Bud Ekins, a devil-may-care motorcyclist who went from racing through the mountain trails and desert rambles of Southern California in the late 1940s to renown as the stuntman double for Steve McQueen in a 65-foot flight over a barbed-wire barrier, died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 77 and lived in Hollywood.
The death was confirmed by his daughter Susan.
Though known for that spine-tingling, if not vertebrae-crunching, leap to freedom while on the run from a German P.O.W. camp in “The Great Escape” (1963) and for some dazzling car stunts as well, Mr. Ekins was far more famous among ardent bikers and weekend fans of motorcycle racing.
“He was a great racer, a stunt rider and a major player in the birth of motocross,” said Mark Mederski, director of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington, Ohio, into which Mr. Ekins was inducted in 1999.
Motocross is racing on natural terrain with closed-circuit tracks marked by tape. These days the sport has commercial sponsorship, “jockeys” testing bikes before races, mechanics provided by manufacturers, crash helmets and body armor. But when Mr. Ekins and his buddies first took to the hills, they wore aviator goggles and leggings, bolted on shovel blades to serve as engine protectors and did their own repairs. Lots of repairs.
Mr. Ekins’s brother, David, a former editor of Motorcyclist Magazine and also a Hall of Fame inductee, said that if his brother failed to win a race, it was because he pushed his bike past the breaking point. That was evident in one of the most important annual competitions of the ’50s, the 100-mile Catalina Grand Prix.
“Bud raced it seven times,” David Ekins said. “He won in 1955. Every other year he led at the 50-mile mark. But then on the turns, he’d pitch the bike sideways at 90 miles an hour.”
“He was having fun as a showman.”
Three times, however, Bud Ekins did win the Big Bear Hare and Hound Race across 153 miles of the Mojave Desert. Leading about 700 riders in 1959, he came in a half-hour ahead of the pack.
In 1964 Mr. Ekins organized the American team for the International Six-Day Trials in Germany, the Olympics of motorcycling now called the International Six Days Enduro. The team also included Clifford Coleman, his brother and a young man who had come into Mr. Ekins’s motorcycle dealership in Hollywood, asked for off-road racing lessons and became a friend: Steve McQueen.
The friendship led to that classic “Great Escape” stunt: 12 feet high on a 400-pound ’62 Triumph.
“I made it on the first pass,” Mr. Ekins told Cycle News Magazine in 1998. His fee, $1,000, was “huge money back in those days,” he said.
Asked about the landing, he said, “Hard!”
Seven times during the 1960s Mr. Ekins participated in the International Six-Day Trials, racing about 200 miles a day. To earn a gold medal, competitors had to “run clean” each day, which required them to pass certain markers on time; repair their own bikes; and be among the top 20 percent of riders in daily speed tests. Mr. Ekins won four gold medals.
James Sherwin Ekins was born in Los Angeles on May 11, 1930. His father owned a welding shop. Mr. Ekins never completed eighth grade. He spent two years in reform school after a joy ride in a stolen car. Later, when not working in his father’s shop, he went hot rodding. Then the roar of his cousin’s Harley hooked him.
By his early 20s, Mr. Elkins was winning race after race in Southern California on his 1950 Matchless. He won the area’s No. 1 biking plate seven times.
“Bud knew the fine line between control and crashing,” his brother said.
Besides his brother and his daughter Susan, Mr. Ekins is survived by a sister, Vivian Gorriando; another daughter, Donna Ekins-Kapner; and two granddaughters. His wife, the former Betty Towne, died in 1996.
Before the 1980s when he reopened his shop, a showcase for his collection of nearly 100 vintage bikes, Mr. Ekins worked in films for 20 years. His harrowing stunts included two in the 1968 crime-thriller “Bullitt,” again as Mr. McQueen’s double and as an innocent stranger. In one, he lays down his bike in front of a skidding truck. In the other he drives a Ford Mustang in a 10-minute chase, soaring over the crests of San Francisco streets.
Asked by Cycle News if he ever refused a stunt, he said: “Yeah, some of them were too stupid to consider.”
Correction: November 2, 2007
An obituary on Oct. 12 about Bud Ekins, a motorcycle and auto stunt driver, referred incorrectly to two of his stunts in the 1968 crime thriller
CLASSIC LINE FROM EKINS ABOUT PARKS: "Mike comes around now and then, but when the beer runs out, so does he."