Backmarker: Racing with Steve McQueen

May 8, 2015
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
Contributing Editor|Articles|Articles RSS In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'
Racing with Steve McQueen in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ After I let a couple of factual errors slip into a Backmarker column last year, a reader name Bobby Foxworth wrote to correct me, and in no uncertain terms. I contacted him, corrected my mistakes as well as I could, and in the ensuing (long!) conversations, learned that he had quite a motorcycle history of his own.

As a kid, he’d gone to work in Bud Ekins’ Triumph dealership in L.A., where he sort of became ‘the son Bud never had’. Bud was later his mentor as Bobby followed him in a career as a stuntman/stunt coordinator.

Bobby Foxworth started working for Bud Ekins when he was just a kid, sweeping up the shop and running the occasional errand. He followed Bud into Hollywood stunt work, and had a long career as a stuntman and stunt coordinator. He retired to Arizona, and still rides his Yamaha 450 dirt bike daily.

Once I had Bobby talking, there was indeed something I wanted to ask him about. At the height of the Cold War, in 1964, Bud Ekins led an American ‘Vase’ team to the ISDT in Erfurt, East Germany. Although individual Americans had entered the ISDT in the past (and Bud already had a Gold Medal) that was the first-ever U.S. team.

The four-man squad included Steve McQueen, Clifford C. Coleman and Bud’s younger brother, Dave. (Dave Ekins later played a key role in the creation of the Baja 1000 race, and helped popularize Honda motorcycles in the U.S.; Cliff Coleman was an assistant director who had a long career in the film business.)

The Great Escape had just been released the previous summer, and I’ve often imagined the racers psyching themselves up to escape again – from the Communists, this time – by jumping the Iron Curtain. Bud died several years ago, and McQueen’s long dead of course, but Bobby was working in Bud’s shop soon after those guys all returned from Europe, so he heard their stories first hand. And he was able to make introductions for me, so that I could talk to the last two surviving members of the team –  Bud’s brother, Dave Ekins, and Cliff Coleman.

Early in our conversation, Dave told me that crossing the border into East Germany wasn’t a big deal. The Stasi were careful to ensure that western racers had minimal contact with the locals, and the East German border guards inspected their van thoroughly on the way out, too. The godless commies pulled a few tricks to ensure that their MZ-mounted Trophy Team emerged victorious but otherwise, the Cold War was not a factor.

So my initial ‘Cold War’ story idea was a bust. There was nothing there worthy of John le Carré. But they told me plenty about the team’s adventures, some of which I can even relate to you…

Dave picked up the story back in 1962, when his brother Bud and Steve McQueen were on the outskirts of Munich, filming The Great Escape. I guess they almost had to put the whole production on hiatus for a week, so that Bud could race in the ISDT, which was held about an hour away in Garmisch-Partenkirken. Steve and a few other motorcycle-obsessed crew members cheered him on. Maybe that’s what gave McQueen the bug to race the ISDT.

The first-ever official U.S. team in the ISDT. Clockwise from Steve McQueen: John Steen, Cliff Coleman, Bud Ekins, Dave Ekins.

Anyway, fast forward a couple of years to 1964: Wanted: Dead or Alive was the most popular TV show in France, and McQueen’s movie Love with the Proper Stranger was about to have its French premiere. Paris Match – which was the French equivalent of Life Magazine at the time – wanted to run a big feature story around bringing Steve to the premiere. Needless to say, the movie studio thought it was a great idea.

McQueen agreed to the Paris Match story because the premiere was scheduled right after the ISDT. According to Dave, Steve insisted the magazine pay for a few extra ‘bodyguards’ who’d accompany him to Europe. The bodyguards were his motorcycle pals; Bud and Dave Ekins, and Cliff Coleman (who was an assistant director in the film business, and another avid racer). So, McQueen got the magazine to fund the team’s travel budget.

Interestingly, Cliff Coleman told me that he paid Steve for his share of travel expenses. When it came time for me to reconcile those accounts, Bobby recalled that Steve never seemed to have cash on him  – although when pressed, he sometimes pulled a checkbook from his sock! Bobby thought it was entirely possible that both Paris Match and the racers covered travel costs. It’s a historical fact that Steve was not too good with money, and that at the time of the ’64 ISDT, his wife Neile pretty much took charge of his finances.

The 1964 Paris Match story about Steve McQueen ran under the headline  See how the new young-persons hero lives his life.
The 1964 Paris Match story about Steve McQueen ran under the headline  See how the new young-persons hero lives his life.
The 1964 Paris Match story about Steve McQueen ran under the headline, “See how the new young-persons’ hero lives his life”.

Not that all the ‘bodyguards’ were motorcyclists. One was Elmer Valentine, who ran the famous Whisky a Go Go disco in Los Angeles. The aptly named Valentine was, presumably, in charge of partying. And that’s really the story of the trip – a rolling party across western Europe, more than a race.

McQueen scheduled the travel with plenty of time for the ISDT. The first stop was the U.K.. The studio sent a vintage Rolls Royce to collect them at Heathrow. Shades of Austin Powers, eh?

Bud, who was a Triumph dealer, had arranged for two TR5s and two TR6s, which were waiting for them at the Triumph works in Meriden. First though, they had a Scotch with Edward Turner in his office. They talked of the rising Japanese manufacturers. McQueen’s advice was, “Don’t change a thing, keep it simple.”

