Extract From Road Tests By THE Steve McQueen
Having shot to fame in Never So Few (1959), this Indiana native was to become the highest paid actor of his generation, and international lothario. But it wasn’t movies or women that were to be his first love.
“It’s the clean smell of the desert in the morning. The satisfaction of setting up a rig and having it work perfectly in every way.”
That’s what McQueen said, back in 1966 after being asked; why, after being paid $750,000 for filming The Sand Pebbles, does he continue to spend his time cow trailing on a motorcycle?
Almost as famous for his love of motorcycles as for his acting, it seems fitting that we re-visit this classic road-test he did for Popular Science Magazine. Let loose in the [Nevada] desert, McQueen test drives 5 of the most popular dirt bikes of the time.
With the help of James Robert, editor of Classic MotorCycle Magazine and Tim Rogers, MD of Spirit of the Seventies, Bike Social have re-created this article, with updated commentary on some classic vehicles. You can read the full article here, however here’s a short preview:
Honda 450 Scrambler
McQueen: “They have learned a great deal at Honda about desert riding. And they have set-up the Honda scrambler accordingly – good electrical system, super suspension, and a very good power train. They can be made to perform like a 500 and you have a lot of rpm to play with. It’s a keen bike for the money.”
Bike Social: “One of the first bikes which made Brit-bike fans stand up and take notice of those strange bikes being built by the Japanese. It set Honda on a journey towards global domination.”
Tim Rogers: Honda 450. A good looking bike and for me the bikes that Honda went on to build during the early 70’s the XL’s, Elsinores etc are to me, some of the prettiest dirt bikes.
Greeves Challenger and Montesa La Cross:
McQueen: “ Despite my preference for four-strokes, I was surprised at the performance of these two-stroke bikes. The Montesa is the Spanish import with a 250cc engine. It’s a great bike – a keen bike – and a comer. The Greeves is also a high-revving two-stroke that has been very successful in European scrambles as well as in the desert. It’s strictly a race-bred vehicle. A very healthy piece of machinery, it has even more beans than the Montesa.”
Bike Social: “The Spanish built Montesa was a two-stroke not to be messed with and the firm has built itself a legendary reputation in the trials world since McQueen’s feature. The Greeves was ahead of its day and an angry bike to ride.”
James Robinson: “Greeves was actually one of the great motorcycle innovators – and its models worked too. It was a firm which made among the best of the first generation two-strokes which took over off-road sport. Montesa was part of the second wave of the two-stroke scene, among the so-called ‘Spanish Armada’ with Bultaco, Ossa et al.
Triumph Bonneville Dirt Bike
Bike Social: “The original and some say the best was the iconic bike of a generation looking to get their kicks on two wheels. It was and still is a true icon of motorcycling cool. It still feels like a decent motorcycle up against modern competition and actually out performs the modern Hinckley-built Bonnie in many ways. Achingly cool.”
Tim Rogers: "Triumph Bonneville. An icon and my personal favourite of the bikes here. I’m probably biased because I grew up a couple of miles away from the original Meriden factory and now at Spirit we work on the Hinckley versions regularly. It has that connection with McQueen that lives on to this day that no doubt fuels the desire of purchasers of machines in 2014. Then there’s the whole International Six Day Trials heritage that adds to the mystique although the bikes used there were TR6SC’s and T100SC’s. It was obviously a very capable machine in its desert scrambler guise."
Steve McQueen: “My feeling has been that the Triumph Bonneville 650cc has been the best for the desert until recently when the lightweights started to nip at its tail. It has more wins in desert racing than any other bike. It too is of the brute variety. I found its new unit construction to be quite an advance over the earlier separate engine and gearbox. The front end has a tendency to push but then you adjust to that and have a very smooth ride, and the Triumph front forks are bloody good.”