“I'm not sure whether I'm an actor who races or a racer who acts” – Steve McQueen
When we wrote our Top Ten Car Movie article recently, we knew that we couldn't include every great car film – even a Top Fifty wouldn't have covered all of them. We also deliberately omitted one particular film. Made in 1970 and released the following year, it starred arguably one of the greatest cinema actors of his generation and without doubt one of the all-time coolest blokes ever.
We were rightly hauled over the coals on this omission by a client and we hope that the following will address his concerns that we may have been suffering from a momentary bout of automotive amnesia – a special film deserves an article of its own.
We'll take a very quick step back in time first. The year is 1968 and McQueen had the lead role as Frank Bullitt in a film that needs little introduction. Many would argue that the real star was a Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT390 and its scene-stealing appearance in a chase sequence lasting just over 10 minutes cemented its place in cinema history – the greatest car chase ever? That might open too much of a debate but it's certainly up there.
McQueen unusually drove the Mustang during the filming in San Francisco. Without CGI or any other contemporary special effects, his obvious and natural talent behind the wheel remains apparent 50 years later. His ownership of countless amazing cars also cements his membership of the classic car fraternity – Jaguar XKSS, Ferrari 250 Lusso and California to name but three!
This wasn't the first time the Hollywood star had used a vehicle himself during filming of a movie – he rode extensively during The Great Escape and a car he would later own, albeit rather briefly, a Ferrari 275 GTB/4 NART Spyder also starred in The Thomas Crown Affair – a similar car sold for $US27.5million in 2013 and his own 275 coupe sold for more than $US10million a year later.
Vehicles owned by the star are said to attract “The McQueen Effect” and almost always sell for well above the market norm; examples of the Ferrari 275 coupe mentioned above were selling for between $US3-3.5million at the same time as the sale of the car formerly owned by McQueen. Cool factor coupled with a globally recognised star who had a genuine passion for anything with an engine.
So back to our subject and with the postponement of the 2020 Le Mans Classic, it's perhaps fitting that we're looking at the movie of the same name, featuring actual race footage and featuring a number of real racers, driving cars which are now comfortably worth millions – tens of millions in some cases.
A keen and relatively successful racing driver away from acting (he notably came second at the 1969 12 Hours of Sebring and came very close to beating the winning Ferrari of Mario Andretti), he was determined to not only race at Le Mans, but make the ultimate motor racing film.
Interestingly, it was insurers that prevented him racing but his formation of Solar Productions gave him creative control of future films – this included choice of directors, producers and actors. There are rumours that McQueen did a secret stint during the race proper but these are unfounded.
The premise was simple and followed a tried and tested formula (pun intended), particularly for any motorsport related film. Heroic but flawed character deeply affected by a traumatic event returns to battle against the odds resulting in a victorious ending – but this is doing the movie an injustice. We aren't reviewing the film here as that's been done by people better qualified than us, but to look instead at the cars, the people and how the film was made.
So, let's start our engines – firstly, the cars.
It seems scarcely believable now that the cars which had starring roles are now worth small fortunes; one of the Porsche 917's which had a starring role (chassis 024) sold for just over US$14million in 2017, making it the most expensive Porsche ever to be sold – its sister car (chassis 022) is owned by American comedian and car collector Jerry Seinfeld.
We should all remember that when the film was made, these were “just” racing cars – incredibly successful contemporary racing cars, but not classic or iconic at that point.
McQueen's personally owned Porsche 908 was used as a camera car during shooting. It returned to racing duties afterwards and remains in private ownership today. The filming included footage of the 1970 race shot from this car which entered the actual race. This includes the start of the fictitious race which is actually the start of the 1970 real race.
A second camera car was also used – this time a 1967 Ford GT40, a car which by this point had historically won Le Mans 4 times. Interestingly, this particular car, built initially as Mirage, featured the use of carbonfibre within its construction during a rebuild and is widely accepted to be one of the first racing cars to use this material, now of course found commonly within both racing and road cars!
It was also one of the few cars which at the time could keep pace with the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 during top speed filming. Modifications for its role as a camera car included removal of the roof to enable the cameraman to film during scenes shot on track - like we said, no CGI or green screen in this movie.
This car was sold in 2011 by RM Auctions for world record price of $US11million.
The Porsche 917 LH also appeared but not in a headline role together with the 910, an ancestor of the 917.
Alfa Romeo's T33 makes an appearance and the start sequence mentioned above features Chevrons, Corvettes and even a Healey. As the opening lap unfolds, almost every entrant from the race can be seen (and heard!) making their way around the historic circuit, although the opening lap was re-shot during production from the Tetre Rouge corner onwards.
The ubiquitous Porsche 911 is seen frequently, although not in racing guise – a fleet of them was provided for use by the crew, including the various professional drivers and McQueen used his own personal 911S which was sold for almost $1.4million in 2011.
It wouldn't be Le Mans without Ferrari and the 512S (chassis 1004) was raced briefly following the film but then used as spares for other team cars before being extensively restored by Ferrari in the 1990's. It was sold in 2017 by London based Girardo & Co for an undisclosed sum and is now said to reside in a Swiss collection.
Lola T70's appeared too, although they were mostly disguised and operated by remote control as substitutes for the more expensive Porsche and Ferrari during crash sequences. Like we said, “just racing cars”…they were nicknamed “Porschola” and “Lolari” by the crew.
The use of real cars, professional drivers and no special effects makes for a truly excellent film. If, like us, you love cars, racing and the sound and visceral thrill, then this is cinematic gold. The engine sounds are genuine, not edited in post-production, the speeds you see the cars carrying are real, not sped up (McQueen insisted upon this during filming) and this is reinforced on the Mulsanne Straight where speeds upwards of 225mph were recorded by the Porsche 917's.
This was when the straight was uninterrupted by chicanes and, measuring 3.7 miles in length, was taken at full throttle from Tetre Rouge right through to the sharp right hand bend at its end close to the village of Mulsanne.
The Le Mans Classic, held every other year, means that the circuit once again resonates to the sound of racing cars which are now classed as historic and as we mentioned, in many cases, worth millions of pounds. The cars which starred in a movie 50 years ago are still racing and recording speeds and lap times not far from what was achieved in period. It's a genuinely fantastic event and one on our calendars for next summer!
From a box office perspective, the film was a flop. It initially grossed less than it cost to make. It damaged careers, relationships and reputations. Only 50 years later do we realise just what a seminal film it was and were it not for Le Mans, one wonders whether Rush or Le Mans '66, to name but two much later films, would have been made.
Sadly, McQueen didn't live to see the long-term success of the movie as he passed away in 1980 but his legacy as one of Hollywood's most iconic actors remains indisputable.
Several of the professional drivers who worked on the film also lost their lives within a few years of the film's premiere. This was the 1970's and motor racing was still a highly dangerous sport – this isn't the place to dwell on whether improved safety has in some way diminished the excitement but we think that it's unlikely that today's professional racers would be allowed to do what those who came before did. It certainly made the finished movie very authentic in feel.
The closing words of our article should fittingly come from Steve McQueen himself…..
“Racing is life…….everything that comes before or after is just waiting”