Triumph Bonneville T100 Steve McQueen Edition | McQueen Machine

Triumph Recreates The King Of Cool’s Most Famous Ride

By Alan Cathcart, Photography by Kyoichi Nakamura

Each time we catch the movie on late-night TV, we think the same thing: “Surely he’ll make it this time!” U.S. Air Force Captain Virgil Hilts, gunning his stolen Triumph motorcycle along the barb wire-lined Swiss/German border, finally spots a gap in the fence and makes his move. “Go, Virgil, go! Jump it!” we shout at the TV, and he does—only to have everything end in tears as he crashes upon landing and is captured and returned to the same dreadful POW camp from which he’d just escaped.

The Great Escape, the 1963 feature film dramatizing an Allied prisoner of war’s daring escape from Germany’s Stalag Luft III POW camp during World War II, rocketed a young Steve McQueen to Hollywood superstar status. The pivotal motorcycle jump scene at the end of the movie instantly made McQueen a hero to motorcyclists everywhere—even if the actor, a legendary motorcycle enthusiast in real life, was barred for insurance reasons from making the leap himself. McQueen’s close friend and California off-road-racing pioneer Bud Ekins performed the stunt instead. Excepting the famous jump, however, McQueen did all his own riding in the film. In fact, he played multiple on-bike roles—the actor was so good on a bike that his character kept outrunning the less-skilled stunt riders who played the German soldiers pursuing him! By way of solution, director John Sturges first filmed McQueen as Hilts, then changed the actor into a German military uniform and filmed him in the pursuit role, too. Thanks to clever editing, the final cut actually features Steve McQueen chasing Steve McQueen!

Forget for a moment that all of this is pure fiction. As originally written, Hilts was supposed to escape by jumping a train, until McQueen reportedly approached Sturges and said, “John, I’ve got an idea that will put more juice into this!” Thank goodness he did. The iconic image of McQueen astride the military-spec Triumph TR6 is one of the reasons that the actor eventually became known as “The King of Cool,” and to this day inspires a special fascination in all motorcycle enthusiasts. People will pay crazy money for anything with a McQueen provenance, especially if it’s motorcycle-related. In 2006 someone paid an outrageous $32,760 for McQueen’s black Belstaff riding jacket. Three years later, an ex-McQueen 1929 Scott Flying Squirrel sold at auction for an astounding $276,000—roughly 15 times its actual worth.

So it’s little surprise that Triumph Motorcycles would want to capitalize on the late star’s cool cred by branding a special Steve McQueen Edition of its modern T100 Bonneville. This isn’t entirely opportunistic—the bike in The Great Escape rightfully should have been a WWII-era BMW R71, but McQueen, who raced in his spare time, insisted on using a Triumph. The BMW’s rigid frame would never handle the abuse, he said. Beyond the famous movie, McQueen has a strong and sincere connection to Triumph motorcycles. He famously represented America in the 1964 International Six Days Trials (ISDT) riding a Triumph—teamed, incidentally, with his Great Escape stunt double Bud Ekins—and one of his personal favorite bikes was the Triumph TR6-powered Rickman Metisse desert sled (see sidebar, page 78). At the time of his tragically premature death from cancer in 1980, McQueen owned a remarkable 138 motorcycles, a significant number of which were Triumphs, making the British firm’s association with his image historically legitimate.

With such a rich backstory to draw from, it was inevitable that Triumph would eventually join forces with the McQueen estate to pay tribute to the late actor’s love of the definitive Britbike. With the approval of McQueen’s son Chad, 1100 individually numbered examples of the 2012 Triumph T100 Steve McQueen Edition will be sold worldwide. Fittingly, the special edition is faithfully styled as a replica of the actor’s Great Escape co-star, complete with olive-drab paint and a selection of military-inspired accessories.

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