The Spagthorpe Shepherd was a police bike that was briefly considered by the LAPD back in the late ’40s before losing out to the Harley FLH-based cop bike.
What is generally not well known is that after they lost the competitive evaluation with the LAPD, some of the original Shepherds ended up in the hands of the Hollywood studios, where they appeared in several films. The beautifully restored K-9s (as they were affectionately known at the time) were frequently called upon to serve in movies of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
Just recently I found myself watching the classic John Wayne 1954 action film Their Blood Ran Red (*** in Maltin’s book) on the AMC cable channel, in which the Duke was typically miscast (IMHO) as Marion McMorrison, a Scottish-born motorcycle courier for the British Army during WWII. I was delighted to recognize a ’49 Shepherd repainted olive drab and serving as the Duke’s courier bike (somewhat anachronistically I might add... a ’44 Spagthorpe War Mastif, which briefly saw service on the European front during the second world war, would have been more apropos, but I’m not sure any of that vintage survived intact even in 1954).
If you’ve seen the movie, you may recall the particular scene where the Duke is a motorcycle courier for the Allies behind enemy lines in France, riding alone at night in blackout conditions. Without a headlight to guide him, and riding at high speeds (carrying defense plans concerning the Maginot Line), he was navigating the twisty rutted dirt roads of the rural countryside mostly by dead reckoning. The climax to the scene occurs when the Duke races across a narrow bridge completely unaware that there is a British Leopard-class tank, also blacked out, entering the bridge from the opposite side. The sound of the tank drowned out by the engine of the Spagthorpe, the first clue that McMorrison has that something is amiss is the sudden vision of a huge armored vehicle looming out of the darkness just a few feet away as he rocketed towards it at more than 40MPH across the narrow bridge, with no possible escape route.
Just before impact, the POV switches to inside the tank, where the British crew can hear the motorcycle coming at them, and immediately realizing what is about to occur, they frantically try to open the top hatch so that they can try to warn the rider. This is interrupted by a tremendous, deafening crash (off screen), and the tank crew have this sick look on their faces as the multi-ton vehicle rocks back and forth on its tracks and idler wheels. They open the top hatch, only to find Wayne standing on the turret, shouting down to them in a some facsimile of a Scottish brogue/western drawl: “Is everyone all right down there?!”
Well, maybe you had to see the whole movie. But it was a good portrayal of the typical pluckishness of the military motorcycle couriers, some of which did in fact ride Spagthorpe War Mastifs during the close of the war.
Another use of a restored Shepherd, this time properly liveried as a police bike, occurred in the Elvis Presley’s only film noir movie, the1959 Dark Gumshoe, in which the King plays a private detective, with a young Mary Tyler Moore playing a female motorcycle cop and serving as love interest. A little known fact is that Presley purchased the Spagthorpe used in the film from the studio upon completion of the movie, and it remained in his extensive motorcycle collection until his death, at which time its whereabouts became unknown. This is a much sought after collector’s piece, now, and its value is virtually uncalculatable.
Rumor has it Presley would disguise himself as a motorcycle policeman and ride the Shepherd off his Graceland estate and patrol the town of Memphis incognito, often delighting young women with an autographafter pulling them over.
A more recent appearance of a Spagthorpe Shepherd, this time in mufti (beautiful British Racing Green with gold pinstripes), was on the movie poster for the 1968 Steve McQueen film Graveyard Ponies. If you’ve seen the film, you know that McQueen rode a Norton, but apparently the artist for the poster thought this was too tame, and substituted the Spagthorpe, probably working solely from photographs from the studio archive. By the way, this showed up as a question in the motorcycle edition of Trivial Pursuit: “Movie posters for GRAVEYARD PONIES showed Steve McQueen riding what famous British motorcycle?” You have no excuse for missing it now.
I haven’t seen any of the Shepherds in any film dated after 1971. Just this past year I wrote several Hollywood studios, as well as LA prop supply houses, trying to trace whatever happened to the Spagthorpes, with no luck. They could be sitting in a dusty warehouse, somehow lost on the inventory sheet. They could have been scrapped. Or they could be in possession of a private collector. My wife and I took the back lot tour at the Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando this past summer, in the vain hope of spotting a Spag. We saw a lot of neat things (including one of the “spinner” flying cars from the movie Bladerunner), but those classic Spagthorpe Shepherds, darlings of the silver screen, were nowhere to be found.
John Sloan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: Spagthorpe Shepherd
Date: 1993-02-25 07:09:04 PST