By any account one of the most famous motorheads of the 20th century was Steve McQueen. Even thirty years after his death, Steve McQueen continues to appear in advertising and pop culture and his fan base spans from car lovers to racing enthusiasts to motorcycle obsessives. Today, McQueen still has the Midas touch; anything that was in the man’s possession is a hot commodity. The new Motorbooks publication McQueen’s Motorcycles reveals these highly sought-after machines in gorgeous photography and full historical context. Following is an inside look at three of McQueen bikes from the book.
It could be today or 1972—it’s a little hard to tell, as this wonderful Husky still bears many battle scars, though it’s absolutely fresh mechanically. We can say for certain that it’s landed hard on its exhaust system at least a couple of times.
The eBay Husqvarna
At the other end of the scale, Husqvarna collector, restorer, and all-around guru Rob Phillips was trolling eBay for bikes and parts, and stumbled upon a Husky 400 for sale. He bought the bike. Cheap. Steve McQueen had owned many of exactly the same model, colors, and era of the bike but . . . could it be?
Phillips found his way to Don Ince, another vintage bike guru, who had considerable records from the company that imported Husqvarnas into North America at the time. A quick search for the frame number, and jackpot! The bike was originally invoiced to McQueen’s Solar Productions Company. Ince and Phillips took possession of the long-parked machine and took stock.
The bike was complete, but it hadn’t run in decades. It was tired and dusty, but honest. The pair smartly deduced that a “sympathetic,” primarily mechanical, recommissioning was in order, rather than expose the bike to the chemical stripping and sandblasting that would remove all of its original finishes, battle scars, and history. They took the bike down to the last nut and washer, cleaning carefully so as not to damage any of the original plating, paint, or coatings. All of the serviceable parts were swapped for new, such as bearings and gaskets, all rubber, tires and fluids. The idea was to make the bike as mechanically new as feasible without grinding away any of its stories. They wanted it to run and ride like a new machine from the early 1970s, while retaining everything original that Steve McQueen might have touched. The gas tank had a few dings in it, and there were scars on the engine case. The black expansion-chamber exhaust system was clearly a period piece. In short, it was honest, real, and just beautiful.
FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: Phillips and Ince could have restored this exhaust system to concours condition, but to do so would have wiped away the evidence of where it went down, certainly with McQueen aboard. The number plates are fresh, as are the tires, but every other original finish and component was preserved when and where possible. Author photo Fortunately, Huskys are easy to identify, as their serial number is stamped on a plate firmly welded into place on the frame near the neck of the bike. This number checked out with importer paperwork, confirming its sale to McQueen’s Solar Productions. Author photo This honest patina just can’t be faked. The paint is dull, the dents are real, and the lettering is appropriately chipped up. One of Steve McQueen’s favorite off-road racing tools. Author photo
After restoration, the bike went on display at the San Diego Automotive Museum, near Ince’s home. He and Phillips invited me down to meet them and the eBay Husky. It was with some trepidation and a certain humility that I swung my leg over the saddle where Steve sat, while Ince explained the pedals and shift pattern. I kicked the starter one time, and the big Husky barked to life with that wonderful two-cycle RRRRRrrrrrrrrrrr-ing-inging- ing sound, as a machine gun–like staccato of engine pulses fired from that exhaust pipe.
As the engine warmed a bit, I called Chad McQueen to tell him where I was and to identify the engine I was revving in his ear. Then it was time for a few laps around the lot. Unlike Steve McQueen, who would have done a few ceremonial laps on the rear wheel only, I elected to keep the revs and the front wheel down.
I can’t describe the thrill. I’d not ridden a serious off-road bike in some years, and I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Plus, I had no desire to crash the freshly reminted McQueen machine, so it was a couple of easy first- and second-gear laps around the parking lot. The engine felt torque rich at relatively low rpm, yet of course was just as happy to rev. As my blood pressure and pulse neared redline, I pulled in and parked the bike. Given today’s enlightened movement toward preserving historic original cars and motorcycles (when possible), rather than blasting them down to bare metal and restoring them to Fabergé egg perfection, Phillps and Ince’s decision not to enforce a full “restoration” was brilliant.
All of which goes to prove that time spent on eBay can be worth every minute.
This bike was designed and built in consultation with Chad McQueen, Dave Green, and off-roading legend Dave Ekins, who spent more than a few Sundays bashing around the Southern California deserts while Steve was aboard his original Rickman Metisse. Metisse Motorcycles
Rickman Metisse Triumph Desert Racer
McQueen really enjoyed his custom-built Rickmanchassis, Triumph-powered desert scrambler. The company began producing complete motorcycles in 1960, closing down in the mid-1970s when the Rickman brothers sold the company. By the time they walked away from the business, they were producing only accessories and frames, not complete turnkey bikes. The company and brand were ultimately acquired by Geri Lisi, with the intent of returning Metisse to prominence in motorcycle manufacturing.
