Riding Steve McQueen’s 1942 Indian Sport Scout
It is an early summer morning and I’m an hour north of Los Angeles, sliding down the Conejo Grade towards Camarillo. The usually sunny coastal town is buried under a gloomy sheet metal sky-a downpour looks imminent. In the movies, this would read as grim foreshadowing.
I am on my way to meet motorcycle collector Daniel Schoenewald and ride his 1942 Indian Sport Scout, once owned by Steve McQueen. I can almost see the legendary actor’s auroral blue eyes glowering down from the leaden sky in furrowed concern. “Don’t run my Indian into the back of a Subaru, or I’ll be waiting for you pal,” he warns before taking a sip of Old Milwaukee and vanishing back into the clouds.
It’s impossible to imagine an actor more deeply embedded in the sport and culture of motorcycling than Steve McQueen. Brando and Fonda may co-own the screen rights to biker-as-rebel iconography, but McQueen was an omnivorous gearhead in real life, riding everything from Husqvarna dirt bikes to his prized vintage Harleys and Indians.
In addition to financing and racing in the motorcycle classic On Any Sunday, McQueen joined a team of leathernecks that included Bud and Dave Ekins in the grueling 1964 International Six Days Trial in Germany.
Most marquee names wouldn’t dream of trying it today, but McQueen routinely raced while he was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, using the droll nom de guerre “Harvey Mushman” to dodge contractual prohibitions and jittery studio execs.
For McQueen, a one-time reform school delinquent who dismissed acting as a “candy ass” profession, motorcycles weren’t props to gild a sham macho image-they were his obsession. When he said, “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts,” you believed him.
Libyan-born Schoenewald is the unassuming co-founder of a thriving high technology firm whose zeal for motorcycles stretches back to the day he first laid eyes on a Norton Commando racing across the desert, where he worked as a young man.
To walk through his sprawling plant is to straddle the 21st and 20th centuries. Downstairs, a small army of engineers and technicians labor over cutting-edge servo drives in an immaculate workspace the size of a basketball arena.
Upstairs, Schoenewald leads me through his breathtaking collection of over 100 vintage motorcycles, including ultra-rare Nortons, Bimotas, Vincents, and a pair of Von Dutch’s personal rides, just to spike the punchbowl.
While the sheer scope of this aggregation would be enough to unhinge the jaw of even the most jaded collector, this is no trophy cave full of pretty dust magnets; Schoenewald rides his bikes. Regularly. That becomes clear when we walk outside where the 1942 McQueen Indian is waiting for us in the parking lot.
“I didn’t buy it for an investment,” Schoenewald says in a quiet drawl as we walk around the Scout’s big, skirted fenders. “I thought it was very cool that it was Steve McQueen’s and I wanted to ride it.”
Even without its Hollywood pedigree, this Scout would be a beautifully preserved example of the level of applied art that was rolling out of Springfield, Mass. in 1942, when a lot of Indian bikes were being shipped overseas to aid in the war effort.
Radiating more dashing elegance than anything being spat out of a factory today, the Scout’s legendary red paint still gleams on the grand bodywork and the chrome flashes like a Klieg light.
Examining the Scout’s elemental controls in an era when self-canceling turn signals are quotidian can induce a bout of Greatest Generation envy-kick start, rocker foot clutch, tank shifter, left-hand advance/retard grip, unsprung throttle.
Who were these men of Olympian reflex? Did they also juggle while they rode these things? Spin plates? Tame lions? Schoenewald theorizes that the Indian’s superannuated technology appealed to McQueen’s rugged temperament.
While most modern riders would flinch at the Scout’s counterintuitive reins, “McQueen could get on and look like a superhero,” he says, adding with a grin, “This ain’t no Sunday driver.”
Perhaps sensing my nervousness at that cautionary tutorial, Schoenewald attempts to put me at ease with an anecdote: After McQueen bought the Scout from noted Indian collector Bob Stark, he went to the DMV counter to register the bike.
Obviously not recognizing the superstar, the clerk asked his name while typing up the form. “Steve McQueen,” he replied. “McQuinn?” she asked. “No. M-c-Q-u-e-e-n. Steve McQueen.” “McQuint?”
Apparently this exchange went on for some time before the actor finally gave up. The pink slip lists the owner as one “Steven McQuenn” of Hollywood, California. This scene took place in 1975, one year after McQueen starred in The Towering Inferno, for which he was paid $12 million-at that time, the highest salary ever earned by an actor.
Schoenewald then walks me through the Scout’s launch protocol, a complex mating ritual akin to prying a nun out of a whalebone corset. Open the petcock, set the foot clutch, retard the advance grip, set the choke switch one click up from the bottom, open the throttle halfway, jump on the kicker, set the choke one click down from the top, roll the advance on, engage the foot clutch, give the tank shifter a good shove into first and hold onto your ass.
One false move and the romance is off. Worried I might knock the bike over, I’m not kicking hard enough. “Kick it like you’re kicking your sister,” Schoenewald advises, demonstrating the proper technique. The Indian fires up with a snort.
After a few laps around the parking lot, rewiring my brain so that heel/toe clutching while hand shifting becomes as natural as eating gumbo with chopsticks in space, I notice the mid-morning sun has burned the clouds away and the sky has transformed into a giant blue iris, glaring down at me. I take a couple more laps.
