Six decades after movie legend Steve McQueen’s iconic scene in The Great Escape, the reality of the jump is still known to few.
It’s an image indelibly etched in the mind’s eye of all film fans. The Hollywood heart-throb revving his Triumph TR6 before jumping the barbed wire border fence to Switzerland trying to gain his freedom in the wartime epic.
But the camera lied. The rider who escaped the German Prisoner of War camp in a 65-foot leap was in fact 33-year-old stuntman, motocross and desert racing pioneer Bud Ekins.
A riding buddy of the actor, he was – according to contemporaries in the surf and sunshine era of early 60s California – “the real deal” and the “guy McQueen really wanted to be”. Unlike big screen star McQueen, Ekins didn’t court a celebrity lifestyle. Instead he preferred to run his LA Triumph dealership and concentrate on his passion for racing motorcycles.
The truth about that jump
Despite this, his riding skills and muscular physique saw him appear in 500 plus movies in 25 years as a stuntman – including another McQueen classic, Bullitt. During this time, he eschewed the Hollywood glitz and glamour, insisting: “The money’s good but there’s an awful lot of time spent doing nothing.”
Not so in the 1963 blockbuster. When Ekins hit the ramp hard in fourth at 60mph on the first take, he said: “[I] took off, throttled right back and it was silent. Everything was just silent – the whole crew and everything was just silent. And then when I landed they were cheering like crazy.”
‘Well, that’s a $1,000 jump if I ever saw one’
When the assistant director approached him, and said ‘Well, that’s a $1,000 jump if I ever saw one’, he knew so little about negotiating cast fees, he took the money and disappeared back into the shadows.
That, says his peers, was Ekins all over… a man unaware of his persona and charisma and because of that, all the cooler for it. He went about his business doing stuff on a bike that no one had done before, did it well and quietly earned a notoriety that didn’t spread much beyond those events.
Off-road racing triumphs
Even before the Beach Boys began forecasting Good Vibrations and that film, the pioneering Ekins was getting around ahead of the pack on two wheels. He came in well ahead of the rest in the Big Bear Hare and Hound Race point to point three times across 153 miles of the Mojave Desert.
His was a racing career that spanned two distinct eras of American off-road racing. Firstly, the thrilling early days of discovery in desert and mountain endurance runs and the modern era of scrambles and motocross.
Teaching Steve to change a tyre
A year after the Great Escape he led the American team in the International Six-Day Trials in Germany, an event he’d go on to master with four gold medals. The team that year included co-star, former customer and friend McQueen.
Before the actor could take part in the 1964 event, he needed to know how to change a tyre in lightning time. Ekins helped out by giving him a job in the workshop behind his dealership counter changing customers’ tyres. If only they’d known who was doing the refit on their bikes ‘backstage’.
Beating the Brits
Triumph had been Ekins’ passion from an early age as he sought a lighter, faster bike that turned better on the dirt. Inspired by a film about European scrambling years before his film career, he was determined to see whether he could beat the Europeans at their own game. After nine days on an ocean liner he arrived in the UK aged 20 to learn.
“My first impression was that everyone looked tired and worn,” he said of a British people still recovering from the war. “They also looked so old fashioned – but the racing was hot!”
Ekins was too, matching the best of the British off-road professional riders – the sport was still amateur in the States – and finishing in the top 10 at many national meetings.
Of those and the string of other wins, he later said: “I knew I was gonna win every time I pulled my bike outta the truck. I just had to do it. Do you understand? I knew I was gonna do it all the time.” He’d return State-side to become a focal point for the explosive scrambler scene that gripped the southern Californian deserts in the late 50s and early 60s.
His greatest race win though, by his own admission, came in 1955. Here, he rode his Triumph TR5 to glory in the Catalina Grand Prix, an off-road and paved circuit.
Yet despite his rise to motocross and desert racing prominence, he’d have hated and rejected the word ‘fame’. Ekins always remained matter-of-fact about his successes and association with stars including Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood… and that added to his appeal.
I’ve never screwed anyone over
To the focused Ekins – a man of whom it was said “if he hadn’t helped you out, it’s only because you didn’t ask” – they were buddies to share off-road adventures in the Mojave Desert… no cruising Sunset Strip for him. Too showy.
If anything, his response to the question ‘how would you like to be remembered?’ speaks volumes for the man who did so much for Triumph and the motorcycle scene in Cali’s sun-drenched Sixties. He said simply: “I don’t really care. I’ve led a good, honest life and never screwed anyone over.”