By Frank Melling, Contributing Editor

Good enough for Steve McQueen

Motorcycling journalists are, by nature and inclination, promiscuous in terms of bikes. This is why it’s so difficult to answer the question frequently pitched to us: “What’s the best bike you have ever ridden?”

Is the Honda Valkyrie I rode from Los Angeles to the Mexican border better than the 1957 Gilera “Four”? How does the Gilera compare with the factory 360 Husqvarna I tested three days after it won the World Championship? They’re all different and, in their own ways, wonderful motorcycles.

A better question to ask a journo, and get ready with the oxygen mask and ambulance for this one, is “What bike would you spend your own money on?”

If the shock of the question doesn’t kill them then the answers will be interesting. For sure it won’t be some multi-thousand dollar piece of exotica that the scribes choose but it is far more likely to be a thoroughly practical motorcycle.

Because I have been riding bikes since before Columbus left Spain for a quick sailboat trip round the harbor, I have had the great pleasure of testing many motorcycles of virtually every type – from Grand Prix machines to humble commuters. Even in this cornucopia of two-wheeled delights, the Triumph TR6 sticks out like a beacon.

The story of the TR6 is a very American one – and even more specifically a West Coast tale. It was the Americans who pressed Triumph for a bigger capacity machine than their flagship 500s, and the Meriden factory was happy to supply the 650cc Thunderbird in 1949.

The Thunderbird was a Harley eater in terms of both power and acceleration, but its all-iron engine was designed first, last and middle for the street.

Triumph didn’t race in Grands Prix, which Edward Turner, who was Triumph’s autocratic boss, thought were a waste of time and resources. However, they were active in every other form of motorcycle competition. In everything from enduros to the Clubman’s TT in the Isle of Man, Triumph riders relied on the all-alloy 500s, which were light and fast.

The problem was that the 500s were underpowered for the West Coast – and particularly for desert racing.

Early TR6s were a bigger version of the 500cc TR5 that was incredibly successful in everything from motocross to enduros, the hugely important Big Bear Hare and Hounds race, and the Catalina GP.

TR6s were also fast and, with a 100 mph turn of speed, were ultra-cool on the road too. Arguably the TR6 is the great, great grandparent of the dual-sport machines that are so popular today.

So, what makes the TR6 such a wonderful machine? First, there is the power. Triumph claimed 45 horsepower for the 71 x 82mm, single carb Twin, which, if not actually honest, was not too far out. Certainly, all over Southern California, Triumph tuners were rolling out machines with well over 40 hp at the back wheel.

Not only was the power impressive for the day, but the manner in which it was delivered was fantastic. Peak power was at 6,500 rpm, but, other than desperate passes, there was never any need to rev the motor this hard. Right from tickover, a TR6 just oozes creamy smooth torque, which makes life so easy for the rider.

It does take a bit of skill and knowledge to set the manually adjusted magneto ignition and the equally manual choke, but with an experienced rider, the TR6 will burst into life first kick, every time.

The engine was simple too. The four valves were operated by basic push-rods – a system Triumph had been using successfully for decades. The separate gearbox was utterly unbreakable, and the clutch was just as good. Finally, Triumph quality control was the best in the business. Until the Japanese came along, the TR6 was as good as it got in terms of reliability.

From 1960, the frame was strengthened, making the chassis nearly unbreakable.

The designers of the day didn’t have access to computers and CAD/CAM programs, but they did know that to make the bikes of the day handle you needed a 55-inch wheelbase, a steering head angle of 63 degrees and 5 ¼ inches of trail.

In this configuration, the TR6 has a wonderfully neutral feel. There is no need for counter steering or shifting body weight. It’s simply a case of asking the bike to do anything from power slides to landing true after a jump, and it will obey.

This brings us to the TR6’s most famous moment – if not its most glorious. The Steve McQueen/Bud Ekins jump in the “Great Escape.”

Despite being a competition orientated machine, the TR6 is incredibly easy to ride. It has a low seat height and is light and narrow. The torquey engine is very hard to stall, so a novice can instantly learn clutch control. In fact, it was the perfect machine for Bud to use to teach Steve McQueen the art of motorcycle riding. They used the fire roads that, in those happy days, began at the rear of Ekins’ North Hollywood shop.

Steve agreed to do the film for John Sturges, who both directed and produced the “Great Escape,” but only with the caveat that there would be some motorcycle action in the movie. He also insisted that Ekins would be hired as a stuntman and motorcycle expert.

Bud told me the story when I spoke with him in his North Hollywood shop: “I’d sort of taught Steve to ride bikes, and when he was offered a part in ‘The Great Escape’ he persuaded John Sturges to write a bike chase into the script and into his contract. At the same time Steve insisted that he would only work with me.

“I’d never done film work, so when I went for interview I bought a new shirt, tie and a suit – but I needn’t have bothered because Steve picked me up in his D-Type Jag dressed as he always was in Levis and an old T-shirt.

“We went up to Hollywood and I was amazed, and embarrassed, when the Security saw Steve and his Jag and threw back the gates just like in the movies. Steve just took this as normal.

“John Sturges directed the film and was also the producer. He really wanted to keep Steve happy so he took me on for $100 a day, including expenses – which was good money when a new 650 Triumph was $600.

“As for the bikes, it had to be TR6s. We knew the bikes inside out, and we knew that they wouldn’t let us down.”

It’s easy to stand back, look at a TR6 and smile at the thought of Ekins and McQueen even thinking about riding a machine that, by modern standards, looks as useful as a Neanderthal's stone axe. However, you would be wrong. First, there was nothing better on the market, and second, with a skilled rider in the saddle, the bike was surprisingly competent.

Everything about the TR6 made life easy for Bud as the stunt rider and John Sturges as the film director. The TR6’s gearbox is sweet and reliable, and the clutch is bulletproof (even for German bullets). At a time when trusting a bike’s reliability was like playing roulette, the Meriden-built Triumphs were the bikes you could always rely on.

The chassis wasn’t as good as the engine, but things were not as bad as they first seemed. The chassis was race proven and, for the day, handled beautifully.

Both McQueen and Ekins knew that whatever they demanded of the TR6 in the film – and McQueen got arrested several times for reckless riding when the crew was not filming – the motorcycles would deliver.

Probably the one area that would really frighten us today is the suspension. Triumph’s front fork was dire, offering a nominal 6 inches (150mm) of travel, of which only the middle couple of inches really worked. Landing front wheel first, supercross style, meant a guaranteed trip to the hospital!

Things were no better at the rear end with the oil-damped Girling dampers perhaps even worse than the Triumph front forks.

This is why the jump in the “Great Escape” is text book perfect for the era. Bud and motocross star Tim Gibbes designed the dug-out ramp to ensure that the bike took off in a gentle arc, landing on the back wheel after the 65-foot long, 12-foot high jump. Done this way, the Girlings would bottom out, the frame flex and the front wheel would come down to earth controllably. That’s the theory, and it was possible, as Ekins showed – but only if you also possessed a brass set of cojones!

For my money – and that’s a powerful word for a journalist to use – the TR6 is an all-around better bike than a Bonneville. In real world terms, it’s faster than a Bonnie and handles just as well. A TR6 is also easier to keep in tune.

The best news of all is that TR6s are always the Plain Jane at the party rather than usurping the Bonneville’s position as Prom Queen, but this makes them at least a third cheaper. Note the word “cheaper” – rather than cheap. A nice TR6 is going to take $10,000 out of your bank, but, roll of drums in the background, it’s one of a tiny group of classics on which I would spend my own money.