On the street I open up the 45-cubic inch V-twin, uncorking the Indian’s booming hot-rod rumble and churlish disposition. It is an awkward first impression. My hands and feet are constantly engaged like a one-man-band tackling Stravinsky. Meanwhile, the bike begins throwing me a succession of curveballs. The first pitch nearly knocks me out of the saddle.
According to Schoenewald, McQueen put the oversized, sprung Harley-Davidson seat on because he liked its profile. As a practical matter, the big mushy springs make the perch feel like one of those kiddy horses I used to flop around on in the park when I was far too old to have any respectable business around swing sets.
The resulting sensation is that the Indian and I are often headed in different directions. As I lean into my first left turn, the seat tips to the right, threatening to buck me off highside. Thankfully, I am not attempting to downshift through the bend and can haul my weight back over the frame. Once I learn to anticipate this eccentricity, the bike corners and carves surprisingly well.
Despite its misleading visual heft, the Scout feels light and has a low center of gravity. It also accelerates better than I expect. The unsprung throttle doesn’t take much getting used to, once it has sunk in that I have to manually roll it off, but the unfamiliar left-hand advance requires some focus to avoid making unwanted timing adjustments.
Between monitoring my hands, footwork, and keeping an eye on the road, it becomes apparent that in order to ride this thing properly, I will need to subdivide my brain into five uneasy pieces.
As I begin to get comfortable with the peculiar dexterity required to shift and corner the bike, the Indian reveals another picaresque tic-the near absence of a front brake. I am just starting to enjoy working through the gritty gearbox when McQueen’s celestial admonition comes to pass, but rather than the foretold Subaru, it is a Tahoe’s brake lights I see rushing at me.
My technologically perverted instinct has me grasping for a non-existent clutch lever and clamping down on the frail front stopper to no good result. My synapses recover; I remember where the clutch is and get on the rear brake just as I’m able to verify that the Tahoe’s registration tags are valid.
The Scout sputters and lurches to a stop. I hurriedly reset the controls as traffic begins backing up behind me and give the engine a few kicks. It finally catches and I shoot off, a swirl of Elmer Bernstein ricocheting through my head.
The heat of the day peaks and we take a break on a side road that cuts through an orange grove. We are sitting in the dirt beneath the spread of a large tree, discussing how accurately the Scout’s stubborn charm mirrors its famous former owner. I ask Schoenewald how he came to take possession of the bike. He smiles. I can feel another anecdote coming my way.
Schoenewald tells me the Scout was sold at a McQueen estate auction in 1984 to a doctor. It eventually ended up in the collection of former Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, a friend of Schoenewald’s. Chandler, knowing his pal wanted the bike, quoted him a price that was in the treetops.
Schoenewald countered with a much lower figure, repeatedly insisting the bike wasn’t “worth a penny more.” Like two serious collectors, they bickered for weeks, each not wanting the other to get the better of him. Finally, the publisher relented.
“Come down here and get your bike,” Chandler huffed over the phone. Schoenewald tore a single check out of his book and, in a prank worthy of McQueen, deducted a cent from the agreed-upon five-figure amount, ending the check with “999.99.”
Down in Los Angeles, he handed the check to Chandler, who looked at it and rocked back on his heels like he’d taken one in his granite jaw. “Oh, did I say, ‘It wasn’t worth a penny over?'” Schoenewald feigned. “I meant it was worth a penny under.”
For a moment, ownership of McQueen’s Indian was balanced on the edge of that penny before Chandler finally folded the check and handed over the key. Schoenewald pulls a leaf off the orange tree and grins, “Want to get some Mexican food?”
I get back on the Scout and point it down the long stretch of highway toward lunch. I move my knee out of the shifter’s way, drop into third and open the throttle. Watching the old speedo pulse upward, I forget all the semaphore I’ve learned and just enjoy riding the Indian in all of its cantankerous glory.
In a Nicorette age, this bike is an unfiltered Camel. As I blow through some open farmland that looks much the way it did in 1942, I pass a couple of guys on fully rigged touring bikes, fairings aglow with GPS and pipes drowned in the drone of satellite radio.
They look like they’re driving their living rooms. The contrast makes me wonder if McQueen would have made it in this era of Disney Channel movie stars and computer-generated charisma. I doubt he would care, as long as he had a few old bikes, a couple of racecars, and a grease-stained refrigerator full of beer.
We pull up to a roadside Mexican joint that is tucked into an old green market. The dense, peppery smell of chile verde spills out onto the sidewalk. We order burritos and grab a table. I hand Schoenewald the Scout’s key, which is made from a Briggs & Stratton master. “Oh, hell,” he says, a little surprised. “I usually just leave it in the bike. I don’t want to lose it.”
Maybe I’ve been living in LA too long, but that startles me. Who leaves the key in his bike? Who leaves the key in Steve McQueen’s bike? Then it occurs to me that almost no one could crack the Indian’s code and get it started. The bike is its own anti-theft device.
As I tear into my carne asada, I imagine this is exactly the kind of funky pit stop McQueen would have dug–antojitos fit for an antihero. I can almost see him sitting in the corner on an old vinyl chair-sun-beaten face, dirty blond locks, quiet, intent gaze. He gives us a little nod, tips back a can of Old Milwaukee and vanishes into the bright blue wall.
- Helmet: Bell Custom 500
- Eyewear: Ray Ban Wayfarer
- Jacket: Schott Vintaged Perfecto
- Gloves: River Road Laredo
- Jeans: Levi’s 501
- Boots: Wesco Boss