childhood and rough early years–scrabbling for work, living in near poverty–forced the issue on two fronts. One, bikes were cheaper than cars. Two, he was of the ideal temperament for motorcycling in the late 1940s, when the activity was far from genteel. Indeed, the personality of the rough-and-tumble biker stereotype had long been formed by then, supported by daredevil racers of the 1910s and 1920s and only given a unified visual identity we recognize today by so-called outlaws of the 1960s. In between, we had Brando and Elvis and James Dean–misunderstood, troubled, in trouble, and, for that matter, out for trouble. It would be no surprise to find a rudderless youth, enticed by the image, stick to it as a way of submerging his troubles.
McQueen might be placed in this category after a cursory examination, but that would do him a tremendous injustice. Even if he didn’t start out to be one of his period’s most celebrated motorcycle enthusiasts, McQueen had most certainly become one.
Whether you consider his positioning of motorcycles (among other fast vehicles) in his films and public life or stop to ponder the fact that, at one point, he owned more than 100 motorcycles at one time, you can’t read much about McQueen and not realize that he was, deep down and to the core, a pure enthusiast, a man for whom motorcycling was, you might say, second only to breathing. The endeavor was both an escape from acting and a validation of his skills, plus an opportunity to join a tight fraternity of riders who, at first, didn’t care who he was as much as how well he could ride. These statements would, no doubt, horrify McQueen, who was as taciturn about his hobby as anyone.
The difficulty to tracing the post-McQueen history of many of his bikes is the nature of the beast.
Motorcycles as a rule are more fragile, more likely to be dropped, broken up as parts mules for other bikes, scrapped, or simply abandoned, than cars. No doubt some of the bikes adorning his stable were not considered important in this period and were often overlooked as daily-drivers, beaters, or parts bikes.
After McQueen’s death in 1980, many bikes were bequeathed to friends and family, and a large selection was sold at auction in 1984.
It would be fair to separate McQueen’s motorcycles into two categories: those he loved and those he utterly adored. In his last half decade, McQueen began to collect a great variety of motorcycles, as his fame and fortune would assure, returning often to his favored brands of Indian and Triumph, but also exploring a host of other nearly forgotten brands of which remained only a handful of examples.
1946 Indian Chief
According to biographer William Nolan, it was in the fall of 1951 that McQueen had “saved enough to buy a battered cycle with a sidecar, which he proudly tooled around the Village. ‘It was my first bike and I loved it,’ admitted Steve. ‘But I was going with a girl who began to hate the cycle–just hated riding in the bumpy sidecar. She told me, “Either the cycle goes or I go!” ‘Well, there was no contest. She went.'” McQueen was working in New York and that battered cycle was a 1946 Indian Chief with a sidecar. Unfortunately, few details are available on this motorcycle and sidehack.
In that postwar (and pre-Cold War) period, Indian and Harley-Davidson big-bore models ruled the land. The Indian Chief was remarkable for its art deco-swooped fenders, a stylistic trademark that, in fact, hindered the bike’s performance; those huge fenders were hefty steel stampings. But in other ways, the Chief was advanced. Where the Harleys of the time made due with rigid rear frames–the sole suspension action came from the tire itself–the Indians had rudimentary rear suspension thanks to a shock-mounted rear axle. The fork was a springer articulated-arm arrangement with a single, central shock absorber.
The flathead (or side-valve, as the valve stems were pointed down, and the combustion chamber offset over to the valve pocket) V-twin engine was mounted rigidly to the mild-steel frame; to help reduce rider fatigue and improve comfort, the large tractor-like saddle was spring-mounted to the rear frame. Also typical of the period, the ’46 Chief would have had a foot clutch operated by the left foot and a hand shifter for the three-speed transmission just outboard of the left side of the teardrop fuel tank. The rider would roll off the throttle, clutch with the left foot, reach his left hand from the handlebar to the shifter, make the shift, ease in some throttle as the left foot gradually released the clutch. It’s little wonder bikes with a wide torque curve–less shifting overall–were prized.
In the early 1950s, the Indian Chief was a common sight on American roads, vying with FL-series Harleys (by then already using an overhead-valve design) for sales supremacy. What was probably not clear to McQueen or any American rider of the time was that Indian was on the fast track to oblivion. A series of technical missteps and financial difficulties would see the grand old firmcease production of its own models by the end of 1953. With that, an interesting chapter in motorcycle history had closed, but, as we would later see, McQueen would remain an avid fan of the marque, with Indians a prominent part of his overall collection.
McQueen is said to have owned a K Model Harley-Davidson in New York, racing both legitimately at the drag strip and illicitly on the street. Harley’s K model was a precursor to the famed Sportster, a stripped-down, 750-cc flathead V-twin that would go on to dominate dirt-track racing in the United States. In addition, McQueen took a mid-1950s BSA 650 to Cuba.
