Dave Ekins was a pioneering off-road racer who came to prominence in the 1950s. He helped usher in the era of lightweight, smaller-displacement off-road motorcycles by winning overall and class titles in many of the most prestigious West Coast off-road races aboard motorcycles as small as 100ccs in displacement. Ekins was one of the first to race with backing from American Honda and later assisted Harley-Davidson in designing its Baja racers of the late 1960s. Ekins was part of the first American Vase team that competed in the International Six Days Trials in 1964. In all, Ekins took part in five ISDT/Es and earned two golds and a bronze in the prestigious Olympic-like off-road motorcycle competition.
Ekins was born in Los Angeles in 1932. He and his brother, Bud, also a Motorcycle Hall of Fame member, were into motors from an early age. The Ekins boys grew up in a family of modest means, but one weekend after their father had a particularly lucky weekend of gambling in Las Vegas, Dave was given a Whizzer motorized bicycle and Bud a 1929 Ford roadster. By the time he was 16, Dave got a job working on Whizzers at a local bicycle shop.
For a time, motorcycles took a back seat to cars for Ekins.
"It was easier to date girls in a car," Ekins explained.
But it wasn’t long before Dave followed his big brother back into motorcycling. He honed his skills riding in the hills above Los Angeles.
"We used to ride on Mulholland Drive and take offshoots all the way to the coast in those days," Ekins said. In 1951, he rode his brother’s bike in the popular Big Bear Run and his racing career was off and running. Ekins earned his first factory-backed ride in 1953 with NSU and rode a 100cc NSU to victory in the 125cc class of the Catalina Grand Prix. The NSU ride was the first of many factory efforts Ekins was associated with. He later rode for Velocette, Zundapp, Honda, Harley-Davidson and Bultaco.
Ekins’ breakthrough ride came in 1954 when he rode a 250cc NSU to victory in the 350cc class of the legendary Catalina Grand Prix. He began to step out of the shadows of his very popular brother and establish himself as one of the leading off-road racers on the West Coast.
When Honda came to the United States in the late 1950s, Ekins was one of the first riders asked to race the new Japanese import. One particularly humorous story from Honda’s early days in America was the time Ekins and Andy Kolbe picked up American Honda’s General Manager Kihachiro Kawashima at the Pico Street store and the three of them rode in the front seat of Andy’s ‘38 Chevy pickup truck to the Big Bear Run in 1960.
Ekins, not wanting to get run over in the inevitable melee of the mass start, waited patiently a minute or so at the starting line after the green flag dropped. He looked over and Kawashima was frantically waving his arms urging Ekins to take off. Ekins, riding a Kolbe-modified Honda CB92R 125cc machine, waited for the dust to clear and calmly proceeded to start the race. He managed to pick his way through the large field of competitors to win the 125cc class, finishing a respectable 46th overall.
Ekins continued to help bolster Honda’s reputation in racing circles when, in 1962, he and Bill Robertson set the Tijuana-to-La Paz, Mexico record riding a Honda CL72 Scrambler. He rode 1,000 rugged miles in less than 40 hours. Tijuana to La Paz was a predecessor to popular long-distance off-road events such as the Baja 1000 and Paris to Dakar.
Ekins, along with his brother, Bud, Steve McQueen and Cliff Coleman, were the riders for the 1964 Silver Vase team that represented America in the ISDT in East Germany. According to Ekins, McQueen managed to get Paramount Studios to pay for the trip by hiring his racing teammates as bodyguards accompanying Steve to the European premier of his new movie, "Love with the Proper Stranger."
Ekins went on to earn a second ISDT gold in Sweden in 1966 riding a Zundapp. He earned a Bronze in West Germany in 1969 despite a broken axle. Ekins rode five ISDTs in total.
In 1967, Ekins won the rugged Greenhorn Enduro on a 100cc Zundapp. That victory was one of most improbable wins in the history of off-road motorcycling. The course was so tough that year, Ekins had to carry his bike through many of the sections. Winning the Greenhorn on the diminutive Zundapp really began to make other riders sit up and pay attention to the smaller displacement bikes. Within a few years, a revolution had taken place — small displacement two-stroke Japanese and European machines dominated off-road races, not only on the West Coast, but also across the country.
Cycle Magazine editor Gordon Jennings brought Ekins on board as West Coast editor in 1967. That would be the start of a 10-year stint as motorcycle magazine editor. Ekins worked at Modern Cycle, launching Dirt Rider, one of the first off-road motorcycle magazines, and later served a five-year stint at Motorcyclist magazine.
In the 1970s, Ekins developed the first Velcro-fastening kidney belt and he sold it under the name Gold Belt. Later, he launched Sunline, a company that makes aftermarket parts for off-road motorcycling, inventing the half-waffle grip and shorty levers known as DeHandlers.
When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001, Ekins and his wife still lived in the foothills of the mountains where he learned to ride. His daughter runs the business he founded. Ekins remained active in the sport and enriched the knowledge of a younger generation of riders by writing magazine features on the history of off-road motorcycling.