Bud Ekins was one America’s pioneering off-road motorcycle racers, a Hollywood stunt rider and classic motorcycle collector. His expertise in off road riding led to him being the stunt double for Steve McQueen in the iconic war film ‘The Great Escape’, completing the famous jump over the first barbed-wire barrier, which has become one of the most memorable motorcycling moments in movie history.
Ekins was born in Hollywood, California, on May 11 1930 and grew up in a working-class family. Growing up, he was a mischievous teenager and had to spend nearly two years in reform school after he and a group of friends were caught joyriding in a stolen car. With cars being his first interest, he tried his hand at hot-rodding, but then rode his cousin’s 1934 Harley-Davidson, which led to young Ekins becoming hooked on two-wheels.
While working at his dad’s welding shop and on the lookout to buy his first motorbike, Ekins found and bought a used 1940 Triumph and rode it all over the hills around his family’s Hollywood home. At the time, Los Angeles was motorcycling heaven and Ekins took full advantage of the freedom and, by riding every day, he got to know just about every mountain dirt round and desert trail in the area. As a result of all his daily riding, he became a talented motorcyclist and started entering local off-road races.
In 1949, one of the first big events he entered was the Big Bear Endurance Run, which started in the desert and went up challenging trails and dirt roads into the scenic San Bernardino mountain range. Ekins rode solidly on his old Triumph and finished well enough that he decided he needed a newer and better bike. So, he decided to upgrade to a Matchless, which proved to be a wise decision as he began winning races immediately.
By the mid-1950s, Ekins was the top scrambles and desert rider in Southern California, winning the district’s number one plate seven times. As a result of being so successful on a Matchless machine, Ekins was offered a chance to race a factory Matchless in world championship motocross events in Europe. In 1952, he travelled across the Atlantic to do just that, and despite often riding on muddy circuits that were much rougher than he was used to, he managed to earn his senior license and competed against the best motocross racers in the world.
He returned to the US to compete in motocross several more times through the mid-1950s, with his European racing experiences sharpening his skills allowing him to win domestic races with ease. In 1955, Ekins was victorious in the Catalina Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious races in the country, riding a Johnson Motors Triumph, and dropped almost 10 minutes off the previous record for the race. He also won the Big Bear Run three times during the ‘50s, including the 1959 victory in which he completed the 153-mile course over half an hour ahead of the second-place rider, even after suffering a flat tyre and a breaking wheel!
One of Ekins’ greatest accomplishments came in the 1964 International Six Day Trials in Germany. Ekins was joined by his brother Dave and Steve McQueen, and the team led the international competition before McQueen was involved in a crash and Ekins later broke his leg. In all, he won four gold medals and a silver during his seven years of competing in the ISDT during the 1960s. During his years competing in the ISDT, he also founded the famous Baja 1000, making record runs down the Mexican peninsula.
By the mid ‘60s, he owned a Triumph dealership and had become something of a hero to Hollywood’s young movie actors, who would often visit and hang out at his shop. One of those actors was Steve McQueen, who he helped to become a good off road racer himself. Through his association with McQueen, Ekins began his career as a movie stuntman.
In 1962, McQueen asked Ekins to come to Germany to do some stunt riding for the filming of ‘The Great Escape’. Ekins was in Germany for more than four months working on the film, and it was at the end of shooting that the pair came up with the now-famous jump scene where McQueen, playing a prisoner of war, is trying to escape by motorcycle from a German prison camp and attempts an impossible jump over a barbed-wire fence. Ekins successfully performed the jump first time. The stunt is considered one of the all-time great motorcycle movie scenes, and has even been re-created by former road racer turned TV personality, Guy Martin, on a modified Triumph Scrambler 1200.
Ekins continued his stunt work until he was in his 60s, spanning an incredible 30 years, becoming one of the best in Hollywood. A true motorcycling legend who is remembered in the AMA Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame. He died in 2007, aged 77.