Where were you on 3 December 1981 at roughly 7.30pm?
I know exactly where I was – lying in a Herefordshire ditch with a crumpled motorcycle wreck beside me. I’d been riding my machine home from college when I forgot that bikers have to lean to negotiate a corner. Not surprisingly, the surgeon wasn’t that impressed with my riding abilities either, as he slipped my dislocated shoulder back into the socket with a painful jolt.
My father quickly disposed of the Suzuki and it was 34 years before I slid back onto the saddle, this time as a born-again biker. That’s the moniker given to riders who owned motorcycles long ago, only to end up in a business suit, slave to a mortgage and helping kids though university. In my case, it was two wives, a yacht and a string of inappropriate cars.
Now, in my fifties, I have the time, money and inclination to ride again. Things have changed a lot since 1981 – not least the bikes. Back then I scraped together a few hundred pounds to buy my first set of wheels and I could only ride a machine up to 250cc. Now my pockets are deeper and, with the correct licence, I can actually ride any bike I choose – 1,000cc and beyond.
Modern bikes are nothing like the machines I used to ride. Apart from better engines, handling and economy, many are actually designed to be comfortable. Touring bikes pamper riders with Bluetooth intercom, sophisticated sound systems and heated seats for aged, aching bones. A Harley- Davidson can cost in excess of £30,000.
Motorcycle manufacturers have been quick to pick up on the born-again biker trend. Many now offer updated versions of the machines that I coveted all those years ago. The only difference is these retro bikes now have luxuries built in, such as electronic ignition instead of a kick-start, whisper-quiet engines and anti-lock brakes that help prevent riders disappearing through a hedge.
If you want a bone fide reason to wear a leather jacket, and like the idea of turning back the speedometer to your motorcycling youth, there’s honestly never been a better time. If you need further inspiration, 2019 is also the 75th anniversary of an incident that led to one of the most iconic motorcycle scenes in cinema history. The break-out from the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp in 1944 inspired The Great Escape – the fictionalised movie that starred Steve McQueen in his most memorable film.
Released in 1963, the motorcycle jump over a 12ft barbed wire fence is still regarded as one of the best-loved action moments of all time. To celebrate the original break-out and discover my inner Steve McQueen, I’ve travelled to Füssen, Germany, just north of the Austrian border. About 90 minutes south of Munich, the picturesque region borders the Alps and famously captured the imagination of filmmakers producing The Great Escape.
Sharing the road with other motorists: for motorcyclists
During the summer of 1962, sleepy Füssen was abuzz with excitement as Hollywood’s finest descended on the town. Lederhosen-clad men rubbed shoulders at the bar with the likes of Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Richard Attenborough. The real star though was McQueen, ruggedly handsome and already famous for blockbuster western The Magnificent Seven. I’ve gained celebrity status by arriving in Füssen on an exact replica of the bike McQueen used in the film. It belongs to Triumph and is based on a TR6 Trophy model – a classic British motorcycle, complete with the troublesome kick-start and plentiful oil leaks. On the bucket list of bike rides, this is surely near the top.
n the film, McQueen’s character, Virgil Hilts – ‘The Cooler King’ – rides a stolen BMW R75 motorcycle in a bid to cross the border to neutral Switzerland. But the machine proved too heavy for the legendary jumpscene, so the lighter Triumph was used, disguised as a German army bike. McQueen, a celebrated motocross rider, was so fast in many of the chase scenes that the director had to re-shoot time and time again. In the end, McQueen donned a German officer’s uniform and chased himself across the countryside, thanks to some clever editing.
I’m enjoying a more leisurely puttputt around the medieval old town on my Triumph, where Gothic gabled roofs rub shoulders with the remains of Füssen’s ancient city walls. The High Castle overlooks the scene and was once a summer residence for local dignitaries – below that is the baroque splendour of a former monastery. It’s all impossibly beautiful, even through fly-splattered goggles. However, nothing prepares visitors for their first glimpse of Neuschwanstein Castle, a 19th-century Romanesque palace of mesmerising grandeur. Commissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria, in honour of composer Richard Wagner, it attracts more than a million visitors a year. Bizarrely, the SS considered blowing up the building in 1945 to prevent it falling into enemy hands. Set precariously on a rugged hillside, the palace served as the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle, and also appeared in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Riding with pillion passengers
n America, The Great Escape jump location would likely have become a theme park by now. Here in Füssen, the townsfolk are strangely ambivalent about it all. I’m determined to find the actual spot and so turn to the local tourist office for help. Stefan Fredlmeier knows just the man and soon I’m at a field a few miles outside of town, where a tractor is muck-spreading across undulating hills. This looks like the place but where, exactly?
I’m introduced to Josef ‘Seppy’ Kern, who has farmed here all his life.
Kern was just 16 in 1962 and his father owned the land where the jump took place. It’s just a few hundred yards from where we are standing, with a glorious Alpine backdrop. ‘I think my father was paid a lot of money for the location,’ he says. ‘The crew were therefor more than a month putting up the replica barbed wire that represented the German border. It was actually rubber bands tied around ordinary wire.’ Although McQueen rode bikes in the film, he was considered too valuable an asset to attempt the fence jump, so the production team turned to stunt expert, Bud Ekins. ‘They built a ramp and Bud jumped it time and time again, maybe 50 times,’ says Kern. ‘But what people don’t know is that McQueen also made the jump himself – although it wasn’t seen on camera and I doubt the director ever found out.’
Now 72, Kern remembers that summer with fondness. McQueen’s son Chad visited the site in 2013, equally determined to find the exact location. ‘He told me that his father spoke many times of my father. During breaks in the filming, my father rolled cigarettes for Steve McQueen and they would chat. When the filming was done, he gave my father a hug and presented him with the chair that he sat on to relax. I still have that chair. It reminds me of a happy time, when Hollywood came to Füssen and Steve McQueen smoked cigarettes with my father.’
Few people know the exact location of the iconic Great Escape jump scene and I’m not going to reveal it. But you don’t need to ride like Steve McQueen to enjoy motorcycling.