Just like car designs, movie stars come and go. Some are destined for the bone yard of obscurity like the Chevrolet Vega, AMC Pacer and the Yugo. Others, such as the Mercedes 300 SL gull-wing, the Shelby Cobra and the Porsche 911, live on and gain fame, popularity and cache as the decades pass. Steve McQueen sits firmly in the latter group. He’s an American icon, a true original.
Given some aspects of the late actor’s lifestyle, it’s unlikely that Steve McQueen would have gotten past St. Peter’s Pearly Gates (by all accounts, he definitely had fun), but were he alive today, the “King of Cool” would definitely be in heaven during Car Week, the annual Monterey Peninsula automotive spectacle that takes place this August 11-17. He was a quintessential “gearhead” who harbored an unabashed love of all things mechanical: cars, motorcycles, airplanes—anything that goes fast.
And vehicle-wise he had eclectic taste: in his lifetime he owned a 1953 Siata 208S; 1967 Mini Cooper; a Jeep CJ customized with a small-block Chevy V8 under the hood; several species of Porches; an uber-rare 1957 Jaguar XKSS (see sidebar); a couple of Ferraris; several work-horse pickup trucks, including a 1952 Chevrolet fitted with a camper shell; a ’51 Chevrolet convertible (driven by McQueen’s character Ralph “Papa” Thorson in the film, “The Hunter”); and a late-in-life favorite, his beloved 1952 Hudson Wasp.
THE MAN, THE LEGEND
But there was much more to Terrence Steven McQueen than his abiding love of machines. He was many things to many people: to males, he was a man’s man, a super-stud and stand-up guy, seemingly always surrounded by beautiful women and exotic, expensive toys. To women, he was (and continues to be) just plain sexy as hell. Even his three wives, all of whom dealt with his rambunctious behavior and infidelities, have a soft spot in their hearts for him to this day. To all who watched his movies, he was a compelling screen presence. While perhaps not a technically adept thespian (McQueen said of himself: “I’m not a great actor—let’s face it. I don’t have a great deal of scope. There’s something about my shaggy dog eyes that makes people think I’m good. I’m not all that good.”), it’s impossible to look away from him when he enters a scene. The character he portrayed in pictures such as “The Magnificent 7,” “Bullit,” “The Thomas
Crown Affair,” “Papillon,” “The Great Escape” and “Le Mans” were typically heroic but somewhat flawed men; not too far from his own persona.
Born in 1930 in Beech Grove, Indiana, McQueen’s first years were fairly rough-and-tumble. He never knew his father, and his mother was unfit for the job. The lad bounced between relative’s homes and after a violent incident with a stepfather, landed at California Junior Boys Republic (now Boy’s Republic) in Chino, California. Boy’s Republic is a nonprofit private, nonsectarian community for at-risk boys and girls ages 13-17. That experience set him on the path to a productive life, and he repaid the debt, returning often to the Republic and giving generously to the institution throughout his lifetime.
THE CALL OF THE SILVER SCREEN
McQueen served a stint in the Marine Corps where he briefly returned to his rebellious ways, being demoted seven times and being tossed into the brig at least once. He f inally settled down, and following his honorable discharge, used his G.I. Bill benefits to study acting at Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. He caught the bug and worked in many stage productions before moving to California in the mid-1950s. The role of bounty-hunter-with-ahear t-of-gold Josh Randall on the CBS TV series, “Wanted: Dead or Alive” got him the notice he needed to break into movies. Even at this early stage, it was clear that acting was merely a means to an end: “Acting’s a good racket,” he told an interviewer, “and let’s face it; you can’t beat it for the bread.”
As his fortunes increased, so did the stable in his garage. According to his first wife Neile, he won an MG TC roadster in a poker game and demolished it in a New York City pothole. In his early, hardserabble days in the Big Apple, he tooled around town on a Triumph motorcycle. And all along, he was honing his skills as a racer. “Steve McQueen was a serious, committed racer,” says Matt Stone, Motor Trend editor and author of “McQueen’s Machines.” The man himself said, “It’s only when I’m going fast, in a racing car or bike, that I can really relax.” And, “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts.”
