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Building a Desert Sled like Steve McQueen's!

McQueen's T120C 650 desert sled, featured in "Cycle World", June 1964

McQueen's T120C 650 desert sled, featured in "Cycle World", June 1964, timing side

In the late '50s and early '60s, actor Steve McQueen commissioned several desert sleds to be built for him at his friend Bud Ekins' shop on Ventura Boulevard for racing and "cow trailing" in the Californian desert. Triumph 500s and 650s during this period were the weapon of choice for many desert riders and aftermarket parts were available from a number of retailers, and a tried and tested formula had evolved for their specification. Most desert riders would have started off with a second-hand road bike, stripped it of unnecessary accessories such as lighting and silencers, fitted battery-less ignition and then modified to their own requirements. Those who could afford it could order a pre-built machine from the likes of Bud Ekins or (from a later date) Ted Lapadakis of LA-based "Ted's Triumph's", and other dealers.

Ted Lapadakis' advert for custom-built desert sleds c. 1967

The "ready-to-race" desert sleds produced by the likes of Bud and Ted were built to a formula, tailored to meet individual requirements and budgets. McQueen purchased one of the first, top of the rang T120C 650 TT Specials, DU1683, from Johnson Motors in October 1963 and handed it over to Bud for transformation into a desert sled. The TT and Trophy Specials, introduced by Triumph for 1963, were stripped down off-road machines supplied initially to their West Coast distributors, with no lighting, silencers and with battery-less ET ignition. The single carb Trophy Special was preferred by many as a desert racer for its reliability, but some, like McQueen, preferred the twin-carb Bonneville engine with its promise of greater power. The TT Special Bonneville was a little cheaper than a T120R roadbike and made a better basis as a desert sled, so would have been an obvious choice. It was intended - as the name suggests - principally for US TT racing, and was fitted with very high compression 12:1 pistons for this purpose. For desert competition, where reliability was paramount, particularly over the long-distance enduro courses, these were generally replaced with standard 8.5:1 pistons.

Competitor in a desert race run by the Checkers club at a checkpoint

Another typical '60s Triumph desert sled - note similarities to the McQueen bike

In 1963/64 when Steve McQueen had his TT Special built, Bud Ekins was the place to go. The specification for the bike are given in some detail in "Cycle World", June 1964, and can be gleaned from existing contemporary photographs as well as from those of DU1683, believed to be the same bike, sold at auction in Las Vegas in January 2016 (with special thanks to Bonhams for their kind permission to use them).

1963 T120C TT Special DU1683 at auction January 2016

[Photo courtesy of Bonhams]

Below are the basis specs for the T120C Bonneville desert sled built for Steve McQueen by Bud Ekins. I'm currently building one in this style - typical of the Californian desert sleds of that period - having acquired an engine used in a 1965 TR6SC desert sled, along with frame, tanks and other components. It's not going to be an exact replica of the McQueen bike - that sort of thing doesn't really interest me - just something built in the same style of the bikes built by the likes of Bud Ekins in California in the '60s. It will include some of the key modifications listed below.

Steve McQueen-style desert sled spec, as built by Bud Ekins (#502)

Donor bike: 1963 T120C TT Special (for an exact replica of McQueen's one - but any T120/TR6 or T100 could be used)

Remove lighting, fit battery-less ignition (Pazon with Boyer Power Pack recommended)

Straight through high level pipes exiting on the left, unchromed preferably. JRC Engineering in the US supply similar ones but the ones I bought did not fit and I believe they are for pre-unit engines. LF Harris supply-slash cut 1966 West Coast TR6SC style ones which are much shorter but perhaps could have extensions welded on.

1956 front hub with smaller brake plate fitted with air-scoop

Dunlop Universal 4.00 x 19" front tyre on standard Dunlop WM2 X 19" rim [tyre unavailable, Ensign supply an alternative]

Dunlop Sports knobbly 4.00 x 18" rear tyre on standard Dunlop WM3 x 18" rim [tyre unavailable, Continental Twinduro supply something relatively similar which also works well on the road]

Alloy fenders, rear one shortened

Harlan Bast or similar heavy duty skid plate

Special collector box with external paper air filter (not necessary for single carb)

Flanders handle bars

Leather hand guards

Single, Triumph-type heat shield on one pipe

Modified oil tank with increased capacity and filler on the side (instead of top)

Badges and parcel rack removed from petrol tank, holes filled

Plain black paintwork with white Triumph script logo

Thick padded Bates seat [unavailable - would need to have one custom made]

Bracket welded to rear frame to support seat

Rear frame hoop bent upwards to accomodate rear knobbly

Headstock bent to increase rake

Braced scrambles-style foot pegs with plate behind - probably have to modify a pair of standard foot pegs

Rear brake rod increased in diameter to 5/16" and re-routed inside frame/shock (standard diameter 1/4" and routed outside frame/shock in '63).

Pr-unit brake pedal

PRV with return line back to oil tank

Throttle cables running over tank through alloy brackets to carbs - presumably to facilitate easy changing.

Standard Amal Monobloc(s)

Girling-style 13" shocks (12.9" standard) with chrome shrouds, black lowers (reverse of usual Triumph practice). Hagon make representative examples at a reasonable price - just remember to remove the "Hagon" sticker!


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