Steve McQueen's Porsche 911s
1969 - 1980
Having made a string of box office hits, Steve McQueen’s stardom was in full ascendency by 1969. And after a run of Ferraris that had started in 1963 with a 250 Lusso, followed by a brief time in his ill-fated 275 NART Spyder, the 1967 275 GTB/4 that replaced it was his last.
This shift in allegiance is down to McQueen’s desire to make the ultimate car racing movie. He’d come close before with Day of the Champion but Warner Bros. cancelled it when Grand Prix, starring his friend and neighbour James Garner, was going to beat it to the screens. A year of pre-production work came to nothing, including over a million feet of film shot by the crew which accompanied the Ferrari Formula 1 team for the 1966 season. When the notoriously irascible Enzo Ferrari didn’t get the exposure he’d expected to compensate him for the inconvenience, his cooperation in another project was never likely.
Porsche too were similarly moving upwards and with it’s new 917, aiming for their first outright win at the greatest test of race car endurance, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ferrari hadn’t won since 1965 and McQueen could see the way the wind was blowing. He went over to France in June 1969 to watch the race, conclude the deal with Porsche for their full support and CBS Cinema Center green lighted the project with a $6 million budget. The biggest yet for a McQueen movie.
To prepare, McQueen bought a Porsche 908 race car that had competed in the 1969 race and got to practicing. Then racing it, first in California at the Holtville track near San Diego in February 1970. Culminating with an heroic drive in March 1970 with a broken foot encased in plaster, to 2nd place in the 12 Hour race at Sebring, Florida. But for his daily transport, he also decided to get a Porsche 911 because now,
So why did Steve McQueen choose a 911E ?
In 1969 Porsche offered three versions of the 911 - T, E and S in ascending order of performance. But to understand why McQueen bought the mid-range E, you have to look at early 911s not with the rose tinted perspective we now have about them but more objectively, and from the position of a new car buyer back then. Highly treasured now, the DNA of what has become the most iconic sports car ever made, the truth about all early 911s is that at birth, they were still diamonds in the rough.
The inherent weakness of rear engined cars with their weight biased towards the back is that when pushed hard, they have a tendency to oversteer in corners. On sale since September 1964, by mid-1966 Porsche were forced to fit iron weights inside the front bumper trying to balance this out and pin the front end down. When any sports car maker adds 22 kilos/50 pounds of dead weight like that, it’s as good as an admission that there’s a serious problem with the design.
The 1967 year model marks the arrival of the S, Porsche’s new top performance model. Power was up from 130 to 160 bhp from just 1991cc which may not sound much now but back then was truly epic for a small capacity road car. After just one year though, Porsche had to remove it from sale in the all important US market, citing emissions issues at the time. That was just spin though and the fact is it suffered from serious reliability issues. On the open road or on track it was fine but in real world driving conditions, when stuck in traffic they had a tendency to foul their spark plugs and expire.
Porsche had been working hard on curing these problems and the 1969 year model was the fix. The wheelbase was extended by 57mm which helped the handling and although the bumper weights were gone, the 911 now had two batteries up front, spun by Porsche as aiding weight distribution. The cure for the engine gremlins was the introduction on the S and new E models, of mechanical fuel injection and capacitor discharge ignition (CDI) for a powerful spark to ensure all the fuel got burned. Radical stuff back then and it would be more than a decade before Ferrari road cars caught up. An extremely competent driver, McQueen would have been fully aware of the early 911’s handling shortcomings as his wife at the time Neile already had a 1968 911L. From well informed car buddies, he’d also have heard all about the S’s reliability issues too.
So when Porsche was on board with McQueen for the Le Mans movie project, he ordered a 911E simply because it was the right tool for the job he actually needed it to do. He had no intention of racing it as his need for speed was catered for by the Porsche 908 race car. His 911 was a car to get around town in, his daily driver and the E model had a more comfortable interior and was easier to live with than an S. By virtue of it’s less peaky engine, E’s are also faster to 100 mph than S’s too, all that you need on the street. It’s why they earned the reputation as Zuffenhausen’s secret weapon and McQueen’s choice of it shows what a tuned in car guy he really was.
Porsche 911 number one - 1969 911E
What Matt Stone described in the first edition of ‘McQueen’s Machines’ as “This mongrel 911 is a mystery” was actually first registered in Steve McQueen’s own name on Friday 8th August 1969 and left the factory in what would then become his signature 911 colour, paint code 6801 - slate grey.
