McQueen’s Machines. Click image to enlarge
By Russell Purcell
Author Matt Stone, of Motor Trend fame, has managed to compile a pretty good representation of the cars and motorcycles that caught the eye of Steve McQueen, an actor who lived life to the fullest, pursuing adventure and the rush of adrenalin whether making a multi-million dollar movie, or goofing off with friends on weekends.
With the help of the late actor’s son Chad, as well as a number of McQueen’s friends and foes, Stone gives us an in-depth look at some of the most notable vehicles in the McQueen stable. Chad wrote the very personal forward, but his insights speckle the text giving the reader a first-person account of what made his father tick when it came to his love of cars, motorcycles and racing.
Steve loved automobiles and motorcycles so much that they were often written into the scripts at his request. The vehicles would become extensions of his character’s personality, giving viewers a way to read what type of man Steve was supposed to be. As a result, some of McQueen’s most memorable movies featured motorized co-stars. Who can forget Steve as Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, driving (and flying) through the streets of San Francisco in a Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback, pursued by a pair of no-goods driving a menacing black Dodge Charger. This sequence is widely regarded as the greatest car chase of all time, and Ford even used his character’s name to give a special edition of its 2001 and 2008 Mustang GT models. The Great Escape was another high-water mark in Steve’s film career, but the image we see on the movie poster shows him perched on a motorcycle, not digging a tunnel.
Throughout the book we hear tales of Steve’s late night speed runs through the Hollywood hills, but it was at the track where Steve managed to hone his formidable driving skills. My favourite chapter of the book reveals that Steve was a real hot-shoe. In fact, he won the first amateur race he ever entered. A long line of Porsches, Jaguars, Lotuses and Austin-Healeys carried him through the SCCA ranks all the way to the 12 Hours of Sebring, but Steve also dabbled with formula cars behind the wheel of a Cooper. When the asphalt came to an end Steve proved his off-road skills on motorcycles as well as behind the wheel of various buggies in which he competed desert enduro events such as the famed Baja 1000.
It came as no surprise that McQueen’s interest in motor sport would have to find its way to the big screen, but his first project -The Day of the Champion – never got off the ground due to its similarity to Grand Prix, which had already begun production, starring his close friend James Garner. Steve changed the focus of his project from Formula 1 to sports cars and Solar Productions, his production company, began work on what many would call the greatest racing movie of all time – Le Mans. Steve would portray Michael Delaney, an American racing driver competing in the world’s greatest endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As endurance racing was still somewhat of a marginal sport in the eyes of his fan base, Steve wanted to make sure that Le Mans was filmed in such a way as to capture the speed, passion and sheer intensity of the race while delivering a realistic sense of speed. To do this, Steve knew he had to be behind the wheel as much as possible, and not on a tow rig.
Steve was such a skilled driver that he did much of the driving in his movies, but the Porsche 917 he piloted for this role is considered to be one of the most difficult cars to master, due to its insane power-to-weight ratio and troublesome aerodynamics. Even world champion drivers found the 917 a handful, as it was prone to lift at higher speeds. When the car was reaching speeds approaching 250 mph on the long Mulsanne Straight it had to be a white knuckle experience to skate all over the road. In an effort to prepare for this Steve purchased one of the factory Porsche 908 endurance racers after attending the 1969 event. He wanted to do all the driving in the film so he had to make sure that he was familiar with this level of car and make sure his depiction would be authentic. He campaigned the car a few times under the Solar Productions banner, winning several races and finishing second overall at Sebring. The latter was no small feat when you consider that the winner was factory Ferrari pilot Mario Andretti! The 908 also proved itself as a camera car, running in the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans capturing action footage for the film from a wheel-to-wheel perspective. Steve’s preparation and attention to detail made Le Mans a masterpiece that should be part of every gear head’s DVD collection.
The list of cars that spent time in Mr. McQueen’s garage is incredible. Everything from classic Ferraris, Jaguars and Porsches to satisfy his enthusiast needs, to luxurious Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz sedans and convertibles. McQueen is believed to have had as many as 120 motorcycles in his personal collection, ranging from early dirt racers to modern enduros. He especially liked big V-twins, and his fleet of Indian models was second-to-none. Apparently he didn’t purchase his cars or bikes based on monetary value or investment potential; it was the historical significance and fun-factor that was the attraction.
We also learn that Steve liked to customize his vehicles to make them his own. He knew exactly what he wanted from each machine. I was surprised to find out that Steve didn’t hesitate to alter the aerodynamics of a rare Ferrari, spray a car a new colour, or swap out an engine for something a bit meatier. Considering that many of his personal vehicles were low volume exotics or hand-built works of art, it proves that celebrity is more than enough to compensate for the devaluation that similar activities have on rare items when performed by your average Joe.
What makes this book so interesting is that it explores the life and times of Steve McQueen from the very unique perspective of what a man chooses to drive at different times of his life. Sure he had the financial means to purchase just about any vehicle(s) he wanted, but it was interesting to see how single-minded and almost whimsical he could be, when it came to acquiring a new set of keys. This makes Steve McQueen an even more interesting man than the many characters he played on screen.