© Matt Stone
© Lee Brown Collection
© Matt Stone
© Matt Stone
© Matt Stone
© McQueen Family Collection
© Matt Stone
© Matt Stone
© Matt Stone
© Matt Stone
© Porsche Werkephoto
© RM Auctions
The King of Cool gathered a fine collection of motors in his time
Even nearly 40 years after his passing on 7 November 1980, Steve McQueen’s legend as one of the world’s most popular actors still burns brightly.
But beyond his status on stage and screen, McQueen was a motorhead of the highest order. He helped to build a hot rod before he could drive. In the service he hopped-up a tank to make it go faster and he nearly won the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring in a Porsche 908.
He drove buggies in Baja, entered ’bike races as “Harvey Mushman” so he wouldn’t be treated differently and built movies around his love of cars and motorcycles – always with him at the wheel or behind the handlebars.
McQueen’s desire to make the most realistic motor sport movie ever led to Le Mans in 1971 and for The Thomas Crown Affair he drove both a Rolls-Royce and a custom, sand-jumping dune buggy. And who can forget the iconic Bullitt chase scene?
McQueen was the real deal. Not everyone knows how good a racer he was, because stardom got in the way. But he had talent, plus the money and taste for a fleet that would make any museum proud.
McQueen’s Machines by Matt Stone with a foreword by Chad McQueen is $26.95; MBI: www.motorbooks.com
1. 1967 Mini Cooper ‘S’
“You just weren’t a movie star in those days unless you had a Ferrari and a Mini,” says Southern California paint and body customiser Lee Brown.
McQueen bought his Cooper ‘S’ new in 1967, in BRG with a white roof, but he liked to personalise his cars so Brown painted it cream over gold with a wooden dash, concealed radio aerial, chrome reversed wheels, a large canvas sunroof and a single foglamp up front.
Legendary upholsterer and hot-rodder Tony Nancy stitched a brownish-gold vinyl interior for the Mini and, when it was finished, Brown got a ride with McQueen.
“He was on it, really on the button,” says Brown. Taking a turn, McQueen clipped a kerb and nearly rolled the Mini but the actor’s considerable skill – and a little luck – prevented a potentially nasty rollover.
Though it hasn’t run in decades, the Cooper survives in southern California, in remarkably original condition.
2. 1968 Ford Mustang GT390
When pub bets are laid down for the greatest movie car chase of all time, that magical 10-or-so minutes from 1968’s Bullitt wins every time.
Two ’68 Mustang GT390s were used, sequentially numbered cars with four-speed manual transmissions, painted in the now-iconic Highland Green Metallic shade.
Race-car builder Max Balchowsky stiffened the chassis, shortened the exhaust systems, swapped the dampers and welded in camera mounts to prepare the cars for the punishment they would take during filming. McQueen, friend and double Bud Ekins, plus stunt wizard Carey Loftin did the driving, all shown in real time, as the actor vetoed the notion of any green screen fakery or camera speedups to make the action look fast.
One of the cars was scrapped after too many crash landings; the other survived but has been behind closed doors for decades. The scrapped car ended up in Mexico and was resurrected as a cheaply rebuilt and hastily painted white street car, before ending up virtually abandoned in someone’s back yard.
The all original “hero car” was sold and resold post production, then driven as an everyday car for some years before going into deep hiding.
Both have recently come to light. The “jumper” stunt car was discovered in Mexico and is being restored, while the other is in highly original, patinated, but complete and running condition. It was recently used by Ford to promote the 2019 Bullitt Edition Mustang and was also showcased at the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance in Florida earlier this month.
Although McQueen tried to buy one of the cars post filming, oddly enough he never owned either of them.
3. 1905 Winton Flyer replica
William Faulkner’s coming of age story The Reivers is also referred to as The Yellow Winton Flyer. So there was no doubt which car would be used in the ’69 film, starring McQueen. But ’05 Wintons are rare and a real one wouldn’t withstand the rigours of the set – so Kenny Howard, aka Von Dutch, built a rep.
“He made it all himself,” McQueen said, “out of old aluminium furnace sidings and God knows what else. The thing was beautiful.”
The car runs a Ford I-4, and from the outside, looks quite believable as a period tin lizzie. As with several of McQueen’s cars he sold it after filming, only to later buy it back.
It is now owned by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
4. 1958 Porsche 1600 Super Speedster
McQueen’s Porsche was his first new car, and the one in which he competed in – and won – his first race at a Sports Car Club of America weekend in Santa Barbara, California in May 1959.
The Speedster was a 75bhp Super, equipped with rare Rudge knock-off wheels more commonly seen on Mercedes 300SL ‘Gullwings’.
McQueen installed a tiny cigarette lighter accessory under the instrument panel and continued to compete in the Porsche for several months before swapping it for a Lotus Eleven, only to buy it back in 1974. Along the way it lost its chromed ‘Speedster’ front wing badges, but McQueen thought the car looked smoother without so never replaced them.
He enlarged and rebuilt the flat-four engine as part of a comprehensive restoration, and owned the Speedster until he died when it passed into the hands of his son, Chad. And no, it’s not for sale.
