Motorcycles | 3 October 2017McQueen’s Best Movie Moments Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Steve McQueen’s talent at the wheel of an automobile or aboard a motorcycle was considerable. He was ultra competitive at anything he did, and mastering cars and bikes became an early passion. By the time he was able to influence the content of the films he appeared in and create opportunities for his characters to drive or ride interesting machinery, he had already done a considerable amount of racing at amateur and semi-professional levels. From the book McQueen’s Machines: The Cars and Bikes of a Hollywood Icon is a look at three films that featured Steve behind the wheel (or handlebars) along with some short excerpts from the detailed descriptions of Bullitt, The Great Escape, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Bullitt Things get interesting around the intersection of Taylor and Filbert Street. This is where the Mustang and Charger fly through the air numerous times. The hills are steep, more so than they look on screen, and the bumps abrupt. It’s no wonder the cars’ chassis and suspensions needed reinforcement and were checked over nightly by the crew. A broken axle, spindle, or wheel during one of these stunts would’ve been disastrous. Larkin and Chestnut is where the Charger takes a turn too wide, knocking out a camera. It’s also where McQueen overshoots a right turn, backs up, and thensmokesthe Mustang’s left rear tire for all it’s worth. This misstep looked and sounded so cool that even McQueen agreed it had to stay in the final film. Bullitt chases the Charger down Larkin Street, a narrow curve to the left. Alcatraz Island is clearly visible in the distance, as are portions of the Embarcadero. The making of this image was perfectly timed, not only showing the Charger in midair as it careened down the hill, but also the green VW that appeared in so much of the chase scene. The Bug was driven by a crew member, and since several cameras were rolling on any given take, it appears from numerous angles. MPTV.net The cars roar along Marina Boulevard, and it isn’t long before they’re on fast, semi secluded Guadalupe Canyon Parkway, south of the city. Things get hairy here: shotgun blasts, speeds of over 100 miles per hour, and door and fender banging that would do a NASCAR race proud, prior to the chase’s explosive conclusion. There’s always been a bit of speculation as to how much of the wheel work McQueen performed, but the truth is straightforward. Bud Ekins did most of the jump scenes, where the risk of the movie’s star getting hurt was too great. McQueen did the shots where he was clearly visible to camera, plus much of the high-speed work near the end of the chase. Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin drove a few key scenes too. “Carey Loftin was the stunt coordinator on Bullitt. He wanted me to come up to San Francisco and be one of the stunt men,” recalls Ekins. “Steve started the chase scene [in the Mustang] behind Bill Hickman [in the Charger]. Hickman was a real dingbat, but he could drive, and drive well. Steve tried to follow him, and the second turn he went around, he lost it and spun out, and damn near hit a camera. Cary said, ‘Get him out of the car,’ and said to me, ‘Ekins, get in the clothes.’ Next thing I know, I’m at the top of that big hill, following Hickman, jumping down the hills, flying through the air. Any time Hickman was in front of me, I could see the entire undercarriage of his car. If he lost it, I’d have had him. A view that has changed remarkably little since 1968 is this look down Larkin Street. That’s Alcatraz Island off in the distance. Dave Kunz’s replica Bullitt Mustang is pointed in the direction that the chase followed down this narrow, winding street. “Steve never had any problem with being taken out of the car. When he found out that I was doubling him in the Mustang, they gave me a six a.m. call and him a ten o’clock call. One day, he showed up on the set, and I was jumping the car down the hill—in his clothes! He was very funny about all of it. He came up and said, ‘Where in the hell did you learn how to drive like that?’ I said, ‘Back and forth to work, I guess.’ Not only did McQueen and Jacqueline Bisset (who played Frank Bullitt’s girlfriend) make a handsome couple, but she too had great taste in cars. Here, Cathy takes Bullitt to the scene of yet another murder in her Porsche 356 Cabriolet. Warner Brothers/Photofest “He also said, ‘You’ve done it to me again. Everybody thought I did that jump in The Great Escape.’ And on one of those nighttime talk shows he had to admit that I did it. ‘And now,’ he said, ‘whenever someone thinks I was jumping that car down the streets of San Francisco, and the next talk show I go on, I’m going to have to say, ‘Well, no I didn’t do it.’ Steve didn’t do any of the hard stuntdriving in the movie, although he drove it a lot of the time. Any time that you can’t see his face very plainly, it’s me. They’d cut back and forth between him at the wheel and me; you see a lot of the back of my head.” So, McQueen didn’t do the riskiest stunts, but he did pedal for the camera. As the chase progressed south of out San Francisco, there are some highspeed sections on flat roads where there’s no doubt it was McQueen at the wheel. “The level runs were as wild as the hill stuff. Here was Bill Fraker hangin’ out of that stripped-down racing Chevy [a Chevypowered racing chassis that was configured as a camera car], sittin’ on a chair with his camera stuck out there at 114 miles per hour, right down the city street about six feet away from me, while I drove flat out with cement standards whippin’ past us. . . .” Four members of Escape’s dream cast: from left, James Coburn, James Garner, McQueen—at the handlebars, of course—and director John Sturges. The three actors remained lifelong friends, and each was a genuine car guy. United Artists/Photofest The Great Escape The bike play takes place late in the movie. Hilts had already cleared the prison camp fences, heading for the freedom of Switzerland. He figured the quickest way there was on two wheels, so he strung some wire across the road, into which rode a hapless German soldier (the stunt was performed by Ekins), taking quite a tumble. Hilts stole the bike, the rider’s uniform, and weapon. The escapee was soon discovered at a border security station, and the chase was on. “Steve did a helluva lot of that riding himself,” says Ekins. “I really didn’t do much of it. Anything where he may get hurt, that’s what I did. But all the other stuff, when you see him riding by, he did all that himself and was enjoying it very much. There’s a chase sequence in there where the Germans were after him, and he was so much a better rider than they were, that he just ran away from them. And you weren’t going to slow him down. So, they put a German uniform on him, and he chased himself! I rode as a German soldier too, but he chased himself several times in the movie.” There was one scene in which McQueen didn’t ride, and it is the one for which The Great Escape is best known. Hemmed in on all sides by several German soldiers on motorcycles, barbed-wire fencing, and obstacles, Hilts knew there’s only one way out—one that the others wouldn’t dare follow. By now, he’d shed the German uniform and wore just khakis and a T-shirt. He surveyed the barrier, grit his teeth, and gunned the faux-BMW toward the fence. Bike and rider dropped down into a dip, climbed the grassy bank at great speed, and sailed over the fence to a perfect landing. There was no computer animation in those days, and the only way to make the 60-foot jump look right was to do it. Recall that McQueen had only just begun riding off-road bikes and wasn’t quite up to the task. He tried a few times and couldn’t get it right. “I always felt a little guilty about that,” he said a decade later. “A lot of people thought it was me making that jump, but I’ve never tried to hide the truth about it. I could handle the jump now, I’m sure. Back in ’62, I just didn’t quite have the savvy.” In spite of the fact that the image of McQueen flying through the air over a barbed-wire fence is among those he is most often identified with, it was Ekins aboard that flying Triumph. The shot took a lot of measuring, estimating, and practice beforehand. The stunt crew kept massaging the contours of the hill that would be Ekins’ launching pad, and the barbed wire was replaced with string, to minimize risk to the rider should something go wrong. Fortunately, nothing did. Ekins nailed the iconic stunt on the first take. Movie history made. One of the most iconic stunts in movie history was captured in this perfectly timed photograph, as McQueen’s pal and stunt double Bud Ekins sails the German military bike née Triumph over a tall wood and barbed-wire (really string and rubber bands) fence. Planning pays off, as the stunt was captured in one take, with no damage to man or machine. United Artists/MPTV.net What of that now legendary motorcycle? “I sold it to a stuntman,” recalls Ekins. Last time they had contact, the buyer said he didn’t own the bike anymore. “He didn’t know what he had. I didn’t tell him it was the bike from The Great Escape.” Movie history lost. Not only was The Great Escape the first film that showed the world—in a big way—that Steve McQueen loved bikes and was a spectacular rider, Escape was also a box office smash and vaulted him from the level of rising star to major star. The motorhead actor had arrived. A classed-up McQueen, the sexily elegant Dunaway, and Rolls-Royce’s new Silver Shadow coupe set the tone for The Thomas Crown Affair. Note the Massachusetts license plate reading “TC 100” for Thomas Crown, of course; this was before most states offered personalized license plates. MPTV.net The Thomas Crown Affair