He’s known as being the King of Cool by fans for his successful acting career, but many don’t realize that McQueen was an avid motorcycle racer as well. McQueen loved motorcycles possibly more than any other Hollywood star – he rode them all over the world, raced them off-road, and even had a classic bike collection valued in the millions of dollars. Read on to learn more about Steve McQueen’s love affair with two-wheeled machines!
The “King of Cool” aboard one of hundreds of bikes he owned and raced in his lifetime.
Looking back at Steve McQueen’s life, the love affair between the “King of Cool” and the two-wheeled freedom machines seems to have been destiny for a man like McQueen.
Of course, he wasn’t always the “King of Cool,” as he became known well into his acting career. Terence Steven McQueen was a troubled youth, born into the worst possible circumstances; his father, a daredevil pilot for a traveling circus, left his young alcoholic mother while McQueen was still an infant; she left him in the care of his grandparents, who raised him on a farm in Indiana until he was a teen.
McQueen was rambunctious from the start, and developed a problem with authority early on. He ran away from home as a teenager and ended up reconnecting with his mother, who then lived in Los Angeles, and fell into a life of gang activity and petty crime. His career as a criminal was cut short, however, when he was caught stealing a set of hubcaps, which landed him at the infamous Boys Republic in Chino, CA.
He caused trouble there too, though he got beat up by his peers enough to start changing his attitude (he actually recalled his experience there as a positive one, and maintained a relationship with the Boys Republic well after becoming a superstar.) After getting out, he bounced around from job to job, briefly working as a “towel boy” in a brothel, a roughneck, a trinket peddler in a carnival, and even as a lumberjack.
But McQueen actually missed the structure he had in the Boys Republic, and ended up joining the Marine Corps. It may not have been what he was expecting, as McQueen had problems with authority there too – which the Corps, of course, does not tolerate. He was busted down to private multiple times, and even did a 40-day stretch in the brig after being caught running away from base for two weeks with a girlfriend!
But McQueen always seemed to have a miraculous way of redeeming himself, which he did during a training exercise with his armored unit in the Arctic Sea. He displayed great courage during the rescue of five fellow Marines just before their tank broke through the ice and sunk into the ocean. McQueen was recognized for his bravery, and the event turned his Marine Corps career around; incredibly, he ultimately ended up in the Honor Guard, once even guarding President Truman’s yacht!
McQueen in the U.S. Marine Corps, c. 1948.
McQueen’s service in the Marines paid off – in 1950, he got out and began taking acting classes on the G.I. Bill, gradually working his way up from small parts in local plays to supporting roles in TV and films. It was during this time as a struggling actor that his love affair with motorcycles began.
McQueen didn’t have much money, and needed a way to get around to auditions and parts, so he invested in his first motorcycle in the fall of 1951. It was no beauty queen – his ride was a beat up 1946 Indian Chief with a sidecar that he rode all over New York, his home at the time.
“It was my first bike and I loved it” said Steve to biographer William Nolan years later. “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 there. She went.”
McQueen didn’t just love his bike, he loved riding, and he became very passionate about it. As he built up his acting career throughout the 1950s, he continued to ride recreationally, but the real encounter that would change him from casual rider to motorcycle legend took place in 1959, when he met Los Angeles Triumph dealer and racer, Bud Ekins. The two struck up a friendship immediately, and it also began his relationship with Triumph.
At the time, Indian had gone bankrupt, Harley-Davidsons were high-performance but weren’t seeing much innovation, and Japanese brands were still in their infancy. If you wanted a high-performance motorcycle in those days, you went with a British bike. It just so happened that in 1959, Triumph had just beaten the world speed record, and introduced a hot new bike in honor of the where the record was set – the Bonneville. The T120, as it was also known, was virtually a street-legal race bike at the time, weighing a tick over 400 pounds and with a powerful 650cc twin-cylinder motor. McQueen snapped one up immediately.
But around the same time, he was also getting into dirt riding, something he had never done before. “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…just kick it over, drive up the side of a hill, and you’re free!” That freedom meant a lot to McQueen, and in some ways it had been something he had been searching for all his life.
While McQueen was most famous for his acting roles he was a very active and passionate motorcycle rider and racer; he once said “I’m not sure if I’m an actor who races, or a racer who acts.” Here he is shown aboard one of his Triumph TR6s, modified for desert racing.
