Bud Ekins' 1938 Triumph Speed Twin

Paul Garson
by Paul Garson

If it hadn’t been for an engineer named Edward Turner, Marlon Brando might have ridden a Harley in “The Wild One” and Steve McQueen might have ridden a Honda in “The Great Escape.” Both rode Triumphs into film and pop culture history.

In the 1953 classic Columbia Pictures “The Wild One” Marlon Brando, aka Johnny, and most of his Black Rebels MC buddies trundled around on Triumphs and other Brit bikes while the “bad guys”, as represented by Lee Marvin (playing the part of Boozefighters MC co-founder “Wino” Willy Forkner), rode Harleys. Not so incidentally, and here’s a bit of trivia…what was the name of Marvin’s gang…give up? The Beatles. No kidding and some think the inspiration for the band name chosen by those four Mopheads who later made a few records. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that the Beatles used the scene from the movie where Marvin introduces The Beatles at the beginning of The Beatles Anthology. Plus a photo of Brando as Johnny showed up on the cover of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Want more trivia? Johnny’s last name in the movie was Strabler.)

bud ekins 1938 triumph speed twin
By the way, the Trumpet Brando rode in the film was his personal bike, a 1950 Triumph Thunderbird 6T (Lee Marvin actually desert raced his own Triumph Tiger Cub). There has been some confusion as to what he was riding, thanks in part to a publicity still in which Brando is seen astride a Matchless twin with the “M” turned upside down., the bike actually belonging to a stunt rider named Wally Albright. In addition the public seemed to have the uninformed general impression everyone was riding “Hogs,” even though the Triumph logo was visible, this being the first film in which the manufacturer's logo on motorcycles was not blanked out. The public was also somewhat misinformed as the movie’s screenplay was based on a short story published in a 1951 issue of Harper’s magazine called “The Cyclists’ Raid” which itself was based on the July 4th 1947 Hollister “incident” which received notoriety thanks to LIFE magazine. At first the U.S. importers of Triumph at the time, the now iconic Johnson Motors, initially complained the movie gave their product a bad name, but that perception changed radically as the movie added to the mystique of Triumph and to showroom sales. Oddly enough “The Wild One” was banned in the Triumph’s home country, England, until 1967 and then only with an X rating! Go figure.

As for Steve McQueen’s famous, though thwarted, escape attempt on a motorcycle in “The Great Escape” circa 1967, he rides a German WWII Wehrmacht gray painted 1961 Triumph TR6 Trophy Bird. As is well known McQueen was an expert rider, competing in many racing events and happy to perform much of his own stunt riding. His motorcycle skills, however, got him in trouble early on. For example, although he dropped out of school in the 9th grade he was later accepted at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, but was expelled for riding his bike through the halls of the College of Fine Arts building. Later his film company, Solar Productions, produced a movie called “On Any Sunday.” Now that’s art.

bud ekins 1938 triumph speed twin, Bud Ekins 1938 Triumph Speed Twin
Bud Ekins’ 1938 Triumph Speed Twin.

McQueen’s first bike was a 1946 Indian Chief, but one day in the 1960s while riding in L.A. with his fellow actor Dennis Hopper (aka “Easyriders”), he watched some off-road riders in action on a nearby steep hill. The very next day McQueen bought himself a 500cc off-road Triumph from a dealership run by none other than Bud Ekins. The two became fast friends, literally, with Bud introducing Steve to off-road competition, at which both excelled. To get around his movie contracts, McQueen raced under the pseudonym Harvey Mushman.

In “The Great Escape” McQueen rode the Triumph disguised to look something like a German DKW or NSU as used by the Germans at the time, but he was not allowed to risk his very expensive neck in the final scene when jumping the barbed wire barricade separating home from freedom in neutral Switzerland. That famous bike jump was given to his friend and fellow bike racer/stuntman Bud Ekins. Besides being a top notch competitor, taking four Gold and a Silver during the 1960s ISDT events, plus winning the Big Bear Endurance, the Catalina GP and the SoCal District One plate seven times, Bud rode everything on two and four wheels, including the dark green 1968 Ford Mustang GT that “starred” along with his buddy McQueen in the classic cop move “Bullitt.” He also appeared in the TV series ChiPs and dozens of movies including The Blues Brothers, Electra Glide in Blue, Race with the Devil, Sorcerer and Diamonds are Forever. He was a member of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and Off-road Hall of Fame. While Steve McQueen, at 50, passed away in 1980, Bud Ekins went to the wide open racetrack in the sky in October 2007.

