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Steve McQueen's Automotive Legacy
The Cars And Bikes Of A Hollywood Icon
If there's one actor who stands out in the automotive world it is without a doubt Steve McQueen. In every movie his character had some sort of car or motorcycle. And that car was usually a sports car or some American muscle.
Matt Stone, Executive Editor of our sister-magazine Motor Trend, has written what may be the definitive biography of the rides in McQueen's life, McQueen's Machines. From Porsches to Ferraris to Jaguars to a Mini Cooper, motorcycles, and even a bi-plane, McQueen was never without some motorized excitement.
MPI Publishing, the publisher of McQueen's Machines, has allowed us to give you a preview of the book. In this excerpt, Matt chronicles the cars used in the movie Le Mans. Considered by many to be the greatest racing movie ever made.
Steve McQueen's vision was simple: Create the best, most realistic movie about motorsports ever made. It was a story that began years before filming took place during the summer of 1970, and its aftermath impacted McQueen for the rest of his life.
Le Mans was a saga that cannot be done any justice in any one chapter in a book this size. The good news is that there is a much larger volume dedicated strictly to the making of this movie, which, in spite of a less-than-stellar script, has since become acknowledged as one of the greatest racing films of all time. Racer and documentary filmmaker Michael Keyser and co-author Jonathan Williams published A French Kiss With Death: Steve McQueen and the Making of Le Mans in 1999. Its 460 pages cover every aspect of the movie: the people involved, the cars, and the impact on the lives of McQueen and others. If you really want the whole story, I recommend it highly. Here, we'll stick primarily to the cars involved, as that singular aspect of the story is plenty amazing.
McQueen, again teamed up with John Sturges, was chasing production of a script called Day of the Champion, about the highs and lows of a troubled Grand Prix driver with the F1 circus as its backdrop. McQueen was filming The Sand Pebbles in Taiwan at the time (1965). Director John Frankenheimer was also moving ahead with a movie called Grand Prix, starring McQueen's friend, neighbor, and twice co-star James Garner. Grand Prix was running ahead of Champion in terms of production schedule, and the latter would have followed the Frankenheimer production in release. Warner Brothers pulled the plug on Champion, not wanting to follow with a second film of the same genre.
McQueen kept himself busy. His next two films, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, were among his biggest hits. But by 1969, at the height of his stardom and fully in command of Solar Productions, he was ready to make his magnum opus racing movie. Most of his racing experience took place in sports cars, and he had become enamored with the great endurance events like Sebring, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and of course, Le Mans. The latter, which has taken place in the French countryside since 1923, was the grand dame among them and thus the epicenter of the film.
Solar's production team attended the 1969 running of Le Mans to film the race as it happened. This was done to site the best camera locations, demonstrate to Cinema Center Films that the project was worthy, and in effect, learn how to film the movie. In a 1969 interview with Motor Trend, McQueen said, "For us to capture on film the greatest endurance race in the world has really got us excited. I'm thrilled because we think we'll be able to do things with the camera no one has ever done before. For instance, we'd like to effectively capture the speed of 220-225 mph at [the] Mulsanne [Straight]. If we can, cinematically, give people a pleasant feeling and yet give them the sheer sense of speed at the edge of infinity, then we've created greatness."
Ford won the 1969 running of Le Mans, its fourth consecutive victory. The Ford GT 40's competitive days were over, however, after having just beat Porsche's new 917 to the checkered flag after a history-making last-lap battle. The 1970 race was to be a battle between several better-developed 917s and Ferrari's fabulous 512s. The plan was to film the daylights out of the race, then return to Le Mans immediately after the 1970 event and stage whatever was necessary to complete the film.
McQueen's initial plan was to compete in the race himself. "Well, I don't know if I'm good enough to do Le Mans. It's awfully fast, about 160 mph average. I think we'll try to get me in Le Mans practice and see how I go. . . Also, my dignity is at stake. I just can't have somebody powder my nose and jump up in front of 500,000 people and get into a car. We can put on some of our race ourselves, but other parts will have to have all those people. I want to see if I'm quick enough to practice for Le Mans. If I am, and, if the drivers will accept me, I'd like to run in the race."
McQueen's impressive second place at Sebring in the Solar Productions Porsche 908 only fueled this fire. After the Sebring run, the 908 was cleverly re-engineered as a camera car. One 35-millimeter camera was mounted under a somewhat bulbous but effective front nose piece, and two more were positioned under the rear deck, pointed aft. Control switches were mounted in the cockpit by which the driver could activate any or all of the cameras. Solar had also purchased a new Porsche 917 for McQueen to run in the race, possibly with British ace (and later F1 champion) Jackie Stewart.
The Le Mans practice meet took place in April 1970, and McQueen, the Porsches, and the production team were there. The media swarmed McQueen about the notion of him actually running the race. But studio would have none of it. Putting its star into the race, with great risk to his safety and millions on the line, was more than it could chance. McQueen was distraught over Cinema Center putting the kibosh on this plan but struck a compromise: he could drive the 230-plus mile-per-hour Porsche for all of the post-race filming. All of the scenes showing McQueen in the car would at least have the realism he so craved. The 908 would be allowed to compete and film during the race, giving them the heat-of-battle footage deemed necessary to do the job.
The 917 was a beast, to say the least. Porsche family member and engineering genius Ferdinand Piech managed the car's development, leading Porsche's charge to the highest level of sports car racing. It was powered by a naturally aspirated, horizontally opposed twelve-cylinder engine mounted amidships that, in its initial 4.5-liter form, churned out about 580 horsepower. Five-liter variants had about the same horsepower, if slightly more low-end torque. The chassis was aluminum, and much of the bodywork was rendered in fiberglass. The wheelbase was a short 90.6 inches, with the driver sitting far forward in the tub. It weighed in at just 1,760 pounds, so the weight-to-power ratio was incredible. There were several body variations, designed for different needs: open or closed cockpit, langheck (long tail) for longer courses, or standard short tail primarily for shorter sprint races, although they ran at Le Mans as well. The 917 was rocket fast in a straight line and cornered well but was a real handful at anything over 200 miles per hour. Experienced team owner/manager John Wyer, who had so skillfully managed the 1968 and 1969 victories in the supposedly outdated Ford GT 40, switched to running factory-backed 917s for 1970. McQueen's car, painted in the renowned Gulf Wyer Racing blue and orange livery, was christened number 20. In the race, that number would be run by Swiss F1 racer Jo Siffert and Brian Redman.
Porsche's rival for the 1970 running of Le Mans was Ferrari. No other carmaker had won at La Sarthe as many times, but Ferrari had been shuffled aside by Ford's four wins from 1966 to 1969. Maranello wanted back on top and went to Le Mans with its beautiful long-tailed 512. It was of a similar layout to the 917, although it used more aluminum in its structure. The standard 512 was of closed-coupe configuration, while the S was an open-topped car; both would run at Le Mans. The 512's 5.0-liter V-12 engine was rated at 550-575 horsepower. Each marque had already scored a major endurance win early in the 1970 season, Porsche taking the 24 Hours of Daytona while Ferrari won the 12 Hours of Sebring, in which McQueen finished second. There were four factory-backed 512s at Le Mans, plus seven private entries. The stage for the race, and for racing's ultimate film, was set.
Le Mans 1970 was hardly the stuff that legends are made of. Five of the 512s were out within the first three hours, so it quickly became Porsche's race to lose. And lose it would not. Porsche won Le Mans in convincing style, finishing first, second, and third; Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann piloted the winning short-tale 917. The two remaining Ferrari 512s came home fourth and fifth. Even though none of the Wyer Gulf 917s finished, Porsche had won the race called Le Mans, and so it would win in the movie of the same name.
Of particular note was the car that came home ninth. Le Mans requires that each car complete a certain distance to be classified a finisher, even if it was running at the end. Only seven cars met that requirement. But the Solar Productions 908, at the hands of Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams, ran a clean race and, had it completed enough distance, would have finished an impressive ninth overall. The team's pit stops took much longer than the other competitors' did, because not only did it require refueling and tire and driver changes, but the cameras needed to be swapped out for those containing fresh film. Said Williams, "[McQueen] was friendly, but I got the distinct impression he was somewhat jealous of me. I was driving his car, and I'm certain he would much rather have been a participant than a spectator." It's anyone's guess how well the car would have done were it running to win rather than film the race.
