NEED FOR SPEED
Steve Mcqueen’s 1958 356 Speedster.
When Steve Mcqueen’s son, Chad, was growing up, he was surrounded by exotic European four wheelers. Machinery bearing the names Lotus, Cooper, Mercedes-benz, Ferrari and Austin-healey came and went, populating an aweinspiring list of dream drives previously featuring his father’s treasured (and personalised) Jaguar XKSS, essentially a limited-volume production version of the D-type race car. Restricted to twenty-five units, sixteen were built and sold in 1957, while the remaining nine examples were destroyed in a factory fire. In summer 2016, Jaguar announced its intention to complete the original quota of cars as part of a continuation series, with each new XKSS offered to interested parties at more than a million pounds, but even this pales into insignificance when the value of a surviving original XKSS is taken into consideration — in the current climate, you’d be lucky to get change from fifteen million, making the XKSS one of the most expensive British sports cars ever manufactured.
In part, the value of an original XKSS has been ‘massaged’ by Steve Mcqueen’s famous ownership of the car he lovingly referred to as The Green Rat (named in recognition of his enthusiasm for throwing the Coventrybuilt classic into corners around the Hollywood Hills, as well as his decision to repaint the car British Racing Green), such was his star power then and, remarkably, now, more than four decades after his passing. It was a year after his Big Cat was produced, however, that he bought his first new car: a 356 Speedster 1600 Super. Popular among North America’s young club racing set following a suggestion to Ferry Porsche by New York
based European sports car importer, Max Hoffman, for Porsche to create at a fuss-free, stripped-down roadster (with a short, low-rake windscreen and bucket seats) for what Hoffman saw as a lucrative emerging market, the 356 Speedster landed in 1954.
At the time, Mcqueen was proving his credentials as a capable wheelman in motorcycle racing — he once famously quipped, “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races, or a racer who acts” — but, with a steady stream of income from television, theatre and the movies, he soon found himself in the fortunate position of being able to buy a box-fresh Speedster before Porsche discontinued production. His aim was clear: from two wheels to four, he’d transfer everything he’d learned about competition life in the hope of adding to a trophy cabinet already chock-full of silverware.
WELCOME TO THE CLUB
Prepared for racing, the car was entered into various club events in 1959, notable outings being a class win at Santa Barbara, as well as impressive performances at Willow Springs and Laguna Seca. When stationed overseas for filming (prior to his star reaching meteoric heights), Mcqueen would also hop into the cars of teams local to his film sets, as demonstrated in 1961, when, at the invite of John Whitmore, he was one of several BMC Mini Minor pilots competing against far more powerful Jaguars in the British Touring Car Championship. Whitmore had already coined the driver’s title in what was his first year in the competition — he would finish second in a Mini Cooper for the 1963 season, before winning the European Touring Car Championship in a Lotus Cortina in 1965 — and had nothing to lose by handing his diminutive race car to Mcqueen for the series round at Brands Hatch. Competing against bigname saloon and sports car racing stalwarts, including later Porsche works driver, Vic Elford, Mcqueen battled hard to win an unexpected third in class.
He continued to participate in motorcycle and sports car competitions, but with his acting career rapidly progressing, the opportunity to put his little Porsche through its paces became less frequent, leading to his decision to sell the Speedster to Beverly Hills real estate magnate and prominent collector of European sports cars, Bruce Meyer. Unable to shake the sentimental attachment he felt for his first new car, however, Mcqueen concluded he’d made a mistake and, though it took a few years of cajoling, managed to convince Meyer to reverse the deal.
Throughout the 1960s, Mcqueen’s love of fast cars and his undeniable skill behind the wheel saw him edge ever closer to creating Le Mans, though few films giving cars a starring role are as widely loved as his 1968 masterpiece, Bullitt, praised for its use of real-world locations (downtown San Francisco), epic car chases and for Mcqueen’s own talents in charge of the two Ford Mustang GT Fastbacks purchased by Warner Bros for filming. Indeed, so iconic and influential was the main car chase in Bullitt, one of the Mustangs employed on set was sold at auction for a cool $3.7 million shortly before the pandemic came along and ruined everyone’s fun in 2020.
“The thing we tried to achieve was not to do a theatrical film, but a film about reality,” explained Mcqueen, shortly after Bullitt’s release. It was this dedication to trying to make movies as believable as possible that encouraged him to explore the idea of combining his love of motorsport and his passion for acting by developing what he intended to be the most authentic racing flick ever produced, but don’t be fooled into thinking Le Mans was his first attempt. Mcqueen’s plans initially revolved around a project named Day of the Champion, intended to pump the thrill of Formula One into the brains of an unsuspecting public via the silver screen, but the James Garner movie, Grand Prix, was already in production and studio bosses didn’t want to invest in a project with such a similar premise. From a commercial perspective, they made the right decision — Grand Prix was one of the highest-grossing films in its year of release and won three Academy Awards for its technical achievements in filming. On paper, Day of the Champion would have a hard job doing anything other than living in the Garner movie’s shadow. As we now know, however, Mcqueen wasn’t one to give up his ambitions easily.