5. 1959 Lotus Eleven
McQueen’s Speedster was the ideal ‘starter’ racer, but it wasn’t long before he wanted something faster. Some say he sold the Porsche, others that he traded it in for the Eleven in mid-’59.
Although the Lotus was powered by an 1100cc Coventry Climax ‘four’, it was capable of running with 1300-1500cc machines.
McQueen’s first outing in the new car was at Santa Barbara over Labor Day weekend, 1959. In race one he dueled with another Lotus, finishing less than a foot behind for a creditable second place. In the main event he spun out while battling the same driver, killing the engine.
He never won a race in it, but the Eleven served a purpose. “In that Lotus I really started to become competitive,” said McQueen. “I was smoother, more relaxed; the rough edges had been knocked off. I was beginning to find out what real racing was all about.”
6. 1963 Ferrari 250GT Lusso
McQueen’s first wife Neile purchased the elegant Lusso for his 34th birthday in March 1964. Like most Ferraris at the time, it was imported to the USA through Luigi Chinetti.
The colour – marrone, a deep metallic brown – may seem unusual, but Steve preferred warm, subtle shades, never going for flashy hues.
McQueen sold the car in the late ’60s, perhaps to buy a 275GTS like the one he evaluated for Sports Illustrated in 1966. The Lusso went through several owners before ending up with Mike Regalia, former president of the Nethercutt Collection.
A master restorer, Regalia and several friends stripped the car to its last nut and bolt and gave it a ground-up restoration to Pebble Beach level.
It made its post-rebuild debut at that same venue and in August, 2007, Christie’s also sold it there, for a vast (at the time) $2.1m.
7. 1956 Jaguar XKSS
Affectionately nicknamed ‘The Green Rat’ and often described as among his favourite machines, McQueen’s XKSS is one of just 16 made.
Originally white, and sold new into the USA despite being a right-hooker, the car was second-hand when he bought it for $5000.
McQueen used to street race the curvaceous Jaguar late at night along Mulholland Drive, near his home in the Hollywood Hills. He later sold it to well-known collector William F Harrah, but then decided he wanted it back and a sometimes-friendly, sometimes-not negotiation ensued.
But the movie star prevailed and repurchased the sinewy roadster, keeping it until he died. Today the Jaguar is part of the collection gathered by the late Margie and Robert E Petersen and spends most of its time at their famous Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
8. 1970 Porsche 911s
Never mind the racers, the women or the flinty stares from McQueen at his most handsome, one of Le Mans’ brightest stars is the Slate Grey 911S in the film’s opening scenes.
McQueen had a near-identical ’69 in LA and must have felt it was perfect for his character, Porsche 917 driver Michael Delaney. The special-order 911 was delivered to the set, where it also served as the star’s personal transport.
After the film it was shipped to LA but McQueen chose to keep his ’69. He advertised the Le Mans car and it was bought by an attorney in 1971. It then disappeared until 2005, when a private sale put it into the hands of only its third owner.
9. 1951 Hudson Wasp
Filming Le Mans took its toll on McQueen, both financially and personally. The experience also soured his love of motor sport, so from then on his purchases tended more towards classics and ’bikes.
Among them were a Hudson Hornet and a Wasp coupé. “It was his ‘Sunday go to church’ car,” says third wife Barbara. The coupé has an honest patina, and is all the more charming for it.
It was sold at the ’84 McQueen estate sale and in 2006 it joined McQueen’s XKSS at the Petersen Museum.
10. 1969 Porsche 908 Spyder
This compact sports-racer is one of the most significant McQueen cars because it is the only one he owned, raced and starred alongside in one of his films.
It raced at Le Mans in ’69, after which McQueen bought it to prepare himself for the 917s he would drive when filming the movie of the same name the following year.
He ran the 908 in several SCCA races in 1970, and drove it with Peter Revson in the Sebring 12 Hours in March of that year. In what remains one of the great endurance racing finishes, they nearly beat the 5-litre cars, which would have been a huge upset.
After Sebring, the 908 was turned into a camera car and ran at Le Mans in 1970, primarily to catch on-track action. It never appeared in the film itself, but the 908 captured many of the iconic scenes that helped to make the movie so spectacularly realistic.
The car is now privately owned and has been restored to 1970 Sebring spec.
11. 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 Coupé
Besides the Lusso, a 275 GTS, and a NART Spyder, McQueen owned another very special Ferrari, that being the last and some say best of the 275 GTB range , an alloy-bodied 4-cam coupe.
This one lived a most interesting life, as post McQueen it was decapitated into a Spider (which sounds horrible sacrilege, but was actually somewhat common in the late '60s and early '70s.)
Ultimately, the car ended up in the caring hands of sports car racer par excellance Vern Schuppan, who wanted the car right and restored exactly as McQueen owned it.
Fortunately, some of the original sheet metal bits for the roof structure still existed, and were acquired. The car and the body parts were all shipped off to the Ferrari factory Classiche department, where the car was stripped to the last nut and grommet, and restored to as new condition – save for it being painted the red that McQueen specified instead of its original Nocciolla brown.