Quite right, Turner agreed, they’d beaten the Japs in Burma and they’d do it again.

But the bikes were a disappointment. At the time, Triumphs shipped to the eastern U.S. were quite different than the ones shipped to Johnson Motors, the western distributor.

The factory decided to set up ‘east coast’ bikes, which had a quick-detach rear wheel, but only four inches of fork travel. The high pipes would bend the shocks the first time the bikes were laid over. Bud immediately took his and Steve’s bikes to Eric Cheney’s workshop to do the best he could with them. Meanwhile, most of the Americans were hanging out in a posh borrowed house in London.

Ah, London in the Swingin’ ‘60s. I was there, dear reader  – though I was tragically about ten years too young to partake in it! Mini-skirts were at an all-time high. The birth control pill had been widely available for a few years and there were few if any sexual consequences that couldn’t be resolved with a quick round of antibiotics. The taxis came and went, from the American team’s base, at all hours of the day and night.

When they were ready to head to Germany, they piled the bikes into a box van with large American flags painted on it, and drove to the ferry in a little convoy, with the team in the box van and a Ford station wagon, and another pal in a Jaguar. By then, every woman in Europe knew that Steve McQueen was on the road. At one point, Steve leaned over the front seat and told Bud, who was driving, “Stop!”

They say, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there.” But it was a perfect storm of miniskirts, birth control, and effective antibiotics. You kids these days think you invented sex, but you have no idea.

When Bud stopped, a sports car pulled in behind them. Steve got out of the wagon, and into the sports car, which was driven by some gorgeous woman. “We didn’t see Steve for the next two days,” Coleman told me, laughing.

Somehow, they got to the border with East Germany in spite of the distractions. In the long delay for inspections, they struck up a conversation with two young Belgians: Joel Robert and Roger DeCoster.

The race itself was not a success for the team. The Americans were in contention for the Silver Vase for a couple of days, but any hopes of a result were dashed on the third. McQueen, last on the road, had to dodge spectators who were beginning to move around on the course. He’d already fallen and needed stitches in his face, which was a frightening prospect for a movie star. Anyway, the next crash bent his fork and his race was kaput.

“Steve was fast,” Dave told me. “But he started racing too late to ever really be relaxed on the bike. And to do well in a long event, you have to be both fast and relaxed.”

That same day, Bud crashed and broke an ankle, although he remounted and finished without losing a point. After discussing their prospects over a few more Scotches that evening, Bud decided that he too was done.

It probably didn’t feel that way in the moment, but the ’64 event was rated an easy one by ISDT veterans. Dave and Cliff won Gold medals. When I asked Dave why he thought he’d succeeded where Bud and Steve had failed, he replied, “I didn’t party.”

Steve and Cliff started on the same minute in the ISDT, so they were together a lot until Steve crashed out late on the third day. A few years later, Cliff crashed in Baja, and nearly severed a foot. Although under Mexican law he was forbidden from leaving the country, Steve and Bud smuggled him out.

I asked him if he meant those guys were partying during the actual event. Then, he pulled a typical old-guy trick, which was to pretend that he didn’t remember what he’d just said. And that he had no memory of anyone partying.

Coleman also told me that Bud and Steve both partied harder than he did. Even though they were all married at the time, Bud and Steve were not that removed from their youth as juvenile delinquents. “Although there were times I was pressed into action,” Coleman admitted. “I remember this one naked chick who snuck up behind me and broke an amyl [presumably as in ‘nitrite’—MG] in my face.”

Safely back in the Free World, they all headed to Paris, where they were the guests of honor at fancy dinners, and where they nominally served their purpose as Steve McQueen’s bodyguards at the premiere of his film. (Bud, whose leg was in a cast at that point, probably wasn’t much use as close protection.) Afterwards, McQueen headed down to Majorca and the rest returned to California.

BM150505_Dave-and-Steve.jpg
Dave Ekins comforts Steve, after his ‘Six Days’ turns out to be only
three days long. Dave went on to earn an individual Gold Medal.

The 1964 event was Steve McQueen’s only ISDT. The next year, Bud replaced him with John Steen, who was the U.S. Rickman importer. That U.S. team was no match for the toughest-ever ISDT (held on the Isle of Man).

Back in the day, Bud had no trouble attracting women. Still, he admitted to Bobby that helping Steve McQueen handle his, um, overload was pleasant work, but someone had to do it. Ironically, though, as much of a star and sex god as McQueen was, the one guy Steve wished he was, was Bud.

Bobby told me, “You know, you go through life and meet people, and you find yourself thinking, ‘He reminds me of so-and-so’. Well, in my entire life, I’ve never met anyone who made me think, ‘He reminds me of Bud Ekins’.”

In the course of talking to those guys, I heard tales of sexual escapades that I know were apocryphal, but I didn’t doubt Coleman when told me that when it came to picking up women, McQueen was an artist.

“He had a [pick up] story that would make your jaw drop,” Cliff laughed.

After more than 50 years, the truth may be impossible to tease from the legend. But it was still fun to experience it vicariously, through the memories of Dave and Cliff Coleman and Bobby Foxworth’s retold stories.

This much has to be true: The handful of guys, driving a van full of race bikes across a continent… that’s an experience shared by all amateur racers. Except that when the first U.S. team headed to the ISDT in 1964, one of them was also perhaps the world’s greatest chick magnet.

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