According to McQueen’s first wife Neile’s book, ‘My Husband, My Friend’ (1986), on Thursday 7th August 1969 McQueen’s hairdresser, friend and drug dealer Jay Sebring visited him at home and invited him to dinner the following night at their mutual friend Sharon Tate’s home. McQueen agreed to go but never showed up and the night would become infamous for the brutal murders of Sharon Tate, her unborn child, Jay Sebring and three others by the Manson Family. Why McQueen didn’t go has never been clear but the registration document for the Car of Cool shines new light on this and there are further clues.
Neile also said “He had run into a little chickie whom he fancied and decided to forgo Jay” and that several months after the event, McQueen told her he'd, "run into Elmer Valentine the night before and decided to go slumming with him instead". She also wrote about finding something in the closet of their home in Palm Springs which "Steve tried to convince me it was Elmer Valentine’s girl friend's dress."
So what does a car guy like McQueen do, all buzzed up on the Le Mans movie project coming together and with a new Porsche 911 that’s now ready to use? I think that instead of what he thought would be a mundane dinner at Sharon Tate’s, McQueen decided to put it through its paces and down the familiar roads out to his place in Palm Springs. We’ll never know for certain, but in the long absence of a definitive answer, this seems the likely fit now.
Those murders and discovering that his name was on the Manson Family death list understandably freaked McQueen out. Cocaine paranoia fueled by the fact that genuinely psychopathic people were definitely out to get him, made him very insecure. It’s said he never went anywhere without a gun for years.
Porsche 911 number 2 - 1970 Porsche 911S
The Le Mans movie car - VIN: 9110301502
What happened during the making of Le Mans has become the stuff of legend. Although a box office flop at the time, it’s grown to become part of automotive folklore. Capturing just as McQueen intended, the essence of endurance racing at the time, now regarded as it’s golden era. The real Le Mans race that year took place on 13/14th June and although denied the chance to partner the reigning Formula One World Champion Jackie Stewart in the race, McQueen’s Porsche 908 was entered. Driven by Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams and with 3 cameras mounted in it, 70,000 feet of totally authentic racing action was captured and although not officially classified, it even managed to finish the race.
Once it was over, they got to work on the movie and going in to it, McQueen was hooked on sex, drugs, speed and his own ego. Fully living up to his boast, “I’m the leading sex symbol in the whole world, man. I want it all.” But all that hedonism soon came crashing down around him during the summer of 1970 in France.
The real race is grueling, 24 hours shared then between a team of two drivers for each car. By the end, McQueen spent six months there. Driving the fastest thing on four wheels and mixing it with the best race car drivers of the day. He once said he did his best thinking at speed and while McQueen was going round and around looking for inspiration, the wheels came off everything else. There’s been massive amounts already written about it and even a documentary now. But if you had to sum it all up in a single word, I would choose catastrophe. Certainly from Steve McQueen’s personal perspective and when it all imploded, it was the people closest to him who were the greatest casualties.
The director John Sturges, who’d helped McQueen move up from a TV actor to a movie star with roles in Never so Few, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape quit half way through. Unable to deal with McQueen’s increasingly eratic behaviour.
McQueen fell out terminally with Robert Relyea and made Jack Reddish physically ill with stress, his two partners in Solar Productions. After they were forced to intervene, McQueen’s deal with CBS Cinema Center was terminated and the movie was only completed on condition he lose both his salary and percentage of the box office. His marriage to Neile would also never be the same. Because despite all his philandering, in a drug crazed rage one night he held a gun to her head until she confessed who her one revenge fling had been with.
But in the equation of all the various factors that combined to sour McQueen’s pet project, what’s generally under emphasized was his financial situation at the time. Although he’d earned millions of dollars, shortly before Christmas 1969, financial consultant Bill Maher informed McQueen “You are bankrupt. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.” His Solar empire of movie production, automotive engineering and plastics, built up in just a few years was finished, long before he went to France.
Understandably, that was something McQueen kept under his hat. He’d been born poor but made it to the top so the thought of losing it all would have been eating away at him. But bottling it up was a recipe for disaster and McQueen clearly suffered a nervous breakdown of sorts. His totally self reliant personality, carved into him by his awful childhood, prevented him from asking even those closest to him for help. And he hit rock bottom.
