Riding in style: The sartorial legacy of 'On Any Sunday'

Tom Neale reveals how the 1971 motorcycling documentary changed the perception of the sport and inspired a generation of style.

On Any Sunday Daytona Jacket
The Daytona Jacket

In the mid-1960s, surfing had an image problem. It wasn't taken very seriously as a sport. This was partly thanks to the Beach Boys (all non-surfers, with the exception of Dennis Wilson) who sang about little deuce coupes and fun, fun, fun, but rarely explored the visceral joy of hard-core wave riding.

One documentary film changed all that. Surfer Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer (1966) followed two Californian riders around the world, searching for a perfect break, and in doing so captured the camaraderie, skill, beauty and grace that occurs when men (and women) pit themselves against the power of the ocean. As Time magazine wrote, 'Brown shows that some of the brave souls mistaken for beachniks are, in fact, converts to a difficult, dangerous and dazzling sport.' Surfing, with its newfound respect, suddenly went global.

By the end of the decade, Brown was looking for a new subject, and he thought he had found it: motorcycling. It, too, had an image problem. Bikers were antisocial greasers, rockers, Hells Angels, or (thanks to Easy Rider) outlaw hippies searching for a mythical America. But Brown - who, having bought a Triumph Cub, was a biker himself - knew better. 'I remember going to Ascot Park and watching the dirt-track races,' Brown said. 'I met a few of the racers and was struck by how approachable and how nice most of these guys were. It wasn't at all like the image a lot of people had about motorcycle riders in those days.'

What he needed to show this to the world was finance, which is where bike dealer, mechanic and racer Malcolm Smith came in. Brown was a customer of Smith's, as was Steve McQueen. 'Steve was a real motorcyclist, not a poseur,' says Smith. He put the two men together. The way Brown tells it: 'Steve and I talked about the concept of the film, which he really liked. Then he asked what I wanted him to do in the film. I told him I wanted him to finance it. He laughed and told me he acted in films, he didn't finance them. I then jokingly told him, 'Alright, then, you can't be in the movie.' The next day I got a call and it was McQueen. He told me to go ahead and get the ball rolling with movie - he'd back it.' And, of course, he did get to be in On Any Sunday, which was released in 1971.

But although McQueen was the most famous face in this pageant of two-wheeled weekend warriors, other riders proved to be enduring stars as well, including the slight, unassuming dirt-track daredevil Mert Lawwill and the ever-smiling, supremely talented Malcolm Smith.

'I think many people changed their minds about motorcyclists after watching the movie,' Brown said, and Malcolm Smith commented recently: 'On Any Sunday made a big difference. Even now I meet guys who tell me that the movie got them into riding motorcycles.' The closings scenes, as Smith, Lawwill and McQueen goof about while 'cow trailing' off-road, meant that many left the cinema wanting a taste of the freedom, fun and friendship these guys shared.

It didn't hurt, of course, that both the bikes (which included Husqvarnas, BSAs, Bultacos and Triumphs) and the clothes on display still look so on-trend. It was a time of personalised leathers and bold and often contrasting colourways, and this season Belstaff has tapped into that look for its spring/summer 2017 men's collection. We're pretty sure Steve McQueen would have approved. After all, he was an admirer of the brand - rumour has it he liked nothing better than a night in re-waxing his classic Belstaff Trialmaster - and, as the film shows, in his bright-yellow top with white arm-stripe and the black-leather-with-yellow striped trousers, he thoroughly embraced the Class of 1971 look. Non-riders and lapsed bikers should be careful when they peruse the new collection, though - they might just find themselves shopping for the right motorcycle to go with that cool jacket. Even 45 years later, the On Any Sunday effect is still wickedly potent.

Tom Neale is the author of Steel Rain and Copper Kiss

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