Among other projects under development, Lisi connected with the McQueen family. The idea was to produce an authentic Steve McQueen tribute desert scrambler, replicating as closely as possible Steve’s original mid-1960s favorite. This effort came to fruition in 2005, dubbed the Metisse Steve McQueen Desert Racer.
The new, limited edition Metisse Steve McQueen Desert Racer is a cracking, only somewhat modernized tribute to the original. The pieces, trim, and finishes are just about exact, with the glass-reinforced plastic body panels appropriately painted in Steve McQueen’s favorite shade of Slate Gray, technically a Porsche color, but perfect on this new-old edition of his favorite four-stroke. Metisse Motorcycles
Metisse Motorcycles principle Geri Lisi, in the middle, flanked by Don and Derek Rickman, who appear to be happy with the Rickman-style frame of the new Desert Racer. Metisse Motorcycles
Even though Metisse has since developed its own bespoke powertrains for other models, nothing but a proper Triumph 650 twin would do for anything with McQueen’s name on it. Everything other than the engine on this reimagined McQueen Metisse is built with new components. The frame is a new build, the bodywork of freshly minted GRP panels, as is the fuel tank. The forks are Ceriani, as on the original. Oval number plates are integral to the new body panels. Of course, the bike is missing head- and taillights. The tank and bodywork are finished in Slate Gray, Steve McQueen’s signature color for many of his cars and some bikes. The engine is a genuine Triumph TR 649cc twin, fully remanufactured to original specs, and hand finished for an immaculate, retro look. The engine, breathing through a single (new) Amal carburetor, is rated at 47 horsepower. The exhaust system is a polished straight-through setup that runs high along the bike’s flanks, contoured in to avoid direct contact with the rider’s legs. Given the engine’s hand-finished and -assembled nature—as well as its exhalation through straight dual pipes—we estimate that its real horsepower output is well up into the fifties.
Naturally, this machine is built for off-road use only and is not street legal. Only three hundred will be produced, in England. Chad McQueen has one; as much as possible, it’s “just like Dad’s.” Cost? Around $20,000.
This wonderful photo must have been snapped in between takes, as you’ll note Steve wearing modern sunglasses and puffing his ever-present heater. This angle gives a particularly good look at the efforts to disguise a 1960s-era Triumph into a World War II–period military machine: the headlight is closed off into little more than a slit, all the Triumph badges have been removed, and a considerable amount of the chrome has been blacked out. Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Triumph TT Special 650; The Great Escape
Fortunately, Ekins was about the same height and build as McQueen, perhaps an inch or two taller, but also blondish and physically close enough to double McQueen. It was the first of many movie partnerships with McQueen and Ekins.
In the film, the audience gets a hint that there might be motorcycle madness before the end credits roll: when he talks with another soldier while the two are in solitary confinement, Hilts says he’s “done some racing.” His cellblock mate asks, “Horse racing?” Hilts replies, “Motorcycles. Flat tracks. County fairs. Picked up a buck here and there. Helped pay my tuition.”
The majority of the bike play takes place late in the movie. Hilts has already cleared the prison camp fences on foot, heading for the freedom of Switzerland. He figures the quickest way there is on two wheels, so he strings some wire across a road, bringing down a hapless German soldier with quite a tumble. Hilts steals the bike, the rider’s uniform, and his weapon. The escapee is soon discovered at a border security station, and the chase is on.
The most famous motorcycle jump shot ever? Probably, especially for McQueen fans. Steve had the slightest doubt that he was up to this dangerous stunt, and certainly there was consternation on the part of the director and producer in the event McQueen got hurt in the process. In the end, Bud Ekins made the jump. Had The Great Escape been filmed a few years later, there’s no question McQueen would have ridden the shot himself. In this perfectly timed still shot, you can see the nominal physical differences between Steve and Bud. But flying through the air, with his blonde hair whipping in the breeze, it was close enough. Remember, it was all done live, in real time, with no computerized funny stuff—all in a single, perfect take. United Artists/Getty Images
McQueen, as Hilts, after he’s killed the German officer and copped his bike and uniform, is the picture of concentration as he warms up for The Great Escape’s big chase (and jump) scene; McQueen loved to wheelie, and there are countless photos of him up on the rear wheel only. ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Escape’s most memorable scene is captured in this 2006 Petersen Automotive Museum exhibit, with a color movie still of Ekins riding the jump and a cleverly built “tribute” machine constructed by McQueen enthusiast and Johnson Motors principle Sean Kelly, honoring the camouflaged Triumph’s role in this award-winning film. Unfortunately, the actual bike that Ekins jumped that day was sold to a stuntman on set, and its whereabouts are unknown and likely lost to the ages. Certainly a holy grail of motorcycling, should it ever surface.