As for his second Porsche 911, McQueen took delivery of that in France and the receipt from Porsche is dated 1st June 1970. Another slate grey car but this time, by special order as 1969 was the last year it was a standard factory color. With Porsche’s new injection and ignition systems already proven to his satisfaction and in a racy mindset, McQueen now stepped up to the top specification S model.
The car is famous now for it’s appearance in the opening sequence of the movie and in hundreds of stills taken during production. But fresh research has revealed there are credible grounds to doubt whether they are actually all of the same car. Although hushed up at the time and kept secret for decades, it’s emerged that McQueen had a serious car crash one night whilst high on drugs. With him in the car were his co-star in the movie Louise Edlind, Neile’s personal assistant Mario Iscovich and an unknown member of the film crew.
All had been at Chateau Lornay, where McQueen was living during filming and 45 minutes away from Le Mans. McQueen was taking the crew member and Louise Edlind back to town and insisted Mario Iscovich accompany them. Seeing the state McQueen was in, Mario was reluctant but McQueen absolutely insisted. With his wife and kids arriving shortly, he wanted to make sure Mario was going to keep his relationship with Edlind and many other women strictly to himself. And intimidating people by driving extremely fast was a McQueen tactic. Only this time it all went horribly wrong. In the wet, he went into a corner too fast and spun, clipping a concrete road marker launched the car into the air and off the road, eventually going headlong into a large tree.
Mario Iscovich broke his arm, the crew member a couple of ribs and although initially thought dead by McQueen, Louise Edlind was only knocked unconscious. As a human being, it was not McQueen's finest hour as his chief concern immediately after, was how it might finish his career. The timing of this can be accurately determined from Neile’s book, as she arrived in France on the 22nd June and was met by Mario. With his arm in a sling, he told her it had happened a few days before so within the first week of filming.
From Robert Relyea’s autobiography ‘Not so Quiet on the Set’ (2008), the car can also be identified. “One night, while out driving his Porsche 911 with a young actress and a crew member in the back, McQueen ran headfirst into a tree.” He also said, “Porsche executives were bending over backwards to make sure we got what we needed” so the quick substitution of a look-a-like as part of the cover up wouldn’t have been a problem.
In Matt Stone’s ‘McQueen’s Machines’, he quotes a letter from Porsche “The car was driven as is directly to Le Mans by our people, for use by Steve and the Solar Production crew. At a later date, the car was returned to our repair shop for modifications.” When filming concluded in November, McQueen and Neile drove to Switzerland in a grey 911 and spent a couple of weeks there recuperating at the Niehans Clinic. The repaired car was shipped back to the USA and McQueen sold it immediately in January 1971.
Not because he’d fitted an upgraded stereo in the 911 he already owned, that’s just a red herring floated by Matt Stone. It’s because McQueen had serious cash flow problems. He’d now lost any income from the Le Mans movie, had huge overheads and also faced a massive bill for back taxes, what Bill Meyers had spotted earlier. An expensive divorce was on the cards too. Doing a lucrative commercial for Honda, well below his superstar status, shows just how desperate he was. So along with the Le Mans 911S went the Porsche 908, Ferrari 275 NART Spyder wreck, Ferrari 275 GTB/4 and his Mini Cooper. Leaving him with just his 1969 Porsche 911E to get about in while he restructured Solar and put his huge earning potential back to work.
McQueen’s next movie was Junior Bonner (1971) but it failed to excite audiences and it’s his only movie that actually lost money. But the next one, The Getaway (1972) turned everything around. Professionally, financially and emotionally. Despite bad reviews from the critics, movie goers loved it and McQueen had his first big hit since Bullitt in 1968. With 10% of the $35 million it made worldwide ($228 million in 2019), his financial worries were over.
Starring alongside him was Ali McGraw, the hottest actress of the day after her smash hit Love Story (1970). They were extremely attracted to each other, fell in love during the making of the movie and would eventually marry. At the time though, both were already married with children and their relationship was a complicated one from the get-go. When filming in Texas came to an end and aware of his wife’s affair, Ali McGraw’s husband, the producer Robert Evans, asked her to take a time out and reflect on what she was doing. Away from McQueen’s charisma.
