Steve McQueen was one of the leading movie actors of the 1960s and ‘70s, but he was also an avid motorcyclist and supporter of the sport. Among McQueen’s many contributions to motorcycling include financing the influential motorcycle movie, "On Any Sunday," in which he rode with buddies Malcolm Smith and Mert Lawwill. McQueen also supported a team of off-road riders that included himself and Bud and Dave Ekins, who competed in the 1964 International Six Day Trial in Germany. McQueen’s unabashed enthusiasm for motorcycling did wonders for the image of the sport during a time when the general public often looked at motorcyclists with disdain.
McQueen was born in the Indianapolis suburb of Beech Grove, Indiana, on March 24, 1930. He had a troubled youth and for a time was raised by a great uncle on a farm in Missouri. When he was 12, he moved to Los Angeles with his mother. There, he became involved in gangs and ended up in reform school. Later in life he credited the California Junior Boys Republic for helping him get on the right track. After becoming a successful movie star, McQueen made generous donations to the institution.
McQueen joined the Marines and early on spent a good amount of time in the brig for various offenses. He later redeemed himself by diving in and helping rescue five servicemen who had fallen into the frigid Arctic Sea after their ship hit a sand bar. McQueen was promoted to honor guard and was honorably discharged in 1950.
After his stint in the service, McQueen drifted around the country supporting himself with menial jobs. It was during this time that he took up motorcycling. His first motorcycle was a 1946 Indian Chief. In a 1971 interview in Sports Illustrated, McQueen recalls that he was smitten by motorcycling from the start.
"I was so proud of that Indian that I rode it over to see a girl I was dating," he recalled. "She said, 'You don’t expect me to ride around with you on that, do you?' I surely did. The girl went and the bike stayed."
By the mid-1950s McQueen’s acting career began to take off and a decade later he had become the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. He was famous for portraying gritty characters in popular movies such as "The Magnificent Seven," "Hell is for Heroes," "Bullitt" and others. Despite his success as an actor, McQueen didn’t shy away from motorcycling. Instead, he became even more active. In the late 1950s, McQueen and a group of friends took a risky motorcycle trip across revolutionary Cuba.
"Batista and Castro were shooting it out across the countryside. There were uniforms everywhere, but we had a great adventure, which is one of the things that make motorcycling so great because it never fails to give you a feeling of freedom and adventure," he said.
In the early 1960s, he and another actor, Dennis Hopper, were riding their street bikes around Hollywood when they came across some off-road cyclists riding in the hills. They pulled over to watch and McQueen was awestruck by the skill of the riders motoring up incredibly steep hills. The very next day, he purchased a Triumph 500cc off-road bike from Bud Ekins. Ekins helped McQueen learn the ropes, and before long McQueen began competing in off-road events around Southern California. Later, his contracts with movie studios prohibited him from racing motorcycles. He got around that technicality by racing under the pseudonym of Harvey Mushman.
McQueen raced in many of the top off-road races on the West Coast during the ‘60s and early-1970s, including the Baja 1000, the Mint 400 and the Elsinore Grand Prix. According to Bud Ekins, McQueen became quite a respectable racer.
"He never could race enough, because of his movie commitments, to earn enough points for his expert license," Ekins explained. "He always raced as an amateur, but that was crazy since he usually finished ahead of the other amateurs and most of the experts."
McQueen and Ekins dreamed up perhaps the most famous motorcycle jump ever filmed when shooting the movie "The Great Escape" in Germany. He called good friend Ekins over to be his stunt double to shoot the climactic motorcycle jump in which McQueen’s character was trying to escape German soldiers by motorcycle during World War II.
While shooting that movie, McQueen and Ekins took a break to watch the International Six Days Trial in Germany. The two would return two years later, along with Dave Ekins, to compete in the ISDT.
McQueen became so closely associated with motorcycling that Popular Science had him write a series of motorcycle reviews for that magazine in the mid-1960s.
In the early 1970s, movie producer Bruce Brown approached McQueen about helping him finance a documentary movie on motorcycling. McQueen, fully knowing that he would probably never profit from this type of film, nevertheless agreed to back Brown. The movie he financed turned out to be the classic, "On Any Sunday," not only the best motorcycle movie of its time, but also a commercial success.
In 1971, a shirtless McQueen was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated jumping a Husqvarna off-road bike. Inside that issue was an extensive interview with McQueen on his love for the sport.
McQueen also became interested in collecting classic motorcycles. By the late-1970s, his collection included well over 100 machines and was valued in the millions of dollars.
McQueen died from lung cancer on November 7, 1980. He was just 50 years old. His contribution to motorcycling helped the sport overcome its outlaw image and helped set the stage for the popularity of the sport during the 1990s.