“Steve did a helluva lot of that riding himself,” said Ekins.
“I really didn’t do much of it. Anything where he may get hurt, that’s what I did. But all the other stuff, when you see him riding by, he did all that himself, and was enjoying it very much. There’s a chase sequence in there where the German stunt riders were after him, and he was so much a better rider than they were, that he just ran away from them. And you weren’t going to slow him down. So, they put a German uniform on him, and he chased himself! I rode as a German soldier too, but he chased himself several times in the movie.”
There was one scene which McQueen didn’t ride, the one for which The Great Escape is best known. Hemmed in on all sides by several German soldiers on motorcycles, barbed-wire fencing, and obstacles, Hilts knows there’s only one way out—one that the others wouldn’t dare follow. By now, he has shed the German uniform and is wearing just khakis, a T-shirt, and no helmet. He surveys the fence, grits his teeth, and guns the faux-BMW toward the fence. Bike and rider drop down into a dip, climb the grassy bank at great speed, and sail over the fence to a perfect landing on the other side.
There was no computer animation in those days, and the only way to make the sixty-foot jump look right was to do it in real time at full speed. Recall that McQueen had only just begun riding offroad bikes and wasn’t quite up to the task. Having tried a few times, he couldn’t get it right, so Ekins got the nod for the stunt. “I always felt a little guilty about that,” McQueen said a decade later. “A lot of people thought it was me making that jump, but I’ve never tried to hide the truth about it. I could handle the jump now, I’m sure. Back in ’62, I just didn’t quite have the savvy.”
McQueen was also slightly sheepish about having to appear on television talk shows or do interviews about the film and admit that someone else actually rode the big jump scene, although he was always clear and honest about it, never attempting to take any credit for the work that Ekins did. Another factor is certainly that the producers and their insurance carriers were leery of their million-dollar star risking life and limb on such a big stunt. If McQueen had been hurt or killed, the movie would be toast. Despite the fact that the image of McQueen flying through the air over a barbed-wire fence is one of his most identifiable film moments, it was Bud Ekins aboard that flying Triumph.
The shot took a lot of measuring, estimating, and practice beforehand. The stunt crew kept massaging the contours of the hill that would be Ekins’s launching pad, and the barbed wire was replaced with string (with “barbs” in the form of rubber bands tied to the string), to minimize risk to the rider should something go wrong. Fortunately, nothing did. Ekins nailed the iconic stunt on the first take, standing up on the pegs with his head held high and eyes forward. Movie history made.
What of that now legendary motorcycle? “I sold it to a stuntman,” recalled Ekins. Last time they had contact, the buyer said he didn’t own the bike anymore. “He didn’t know what he had. I didn’t tell him it was the bike from The Great Escape.” Movie history lost.
The Great Escape was the first film that showed the world—in a big way—that Steve McQueen loved bikes, and that he was a spectacular rider. Escape was also a box office smash, vaulting him from the level of “rising star” to “major star.”
The motorhead actor had arrived.
The long-departed Steve McQueen is still the coolest man on two wheels.
Even thirty years after his death, Steve McQueen remains a cultural icon. His image continues to appear in advertising and pop culture and his fan base spans from car lovers to racing enthusiasts to motorcycle obsessives.
In his movies, McQueen’s character always had an envy-inducing motorcycle or car, but in his personal life, motorcycles were always McQueen’s first true love. McQueen’s Motorcycles focuses on the bikes that the King of Cool raced and collected.
From the first Harley McQueen bought when he was an acting student in New York to the Triumph “desert sleds” and Huskys he desert raced all over California, Mexico, and Nevada, McQueen was never without a stable of two wheelers.
His need for speed propelled him from Hollywood into a number of top off-road motorcycle races, including the Baja 1000, Mint 400, Elsinore Grand Prix, and even as a member of the 1964 ISDT team in Europe. Determined to be ahead of the pack, McQueen maintained his body like it was a machine itself. He trained vigorously, weight lifting, running, and studying martial arts.
Later in his life, as he backed away from Hollywood, his interests turned to antique bikes and he accumulated an extensive collection, including Harley-Davidson, Indian, Triumph, Brough Superior, Cyclone, BSA, and Ace motorcycles.
Today, McQueen still has the Midas touch; anything that was in the man’s possession is a hot commodity. McQueen’s classic motorcycles sell for top dollar at auctions, always at a multiple of what the same bike is worth without the McQueen pedigree. McQueen’s Motorcycles reveals these highly sought-after machines in gorgeous photography and full historical context.