Steve McQueen: The Last Mile (Dalton Watson, 2012) weaves Barbara Minty McQueen’s personal history during the couple’s three-year relationship with candid photos she took from 1977 to 1980—his years out of the spotlight—plus the stories behind them. In this excerpt, Barbara tells of Steve’s aptitude in motorcycle repair and of one of their spur-of-the-moment 700-mile roadtrips.
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I don’t know what Steve’s I.Q. was, but he had a natural aptitude for motors and guns. He could fix anything, tear it apart and put it together again without having to look at a manual. Some people are gifted that way and Steve tried to pass on his wisdom and knowledge to me. He didn’t get very far when it came to engines. One day at Trancas, he came home with a pair of overalls and told me to put them on. “Barbi, I’m going to teach you how to build a motorcycle,” he said. “Okay,” I said, not giving it much thought. I knew I would never have to rebuild the bike.
I put on my overalls and watched Steve take the motor apart. He methodically took each piece off the bike, explaining the function of the part, why it was engineered that way and how it helped the motorcycle to run. I realized after about ten minutes, I didn’t have an aptitude for this kind of thing, and then my eyes glazed over. My days as a grease monkey were over before they started. Being the dutiful partner I was, I nodded my head every once in a while and said, “Yes, honey.”
Much to my relief, Steve felt once the bike was disassembled, the day’s lesson was over. He said he’d show me the next day how to put it back together again. But we never got that far. He left the parts in the garage for several days and we forgot about it. I got tired of looking at the mess and called Steve’s mechanic, Sammy Pierce, to haul the bike and the parts away. I was finally off the hook. I had much better luck with weapons. Steve’s military training in the late 1940s stuck with him for the rest of his life and he was very proficient with weapons of all kind — pistols, handguns, rifles and shotguns. He knew how to field strip a weapon blindfolded and expected me to do it as well. We even had an escape plan in case an intruder broke into the house. The plan called for me to roll out of bed, drop to the floor, take a .45 apart, put the bullets back in and have the weapon ready to fire. Of course, it would have been much easier and safer just to keep the safety on, but Steve wanted me to be ready for a combat situation. Guess that’s why he kicked ass in all of his movies.
Finding a Bike on the Mormon Trail
Steve had heard about a guy in Salt Lake City, Utah, who owned a rare Indian motorcycle and side car. He just couldn’t rest until he saw it in person.
“Honey, pack a bag, we’re going to Utah,” Steve said one afternoon. I was young and adventuresome and thought a 700-mile road-trip sounded like loads of fun. I quickly grabbed a few essentials, some clothes, toiletries, my camera and film. I was definitely what you called a “low-maintenance chick.” Soon we were on the road and on a new adventure. It was like that with Steve — you had to be ready at a moment’s notice.
Just beyond the Utah border, we pulled up into the quaint town of St. George, a most picturesque place. As we drove through the city’s main drag, something caught my eye. The only movie theater in town boasted two large murals on each side of the building. One mural was Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and the other was Steve from The Cincinnati Kid.
“Steve, you’re on the side of that movie theater!” I screamed. “Pull over.”
I jumped out of the truck and stared in awe. Steve calmly stepped out of the vehicle and stood next to me. He nonchalantly gazed up at the mural of himself and nodded with a smug look on his face, “It’s cool.”
“Well Mr. Cool, stand in front of it so I can take a picture.” Steve, who was wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, took off his trucker’s hat so that I could zero in on his face and the mural in the same frame. After I snapped the picture,
I lowered my camera slowly, smiling. This was history. The young McQueen was peering over the older version. The next day we made the 300-mile trek to Salt Lake City to complete our mission. When we arrived in town, we sure as heck didn’t have any directions. No worries, we just asked locals about our search for this rare Indian motorcycle, and they led us right to the gentleman’s house.
Our truck slowly rolled up the driveway, and there we saw a beautiful sight. The bike was just sitting there, right in front of us, beckoning. I remember watching Steve’s face as his eyes transfixed on it. You’d think he was looking at the Holy Grail. I could tell he wanted to stroke the bike as he passed by it, but probably didn’t out of respect to the owner. He sure as hell didn’t want any strangers touching his bikes. Steve knocked on the front door and introduced himself to the owner. I could tell the guy was taken aback. He must have been wondering why in the world was Steve McQueen standing on his doorstep?
Steve told him of his quest to not only find, but to witness first-hand the beauty of this great bike. After a few minutes, it was like old home week for the two motorcycle enthusiasts. He found out that it was a 1915 Indian V Twin, which at the time had a revolutionary new engine design. During World War I, the military took delivery of about 50,000 Indians with modifications to accommodate the rough road conditions in Europe. Many of these bikes never made it back to the States, but this one did, and for Steve, it was a sight to behold. With the owner’s permission, Steve snapped a few pictures of the Indian. I’m sure he thought about making an offer to buy the motorcycle, but it was evident this gentleman was very fond of his ride. Steve respected that. Quest fulfilled, we hit the trail back home.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Steve McQueen: The Last Mile by Barbara McQueen and Marshall Terrill and published by Dalton Watson, 2012. Buy this book in our store: Steve McQueen: The Last Mile.