Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Evel Knievel - An American Hero

I grew up in England in the 1970's. That's not strictly true; I never grew up, but England in the Seventies was a dreary place compared to today. The adults worried about three-day weeks, power cuts, strikes - even the gravediggers went on strike, leaving bodies un-buried. Us kids played outdoors and didn't have a care - we had some cool toys and TV shows like the Banana Splits, Six Million-Dollar Man and Starksy & Hutch to keep us entertained.

 ABOVE: Posters - Viva Knievel was one of two feature films. 
BELOW: A Topps card series was produced. A complete set is highly collectable and hard to find.
Toys varied from spacehoppers to chopper bikes to 'force wands' - a lightsaber rip-off that was basically a torch with a plastic tube attached. Often these toys weren't always as cool as the adverts hinted - one such toy being the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle.

 ABOVE & BELOW: A small selection of the massive marketing and promotional tie-ins; somehow my Stunt Cycle never went this well!
This was a gyro-powered motorbike toy with a bendy rubber rider that you sat on a small 'Energizer' platform which had to be frantically wound up to release the bike. On the tv advert the bike zoomed off to perform various tricks and stunts. On our carpet it tangled up and slid sideways into the skirting board. But, young and gauche readers may ask... who - or what was Evel Knievel?.

Robert Craig Knievel entered the World on October 17th 1938, in Butte, Montana. Of German descent, he was raised by his Grandparents. Aged eight, he saw an Auto Daredevil Show, which may have been the inspiration for what was to come. He worked as a mine-driller, and drove an earth-mover, but was fired for doing 'wheelies' in it.

He drifted into rodeo and ski-jumping before joining the US Army (Rather than go to jail). In and out of trouble with the law for poaching, he settled down into the motocross circuit and sold insurance for awhile before turning to the profession for which he became a legend, the name 'Evel' chosen as it rhymed with his surname.
 ABOVE: Evel Knievel in the late sixties.
BELOW: And in 1971. The Jumps were getting bigger.

Jumping a twenty-foot crate filled with rattlesnakes and mountain lions, Knievel just made it. Expanding the show, he started performing bigger and better jumps and switched to jumping cars. One thing Evel Knievel is remembered for is crashing. Man, did that guy wipe out. During his career he suffered nearly four hundred and fifty bone fractures. (Theres only 206 bones in a human skeleton.)

After a few minor accidents - including one where a speeding motorbike hit him in the 'family department' he shattered his arm and ribs in a 1966 jump over twelve cars. The following year he was badly hurt attempting to jump the fountains at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas.
 BELOW: The Caesar's Palace jump goes terribly wrong.

 ABOVE: If it had wheels, Knievel jumped it.

The 1970's saw Knievel come to Worldwide fame; in 1974 he attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-bike (more rocket than bike). His drogue 'chute opened prematurely and he drifted to the canyon floor, narrowly missing drowning in the process.
 ABOVE & BELOW: The notorious Snake River Canyon jump.
Knievel tried repeatedly to get US Government permission to jump the Grand Canyon and even considered a jump between skyscrapers in New York. As if that wasn't enough, he planned to jump a tank filled with sharks as a tribute to the film Jaws. A cameraman lost an eye in a rehearsal accident.
ABOVE: There was even an Evel Knievel pinball machine.
In 1975 England thrilled to the sight of his Wembley Stadium jump over 13 single-decker buses. He broke his pelvis, thanked the crowd, announced his retirement... and walked off to a waiting ambulance... (He then changed his mind and continued his career).

 ABOVE: The Wembley crash. 
BELOW: Houston Astrodome, 1970.

Later in life it all caught up with him. He continued to jump, mainly shorter distances taking less risks. After an assault on a promoter who had written a book containing allegations of abusive behaviour and drug use, Knievel was sentenced to six months and lost his sponsorship deals. His remaining public appearances were mainly to help promote his son's own career as a daredevil.
 BELOW: Warming up the Astrodome crowd.
 As his career progressed, Knievel's trademark Jumpsuits became more flamboyant. They were designed by Bill Belew, who designed Elvis Presley's famous stage suit.
Robbie Knievel has since gone on to break twenty World records, mainly because he used specially adapted Honda 500cc bikes rather than the heavier Harley Davidson's his Father used.
 ABOVE: It's in the blood; Robbie Knievel pops a wheelie for the fans. 
BELOW: An American legend in his iconic jumpsuit. Knievel campaigned for children's road safety and advocated Helmet use.

Evel Knievel battled his fear, injuries, strokes and diabetes. He died aged 69 on November 30, 2007 from pulmonary disease. Perhaps more so to an English kid from the seventies, he is a hero. An American Hero.

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