McQueen took to dirt racing like a duck to water. At the time, proper “dirt bikes” didn’t even exist, and it fell upon riders to modify street bikes to perform on off-road terrain – which he did with a number of bikes, mainly Triumphs and BSAs. He became an accomplished off-road racer, mostly racing on desert circuits in the arid California deserts.
McQueen was consistently among the fastest riders on most courses, but oddly, he never accumulated enough points in a season to get his Expert license, because he couldn’t enter enough races due to his acting schedule. In addition, he had become so valuable a star in Hollywood that his contracts forbade him from racing.
But this is rebellious Steve McQueen we’re talking about here, and he got around that by creating a racing alias, “Harvey Mushman.” Off-road racing was a small, tight-knit community, and many racers remember McQueen not as a movie star, but as “Harvey,” an approachable racer who loved to talk motorcycles, but would smoke everyone in the Amateur classes, where had to stay because of his points standings, to the point that it was almost comical.
Racing motorcycles was a hobby for McQueen, but the public didn’t know him as a rider until his now legendary escape scene in the WWII film, “The Great Escape.” The daring motorcycle chase scene showcased McQueen’s aggressive riding, as he did nearly all his own stunts; in fact, McQueen was so much faster than even the professional stunt riders the movie hired, he even played one of the Nazi mounted troops chasing his own character!
He became most famous, however, for an incredible final jump over a tall row of barbed wire. But many didn’t realize that, while McQueen had the skills to pull it off, that stunt was actually done by Bud Ekins, as the movie’s producers absolutely would not let McQueen take such a big risk on set.
McQueen on the set of “The Great Escape” which showcased his riding skills and featured one of the most memorable motorcycle chases in cinema history.
Filming “The Great Escape” altered McQueen’s motorcycle-related future in another way as well. While Bud Ekins was employed on set, he also took time off from filming for a week to race in a grueling, widely-known multi-day enduro race held in East Germany, the International Six Day Trial. McQueen did not join him, but he must have felt left out, because the following year, in 1964, McQueen, along with Ekins and two other riders, joined the ISDT as the first-ever American team to compete.
While they were experts in desert racing, they were out of their element in damp, muddy Europe, and were plagued by injuries throughout the race. Nevertheless, the mere fact that McQueen competed in the race was an accomplishment, as the ISDT was considered one of the toughest races in the world, and it did a lot to cement the image of McQueen as a true motorcycle racer in the public eye.
McQueen famously once said “Racing is life. Everything before or after is just waiting.”
Images of McQueen during the grueling ISDT race in East Germany. Him and his team were out of their elements and plagued by bike trouble and injuries during the race, but merely competing in it identified him as an expert-level off-road rider internationally.
After returning to the west coast, McQueen continued to race on major circuits throughout the 1960s, such as the Baja 1000, Mint 400, and Elsinore Grand Prix. About the desert racing McQueen loved so much, he said “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 a desert on a set of wheels. You’re really alive out there.”
McQueen became well known as a notable member of the motorcycle racing community, and made major contributions to the sport, including holding a patent on his own motorcycle racing seat design, writing motorcycle review articles for Popular Science magazine, funding an off-road racing team, and most notably, producing what is still considered to be the best motorcycle riding documentary ever made, On Any Sunday.
Steve McQueen famously penned this review article for Popular Science magazine after flogging 6 motorcycles in the desert. The article called him “one of the world’s most skilled motorcycle riders.” They probably weren’t wrong.
Steve McQueen appeared in this now-famous Sports Illustrated cover, aboard a Husqvarna dirt bike.
McQueen died at the young age of 50 from cardiac arrest in Mexico in 1980, and left behind a collection of over 100 vintage and collectors motorcycles valued in the millions of dollars – bikes that still command massive sums when they are sold today.
“The King of Cool” is remembered as a great actor, car racer, globe-trotter, and notorious playboy – but what McQueen did most for motorcycling specifically was to help change its image among the general public. He was a vocal critic of the image movies like “The Wild One” portrayed, showing motorcycle riders as being outlaws and thugs; McQueen’s passion for the sport, incredible skill as a rider, and general coolness helped transform riding into something for “cool guys” instead “bad boys.” His reputation as a passionate rider far outlived him; he was inducted posthumously into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.
To this day, he is remembered more by motorcycle riders for what he did for the sport than for anything he did in Hollywood. And if you look carefully, you can probably see what many people say – that of all the photos taken of McQueen in his life, he always looked happiest when on the back of a bike.
Of all the photos taken of Steve McQueen, he always seems to be happiest in the ones taken when he’s on the back of one of his beloved motorcycles.