This is where this story catches up with the bike seen here, an all original 1938 Triumph 5T Speed Twin, a milestone machine in many ways. The Ekins Triumph is now in the capable hands of Los Angeles area Brit bike collector/restorer/rider Olaf Hassel. Olaf’s roots are in Norway, but he grew up in London so Brit bikes are in his DNA as well.

bud ekins 1938 triumph speed twin, Note the bicycle style air pump above the chainguard included as standard equipment
Note the bicycle-style air pump, above the chainguard, included as standard equipment.
Taking a trip down motorcycle memory lane, Olaf informs us that in 1937 Edward Turner turned in his Ariel company i.d. for one belonging to Triumph, which quickly realized his concept for a new 500 cc vertical twin cylinder engine, a design that would keep pace for nearly half a century. Triumph started manufacturing bicycles in 1885 and added a motor around 1902. In the late 1930s, as England and Europe headed toward WWII, progress in the development of new techniques and machine tools allowed for finer tolerances and thus more precision manufacturing. At that time the British company was at the motorcycle forefront with their single cylinder machines thanks to the engine’s simplicity, low cost of production, endurance, performance and excellent handling. However, starting was difficult and vibration was a problem. The solution? A twin cylinder engine. But various efforts failed, including Triumph's own 1933 attempt at a 650cc twin, until 1937 when Triumph acquired the skills of Turner, the designer of the famous Ariel Square Four.

In fact the company was going under by 1936 until bought and revived by Jack Sangster, who almost immediately hired Turner, the two saving the day, Triumph and perhaps the British motorcycle industry. While Turner started by designing 250, 350 and 500 singles for his new Triumph employers, within a year he had designed the all new 500c Speed Twin which became a smashing success that turned the industry on its ear and revived Triumph to international prominence. Here was a bike that weighed about 365 lb and featured a compact new design with a narrow crankcase. Set in a rigid frame, the 500cc with a mild 7:1 compression ratio and fed by an Amal carb with remote reservoir pumped out 26 mph, good enough to blast 90 mph in 1938 and whump the heavier competition.

bud ekins 1938 triumph speed twin, Tank mounted Lucas eesh oil pressure gauge and ammeter
Tank-mounted Lucas (eesh!) oil pressure gauge and ammeter.
This particular 1938, bearing the engine number 8-5T12877, is a first example as distinguished by a six-stud crankcase, a one-year only appearance, as the following years utilized an 8-stud design to add further strength. Rarely seen and still in place on this exceptionally stock machine is the Triumph tire pump, Lucas horn and lower chain guard. Another item of interest is the Bakelite composition steering damper, the material just then invented in the pre-WWII 1930s.The only part on the bike that has been refinished is the Lucas headlight, which has been re-chromed and still sports the rather ornate Lucas crest insignia as well as the original and classic black-face Smith Chronometric instrument gauges. Rare as dragons teeth are the Lucas oil pressure gauge and ammeter which includes an integrated inspection light that detaches from the tank and via an electrical extension line allows the light to be shone over various parts of the bike during dark hours, all original equipment. As are the Amal marked levers, of old fashioned brass and chromed design, attached to the paint rather than plated handlebar. Also found there are the levers to affect spark and advance in conjunction with the super rare pre-war Lucas Double Mag-Dyno by which you operate the machine. It still wears its English M.OT. license badge required for British roadway use as well as original Triumph decals and the classic triangular engine case plate inscribed with Speed Twin.

Bud Ekins knew what he was looking at when he discovered this bike many years ago in England and so purchased it, bringing it back to his L.A. shop. It then changed hands in 1991, going to another collector and then some 17 years later joined the stable of English thoroughbreds inhabiting Olaf’s garage. If interested in more info you can contact Olaf via his email at [email protected].

Related Reading:

Bob Gill Jet Bike
Jack Lilly’s 1939 Crocker
Marty Dickerson Interview

Join the conversation