Thursday, October 28, 2010


Legendary Hollywood native 'Bud' Ekins passed away 3 years ago after a life of hard riding, hard drinking, and irascible good humor.  Born James Sherwin Ekins (although he'd likely punch you if you reminded him) in 1930, 'Bud' had a little too much enthusiasm for cars and motorcycles as a boy, and spent time in reform school after being caught driving someone else's car...a stranger's...without the benefit of a key, or a driver's license.

By 1948 he had acquired his first motorcycle, a '34 Harley Davidson VL, which according to legend leaned against the wall of his father's welding shop.  His uncle owned the defunct machine, and offered to sell it to Bud for $10 if he could make it run.  Thus, the moto-virus was secured in his bloodstream, and he spent the rest of his life intimately involved with bikes, and a few cars.

He commuted the Harley to his job at the welding shop, not over freeways but on the rough trails of the Hollywood hills and along the LA river, before all became concrete and tarmac.  Pushing a large, heavy bike around in the dirt twice a day gave him valuable experience, and soon he was competing in local dirt races on the very same machine...not such an uncommon 'racer' in those impecunious postwar days, before the housing boom and general prosperity paved over LA.

A local dealer spotted Bud's riding talent, and offered him a Matchless single to ride in the Moose Run in 1951, which Ekins promptly won.  After further success, he turned pro, and within a year had sailed across the Atlantic to try his hand against the best in the world on the dirt, and make considerably more money, in Europe.   His first successes were in England, where he earned $200/week racing for AMC (Matchless), about ten times what he'd made in the US.  Shortly he would also ride in France, Spain, and Belgium, all of which had huge followings for scrambles - in fact some of the earliest sporting events on TV at the time were off-road motorcycle races.

He returned to the US in '54, and traded in his Matchless for a Triumph dealership in the San Fernando valley, set up by US importer Johnson Motors (now better known as a t-shirt company...).  Bud continued racing as well, winning the Catalina Grand Prix in 1955 and '57; he also won the Big Bear desert scramble twice.  His winning streak in SoCal was a great boon for Triumph in the US, and his skills handling tricky sand/dirt/rock terrain earned him the nickname 'the Desert Fox'.

Steve McQueen entered Bud's Triumph shop in 1959, and the two became fast friends.  As McQueen's star rose from a Western tv star to international movie star, he brought Bud along for help with film stunt work.  In 1963, during the filming of 'The Great Escape' near Fussen, Bavaria, Bud was employed to ride one of the most famous motorcycle stunts in history; 'the jump' over a prison camp barbed wire fence on a stolen German motorcycle (which transforms mid-scene from a DKW RT250 to a Triumph TR6 in dark green paint).  Of course, everyone thought McQueen had done the jump, as he preferred to do his own stunts, but the production company insisted he was too valuable to the film to risk injury, and Ekins leaped into infamy.  It's a compelling scene, and McQueen's cool demeanor in the film catapulted him to mega-stardom, and 'cool icon' status.  It was McQueen himself who credited Ekins with the jump, during an interview on the 'Johnny Carson Show' (now of course hosted by Jay Leno, a huge motorcycle buff - we are everywhere!), when asked about it: 'That wasn't me. That was Bud Ekins.'  For the jump, he was paid $1000, the highest compensation ever for a single stunt - and it was done in a single take.

During the long weeks of filming in Germany, Ekins entered the International Six Days' Trial (ISDT) in Czechoslovakia (he had entered once before and won a Gold Medal - eventually winning four Golds and one Silver during his career).  After winning his second Gold mid-film, McQueen, an excellent motorcyclist himself after personal tutelage from Bud, convinced Ekins to form the first-ever US ISDT Team.  Thus, in 1964, Ekins and his brother Dave, Cliff Coleman, and McQueen competed in East Germany, where they didn't fare well as a team (both Bud and Steve failing to finish due to injury), Dave and Cliff both won Gold medals.  The unreapeatable adventure of this ISDT is beautifully explored in the book '40 Summer Ago'  (Rin Tanaka and Sean Kelly), and if you're a McQueen or Ekins fan, you really should have it - the photographs are simply amazing.

In 1967 Ekins went on to partner with McQueen on the film 'Bullitt', with an infamous car chase over the San Francisco hills.  Ford was the beneficiary of incalculable publicity as Ekins launched a '67 Mustang Fastback over the sharp hillcrests of the City, smoking tires, sliding around corners, and making an impossible route through SF while chasing the 'bad guys' driving a Dodge Charger.

Bud Ekins retired from motorcycle racing in '67, but continued to run his motorcycle dealership and perform stunts in films, from motorcycle gang films ('Hell's Angels 69' - above, in a pic from the sale), to disaster films ('Towering Inferno'), and even James Bond films ('Diamonds are Forever').  When asked later in life which stunt scared him most, he replied, 'Pretty much all of them'.  Ekins died October 11, 2007.

His great love of motorcycles extended to vintage machinery, and Ekins had a very good eye for interesting early motorcycles and cars, eventually amassing over 150 machines.  One of his employees, Kenny Howard aka 'Von Dutch' (now better known as a t-shirt company...) painted many of Ekins' personal machines, some of which he decorated in his distinctive style of pinstriping and imagery.

Bonhams auctions has secured 8 vehicles from the estate of Bud Ekins, including 5 motorcycles, one 'loose' sidecar ('Mona', painted up by Von Dutch, above), and 3 'brass era' cars.  They're coming up for sale at the Petersen Museum in LA, on Saturday Nov. 13th. Also included will be photographs, memorabilia, trophies, tools, racing jacket, and ephemera from his friend Steve's entirely possible the total sale from the 'automobilia' will exceed the vehicles, given their provenance!

You can check out the entire collection here at the Bonhams website.