Porsche 917, Jaguar XKSS, Mini Cooper S, Mustang GT390 Fastback. They’ve all got something, or rather someone, in common, and though I’m probably way off base here, I can’t think of any other part-time petrolhead who has had such a profound effect upon the profile and value of the cars with which he was associated. Yup, love him or loathe him, if Steve McQueen had deigned to kick your Austin Maxi it’d be worth a mint today. Regardless of your feelings on the so-called ‘King of Cool’, there’s no doubting that his well-publicised love of cars has endured just as well, if not better than many of his films, and in this week’s episode of Wheeler Dealers the boys will be polishing up a replica of perhaps his most famous car.
Never a shrinking violet, McQueen had insisted upon shoehorning the now legendary motorcycle chase into the script of The Great Escape, and though nobody could have foreseen just how famous it would become, it was a contribution which not only cemented his ascension to superstardom, but showcased his acute commercial instincts. McQueen’s next few roles didn’t offer much scope for motorized action, and after walking away from John Frankenheimer’s seminal Grand Prix, which then overshadowed his rival project, Day of the Champion, he concentrated on assisting in the design of the dune buggy in which he performed his own stunts in the stylish thriller The Thomas Crown Affair. He would remain seriously irked at the success of Grand Prix, and the subsequent publicity focused on star James Garner’s driving abilities, for years to come, his definitive riposte finally hitting the screens in 1971, but in the meantime he would be focusing his efforts on the film for which, ultimately, he would be best remembered: Bullitt.
Of the two Mustangs used in Bullitt, both were driven to the point of disintegration, one being scrapped immediately after production wrapped, the other being sold to a Warner Bros. employee.
Director Peter Yates was fresh from directing top television action shows The Saint and Danger Man when he helmed Robbery, a gritty and violent little crime movie inspired by the Great Train Robbery. It might not seem like any great shakes now, but the location-shot car chase was enough to convince McQueen that Yates was the man to have behind the camera of his stylish San Francisco-set cop thriller, and most importantly what he hoped would be the best chase ever filmed. Two Mustang GT390s were utilised for the filming, prepared by the legendary Max Balchowsky, with various engine mods including racing cams, which theoretically allowed them to compete with the baddies’ 440 Charger, along with uprated brakes and suspension necessitated by the punishing undulations and tight corners of the city streets. The sequence was designed by Yates and legendary stunt coordinator Carey Loftin, with help from stuntman Bill Hickman, who also featured as a hitman/driver of the Charger in the film, whilst the Mustang was piloted by McQueen himself along with old pal Bud Ekins (who had also stood in for him on The Great Escape). After nearly five weeks of shooting the results were delivered to editor Frank P. Keller who performed his duties with flair enough to earn an Oscar, and set the standard for all such sequences to come.
Of those two Mustangs both were driven to the point of disintegration, one being scrapped immediately after production wrapped, the other being sold to a Warner Bros. employee, then passing through various hands before winding up mothballed in a Kentucky barn, where it reputedly resides to this day. Around 42,000 such cars were built by Ford, and it’s no surprise that many have more recently turned metallic Highland Green and sprouted Torque Thrust mag wheels.
Though I’m loathe to follow the ‘Cult of McQueen’, it must be said that when it came to cars he knew his stuff, when it came to driving he could compete with the best, and when it came to clothing he knew a nice cardigan when he saw one.… It might well all now be forgotten had it not been for those two words he insisted be placed into the script of Bullitt: ‘Car Chase’.
Exhaust Notes 22 - Bubbling Up With BMW
Exhaust Notes 21 - Straight-Six Triumph