An iconic Husqvarna 400 Cross, which belonged to Hollywood star Steve McQueen, was sold by auction in Carmel, California on May 14 for the record price of $144,500. Bonhams sold the legendary actor’s 1971 Husqvarna which was identical to the one he famously rode shirtless on the cover of Sports Illustrated. As a piece of McQueen memorabilia it was desirable but the sale price broke all expectations.
The rare Husqvarna 400 Cross motorcycle was the latest in a line of big-bore motocross models that combined power and handling. Up to that point, many off-road riders endured heavier, twin-cylinder street models stripped and lightened as much as possible; even so, they were heavy and cumbersome. Along came the two-stroke Husky 400 Cross, featuring a powerful single-cylinder engine suspended in a lightweight steel frame.
It was the movie On Any Sunday that introduced many Americans to the wonderful world of off-road riding. Husqvarnas were featured in that motorcycle movie, which really put the company on the map for US riders. Seeing motorcycle legend Malcolm Smith and McQueen kick up long rooster-tails of sand on the beach outside of Camp Pendleton inspired many new dirt-bike enthusiasts. In fact, Smith said of McQueen that he had “discovered a rider who probably could have competed at a professional level, had he chosen that line of work.”
The Husky 400 Cross was a brutal, unforgiving and difficult to ride well, but McQueen absolutely did. It embodied McQueen’s desire to be taken seriously as a rider and racer and his mastery of the Husky only helps fuel his legend.
Like many off-road enthusiasts, McQueen collected many examples of bikes he loved, using some as ‘parts bikes’ and others to lend to friends as an inducement to come riding. He was not above using his fame to encourage a sale, according to long-time friend and The Great Escape stunt double Bud Ekins, who said, “Steve would apply the pressure if he found something he really wanted. He’d tell the seller, ‘Don’t you want to be able to say you sold your bike to Steve McQueen?’ And it worked.”
As off-road motorcycle racing evolved through the 1960s and early 1970s, a movement began away from lightly-modified street bikes toward machines designed from the outset for competition. In this period before the Japanese manufacturers came to be involved, the Europeans set the trends, building ever lighter and more powerful machines. Husqvarna came to epitomize the success of motorcycles developed for and extensively raced in competition. Its models won 14 motocross and 24 enduro titles through the late 1970s.