He arranged for a two week stay at the Murrietta Hot Springs in California and she consented. But McQueen wouldn’t let go and pursued her there anyway. In her book ‘Moving Pictures’ (1991), Ali McGraw recalled “Steve said he missed me so much that he just had to drive by the spa for a quick secret hello on the street. A guard at the gate saw Steve’s dark-gray Porsche 911 and told the telephone operator - who promptly phoned Bob”.
The Bruce Lee Incident
Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen became acquainted through McQueen’s interest in martial arts. Long before Lee became a movie star himself, he taught his skills professionally and in 1968, accompanied McQueen on location as his personal trainer during the filming of The Reivers. They were never close friends but as James Coburn succinctly put it, “Both men had what the other wanted.” When Lee’s Hong Kong produced kung-fu movies hit the global zeitgeist in the early 1970’s, he then set McQueen’s stardom as the standard he wanted to eclipse.
And financially did, so when Lee mentioned to McQueen that he intended to buy a Porsche, McQueen saw an opportunity and suggested he take him out in his and show him what he was getting in to. McQueen drove out to Mulholland Drive, a twisting road with rock walls and steep drops either side, trying to scare Lee and succeeding. McQueen then upped the ante with a 180 degree turn while pushing 100 mph which left a terrified Lee out of his seat and cowering in the footwell but threatening vengeance on a highly amused McQueen. But realising he’d just humiliated and angered one of the most dangerous men on earth and that his practical joke might just backfire on him, McQueen took off again at speed until Lee promised to calm down.
Bruce Lee died on 20th July 1973, six days before the release of his best known movie Enter the Dragon and McQueen flew to Seattle to be a pallbearer at his funeral. When I was a teenager in 1975, I bought the book of the movie and keep it in the passenger footwell map pocket, the best place for it now.
The 1969 911E gets benched
While in Germany for a promotional engagement, McQueen was startled to get passed while driving flat out down the autobahn by a Mercedes Benz 300 SEL 6.3. One of the first of what are known in Europe as Q cars. A very big engine for sports car performance but packaged in a four door sedan that didn’t attract attention. Increasingly resentful of the paparazzi attention he attracted, McQueen saw the appeal and bought one in 1972. His slate grey 1969 Porsche 911E had become too widely recognized so he parked it up and the Mercedes then became his fast transport of choice.
McQueen followed up The Getaway with Papillon in 1973. It’s one of his finest performances and my personal favourite. Again, unloved by the critics the public proved them wrong and it made $50 million worldwide. But Towering Inferno in 1974 was the really big one. Up against Paul Newman, the star of McQueen’s first on screen appearance as an extra in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), they’d been on friendly terms for many years. McQueen had come close to working with Newman before but eventually turned down a role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This time McQueen picked his part, leveled the playing field with exactly equal amounts of dialogue and proceeded to completely outshine Newman. And it was hugely successful, taking $100 million worldwide making it then, the largest grossing movie of all time. McQueen banked a staggering $12 million ($61.5 million in 2019) and although briefly eclipsed by Bruce Lee, was again the highest paid movie star in history.
But without financial incentive or a professional challenge left to focus on, McQueen lost motivation. He and Ali McGraw had married in July 1973 and with their two boys, moved to Trancas Beach, Malibu. For a while, they enjoyed family life together, McQueen not taking on any new projects and insisting that Ali McGraw give up her acting career and become a regular wife. McQueen's desire to live a normal family life again worked for a few years but didn’t last and their relationship became increasingly fiery. During one particularly bad argument, McQueen threw her out of a first floor window into the swimming pool below, witnessed by his children Terry and Chad and clearly McQueen’s head was back in a bad place once again.
He’d also lost interest in fast cars, generally preferring the anonymity of beaten up old pickups for cruising around in. He started the day with a beer, smoked grass for the rest of it and by 1976 decided to take a permanent suite at the Beverley Wilshire hotel to get away from his domestic disappointment and for bedding other women.
Porsche 911 number 3 - The 1976 911 Turbo aka 930
An old contractual obligation McQueen had with Allied Artists would then force his hand. He owed them a movie and was contractually long overdue. And McQueen made a really esoteric choice, a play written in 1882 by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People. No cars, chases, guns, action or sexy women. No laughs either, just heavy period theatrical drama so completely out of his wheelhouse of success that it was going to be a serious stretch of his acting talent if he was going to retain any credibility.