Grand Prix’s success in using real racing drivers (experienced Porsche warriors, Dan Gurney, Jo Siffert and Joakim Bonnier) as stuntmen in order to achieve a realistic portrait of high-octane action at the Nürburgring, Monaco, Spa, Watkins Glen and, among others, Brands Hatch, plus the adoption of real-world race cars adapted to carry professional camera equipment, followed Mcqueen’s own vision for the production of a motorsport movie, but it would be another five years until Le Mans was released in cinemas. During this time, many cars passed through Mcqueen’s hands, but after his name reappeared on the 356’s logbook, the air-cooled classic remained a firm fixture of his personal collection, regardless of the more powerful, more valuable cars he was buying and selling. The Speedster continues to be in the possession of the Mcqueen family to the present day.
MCQUEEN WAS PRODUCING A MOVIE WHICH COULD WELL HAVE BEEN MISTAKEN FOR A DOCUMENTARY
In recent years, Chad, himself an actor (The Karate Kid, The Karate Kid Part II, Fever Pitch), a racing driver and, later, a team boss, restored the Speedster to showroom
condition, complete with a refresh of its black paintwork, black folding roof, refurbishment of its wider than standard wheels and the reinstating of its chrome bumpers and overriders. The flat-four, fettled to release trapped ponies, was refreshed, and the car has since been a regular fixture at North American car shows and exhibitions, including The Porsche Effect, hosted by the Petersen Automotive Museum in 2018. The black beauty has also been a popular presence at The Friends of Steve Mcqueen, an annual gathering celebrating the life, work and, importantly, the racing career of Chad’s father. Featured in an earlier issue of Classic Porsche,the event has, to date, raised more than a million dollars for charitable causes.
Steve Mcqueen’s association with Porsche would reach its zenith in 1970 when cameras started rolling at Sarthe for Le Mans. By this time, Grand Prix was old news, though Garner had gone on to establish his own motorsport team, American International Racers, and fielded cars at Le Mans Daytona and Sebring. The star of The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Magnificent Seven, meanwhile, was at the height of his acting powers. He used his profile, as well as his experience behind the wheel, to convince studio bosses to green-light Le Mans, produced through Mcqueen’s own Solar Productions film company and filmed during the actual 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans. The timing couldn’t be better — in the year’s following Day of the Champion’s demise, Ford had set Le Mans ablaze with its money-no-object GT40 project, slapping Enzo Ferrari across the chops by winning the daylong endurance race four years on the bounce, from 1966 to 1969. The Blue Oval’s dominance in France had encouraged heightened Stateside interest in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, so it was thought, promised to attract a wide audience to cinemas for the release of Mcqueen’s movie, which was scheduled to land ten days after the thirty-ninth Grand Prix of Endurance, held at Sarthe in mid-june 1971. The planets had finally aligned. Realising his dream, so it seemed, was worth the wait.
PLAN OF ACTION
Call it method acting, call it unbridled enthusiasm, but Mcqueen was determined to not only star in the film, but also to compete in the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans, where his 908/02 (read all about it on page 56), already a force to be reckoned with — demonstrated by a second place overall finish at the 12 Hours of Sebring with Mcqueen and fellow American, Peter Revson, at the controls — would serve as a camera car, capturing the action following heavy modification and a lick of blue paint. Early conversations outlined a pairing of Mcqueen and Jackie Stewart, but complications regarding insurance liabilities prevented the plan from bearing fruit. Mcqueen did, however, get to drive a Gulfliveried 917 (the triumphant movie car, though as we all know, Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann took the win in the Salzburg 917 short-tail) at breakneck speed for additional filming taken care of after the mammoth twenty-two hours of footage captured during the real
race was in the can. Chad Mcqueen has spoken about this time on set, citing a memorable experience riding on his father’s lap in a 917 at blistering pace.
