Steve McQueen’s Motorcycle Could Be Yours! You Need 100k +

pope motorcycle, bonham auctions, motorcycle blogs

When the legendary actor passed away due to cancer in November 1980, most his motorcycles were sold at auction, except for this one, a Pope 61CI Model L that was built in 1914.

The vintage motorcycle was purchased Otis Chandler, a publisher from the Los Angeles Times that placed it for display in his museum located in Oxnard, California. However, Chandler sold it and now it is up for auction in the Bonhams Auction in Las Vegas.


Below is information copied from the Bonhams Auction Website regarding the motorcycle.

Colonel Albert Augustus Pope made his start in manufacturing just after the American Civil War. From a period as a general manufacturer, his firm made an entry into the bicycle market right at the start of the late 19th century’s great boom in cycling. He had already moved into the then promising electric car field through the 1890s with the Columbia brand, the subsequent two- and four-wheelers being ‘prefixed’ by Pope, as in Pope-Hartford, Pope-Tribune, and so on. An extremely astute judge of the worth of an acquisition, and now with huge resources, by the turn of the century, he was head of a conglomerate with the grand name of the American Bicycle Company.

For his first effort in the motorized bicycle field, he used a variety of marketing names for what were essentially the same ranges, with American, Columbia, Crescent and more, all being successful in those very early days. It took until 1911 for the first Pope-badged motorcycle proper to materialize, and that was the Model H, a single-cylinder machine.

Already exhibiting the developing ‘American’ styling of the period with leaf-sprung forks, back-swept handlebars and cylindrical tank between the frame-tubes, that first Pope was very well engineered and powered by an inlet-over-exhaust, single-cylinder, F-head motor of 4hp, a then unusual layout, its soundness proved in its later use by so many prominent makers including Rolls-Royce. Transmission was by direct belt with some braking available in the rear hub. Production in Westfield, Massachusetts of his single only ran through 1916, manufacture of the Pope range ceasing altogether in 1918. 

It was in 1912 that Pope branched into the manufacture of a v-twin, the 70mph plus Model L, created from scratch with the latest technology: a 61ci (1,000cc) engine with overhead valves on detachable heads—a first for a production road-going motorcycle in the U.S. – mechanical worm-and-peg oil pump to keep everything lubricated, a combination oil tank and tool box sat under the seat and for fast running, or hills, there was a hand pump – counterweighted pistons for nearly vibration-free operation, phosphor-bronze crankshaft bearings, and a Schebler carburetor and Bosch magneto. Rated at eight horsepower, but delivering over 15, power was delivered initially via a single-speed hub (this bike) and on later bikes by a two-speed countershaft transmission with an Eclipse clutch. 

The engine sat as a stressed member of the Keystone-type frame with Branham-style advanced plunger-type rear suspension and front leaf springs. In 1913 the look was ‘modernized’ with pannier fuel tanks, more angular than round, and deeply valanced fenders. Experts today say the pre-1916 Model L was the fastest motorcycle in the world – indeed, faster than the Cyclone – and no question it was one of the most expensive, at a lofty $250 – close to that of a new Ford Model T. This Pope has a PowerPlus bottom end which lengthens the stroke and thus ups the torque – it’s a modern bolt-on, no machining necessary, upgrade – that makes the bike even faster, now well north of 70mph. 

Even the controls were top notch: Back pedal pressure operated the Corbin Duplex v-band brake, a hand lever on the left controls the clutch for the single-speed transmission. The left side handlebar grip opens the compression release, the right the throttle, also on the right is the tank mounted ignition advance and the bar mounted kill switch.

This beautiful Pope, both a show bike and a rider, was acquired by Steve McQueen in the late 1970s or early 1980s. He and his close friend Bud Ekins scoured the countryside for such bikes. It was then sold after McQueen’s untimely death, not at auction as most of his machinery was but privately…there is a copy of a Bill of Sale signed by a Kenneth Ziffren, co-trust of the McQueen Children’s Trust, dated 21 November 1984. It went on display in the Otis Chandler Museum (Chandler was the proprietor of the Los Angeles Times) in Oxnard, California (now the Mullins Automotive Museum, focused on French cars, which opened in 2010). Upon Chandler’s demise it was acquired by the seller whose philosophy has been to restore and maintain it in a strictly appropriate manner given its historical importance but to ride it at every suitable occasion. Steve Huntzinger, the recognized go-to-guy with such motorcycles, has laid his hands on it as necessary.

The late Steve Wright, the author and publisher of the benchmark work The American Motorcycle 1869-1914 (Megden Publishing, 2001), features this very bike. Above it on page 241 is an iconic image of a Wells Bennett, ‘On this occasion he was competing at a one-mile dirt track, riding one of the new Pope overhead valve twins which were very successful in stock class racing events.’ There could not be a better blessing!

MC Atty

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