In Steve McQueen: Star on Wheels, McQueen said: “I had my 650 BSA and my buddies each had their rigs–a one-lung Norton Manx and a 500 BMW–and we all cycled down to Key West and took the TMT ferry across to Havana. Castro and Batista were shootin’ at each other about then, and things were a little tense. I tried to sell a guy some cigarettes and got thrown in jail on a charge of pushing American contraband. I wired Neile for the money I needed to get sprung, but she was mad at me for leavin’ her in New York and said no. Ended up selling my crash helmet and some parts off the BSA to bail myself out of there and get back home.”
His break came in 1956 with a guest shot on Trackdown, which led to Wanted: Dead or Alive, which in turn was being filmed in Los Angeles.
McQueen’s permanent move to Hollywood seemed assured. He did, of course, take his motorcycle interests with him.
1959 Triumph Bonneville
Jump ahead to 1959 and McQueen’s meeting with Bud Ekins. Ekins, a Triumph motorcycle dealer at the time and an accomplished off-road racer, clearly remembers his first contact with McQueen.
“There was an actor named Dick Powell,” Ekins recalls in 2007. “His son was Norman. I sold Norman a new motorcycle in, I think, 1959. He took it home, and his wife said, ‘Get rid of it. Take it back.’ Well, Steve was working for Four Star Productions [which produced Wanted: Dead or Alive, and was co-founded by Dick Powell] and would come into my shop riding on the back with Norm. Well, one day Norm said that he’d sold the bike to Steve and was wondering if the warranty was still good. I said, ‘Sure, no problem,’ and then he [McQueen] proceeded to hang around and be a pain in the ass for the next 25 years.”
That simple exchange over a 1959 Triumph Bonneville brought McQueen into what would become a lasting friendship with Bud Ekins. No question that McQueen had found the right mentor and the right motorcycle. While American bike manufacturers remained with tried-and-true designs, and the Japanese invasion of the motorcycle market was still nearly a decade from full bloom, the hot models were the British sporting bikes. The Harley Sportster, which debuted in 1957, was arguably the fastest bike in those years; it was crude and ill-handling next to the vertical-twin Triumphs.
By the mid-1950s, Triumph was a motorcycle powerhouse, with 500-cc and 650-cc twin-cylinder motorcycles performing well on racetracks and in showrooms. What’s more, in 1956, Johnny Allen captured a motorcycle speed record of 214 miles per hour at the Bonneville Salt Flats using a modified T110 engine. At the time, Triumph made hot-rod versions of its 500-cc model using, among other things, twin carbs, but had not yet created a stronger version of the 650.
All that changed in 1959 with the introduction of the Bonneville, named in honor of its speed record. The T120, as it was also known, was the quintessential sporting bike. Lean, at just over 400 pounds dry weight, and quick, the Bonneville met with success in the United States largely on the basis of its performance. McQueen’s Bonneville was a first-year model, distinctive by its headlight nacelle and valanced fenders. Triumph quickly recognized the error, and for 1960 produced a revised Bonneville with TR6-like thin chrome fenders and a stood-proud chrome headlight.
The destiny of McQueen’s particular bike is unknown. It is believed to have been sold off or given away early in McQueen’s career, amid the typically high turnover rate of the breed. Moreover, McQueen had caught another kind of bug, one that struck his fancy almost by accident. Supposedly, he’d been riding with actor friend Dennis Hopper–considered perhaps ironic today, as McQueen often commented that the biker movies of the 1960s had “set motorcycling back 200 years”–and noticed dirt riders on some open cliffs in west Los Angeles.
McQueen said, “I first tried out dirt riding on a bike I’d borrowed from a neighbor, and the sense of being out there on your own was tremendous. No preparation. Just kick it over, drive up the side of a hill–and you’re free!” That freedom was something important to McQueen and had piqued his interest in dirt riding. He began to ask questions of Ekins at his San Fernando Valley shop. “He saw all those Triumphs at the back with no headlights and was curious about those, too,” Ekins recalls in 2007. “I agreed to take him out and show him the ropes.”
Soon, McQueen was racing off-road in Southern California, mainly on TR6 Triumphs prepped for racing with higher, braced handlebars and knobby tires. At that time, the differences between full-on street bikes and dirt racers were minimal, and it would be several years before purpose-built dirt race bikes would become common. Only a few years after that, the category further specialized, with bikes designed just for high-speed desert racing, picking along slow but difficult trails (enduro), closed-course dirt racing (motocross), an ultra-lowspeed, obstacle-bashing ballet called trials, and, finally, crossover vehicles that could be used on the street as well as in the woods.
But McQueen’s early dirt-riding experience came astride the Triumph. After riding in a series of West Coast events and doing well under Ekins’ tutelage, McQueen took a role in The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges. It would be a seminal role for McQueen, not just for his acting ability, but in forging his reputation for putting fast cars and motorcycles into his films.
As discussed in the last chapter, McQueen and Ekins stuck with modified Triumphs for the filming of The Great Escape. With their rigid frames, the World War II-era BMWs the Triumphs portrayed weren’t tough enough or fast enough for the stunts they had in mind. And despite the impression from watching the camouflaged Triumphs on screen that they’d been thoroughly rigged for the job, that’s not the case. “We had stock bikes. Standard shocks, but a lighter front wheel,” recalls Ekins. The TR6s–two were used, purchased by MGM from Ekins’ own store–were often taken out by McQueen after daily shooting for joyriding.
