A museum sheds light on a hard-driving star and his car
McQueen, his famous Mustang are the focus of L.A. museum's exhibit
By Jerry Garrett / New York Times News Service
Photo from Jenssinn.de
New York Times News Service
Steve McQueen, who was 50 when he died of lung cancer in 1980, recently seemed to come back to life, appearing in computer-generated action sequences for 'The Legend Lives' advertising campaign for the 2005 Ford Mustang.
Steve McQueen, the actor, racecar driver and discerning collector, is having what many of his peers would consider a career year, appearing on television; in books, theaters and music videos; and in several forms of advertising. Not bad for someone who has been dead for 25 years.
McQueen, who was 50 when he died of lung cancer in 1980, recently seemed to come back to life, appearing in computer-generated action sequences for "The Legend Lives," the advertising campaign that introduced the 2005 Ford Mustang. In a scene reminiscent of the players' arrival in "Field of Dreams," the baseball fantasy movie, a digital Steve McQueen emerges from a cornfield to slip behind the wheel of a new Mustang, which he pushes to its limits on a racetrack carved through the rows.
McQueen's relationship to the Mustang was forged in "Bullitt," the 1968 crime thriller best remembered for a heroic 9-minute, 42-second chase scene in which McQueen and villains in a Dodge Charger take turns chasing each other through the streets of San Francisco.
The McQueen persona is appearing not only in television commercials, but in cultural attractions, too. An exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, "Steve McQueen: The Legend and the Cars," attempts to connect many of the vehicles from his screen performances with those that served his personal passion for speed. The show, which opened over the weekend, runs through Jan. 22.
"On the sad anniversary of his death 25 years ago," said Leslie M. Kendall, the show's curator, "we thought it appropriate to celebrate his life and achievements and the way he inspired so many other people."
The exhibit features dozens of cars, motorcycles and mementos from McQueen's cinematic and racing careers. Included is a 1956 Jaguar XK-SS roadster that was perhaps the personal favorite among his collection of vehicles.
"It was essentially a grand prix car, detuned for the street," Kendall said. "It really does speak to his personality. He saw it being driven around Hollywood and prevailed upon the owner to sell it to him.
"People would hear him coming down the Hollywood Hills in it; he almost lost his license speeding in it, numerous times. At one time, he sold it. But he was so nostalgic for it, he bought it back and kept it until his death."
In 1984, McQueen's heirs, his son, Chad, and daughter, Terry, auctioned more than 650 items, including such signature vehicles as a Porsche used in the 1971 racing docudrama "Le Mans." Chad McQueen, who has tried to follow in his dad's footsteps as an actor and racer, helped find many of the owners and encouraged them to put their vehicles on display.
The exhibit does not include the Mustang that McQueen drove in "Bullitt." The film used two modified Mustangs -- both of which have mysteriously disappeared.
"An intermediary came to me a few years ago and said, There's a guy in Kansas or Pennsylvania or someplace who has it," Chad McQueen said. "I contacted the guy, but I've never been allowed to see the car. I've seen some pictures, but nothing with a serial number on it or anything.
"But he says it's not for sale."
Kendall, the curator, said, "If that car ever came up for auction, I'm sure it would set a record for vehicles of its type."
The second Mustang? According to Chad McQueen, someone in the secretarial pool at the movie studio ended up with it. But that car had only a 289-cubic-inch V-8 engine; the Mustang that was mainly used in the filming was equipped with a powerful 390 V-8.
For the exhibit, a Mustang clone will have to do. Another replica built for the show is a recreation of the Triumph motorcycle that McQueen jumped over a log fence near the end of "The Great Escape," the 1963 prison-camp drama. His stunt double was his good friend Bud Ekins, a motorcycle racer; McQueen was a better rider and driver than any other stuntman.
"Mr. McQueen had a clause in all his movie contracts that he got to keep any vehicles that were used in his films," Kendall explained. "Still, he retained few of them. And of those that he did keep, many were auctioned off after his death."
One piece of history that is in the show: the Porsche 908 in which McQueen -- he was a skilled competitor in cars and on motorcycles -- finished second to Mario Andretti at the 1970 Sebring 12-hour endurance race. To those who followed McQueen's racing, the competition successes added depth to the line in "Le Mans" spoken by his character stating that racing is life and, "Anything that happens before or after is just waiting."
McQueen's car collection reflected his broad range of interests, an array of high-performance vehicles that included a Mini Cooper, a Cooper Formula Junior, a Porsche 356, a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso Berlinetta, a Shelby Cobra and an early Henderson motorcycle. He also collected oddballs like an army halftrack (an armored truck with tracks in the rear and wheels in the front); a Land Rover outfitted for military duty; desert-racing buggies; and a variety of off-road bikes.
"Dad had good taste," his son noted.
Chad McQueen is hard-pressed to say whether his father's first love was horsepower or Hollywood.
"After 'Le Mans' he never sat in another race car," Chad McQueen said. "That was it. At a certain point he never got on a dirt bike again. Then, toward the end, he could care less about working in films. So I don't know. He was a complex person."
Though it has been decades since his last film role, McQueen's image retains its drawing power. His face can be seen in advertisements for expensive wristwatches. The singer Sheryl Crow produced a big hit, and accompanying music video, with her rendition of "Steve McQueen," an homage of sorts to the lead-footed iconoclast:
Like Steve McQueen
All I need's a fast machine
And I'm gonna make it all right
Like Steve McQueen
Asked to explain the lasting appeal of all things McQueen -- not only to people of past generations, but to younger ones as well -- Chad McQueen said, "Beats me."
The son, for whom managing his father's estate and image is almost a full-time job, made no pretense that he has an answer. "If you figure it out," he said, "let me know."