Thomas Crown’s other car could not be more of a contrast to a deep-blue Rolls-Royce and underscores McQueen’s influence in the vehicles used for his films. In a period documentary about the making of the film, McQueen told the story of the red dune buggy that so clearly demonstrated his love of cars and his driving talent: “Crown lives at the beach, and he has a sand dune buggy. I helped ’em design it, so I’m kinda proud of that. It’s set on a Volkswagen chassis, with big ol’ wide weenies—big wide tires on mag wheels, Corvair engine stuffed in the back, semi-reclining position somewhat like on a Formula 1 car. It’s very light, you know. It’s pulling about 230 horses, and the vehicle weighs about 1,000 pounds.” McQueen said costar Faye Dunaway was “a trooper.” Since so many of the scenes were shot close up or from the buggy itself, there was no way to double either actor effectively, so McQueen drove and Dunaway was along for the ride, which got wild more than a few times. United Artists/Photofest Designer/musician/surfer Bruce Meyers wanted something fun, light, and inexpensive to take to the beach. No such vehicle existed in the early 1960s, so he created one. Employing a playfully attractive fiberglass body, a purpose-built chassis, and a Volkswagen engine, his Meyers Manx singlehandedly launched the dune buggy phenomenon. The chassis and suspension proved too expensive for the low-cost kits that Meyers wanted to sell, so he adapted the design to fit a shortened VW floorpan. The muscled-up Manx appears in The Thomas Crown Affair several times, all at the beach, of course. Its most famous scene is several minutes long and shows Crown and Anderson assaulting the dunes. Most impressive is that there were no stunt doubles used for any of it: McQueen did all the driving, with Faye Dunaway in the passenger seat. The scene is a gem and again demonstrated that Steve McQueen was both fabulous driver and certified car freak. To watch him spin the buggy around on the sand, splash water, chase birds, launch over a dune, and fly the buggy through the air is like watching a beaming child play with a new toy. A camera was mounted in the back of the Manx for cutaway shots, which clearly show both actors in the buggy as it careened around the beach. McQueen could turn the camera on and off via a hidden switch. The McCluggage/Rollo NART Spyder, Sebring 12-hour race, March 1967. This particular Ferrari enjoyed an amazing career as a racer, magazine cover model, and, of course, movie car in The Thomas Crown Affair. It is seen here wearing its original yellow paint, prior to being painted dark red for the latter two uses. John Clinard Some of the action was ad-libbed, McQueen just driving the buggy as he wished. Other elements were more carefully thought through. “What I’ve got to do,” McQueen said, “is to take the sand dune buggy and drop it straight down [the dune], and then run the rim around the outside of it.” The move worked to great effect, spraying sand everywhere. The Thomas Crown Affair Rolls-Royce today. The paint has been redone in the original nonmetallic navy blue, but the engine and interior are slightly worn, yet original spec. It has since been purchased by the Petersen Automotive Museum to add to its growing collection of McQueen’s machines. Faye Dunaway proved a more than good sport about the whole deal. “We did one big jump for the camera right off the edge of a high dune, and it was wild—with the rear wheels clappin’ each other in the air. I looked over and Faye was all bug-eyed; the back of the floorboard was scratched raw from her heels diggin’ in.” About another scene, McQueen said, “The thing just wouldn’t turn. The throttle jammed, and we were heading right for the ocean at a terrific rate of speed. Well, on film, all you could see was this orange bug disappearing into the water. Faye came out of it soaked and smiling. Some trooper! They had to take the whole engine apart to get the saltwater out.” McQueen bought the buggy after the film was wrapped, drove it for a while, then sold it to a Meyers Manx dealer. It currently resides in Hawaii, and now belongs to an owner who wishes to remain anonymous. Buy From an Online Retailer No other Hollywood star has been so closely linked with cars and bikes, from the 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback he drove in Bullitt (in the greatest car chase of all time) to the Triumph motorcycle of The Great Escape. McQueen’s Machines: The Cars and Bikes of a Hollywood Icon gives readers a close-up look at the cars and motorcycles McQueen drove in movies, those he owned, and others he raced. With a foreword by Steve’s son, Chad McQueen, and a wealth of details about of the star’s racing career, stunt work, and car and motorcycle collecting, McQueen’s Machines draws a fascinating picture of one outsized man’s driving passion. Now in paperback. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.