The post-race filming presented many challenges. As was the case with Grand Prix, Solar Productions employed the services of many top-tier drivers for Le Mans: Jonathan Williams and Herbert Linge drove the 908/02 camera car during the race, while other professional drivers remained in Sarthe thereafter to assist with the film’s stunt driving. In fact, close to forty drivers contributed, including Richard Attwood (fresh from his time in the Salzburg 917, scoring Porsche’s first overall win at Le Mans), Derek Bell (who suffered facial burns and scarring after the Ferrari he was driving for filming caught fire), Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, Jürgen Barth and David Piper, who supplied Solar Productions with vehicles and also took part in driving duties, though with life changing consequences — following a crash, Piper was trapped in his burning car, subsequently losing part of his leg following infection caused by injury during the incident. Clearly, filming fictional race scenes carried as much danger as the 24 Hours of Le Mans itself, but there was yet additional pressure: in order to maintain consistency with footage captured by the 908/02 camera car, stunt drivers had to maintain the exact track position, including speed and distance between one another, as the competing cars caught on film jostling for position in the race. This ensured the post-race action (captured by ground-breaking rig shots from a heavily modified GT40 and one of the 917s loaned to the production team by Porsche and travelling at competition speed) could be seamlessly spliced with the earlier-filmed in-race footage. The same principles were applied to sound production: where possible, cars had to rev-match those in filmed in the race. Duplicating tone (volume could be reduced or increased as necessary in post-production) between engine operating speeds and, of course, a desire to match the right note with the right engine — observe the sound of the Ferrari and Porsche lumps and you’ll spot the difference — was deemed absolutely critical. These days, of course, computer generated footage and desktop audio workstations
would make the entire process simpler, cheaper and far safer, but back then, this was the only way to achieve Mcqueen’s ambitious vision. Nothing quite like it had been done before.
GAME, SET AND MATCH
Just like Bullitt, realism was the order of the day, but for Le Mans, Mcqueen was producing a movie which could well have been mistaken for a documentary, so focused was his attention to detail and the inclusion of real-world action. Therein lay the problem — Mcqueen was so determined to bring the genuine thrills and spills of endurance racing to a wider audience through the medium of cinema, that script, dialogue, character development and the relationship between the film’s characters was sorely lacking. This caused huge tension on set, with original director, the late John Sturges, quitting and being replaced by television director, Lee H. Katzin, a fish out of water. Meanwhile, dialogue was being written on the fly, with the actors — Mcqueen played Porsche-piloting protagonist, Michael Delaney, while the then unknown Siegfried Rauch took on the role of Ferrari driver, Erich Stahler — being told what to say shortly before lining up in front of the camera. Unsurprisingly, on-set bickering, personnel changes, avoidable accidents, experimenting with camera technology, related delays and Mcqueen’s forensic approach to capturing action sequences saw the film’s budget explode out of control. The personal lives of those involved were also being tested, not least Mcqueen’s, whose then wife, Neile Adams, had been flown into the Solar Productions ‘Solar Village’ complex with the pair’s two children (Chad and his sister, Terry), only to find her marriage falling apart, partly as a result
of the immense pressure everyone involved in the film’s production was under.
Despite his personal problems, Mcqueen’s association with Porsche was further galvanised when he took delivery of a new 911 S on set. This car, featured on page 50 in the magazine you’re holding in your hands (or reading on your ithingie), fights with Mcqueen himself for top billing during the movie’s opening scenes. If depicting Porsche winning Le Mans on the silver screen was good PR for the Stuttgart brand (let’s not forget it hadn’t actually won the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the point Le Mans cameras started doing their thing), having one of the world’s most respected movie stars — the owner of a 356 Speedster, no less — spending a protracted introduction tracing his steps around the Le Mans circuit in the manufacturer’s flagship road car was a dream come true, especially when there was no dialogue to distract viewers from the Slate Grey stunner before them. That’s right, for the first half-hour of Le Mans, there is nothing spoken by any of the main characters. The narrative is instead provided by the distant voice of a race commentator communicating through loudspeakers at the track.
When purse string holders back in Hollywood learned of the chaos surrounding the movie’s production, it was very nearly canned, saved only by Mcqueen pouring his own money into the film to ensure completion. And, though a commercial failure (contemporary reports suggest it didn’t come anywhere near close to clawing back the $7m+ production costs) squarely criticised for its lack of storyline, Le Mans achieved exactly what its master intended: to go down in history as the most accurate representation of what it was like to participate in the cut and thrust of sports car racing’s golden era.
Simply put, it was the film he had to make.
The Slate Grey 911 S ended up making its way into Mcqueen’s garage alongside his Speedster, but unlike its four-cylinder stablemate, the bigger-engined Porsche didn’t hang around for the long term (though in addition to the 356, Chad has inherited his father’s 1969 twolitre 911 and a 1971 2.2-litre twin-plug). “Racing is life. Everything that happens before or after is just waiting,” says Michael Delaney when asked why driving fast is so, well, important. We only wish the actor playing him was here to realise just how loved his epic motorsport movie has become in the years leading up to its fiftieth anniversary. Steve Mcqueen, we salute you.