Steve McQueen – Motorcycles and the Case for Cool

If there’s one thing you can say about Steve McQueen it’s that the man’s garnered a lotta ink over the years.  I think it’s impossible to have any sort of conversation about style without seeing McQueen’s name pop up at least once, I mean I personally have mentioned him in every post this week, but I’m not going to apologize for that one.  It seems that everyone’s approached the McQueen story in one way or another at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting and if there was ever a time for me to give the man a proper write up, it would be this week.

Looking at actors these days, there’s just something amiss about them.  Everyone’s too polished, too rehearsed, too public, too egotistical, it all just feels wrong.  How can I relate to people that I can’t even respect?  If you look at actors from the sixties and seventies they did things, real things that were downright admirable.  They rode motorcycles, gave to charity, smirked at the camera, got arrested, made mistakes, and all they while acted at the top of their game.  Of course, every one of those feats that I just listed belong to one man in particular, Steve McQueen.

So why McQueen?  What exactly made and still makes him so revered as the “King of Cool.” Personally, I feel that the answer lies in his love for motorcycles.  The fact that McQueen rode like he did, not for the publicity, because it was something he sincerely enjoyed, tells us everything about why he became so prolific.  It wasn’t about him being some calculated machine for Hollywood to control, he was just a man who had a rough upbringing that was one part farm life, one part city life, and filled with wild situations throughout (I won’t delve into this here because his story is a winding one, but if you get a chance you should all read about McQueen’s formative years, they were undeniably fascinating.)  McQueen was an ex-Marine, with a troubled past, who rode motorcycles, and not to over-simplify things, but I’d say that’s a pretty damn good summary as to why the man became so legendary both on and off screen.

McQueen was not merely a collector, although he certainly did that, amassing over a hundred bikes in his day, but he was a venerable competitor as well.  In an interview McQueen once admitted that his passion for moto-racing stemmed back to a tricycle that his great-uncle had given him as a toddler, but it was in the sixties that he really made his mark in the racing world.  Even as he was becoming one of Hollywood’s most well known actors, McQueen competed in grueling off-road races such as the Baja 100 and the International Six Day Trial.  Those images of McQueen, dressed in a mud covered moto-jacket and smiling as wide as he can, have been engrained in the male psyche for decades.  Let’s face it, we’ve all felt emasculated by a McQueen photo at one time or another, but that’s the point.  In this era everyone’s so preoccupied with everything being perfect, I look at a photo of McQueen at the end of a brutal dirt-bike race and he looks better than anyone out there today.  McQueen’s shirts were faded because he broke them in himself, his clothes fit him well because he wore them to death, he looked comfortable and happy because he was, and he was so damn cool because he didn’t fake it, he just lived it.

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  1. He was really an exceptional and original man. A star for sure but he stood out even back then as more than just a movie star. Not many around like him today. Wonderful article.

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