Bud Ekins: King of California
the man who taught Steve McQueen to ride
He embodied Californian car and bike culture. He jumped the fence in The Great Escape. He employed Evel Knievel. He invented the Baja 1000. He drove the Mustang in Bullitt’s chase.He taught Steve McQueen how to ride fast. Bud Ekins was the real thing.
A few months before he died, in October 2007, I interviewed Bud Ekins in Los Angeles. He was late, so his friend opened Bud’s lock-up and let me mooch around. The walls were covered in posters commemorating Bud’s off-road riding career ‘Triumph Wins Again’ announced one poster from the 1950s. It lists Bud’s victories. There were lots of them. ‘Bud Ekins and the Matchless Thumper Wins’ bellows another.
There are black and white shots of Bud in an open-face helmet holding a sky-scraping trophy. Snaps of the 1964 American International Trials team which included Bud, his brother David and Steve McQueen. In the adjoining unit sit vintage and classic bikes made by Harley-Davidson and Matchless. Some belonged to Bud, some he was in the process of restoring.
Then Bud arrived in a late-model, plain white Ford pick-up. At this point he had a full white beard and his big hands were covered in liver spots. No one would have a clue who he was, what he’d achieved, the influence he exerted. Age is the best disguise.
He still stood an imposing six-and-a-half feet tall. ‘I’ve lost 50lbs in four years,’ he explained. As a younger man he was built like a lumberjack. He had an imposing physique that was partly genetic and partly from racing heavy motorcycles and lugging them about. In his prime he looked like he could wrestle a bear. When I met him he wasn’t exactly frail, but he couldn’t stand up, even with his stick, for too long without his aching hip playing up. The old chair creaked a greeting as he slumped into it. Faded blue tattoos were visible on his brown wrinkled skin.
‘I got them when l was 13 or 14,’ he said. ‘Tattoos were part of growing up. You had to have a tattoo. I got them for the same reason you start smoking.’ Bud’s been smoking a long time. ‘You gotta die of something,’ he says accurately.
Modest and not a natural storyteller the incredible tales need coaxing out of him. Things just happened to, and around, Bud because of who and what he was. Bud didn’t hang around film stars, they hung around with him.
Ekins and his brother founded the Baja 1000 off-road race when they decided to set the record for racing down the peninsula. ‘We knew we’d set the record. No-one had attempted it before.’ He won the Catalina GP and the Big Bear Endurance Run when they were the most important off-road races in the States. ‘If I’d have had my career ten years later I’d have made millions. By that time the factories gave [riders like me] a million dollars just to sign up.’
Steve McQueen was another bike nut and the two became firm friends. The actor hung at Bud’s Triumph dealership — one of the most successful in the world.
Ekins was invited to Europe to keep McQueen company during the filming of The Great Escape. The two worked together on the famous jump, probably the most famous stunt of all-time, but it was Bud who had his hair cut and dyed to look like McQueen’s, and it was Bud clinging onto the flying Triumphʼs bars.
A year later the pair would return to Europe to compete in the International Six-Days Trial in East Germany. Before the event the American team visited England to buy and prepare TriumphTR6SCs and acquire kit including British-made Barbour jackets. The US team stayed in London and had a relaxed build up to the gruelling event.
‘We lived in a place called Ogilvy House. We had a Rolls with a chauffeur and went out to a place called Little Venice. [Steve] would shout “Stop, stop, stop!” Then he’d get out, run across the road to a couple of broads walking down the street. “Excuse me ladies. Iʼm new in town, what do you do for entertainment? We’re having a party. Here’s my phone number bring all your girlfriends.” Well that party lasted about a week.’
Bud also taught Warren Beatty to ride. If stars wanted a hot bike, and Triumphs were the bike to have, they’d buy it from Bud’s shop. Sometimes McQueen would be round the back practicing rapidly repairing punctures in preparation for his endurance races that wouldn’t allow mechanic support.
‘I never saw Evel Knievel jump, but he worked for me,’ Bud recalled. ‘He was dead broke. I had him changing tyres. He was an egotist and that was before he got really famous. He jumped anything – Norton, Triumphs. He was a whore. He was kinda stupid to do it with a Harley, but Harley paid him for it.’
When it comes to bikes, Bud loved many of them but would only race the ones he knew he could win on. He was no whore.
‘I rode Triumphs and I don’t think there was anything better until the two-strokes. Then I rode Huskies [Swedish-made Husqvarnas]. I rode them in two Six Days. And got gold both times.’
It wasn’t just in The Great Escape that Bud doubled for his friend. ‘I was just up at Bullitt as a utility driver. McQueen was going to do all of the driving, but the first time he got in the car he spun the son of a bitch out and nearly hit a camera. The stunt coordinator said “Get him out of there!” Then said “Ekins, get into McQueen’s clothes.” They cut and sprayed my hair. He had a different hairstyle. Jay Sebring cut it. He was killed in the Sharon Tate murders. He also used to cut Sinatra’s hair. My kids cut mine.’
The resulting driving forms some of the most famous car chase of all time. And when McQueen was filmed driving, Bud was curled up in the passenger footwell trying to make him laugh.
In the course of the morning we spent talking Bud touches on the two Bond films he worked on; The Blues Brothers car chase he was involved in; the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club and sets of the B-movies he met them on; Evel; Manson; McQueen; Garner; Bullitt; Rolls Royce; flying Triumphs; Baja and Big Bear. Bud can tell stories like this all day.
Or he could, because Bud’s time for telling stories is passed. Now people just tell stories about him, because while it’s fairly unlikely there’ll ever be another star like Steve McQueen it’s an absolute cast-iron certainty there will never been another man like Bud Ekins.
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