With the race in the books, Solar took over the Le Mans circuit for approximately four months to film the rest of the movie. The company built Solar Village as a combination garage, office complex, mess hall, and quarters for production crew, engineers and mechanics, and others. Hundreds of local extras were brought in as required. The McQueen family occupied a villa not far from the track. And in order to make the track scenes look right, Solar needed lots of race cars (which were housed in a garage in the nearby village of Arnage) and a team of drivers capable of handling them at high speed in close quarters for the cameras. John Sturges was on to direct with McQueen starring as American driver Michael Delaney. An international cast filled the rest of the roles.
The roster of drivers that McQueen and Solar engaged were all top-level sports car pilots of the day: 1970 race winner Richard Attwood, Jurgen Barth, Derek Bell, Paul Blancpain, Vic Elford, Masten Gregory, 1969 Le Mans victor Jacky Ickx, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Gerard Larrousse, Herbert Linge, Herbert Mueller, Mike Parks, David Piper, Brian Redman, Jo Siffert, Rolf Stommelen, and Jonathan Williams to name some.
Experienced race team manager Andrew Ferguson was brought in to head the production's racing department (he'd also worked with the Solar/McQueen team at Sebring). Jo Siffert and business partner Blancpain, who owned a Porsche dealership and had solid connections throughout Europe, took on the task of procuring the cars.
According to French Kiss, they purchased four Porsche 911s, a Porsche 914, two Chevron B19 sports racers, and a Corvette. All but the Chevrons were street cars converted to look like racing machines. They also bought another 917 from Porsche, less engine and transmission, the latter of which Siffert borrowed from the factory. Siffert's own 908 made a brief appearance early in the film. Siffert and company charged Solar $5,000 a week for use of these machines, including mechanics and support.
Driver David Piper leased himself and his own No. 18 Porsche 917 and a green Lola T70 to the production. Part of his deal included the sacrifice of another Lola, an older model destined for destruction in one of the crash sequences. Four Ferrari 512s were used in the production--two from a Swiss team called Scuderia Filipinetti, another from Belgian team owner Jacques Swaters, and another from Luigi Chinetti's North American Racing Team. Autodelta, the Alfa Romeo factory team, leased Solar a T33, and Matra provided a screaming, V-12-powered Matra 650. These cars ran in addition to the 917s owned by Solar ( No. 20) and Siffert (No. 21), and a third loaned to the production by John Wyer (No. 22). Porsche loaned its No. 25 longtail 917 for two weeks, and a couple more Lolas were leased from a privateer. Today, this heady group--25 cars, give or take--would make up a spectacular vintage racing field.
Besides all of the authentic race cars required for the production, there were other vehicles and equipment needed to facilitate filming. In addition to the 908 camera car, Solar purchased a now obsolete Ford GT 40 and converted it into a cut-down, roadster configuration. This car mounted two full-sized 35-millimeter cameras in its nose and had provisions in the cockpit for a passenger/cameraman to ride along to operate another camera mounted on the left door. A platform was mounted on the rear deck, just aft of the driver, for a rotating Arriflex camera. Most of the conversion work was done by Gaylin Schultz, a Hollywood camera technician known for fabricating specialized camera rigging. A variety of camera rigs and mounts were fabricated for use on the 917s and 512s, as required.
As noted, the making of the movie was a saga worthy of its own book, Keyser's French Kiss. Once the facility, cars, drivers, crew, and equipment were assembled, filming began--without so much as a script. While the innovative camera techniques and realistic action sequences made for arguably the best racing footage ever captured, it came at great cost. Director John Sturges quit mid-production, to be replaced by accomplished television director Lee Katzin. Driver David Piper lost his leg and totaled his 917 in an accident during filming. Delays and massive cost overruns forced Cinema Center to take over the management of the production, which of course angered McQueen. Meanwhile, his marriage to Neile was crumbling and would soon end in their divorce. The whole affair soured McQueen a bit on racing, as he considerably curtailed his own motorsport activity.
In spite of all of this drama, Le Mans was completed, and its premier was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the night before the Indy 500 in May 1971. It stands as one of McQueen's most notable films. Le Mans and Grand Prix are considered the greatest motor racing films made to date. Both have considerable motorsport followings, even now, and no car freak's DVD library would be complete without them.
In a 2001 documentary called Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans, which was hosted and co-executive produced by Chad McQueen, five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell summarized his feelings about the experience: "It's stood the test of time. It's something I never thought would ever stand up thirty years later. It's like a vintage wine: better today than it was then."