After shooting, the actual bikes used in the film are believed to have been sold in Europe, although it’s likely one of them made it back to the States; no matter, their whereabouts are unknown. However, for a recent exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, Triumph collector Sean Kelly created a tribute bike, starting with a ’62 TR6.
The headlight wears the required dimming slit, and the knee pads are classic BMW-style designs. The solo saddle and simple luggage rack look just like those fitted to the real TR6s in the film.
Returning from Europe, and after wrapping Love with the Proper Stranger in New York, McQueen resumed his desert racing, including the 1963 running of the Greenhorn Enduro in and around Mojave. His Triumph lost a cylinder halfway through, but he finished the race. By that time, McQueen’s insatiable appetite for twowheeled speed had him at the track or in the desert whenever his shooting schedule allowed, but he continued to race in the Novice class. He didn’t race enough to earn sufficient points to run with the Experts. But that didn’t mean he was left out of international competition; in fact, the Greenhorn would be his training ground for the International Six Days Trials (ISDT).
1964 Triumph TR6SC ISDT
In 1964, Bud Ekins put together the first American team to contest the ISDT, held that year in East Germany. It consisted of Bud, brother Dave Ekins, McQueen, Cliff Coleman, and John Steen. Bud the Triumph dealer and longtime stalwart of the brand elected to run in the 500-cc class with T100SCs for himself, Dave, and Steen, while a pair of TR6SCs were destined for Coleman and McQueen to run in the 750-cc class.
The ISDT that year was grueling, with constant rain, unfamiliar terrain, and world-class competition. McQueen was at a disadvantage right from the start, as he’d raced and practiced in the arid California desert. And yet they were immediately competitive, ending the second day tied in points for the lead with Britain. McQueen told Nolan, “At this stage, I was definitely lined up for a gold medal and going hard. Part of the last run of this second day was over an open road cutting through a forest. I was dicing with the British champ, Jon Gills, a marvelous racer, and we were moving along at full chat in the rain. We could figure where the highway would bend by watching the way the trees lined up. But we got fooled because at one point the trees marched straight ahead while the road turned. We came into this turn, full turkey leg, at about eighty–and began sliding for traction. I went off the road and down into a cart truck, taking a fall. I saw marks where other riders had got themselves into the same kind of trouble. My cheek was cut from the goggles but nothing was broken, so I picked the twigs and leaves out of my ears and looked around for my bike. The tail pipe was smashed. I groaned, flipped a tool out of my back pocket, and bent the pipe back into usable shape.”
McQueen got back on course and began to make up time. But on day three, the American team’s hopes vanished as Bud Ekins broke his leg after hitting a bridge abutment, and McQueen had a run-in with a spectator on a bike, who cut across the course. “I’d survived. But my bike didn’t,” he later told Nolan. “I took off the front fender. The wheel was badly dented, and the tire was shot. Which might have been all right, but the forks were bent clear back to the chassis. I managed to ride back to our van, but my run was over. That spill had cost me more than a medal, it cost me the bloody race.”
McQueen’s TR6SC was prepared for the 1965 ISDT, which McQueen was unable to attend. His bike was ridden by Ed Kretz Jr.
Normally, old race bikes like this are lost to time, and in fact the other four bikes from that 1964 race remain undiscovered. But after considerable research, restorer Sean Kelly tracked down McQueen’s bike, VIN TR6SC-DU13287. As he writes in Steve McQueen 40 Summers Ago . . . Hollywood Behind the Iron Curtain, by Kelly and Rin Tanaka, McQueen’s Triumph came home to Johnson Motors after the 1965 ISDT and was ridden by Bud Ekins in several major desert races in the mid-1960s. After sifting through old pink slips still in Ekins’ possession, Kelly, using his knowledge of Triumph build numbers, discovered that five motorcycles registered as 1966 models were in fact built in 1964. Eventually, Kelly had the VINs of all five bikes and commenced a search for McQueen’s. After what he describes as an illegal DMV search, he found the then-current owner, Frank Danielson. Danielson had fitted a sidecar to the TR6SC and won his class in the Baja 1000 three times with it.
The ’64 TR6 was a significant motorcycle for Triumph on a lot of levels. It used the new unit construction 650-cc engine, which was structurally more sound and used new cylinder heads that boosted power. Those heads had additional finning for improved cooling and ran an 8.5:1 compression ratio for the Bonneville and TR6 models; the detuned Thunderbird used a 7.5:1 ratio.
Through the 1960s and even into the early 1970s, the Triumph 500-cc and 650-cc twins were the motorcycles to have, dominating in all forms of racing and showing remarkable versatility; indeed, the Triumphs of this period were capable of a broad range of successes never to be matched.
More from McQueen’s Machines
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from McQueen’s Machines: The Cars and Bikes of a Hollywood Icon, published by Motorbooks, 2007.
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