McQueen hadn’t bought a true sports car since the Le Mans 911S six years earlier. Looking for inspiration for that challenge, he decided to buy Porsche’s latest and most potent version of the 911, the Turbo. Again, by special order in his signature slate grey. The fastest accelerating car of it’s time but one which quickly earned itself the reputation as a widow maker with it’s potentially fatal flaw of the on/off nature of that turbocharger. In corners, the sudden boost in power could catch out the unwary, including McQueen, and quickly push the car into an uncatchable spin. He lost control of his on the intersection for Sunset Boulevard and the 405 freeway, a long sweeping curve.
But after 6 months in a 225 mph Porsche 917 race car, even a 911 Turbo was doomed to failure in pushing his need for speed button again. Movie complete, he sold it after a year or so which is quite telling as he’d become very acquisitive by then and collected many things. He could have just added it to his growing collection of cars but the realisation that the latest high performance sports car did absolutely nothing for him any more must have been a bitter disappointment. His go to place for inspiration was definitely gone and he didn’t want to keep it around to remind himself of that. While it was the last sports car he bought new, it was not the last new car he bought and that couldn’t have been any more different.
Although McQueen turned in a perfectly acceptable performance, An Enemy of the People only got a few test screenings in art house cinemas before getting shelved with no general release. But as had happened before, at a low point in his life, things were about to change again for the better.
Porsche 911 number 4 - 1969 911S
When McQueen first met Barbara Minty he was estranged from his second wife Ali McGraw and living in the Beverley Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles. He’d put on weight, grown a beard and spent his time eating, drinking, doing drugs and womanizing. He was so unrecognizable, he even took a days work as a stunt driver on a movie and not a single person recognised one of the most famous men alive at the time.
She was a model and when McQueen saw a magazine advertisement she was in, calls were made and he arranged to meet her at his hotel for lunch on the pretext of a part in his next movie, Tom Horn. Her agent had only told her it was the guy from Towering Inferno and she went expecting to meet Paul Newman. But rather prophetically, straight after that first meeting Barbara told her agent, “I’m going to marry that man”.
Barbara is a classy lady and after endless bimbos, McQueen recognized that important quality in her and was captivated too. That first meeting was on 4th July 1977 and the next evening McQueen took her for a trip up the coast in his 911 Turbo and they spent the night together in San Simeon.
As was McQueen’s way, when there was something he really wanted he went after it relentlessly. Barbara had returned to New York and he called her most days, asking her to come back to Los Angeles. First she agreed to meet him half way and McQueen drove out to Denver to see her again in August 1977 . Followed by a road trip together in his 1957 Ford pickup truck out to Idaho and Montana in September. McQueen was in love again and asked Barbara to come and live with him in California. She agreed and in October 1977, moved into his place in Malibu.
According to Barbara now, shortly after and while out together one day, McQueen saw a Porsche 911 parked on the road and stopped to check it out. He found the owner and ended up buying the car. So why would a random Porsche 911, not an unusual sight in California then, catch his attention like that? McQueen had the resources to buy any car in the world so why this particular used one?
The answer is simple, because of it’s remarkable similarity to the Porsche 911 from the Le Mans movie that for financial reasons, he’d been forced to sell in January 1971. It’s slate grey colour was rare so it would have stood out and although not that car, it was close enough and as Barbara needed some wheels, he got it anyway and gave it to her to use.
Barbara doesn’t remember her old 911 too fondly as it was very unreliable. Early 911’s require careful regular maintenance and those first generation CDI boxes in particular, were not very durable. Almost 9 years old by then, the car’s canted rev counter and short shift gear lever indicate some earlier competition use too, so it had probably already led a hard life before McQueen gifted it to her.
Finding Inspiration Again
With Barbara in his life, McQueen was reinvigorated and when filming for Tom Horn was completed in early March 1979, he decided to learn how to fly. Not in the latest Lear jet, his interest was in open cockpit vintage biplanes. The kind the father he never knew had flown in a traveling air show. McQueen had set his sights on buying a Stearman biplane so one day he and Barbara headed to Santa Paula, a centre for vintage aircraft enthusiasts in California and it would prove to be a major turning point in his life.
