Sunday, March 14, 2010

Steve McQueen

I was washing the car the other day and my next door neighbor, the former fighter pilot, came over to reminisce about the muscle cars he's owned over the years. The topic brought to mind a fast bike I once owned. Not a racing bicycle, tho I've owned some, but the Triumph Bonneville I had through most of my college years.

I'd bought it from the boyfriend of my cousin Jo, my older and urbanely slender cousin Jo who was overfond of martinis. He'd bought it new and found it inconvenient to keep it in Manhattan. I myself had no storage problems.

I thought about the bike today on seeing this photo in a favorite microblog.

It shows Steve McQueen on the set of The Great Escape. He's not riding a Bonneville but a similar model, the TR6 Trophy. (I don't think anyone minded that the Trophy didn't look much like the German bikes of the '30s and '40s.)

This Bonneville is just like the one I tore around on.

McQueen was a bike racer, bike builder, and collector of old bikes. In a photo essay which Popular Science did on him in 1966 he said the Bonneville was production bike of its time for high speed and manoeuverability. In 1962 a Bonneville set a land speed record of 224.57mph. This photo, from that shoot, shows him on the one he owned.

This shot shows him on a bike he'd hybridized himself. It's a Rickman-Metisse with a BSA fork-crown, Ceriani forks, and many customizations.

The article gives a helpful table comparing the bikes in the test.

Here are some stills from the movie.

One of the movie's most memorable scenes shows this trick. For insurance reasons the film studio forbid McQueen to do it himself. Instead it was performed by his friend the stuntman Bud Ekins.

The wikipedia article on McQueen says "According to the commentary track on The Great Escape DVD, it was difficult to find riders as skilled as McQueen. At one point, due to clever editing, McQueen is seen in a German uniform chasing himself on another bike."

{These shots come from IMDB}

McQueen's biography makes interesting reading. He got himself into and out of trouble while struggling to grow up under trying circumstances. As a kid he was a thief and gang member who took punishment again and again for his major aversion to following anyone's rules. Bounced from household to household by his turbulent and troubled family, he survived stints in reform school, the merchant marine, and the US Marine Corps, ending up a bonafide and decorated hero for saving the lives of other Marines by pulling them from a tank that was sinking into the Arctic Ocean. Pretty much fearless and highly skilled in racing cars and motorcycles, he subsequently supported himself partly by competing in weekend motorcycle races and was able to buy his first motorcycle with his winnings.

This wikipedia photo is a mugshot taken following a DWI arrest in Anchorage, Alaska, 1972.

For more on Bonnevilles, see:

Significant Motorcycles in Triumph History

Triumph Bonneville by Soren Winslow

Triumph Bonneville wikipedia article

{Note: I've reproduced photos on this page under fair use provisions of US copyright law. Let me know if you'd like me to remove any shots that belong to you.}

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