He crashed (a lot) but what happened to the machines he used?
vel Knievel was one of the biggest stars in the world in the 1970s and arguably the most famous motorcyclist of all time. His death-defying leaps at Caesar’s Palace, the Snake River Canyon and Wembley Stadium have become the stuff of legend, but what happened to all his stars-and-stripes bikes? Best known for jumping Harley-Davidson XR750s, Knievel also jumped Nortons, Hondas, Triumphs and American Eagles, so where are they all? Crashed into oblivion or nestling in private collections?
Born: October 17, 1938, Montana
Died: November 30, 2007, Florida
Famous for: Jumping buses, rivers and massive fountains
Bikes jumped: Harleys, Triumphs, Nortons, American Eagles
Number of successful canyon jumps: None
Knievel – a Harley man, right?
He was during the peak of his career from 1970 to 1977 but he also jumped various other makes. He used a 350cc Honda for his first jump over two mountain lions and a box of rattlesnakes in 1965 before switching to a Norton then a 650cc Triumph T120 Bonneville for the jump that made him famous - over the fountains outside Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1967.
So what happened to that bike?
The Bonneville was borrowed from a Triumph dealer in Burbank California then returned – very much the worse for wear – after Knievel wiped out on landing and trashed the bike. What was left of it was converted into a chopper but has since disappeared from record.
What was his most famous jump?
Undoubtedly his attempt to leap over the mile-wide Snake River Canyon in Idaho on a custom-built X2 Sky Cycle. This steam-powered contraption bore no resemblance to a motorcycle and was badly crushed when Knievel face-planted into the canyon wall. It’s now owned by Knievel’s son Kelly and is exhibited with some regularity.
Did anything survive of the XR750 he jumped (and crashed) over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium?
Bryan Richards who runs the Evel Knievel Wembley Facebook page explains: ‘There were three Wembley bikes, all painted by George Sedlak. Two were used for jumping (with different gearing) and one was a wheelie bike that had a different seat so the stripes ran across the seat for grip, as opposed to front-to-back for sliding along to balance the bike in the air. While various painted fuel tanks and seat units survive, no complete Wembley bike exists just yet, but word on the street is that may soon change. The one he actually jumped was badly damaged when he crashed.’
Didn’t he attempt to leap over a pool filled with sharks?
Yes, in 1977. It was to be his last major jump but Knievel slipped during a practice run and wiped out again. The bike (an XR750 again) was not too badly damaged in the crash and is now owned by Kelly Knievel. It still bears the scars and dents from the accident. The engine in this bike was the one used by Knievel to jump 14 Greyhound buses two years previously.
Doesn’t the Smithsonian Museum in Washington have a Knievel bike?
Partly. While the museum claims to have the 1972 XR750 used by Evel to leap 140 feet (his longest successful jump) over 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island in 1975, what it actually has is somewhat of a mix-and-match machine. For example, the original engine from this bike is in the ‘shark crash’ bike owned by Kelly Knievel. Evel was constantly changing tanks, tails, motors and handlebars due to crashes, servicing and paintjobs so, just like race bikes, his machines were constantly changing.
Are many bikes in private hands?
No. All the serial numbers are accounted for. Evel had five XR750s – two Ironheads and three alloy XRs. Reproductions appear on occasion with owners claiming they’re the real deal but they’re knock-off display bikes.
Who’s this Lathan McKay guy? Doesn’t he own a lot of Evel bikes?
Lathan McKay, president of Evel Knievel Enterprises, is an American film producer, former professional skateboarder, and Knievel aficionado who has hunted down and restored many Knievel bikes and thousands of artefacts.
Where can I see Knievel’s bikes?
Evel Knievel Enterprises will soon be opening ‘The Evel Knievel Thrill Show Museum’ in Topeka, Kansas, with the co-operation of Kelly Knievel, Bryan Richards, and the team at Historic Harley-Davidson.
Words: Stuart Barker Photos: Rex Features