Both those vocations came into play when, at the pinnacle of his fame, McQueen starred in the racing film “Le Mans.” His character, Michael Delaney, utters a line that the actor must have been able to deliver directly from his heart: “A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it…it’s life. Anything that happens before or after…is just waiting.”
The McQueen legend lives on, and even though he passed away in 1980 after a protracted battle with mesothelioma, his work may be coming to a silver screen soon. Over a two-year period, the screen icon penned a highly detailed treatment for a film titled “Yucatan.” William F. Nolan, author of the biography “McQueen,” quotes the nascent screenwriter, “Our story will center on a guy who takes his cycle into the Mexican wilds on a personal treasure hunt. Naturally, I’ll play the guy on the cycle.” Naturally. The film is said to be under development by a production company headed by Robert Downey, Jr..
BEING AS COOL AS MCQUEEN
It’s easy to picture Steve McQueen cruising north on Highway 1 toward Pebble Beach to attend the concours d’Elegance and surrounding events—perhaps in that Jaguar XKSS. He’d be 84 years old now, and no doubt still turning heads. He will be currently represented, though. A McQueen-owned 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 will be on the RM Auctions block August 15 and 16 in Monterey. The car itself is valued between $1 and $2 million, but mix in the McQueen magic and “the auction result could double and even triple the car’s final bid just because McQueen owned and drove it for five years,” according to an RM Auctions news release. That’s not surprising; it seems that everything the star touched is in high demand, and fans are willing to pay top dollar. In 2006, a pair of blue-tinted Persol folding sunglasses he wore in “The Thomas Crown Affair” sold for more than $60,000, while the Swiss Heuer watch he wore in “Le Mans” changed hands in 2013 for nearly $800,000. Even an unsigned MasterCard was worth $8,500 to one buyer. It seems that everyone wants a bit of the stardust.
A Rolex Submariner watch that McQueen gave to his friend and stunt double Bud Ekins is currently offered by Fourtané, a Carmel estate jeweler. “We’re asking $200,000 for the piece,” says Fourtané’s Josh Bonifas. That’s not in the same ballpark as the Le Mans Heuer, but still a hefty price tag for a timepiece that Bonifas says would fetch “maybe $20,000” without the McQueen mojo. “McQueen memorabilia has become its own brand,” he adds. “It’s the ultimate in exclusivity. The thinking is that owning something like this will make you as ‘cool as McQueen.’”
As many legends do, this one died too young. But in typical Steve McQueen fashion, he packed several lifetimes into the five decades he spent here. There was and will be only one King of Cool.
MCQUEEN’S GREEN RAT VISITS CARMEL
One car closely identified with Steve McQueen is his 1957 Jaguar XKSS, one of 16 that began life as racing machines and later converted to street cars after the manufacturer withdrew from racing for a time in 1955. Its 300-horsepower straight six gives it a power-to-weight ratio of one horsepower to eight pounds, propelling the SS from 0-60 MPH in under five seconds. Fast by today’s standards, but warp speed in 1956.
McQueen liked this car. A lot. So much so that he regretted selling it to Reno collector Bill Harrah and bought it back from him. The vehicle left the Coventry factory sporting a white paint job over a red interior, but preferring his cars to wear understated colors, the actor had it redone in British Racing Green with a black leather interior, giving rise to his nickname for the car: “The Green Rat.” In an interview with Jay Leno, Matt Stone, Motor Trend editor and author of “McQueen’s Machines,” considered by many to be the definitive tome of Hollywood’s most famous car guy, placed a value on this particular XKSS at “$25 to $30 million.” Quite an impressive investment: the first time he bought it, McQueen paid $5,000.
There is plenty of lore surrounding this automobile. One story holds that a Los Angeles police department chief had a standing offer of a steak dinner to the first cop to catch McQueen in the Green Rat and ticket him. The steak was never claimed.
Today, McQueen’s pride and joy is part of the collection of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. But organizers of the Carmel Mission Classic have scored a coup, bringing the legendary Green Rat to the event on Wednesday, August 13 from 10am-4pm. It’s a rare treat, an opportunity for film buffs and car nuts to get up close and personal to a legendary automobile owned, driven and loved by an even more legendary driver.