Whatever it was McQueen had once gotten from driving cars and riding bikes to their absolute limits but lost, he found again in the sky and it’s not difficult to understand why. Air travel is routine now with half a million people in the sky at any given moment. Cocooned in relative quiet, sipping drinks and watching movies, they’re just like buses or trains. But vintage planes are much more visceral, roaring radial engines pushing propellor wash past the pilot that smells of hot oil and burnt gasoline. They are a test of physical ability and nerve, both of which McQueen had in spades, and he'd found his mojo again
Porsche 911E gets back in the game
Increasingly nostalgic about the past and no longer interested in the fastest thing available, McQueen became increasingly focused on his favourite cars from the past. The first new car he bought and won his first race in too, was a 1958 Porsche 356 Speedster. He only kept for a year but reacquired it in 1974. The 1957 Jaguar XKSS he’d sold in 1967 he retrieved in 1976. He also tried to get the 1968 Bullitt Mustang back in 1977 but it's owner wasn’t interested in selling.
So with the 1976 911 Turbo disposed of, McQueen decided to put his trusty first Porsche 911 back into action again. And having tired of his signature slate grey and making a fresh start in his own life, he gave it a make over too. He repainted it silver and put on 15 inch chrome steel wheels, maybe because he was in touch with the new modified Porsche look that was starting in California around then, now known as Outlaw. But it’s definitely how McQueen’s 1969 Porsche 911E looked by May 1979 when it was almost 10 years old and photographed by Barbara outside their Malibu home. Shortly before it moved with McQueen’s other cars up to Santa Paula.
Sammy Miller was a former Lockheed test pilot based in Santa Paula. Although reluctant at first as he was semi-retired and didn’t teach novices, McQueen persisted and eventually his charm and enthusiasm won him over. Sammy Miller’s son Pete would also help with McQueen’s training and on 15th March 1979, he made his first flight in a borrowed 1940 Stearman biplane. Once the fully restored yellow Stearman McQueen had ordered arrived, he spent as much time in the air as he could.
In April 1979, McQueen became acquainted with Grady Ragsdale who’d stopped outside Sammy Miller’s hangar to check out the airport’s new Stearman. Grady had been flying since he was 15 and on his 16th birthday, by soloing 10 different airplanes in a day, made it into the Guinness Book of Records. Flying had been his living but a heart attack in January 1979, aged only 32, had grounded him for life. He was a also a mechanical maestro so turned to aircraft maintenance instead.
On 1st May 1979 McQueen made his first solo flight and not long after acquired another plane, a 1931 Pitcairn Mailwing biplane. By the middle of the month he’d made an offer that couldn’t be refused and bought a large hangar to keep them in, filling it with all his other favorite things. Some of his ever growing collection of vintage motorcycles, antique toys, juke boxes, neon and enamel signs, his ultimate man cave.
McQueen felt completely comfortable in Santa Paula’s totally non-Hollywood small town environment. It reminded him of his hometown, Slater in Missouri and he and Barbara soon fell in love with it and the down to earth people who lived there. Nobody cared that he was a movie star who had lots of money, he just wanted to be left alone and become a normal person again and they respected that wish. Deciding to live there full time, he and Barbara left Malibu and moved into the hangar while they looked for a new home locally but ended up living in it for 6 months.
On 1st June 1979, after having him thoroughly investigated, McQueen hired Grady Ragsdale full time and he soon became a trusted family friend. On 20th July 1979 McQueen finally got his private pilot license at the third attempt as heʼd struggled with the written aspects because of his dyslexia. Barbara was learning to fly too and in the plane McQueen bought her, pipped him to the post by passing hers on the 9th July.
In September 1979, McQueen and Barbara left for Chicago to film The Hunter and would not return to Santa Paula until late October. Meanwhile Grady Ragsdale continued supervising the remodeling of a small ranch McQueen had bought on the 9th July. Just 3 miles from the airport, it was built in 1896 and McQueen wanted it restored to an authentic turn of the century feel. His growing belief that heʼd expressed to friends was that he’d been born into the wrong time.
The Tide Turns Again
A bad cough that had started during the filming of The Hunter McQueen initially put down to Chicagoʼs damp climate. But after returning to Santa Paula and increasingly short of breath, he then thought it had aggravated an old injury heʼd sustained while in the Marines when an exploding battery inside a tank collapsed one of his lungs. Still thinking it was nothing serious and that a quick shot would fix him up, McQueen saw a local doctor on the 10th December and a chest x-ray revealed a spot on his right lung.
