'Either the bike goes or I go she said. Well, there was no contest. She went' – Steve McQueen
With a new biopic in the works – with Ryan Gosling whispered as a possible McQueen – the king of cool is set for a big 2015/16. But the bikes tell the real story.
1946 Indian Chief
It was in the autumn of 1951 that McQueen saved enough to buy a battered bike with a sidecar, which he proudly tooled around New York’s Greenwich Village. ‘It was my first bike and I loved it’ admitted Steve. ‘But I was going with a girl who began to hate riding in the bumpy sidecar. She told me, “Either the cycle goes or I go!” Well, there was no contest. She went.’
BSA A10 650
In 1956 McQueen was a stage actor in New York, when he took his BSA on a bike holiday to Cuba. “I got busted for selling contraband – a pack of American cigarettes – and was tossed in the local cooler” he said. Too broke to pay the $100 fine he ended up having to sell his helmet to get out of jail and pawn several of his personal belongings, bit by bit, to get back to his New York apartment.
BSA A10 Road Rocket
In 1957 Hillard Elkins, Hollywood agent of McQueen’s first wife, lent jobless Steve – new in town – his motorcycle. Some weeks later Elkins asked, “Where’s my bike?” McQueen sheepishly replied that he’d jumped it and broken the BSA in two. Elkins figured if he were ever to get his money back, he’d have to find employment for the irresponsible son-of-a-bitch – and McQueen’s movie career was born.
1959 Triumph T120 Bonneville
Triumph dealer Bud Ekins sold a T120 to an actor friend of Steve’s, Normal Powell, whose wife promptly told him: ‘Get rid of it’. Ekins remembers: “Norm said he’d sold the bike to Steve and wondered if the warranty was still good. I said sure, no problem, and then Steve proceeded to hang around and be a pain in the ass for the next 25 years.”
1963 Triumph TR6 Desert Sled
McQueen tried desert riding after seeing some dirt riders on some open cliffs in west LA. ‘The sense of being out there on your own was tremendous. Just kick it over, drive up the side of a hill and you’re free’ he said. Soon he’d had Bud Ekins make him up a modified TR6 with high bars and knobbly tires. He defined himself as a desert rider and racer ever after.
1963 Triumph TR6 650 Trophy
The bike McQueen’s character uses to jump the wire in The Great Escape was very similar to his own regular ride, but dressed up to resemble the WW2 BMWs that weren’t strong enough to jump. “We had two stock TR6s with standard shocks and just a lighter front wheel” remembers Ekins, who actually performed the famous leap. The pair often took the bikes out for joyrides after shooting.
1964 Triumph TR6SC
By 1964 McQueen was a competitive off-road racer, and entered the International Six Day Trial in East Germany as part of the first ever American team. The ISDT that year was gruelling, with constant rain, unfamiliar terrain and world-class competition. Yet McQueen’s team were tied for the lead at the end of the second day, before co-rider Bud Ekins broke his leg.
1971 Husqvarna 400CR
McQueen loved Triumphs but loved winning more, and by ’71 the large, heavy four-strokes were outdated, so he swapped for this potent two-stroke 400 Husky. Its air-cooled single-cylinder engine produced explosive power and it was dramatically faster than the Triumphs. McQueen also owned a trick titanium-framed Husky but managed to snap the bars after a jump.
1941 Indian Chief
By the mid-seventies McQueen’s collecting of old Indians had become so intense he hired retired ex-Indian mechanic Sammy Pierce to work restoring them full-time. For fun, he wanted Pierce to paint this Indian Chief pink. “I don't care if you're my employer or not, Steve,” Sammy told him. “I am not painting an Indian bike pink.” They compromised on white.
Indian rat bike
McQueen had a 130-strong bike collection by the end of the seventies, but his favourite and most-used roadbike was a pale white non-descript “Rat Bike” according to widow Barbara Minty-McQueen. The bike had a chopper front end but used a 1948 Indian engine. “That bike was like Steve… it didn’t purr but roared,” Minty-McQueen said. “He rode it everywhere.” Steve died of cancer in 1980.
Stories from McQueen’s Machines by Matt Stone, pb MBI and available from Grantham Book Services (01476 541080), except ‘1941 Indian Chief’, ‘Indian rat bike’, ‘BSA A10’ and ‘BSA A10 Golden Flash’ from Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool by Marshall Terrill, pb Dalton Watson Fine Books.