Elvis on a motorbike, Evel Knievel was one of the icons of the '70s. With his star-spangled red, white and blue leathers—apparently inspired by Liberace rather than the King—and mussed-up blonde mop, cape flying behind him as he catapulted his Harley XR750 over buses, cars and canyons, Evel was excess personified. Spent, schtupped, drank, popped, jumped and snapped (35 bones broken, 36 months spent in hospital) until it was all gone. "I always wanted to live to about 70," he claimed, in an interview still to be published in Vanity Fair. "I thought that'd be a good age. There's just no stopping me."
He was wrong. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis claimed him, a year short of his prediction, at the age of 69. Throughout the decades that mattered, however, he did seem immortal. The frailty of his equipment was the thing that failed him, time and time again. Attempting to pop a wheelie on an earth mover while working at the Anaconda Mine Company he hit a power line, depriving Butte of its power for eight hours, and him of his job.
It was the same at Caesar's Palace in 1967, when he attempted to jump the fountains (useless-fact fans will appreciate that Linda "Krystle Carrington" Evans worked the camera during the stunt) in front of the casino. As Knievel hit the ramp, he felt his bike, a Triumph 650 Bonneville, decelerate suddenly. The subsequent crash crushed Knievel's pelvis and femur, caused fractures to his hip, wrist and both ankles, and left him in a coma for 29 days.
Knievel shopped around for bikes, using Nortons, Triumphs and Harleys for his jumps, which earned him an estimated $30 million during his heyday (although he claims he spent more than he made on usual suspects such as yachts and Ferraris and, more improbably, snakeskin boots and fur coats). But perhaps his most famous ride was the X-2 Skycycle, on which he attempted to jump Snake River Canyon. (His earlier dream, of leaping the Grand Canyon astride a Norton Atlas Scrambler, fell through after he realized that the US would never allow a leather-clad superstar to commit suicide, however spectacular the stunt might be, in front of a large audience.)
The X-2 Skycycle was a steam rocket designed by former NASA engineer Robert Truax (whom Knievel later described as "an egotistical little bastard who burned up Gus Grissom on the launch pad.") Just three of the Truax-designed steam rockets were made, at a cost of $250,000 each. After two of them were totalled during testing, Evel, ever the risk-taker, decided that it was now or never and, selling the visual rights for an estimated $4 million, scheduled the jump for September 8, 1974.
Again, the equipment let him down. Three of the bolts that secured the cover of the Skycycle's parachute sheared off with the force of the blast, activating the 'chute. Although the rocket had made it across the canyon, the drag caused it to turn on its side and float down to the river beneath. Knievel, who walked away with minor injuries—for a change—cheated death when he avoided drowning by just a few feet.
"God never made a tougher son of a bitch than me,"he boasted last year, already laid low by lung disease. But he was right— jail, the IRS, bankruptcy, booze, not to mention his death-defying leaps— couldn't kill Evel Knievel off. His funeral takes place tomorrow in his hometown of Butte, Montana; I, for one, will be donning a cape and revving my Evel Knievel Stunt Bike in his memory.