Steve McQueen’s favourite bike was a little-known British brand

by Nik Berg
27 January 2023 3 min read
Steve McQueen’s favourite bike was a little-known British brand
Photo: Metisse Motorcycles

“This rig is the best handling bike I’ve ever owned,” said Steve McQueen of his Rickman Métisse motorcycle. Known for his fondness for Triumphs and Husqvarnas, the King of Cool switched allegiance after creating a unique Desert Racer with stuntman pal Bud Ekins.

The 1966 Métisse Mk3, despite its French-sounding name, was built by British brothers Derek and Don Rickman and was already a hugely accomplished motocross model when McQueen started to customise his. The Mk3 had scored victories in events such as the Moto Cross des Nations, when the Rickmans decided it was time to cross the Atlantic.

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The brothers shipped several examples to California where the bikes quickly came to Ekins’ attention, thanks in part to the way the nickel-plated chromoly frame contained the bike’s oil and kept it cooler than if it were stored in a standard tank.

Ekins and his brother Dave were so impressed that they became the American importers for the Métisse frames, and when McQueen was looking for a new bike to take to the desert Ekins had just the answer.

Together, Ekins and McQueen built his dream machine using the most rugged components available at the time. The forks were from Italy’s Ceriani and provided 7.5 inches of travel to soak up the worst bumps in the desert, while the yoke – which clamps the forks and wheel to the frame – was by BSA. The engine came from McQueen’s beloved Triumph in the form of a 650cc parallel twin. The gearbox was a four-speed, also from the British motorbike maker. The rear of the bike was suspended by twin Girling springs and dampers, and Triumph drum brakes were fitted to the 21-inch front wheel.

Popular Science front cover with Steve McQueen
Photo: Popular Science

Such was the interest in his Métisse build that McQueen even documented it in the November 1966 edition of Popular Science magazine. Describing how determined he was to ensure the bike would be as tough as old boots, McQueen told the magazine, “It’s real important for me because I’ve hit bumps so hard sometimes that I’ve actually bent the handlebars.”

McQueen had the bike painted a stealthy, battleship gray and, as that opening quote makes clear, he loved riding it in the California desert.

In 2008, long after McQueen passed away, his son Chad collaborated with Métisse again, along with Dave Ekins, bringing the Desert Racer back to life as a limited-edition run of 300 bikes. Exact replicas using new frames, along with fully reconditioned running gear, and McQueen’s trademarked signature on the fuel tank, the bikes soon sold out.

Carrying on the movie-idol theme, Métisse went on to build a further 300 examples based on the Mk3 ridden by Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin in the 2015 remake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E, although it’s a bit of a stretch to think that Hammer could ever be as cool as McQueen.

Should you wish to hit the desert like McQueen, know that original Rickman Métisse Mk3s come up for sale only rarely, and the Steve McQueen Desert Racer even less frequently. However, the prices, despite the inevitable McQueen badge bump (which Hagerty rates at six per cent) aren’t too high.

Metisse Steve McQueen Desert Racer bike motorcycle

The 2008 example in the photo above sold earlier this month for £22,500 ($28,000) on Collecting Cars in the UK – rather less than than the hundreds of thousands achieved recently by bikes actually ridden by The Great Escape star.

Via Hagerty US

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  • Alan R carter says:

    Matisse means mystery. Rickman built beautiful custom frames and many engines were used. I had frame #1001

  • Richard Twinam says:

    ‘Matisse’ (sic)? What’s a ‘Matisse’?
    ‘Metisse’, on the other hand, means ‘mongrel’.

  • Andy Brown says:

    Best bike ever made

  • Jon says:

    They weren’t really a bike manufacturer, they were famous for their frames, which you could fit with many types of motor.

  • Kevin G Edwards says:

    There nice but I see a Mr Henry Cole tryed using his and his frame broke

  • Sidney says:

    Had one of those bought cheap in the early 1970s, and it was easily tough enough, don’t worry. Followed later by a Rickman Zundapp, which also flew well and landed nicely every time.

  • Nick Foale says:

    Did you mean Popular science not popular mechanics?

  • Jim Bush says:

    The best part used was the BSA yokes

  • Mr Kevin Downer says:

    Alan R Carter #1001 was a frame kit for a Triumph 650 Unit construction and shipped to Bud Ekins

  • Joolz says:

    Rickman were also GRP exponents, making a range of fairings and ultimately a kitcar, the Mk1 Escort-based Ranger. I had one, Similarly bullet-proof utilitarian ethos, loved it

  • Larry M Whalen says:

    I picked up a bultaco Astro for parts in ’84, (?), from a man who had been a mechanic for a team which had been “sponsored” by Bultaco at one time; he ended up keeping it for some money they owed him when the team quit racing and just left it on the side of his house where I saw it, so asked if he wanted to sell it – he did, so I bought it and once I got it home found out it still ran – and very nicely at that.

    I was showing it to some of my friends when one pointed out the frame was a Rickman, I’d heard of them, but wouldn’t have known how to identify one if it bit me on the butt.

    I’d play with it on some privately owned dirt tracks in my area for awhile until it was retired to my garage as a big “model” motorcycle on the wall

    Going to set it up this year as a street bike for around town and short day trips
    mostly to share with other people just how cool vintage rides are.

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