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.

Checking the McQueen Edition box gets you an undeniably cool machine that’s more utilitarian warhorse than retro-cruiser. The special edition features mil-spec Matte Khaki Green paint with a stenciled Triumph tank logo and the actor’s inimitable autograph reproduced on the side covers. Sporting a solo seat and black cargo rack, the rough rider also comes with a rugged-looking skidplate, a smaller, black-painted headlamp and many more blacked-out components, including the wheels, handlebars, suspension and mirrors. To underline their exclusivity, each bears a numbered plaque on the handlebar riser and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.

The opportunity to ride McQueen Edition #1 direct from the Hinckley factory, before it was delivered to Chad McQueen, took me on my own special ride down Memory Lane. I remember seeing The Great Escape when it was first released, and exiting the cinema with stars in my eyes, marveling at the daredevil riding displayed in the film. McQueen later became a folk hero for me and so many others after appearing in—and bankrolling—On Any Sunday in 1971. Then there was Bullitt: When I lived in San Francisco in the early ’70s, I couldn’t ride anywhere without thinking of the star’s Ford Mustang sailing though the air!

The chance to pay tribute to my hero by riding a bike bearing his name was welcome, even if the wintery English countryside surrounding Warwickshire was a poor substitute for California, and I couldn’t manage to zip my cowhide Bates jacket from back in the day around my modern-sized mid-section! At least my old Hermans boots still fit, as did the obligatory Levi’s—nobody wore anything but blue jeans riding a motorcycle in those days. Add one open-face Arai helmet and a pair of Octopus goggles, and I was ready to ride like Steve McQueen!

The McQueen Edition is based on the T100 Bonneville that uses the more traditional wire-spoke wheels. Compared to the standard Bonneville that uses 17-inchers at both ends, the T100’s larger-diameter 19-inch front wheel imparts more relaxed handling, enhanced by more conservative steering geometry and a slightly longer wheelbase. The special edition riding position is slightly different, too, owing to the solo saddle. This is a good thing, as the stock T100’s authentic-looking platform is no paragon of comfort. This solo option uses a different foam density that almost feels like gel (but isn’t) for a more comfortable ride, and the slightly increased seat height offers more legroom. The solo saddle is narrower at the front, however, so it’s still easy even for shorter riders to reach terra firma.

The now-familiar, 865cc, air/oil-cooled parallel-twin is unaltered for this application. The 360-degree, double-up crank emits just the right Britbike thump, though this is primarily noted in the exhaust—twin, gear-driven counterbalancers prevent any vibration from reaching the seat, handlebar or footpegs, even near redline. With a claimed 67 bhp arriving at 7500 rpm and 50 lb.-ft. of torque at 5800 revs, the T100 delivers a broad spread of easily accessible power that makes this a very satisfying backroad bike. The Keihin EFI that first appeared on the Bonneville line in 2008 provides crisp throttle response, and it’s great that Triumph made the throttle bodies look like carburetors, so as not to spoil the faux vintage look. Closed-loop EFI and a three-way exhaust catalyst deliver Euro3 emissions compliance.

Acceleration is smooth and effortless as you run up the five-speed gearbox, which here provides the crispest shift action we’ve experienced on any Bonneville yet. Clutch action is especially light and progressive, so there’s no hint of hand cramps even in the worst stop-and-go traffic. Both the brake and clutch levers are adjustable, and the single 310mm Sunstar front disc has a carrier with what Triumph terms a “swooshing” design. Still gripped by a rather low-rent Nissin two-piston caliper, however, braking performance is merely adequate, though sufficient for this type of bike. The rear brake, which uses the same caliper, is likewise easy to use and responsive, too. Also merely adequate is the non-adjustable, Kayaba 41mm fork and preload-adjustable twin Kayaba shocks. The ride is smooth and controlled enough for typical backroads riding, though we can’t say we’d want to jump it over a 7-foot-tall, barbed-wire fence!

Though the smart-looking T100 Steve McQueen Edition might not jump any fences, it’s almost certain to jump to the top of Triumph’s sales charts. The limited-edition model will sell for $9999—a $900 premium over the standard Bonneville T100 with two-tone paint. All 120 bikes allocated to Great Britain are already reserved, says Triumph, and it will likely be the same situation in the U.S. and other McQueen-mad markets. It may, in fact, be more difficult to find a Steve McQueen Edition T100 for sale than it was for Captain Hilts to escape that POW camp!

Tech Spec

 
Price $9999
Engine type a/o-c parallel-twin
Valve train DOHC, 8v
Displacement 865cc
Bore x stroke 90.0 x 68.0mm
Compression na
Fuel system EFI
Clutch Wet, multi-plate
Transmission 5-speed
Claimed horsepower 67 bhp @ 7500 rpm
Claimed torque 50 lb.-ft. @ 5800 rpm
Frame Tubular-steel cradle
Front suspension Kayaba 41mm fork
Rear suspension Twin Kayaba shocks with adjustable spring preload
Front brake Nissin two-piston caliper, 310mm disc
Rear brake Nissin two-piston caliper, 255mm disc
Front tire 100/90R-19 Metzeler Lasertec
Rear tire 130/80R-17 Metzeler Lasertec
Rake/trail 28.0°/4.3 in.
Seat height 30.5 in.
Wheelbase 59.0 in.
Fuel capacity 4.2 gal.
Claimed curb weight 506 lbs.
Color Matte Khaki Green
Available June
Warranty 24 mo., unlimited mi.
Contact Triumph Motorcycles of America
385 Walt Sanders Memorial Dr.
Newnan, GA 30265
678.854.2010
www.triumphmotorcycles.com

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