Steve McQueen is the man largely responsible for creating the motorcycle lifestyle as it is now known. Before him, motorcycling was typically thought of as an outlaws-only type deal and was generally frowned upon. After him, it was the pinnacle of cool.
McQueen was born in Indiana in 1930, and had a troubled youth. He was mostly raised on his great uncle’s farm in Missouri before he moved to Los Angeles with his mother when he was 12. He became involved with gangs and spent time at the California Junior Boys Republic reform school, which he later in life credited for helping him get back on a straighter path.
McQueen joined the Marines and spent significant time in the brig for numerous offenses, but was promoted to Honor Guard after he helped rescue five fellow shipmates who went overboard into the Arctic Sea after hitting a sandbar. He was honorably discharged in 1950, and then spent several years drifting around the country on a motorcycle. During these years he also took up acting, and his tough-but-good-at-heart personality made him one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood over the next decade.
In the early 60s, he was out riding the streets of Hollywood when he saw some off-road bikers ripping up the hills around the area. He was so impressed by their skill and how much fun it looked like they were having that he went and bought a Triumph 500 cc bike the next day from Bud Ekins’ shop in Hollywood.
I like being out there in the desert on a set of wheels. You’re really alive out there.
Bud Ekins, who ended up being a lifelong friend, was by then an internationally accomplished off-road racer, and taught McQueen his off-road skills. Soon thereafter, McQueen started competing in off-road races with desert sleds and scramblers that he and Ekins built together, and launched his racing career. Over his life, McQueen was known to be a highly respected racer, but was never able to get his Expert license because his career as an actor took up so much of his time even though he did better than many Expert-ranked racers.
It’s definite. You beat a guy and you’re better than he is; he beats you, he’s a better man than you are.
In 1962, McQueen was in Germany shooting for The Great Escape, and he invited Ekins out to be his stunt double for the film. Ekins had never been a stunt double, but went anyway. Together, they conceived the most iconic motorcycle stunt in film history: the impossible jump which McQueen’s character makes over a fence when trying to escape from a German WWII POW camp, on a Triumph motorcycle. Ekins performed this miraculous stunt with ease, and thus launched his career as a stuntman, often doing work for McQueen throughout both of their careers.
Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.
Together, McQueen and Ekins would compete in numerous prestigious off-road races nationally and internationally. The most prestigious arguably being the International Six Days Trial in Germany, which ended in crashes for both of them, but which they were both still proud to have competed admirably in.
In the early 70s, McQueen was asked to help co-produce On Any Sunday, which is known to be the best and most authentic motorcycle documentary ever made.
Throughout the 70s, McQueen started collecting motorcycles, and by the late 70s his collection included over 100 bikes and was reputed to be worth millions.
The media strongly aligned McQueen with motorcycling, and his King of Cool personality helped him effectively become the spokesperson for the community. And no one contested, because who else’s lifestyle would you rather have?