The Great Escape is a movie that many of us remember watching on television during our teenage years…if you are in your 40s or 50s anyway. Based on the true story of prisoners escaping a German POW camp during WWII, the movie combines many elements of history and excitement. Watching Steve McQueen’s character make his final run on a motorcycle made my younger self wonder what kind of bike he was riding, and I’m not the only one. So…what is the motorcycle in The Great Escape?
Triumph TR6 Trophy…Disguised as a BMW R75
Steve McQueen stretches some rope across a road after escaping in order to get a motorcycle. His goal is to make it to Switzerland to escape his German pursuers. The German military used various BMW rides throughout the war, but none had survived in good enough condition to be used in the film. McQueen, an avid biker, had a great appreciation for Triumph bikes and his stunt double was a Triumph dealer, so the natural bike to use was a Triumph. There were several bikes used during filming, but all were 1961 Triumph TR6 Trophy’s modified to look like the BMW R75s that were common during WWII. The mods were fairly simple: they were limited to replacing the front and rear suspension along with new paint.
The TR6 Trophy
The Triumph TR6 Trophy, originally called the Trophy-bird, was built from 1956 to 1973. It was replaced by the TR7V Tiger in 1974. The Trophy, also known as the Desert Sled, was powered by a 650cc four-stroke parallel twin engine that produced 46 bhp at 6500 rpm. The engine was paired to a four-speed (5-TR6RV) transmission. The engine was borrowed from the T110, but used Triumph’s new (at the time) ”Delta” alloy cylinder head. The engine had a compression ratio of 8.5:1, making it ideal for off-road competition. The Trophy also featured a ”siamese” (two-into-one) exhaust setup, an 8 inch front brake, Smiths Chronometric instruments, and a detachable headlamp. The detachable headlamp made the Trophy street legal as well as off-road comp legal. By 1961, the TR6 was outfitted with a K2FC Lucas Red Label Competition Magneto and the name had changed to Trophy, dropping the Trophy-bird moniker.
McQueen and a Triumph
McQueen was a dedicated Triumph fan. So much so, that he often competed riding one. In 1964, he competed with the Ekins brothers (brother Bud worked as a stunt double and bike modifier for the movie) as part of the American ISDT team in East Germany. They rode TR6SC and T100SC models. Teammate Cliff Coleman took third in the up to 750cc class and Dave Ekins took fifth in the 500cc group. Bud Ekins and Steve McQueen both crashed on the third day of the seven day event.
T100 Steve McQueen Edition: a Latter-Day Triumph
In 2012, Triumph sought to capitalize on the Steve McQueen connection by offering a special edition Bonnie painted matte green, with Steve’s signature on the cover and a number of WWII-ish appointments. The bikes were limited to a 1100-unit run, and each came with a certificate of authenticity and plaque between the handlebars.
The Great Escape may be an older movie, starring men who have passed long ago, but it is still an intriguing watch, even if you just want to see a Trophy jump a row of razor wire. Here’s the full motorcycle scene below: