Bud Ekins was one America’s pioneering off-road motorcyclists. His racing career spanned two distinct eras of American off-road racing – the days of desert and mountain endurance runs, to the modern era of scrambles and motocross. Ekins was one of the first Americans to compete in the World Championship Motocross Grand Prix circuit in Europe during the 1950s. He also earned gold medals in the International Six Day Trial (now International Six Day Enduro).
After his racing career, Ekins went on to become one of Hollywood’s leading stuntmen. His most famous stunt was the climactic motorcycle jump scene in the 1963 movie, "The Great Escape," starring another famous motorcyclist, Steve McQueen. Ekins went on to be one of the country’s leading collectors of vintage and rare motorcycles. At one time, his collection numbered over 150 motorcycles and was considered to be the most valuable in the country.
Ekins was born in Hollywood, California, on May 11, 1930. He grew up in a working-class family. Ekins was a mischievous teenager, to say the least, and had to spend nearly two years in reform school after he and a group of buddies were caught joyriding in a stolen car. At first, Ekins dabbled in hot-rodding cars, but after he rode his cousin’s 1934 Harley-Davidson, he became hooked on motorcycles.
Working at his dad’s welding shop, Ekins bought a used 1940 Triumph and rode it all over the hills around his family’s Hollywood Hills home. Early 1950s 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 fire road, sand wash, mountain dirt road and desert trail in the area. As a result of all his daily riding, he became quite an excellent motorcyclist and started entering local off-road races.
In 1949, one of the first big events he entered was the legendary Big Bear Endurance Run, which started in the desert and went up the challenging trails and dirt roads into the scenic San Bernardino mountain range. Ekins rode a good race on his old Triumph and finished well enough that he decided he needed a newer and better bike. He bought a 1950 Matchless and immediately started winning races on his new bike.
Ekins took a job working as a mechanic at a motorcycle shop in his early 20s and it was then that he began his lifelong hobby of motorcycle collecting. The first old bike he bought was a 1928 Henderson Four. A customer came into the shop and wanted to trade in the bike. The owner of the shop wasn’t interested, but Ekins offered to pay his boss $35 for the bike if he took it in for trade. "That meant he wouldn’t have to pay me my $35 salary that week, so he happily agreed to the arrangement," Ekins remembers.
By the mid-1950s, Ekins was the top scrambles and desert rider in Southern California. He won the district’s number one plate seven times. Ekins remembers two riders who came along later in his racing career who were particularly hard to beat: Eddie Mulder and J.D. Williams.
Ekins explained in a 1985 Motorcyclist interview that he had to outsmart younger riders like Mulder and Williams to win. In an early-1960s Southern California hare scrambles race, Ekins was battling Mulder and on the final lap nearly crashed in a big hole that was forming just before the finish line as they started the last lap. As the two came around racing side by side for the checkered flag on the next lap, Ekins just moved his line ever so slightly, forcing an unsuspecting Mulder into the big hole. The result was that Mulder took a big tumble and Ekins the victory.
"Eddie knew I did it on purpose," Ekins laughed. "I told him years later."
For being so successful for Matchless here in the United States, Ekins was offered a chance to race a factory Matchless in world championship motocross events in Europe. In 1952, Ekins went to Europe, and despite often riding on muddy circuits that were much rougher than he was accustomed to, he managed to earn his senior license and turned in some respectable finishes against the best motocross racers in the world. He returned to compete in international motocross several more times through the mid-1950s.
His European racing experiences sharpened Ekins’ skills considerably and he began winning domestic races with seeming 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, Ekins sliced almost 10 minutes off the old record for the race. He also won the Big Bear Run three times during the 1950s, including the 1959 victory in which he completed the 153-mile course over half an hour ahead of the second-place rider, despite suffering a flat tire and breaking a wheel. For a period during the late-‘50s and early-‘60s, Ekins was easily the most dominant racer in desert events. Ekins was a founder of the famous Baja 1000, making record runs down the Mexican peninsula in the early-1960s.
Perhaps Ekins’ greatest accomplishments came in the esteemed International Six Day Trials. In 1964, Ekins, his brother Dave, and Steve McQueen raced in the ISDT in Germany. The team led the international competition before McQueen was involved in a crash and Bud later broke his leg. In all, Ekins won four gold medals and a silver during his seven years of competing in the ISDT during the 1960s.
By the mid-1960s, Ekins owned a Triumph dealership and had become something of a hero to Hollywood’s young movie actors, who would often hangout at his shop. One of those actors was McQueen. Ekins helped McQueen learn off-road racing and the actor became an accomplish racer.
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. It was at the end of shooting that McQueen and Ekins 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, acting as stunt double for McQueen, was the rider who performed what is now perhaps the most famous motorcycle stunt ever performed in a movie.
Ekins continued his stunt work and became one of the best in Hollywood. He continued doing stunt work until he was in his mid-60s, his stunt career spanned an incredible 30 years.
After retiring, Ekins continued running a small motorcycle shop in Hollywood that features vintage machines. During the 1980s, Ekins became one of the top collectors of vintage motorcycles in the country. Ekins was proud of the fact that not only was his collection vast, but it was alsoa living collection. He claimed that all of his motorcycles were in running order. At one point, he set out to collect at least one of every motorcycle brand ever produced in America. He found the task impossible, but he still built up an impressive collection of 54 different American makes, most built prior to World War I.
When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, Ekins still ran his Hollywood shop and enjoyed collecting and restoration and the daily company of motorcycle enthusiasts. He died Oct. 6, 2007.