McQueen immediately contacted his personal physician at the Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and was diagnosed on the 22nd December 1979 as suffering from mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer. As there were only a few documented cases at the time, the best medical advice all his money could buy was that there was no proven treatment available and he should prepare himself for the worst.
On the 16th January 1980, he and Barbara were married in a small informal ceremony at the ranch. By February, Cedars-Sinai gave McQueen just 2 more months to live and in March he had a new will drawn up but didn’t sign it. Although he tried keeping his illness secret, even denying it after the press got hold of it, they continued hounding him anyway. So on 28th March 1980, he struggled in to the premier of Tom Horn trying to convince the World there was nothing wrong with him.
Being the man he was, McQueen decided not to meekly accept his fate but to fight it any way he could. He researched alternative therapies and heard about Dr William Kelly, an orthodontist who claimed to have cured himself of liver and pancreatic cancer. His methods were not recognized by oncologists and he had no license to practice medicine in the USA. His non-specific metabolic therapy was based on boosting the bodyʼs natural immune system with vitamins and a healthy diet to help it fight the disease. Rather than attacking the tumors with drugs that also damage the rest of the body.
The last new vehicle McQueen bought was in April 1980, a turbo diesel VW pickup truck which under the pretense of going on honeymoon, he and Barbara used to visit Dr Kelly at his secluded farm near Winthrop in Washington State, near to the Canadian border. Dr Kelly claimed a 15-20% cure rate for last-stage lung cancer and as McQueen confided to Grady later, “When youʼre in my shoes youʼll grab at anything thatʼs been known to work”. McQueen returned with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, proteins and other dietary supplements and began Dr Kellyʼs treatment at home.
McQueen continued working on his ranch house and expanding his vintage motorcycle collection, finishing off the huge barn heʼd had built to accommodate them and all his cars. It had to look like it had been there for a hundred years, so nothing shiny, modern or plastic was permitted and special effects guys from Hollywood were employed to achieve the effect McQueen wanted. It shows that despite what the doctors were telling him, he remained positive about his future.
In early May 1980, McQueen took Barbara on a real honeymoon, a cruise to Acapulco and back. Scheduled to take a week, both were taken ill by the rich food theyʼd become unaccustomed to and flew back early from Acapulco. The press had a field day though, noting how haggard McQueen now looked.
By early June 1980, his health had deteriorated so badly that he tried another doctor. Refusing to go into a hospital where other patients, staff and visitors could gawp at him, McQueen had the treatment in a specially equipped camper van in the parking lot outside a medical facility in the San Fernando Valley. For 7 weeks in sweltering heat, only returning home to Santa Paula on the weekends, McQueen gave it every chance. But on 30th July 1980, when tests at Cedars-Sinai revealed this had produced no improvement at all, he went straight to plan B.
He called his secretary and told her to meet him at the hospital with the papers he’d prepared, instructing her to pick up a box of his favorite Veracruz cigars on the way. An odd request for a man with lung cancer but the new will he’d drawn up in March 1980 was finally signed then. He also called Grady and asked him to bring his silver Ford pickup to Cedars-Sinai immediately and McQueen and Barbara then drove south to Mexico.
The Plaza Santa Maria near Rosarito in Mexico was a facility taken over by Dr Kelly so he could offer his alternative therapy which was not authorized in the USA. After months there on a strict and unpleasant dietary regime, by some accounts McQueen was making positive progress and his tumors were shrinking. But a particularly large and disfiguring one in his stomach offended his vanity and was only reducing slowly. McQueen decided to speed the process as it was deemed operable, although his weakened state meant doctors only gave him a 50/50 chance of surviving the operation.
On the 24th October 1980, McQueen returned home to Santa Paula while arrangements were made. The photos Barbara took then are particularly poignant, physically a shell of what he once was. But sat in the sunshine outside the car barn full of his treasures, although he looks weak and introspective, if there’s any fear there then I can't see it.
On his last day in Santa Paula and at his request, the evangelist Billy Graham visited him. They talked and prayed together and he then accompanied McQueen to the airport, gifting McQueen his Bible when they parted. To keep the paparazzi off guard, they headed independently to a hospital in Juarez, Mexico for the procedure but McQueen was soon joined there by Barbara, his children Terry and Chad and Grady Ragsdale.
After a day to recover from his exertions, McQueen went into surgery and survived the coin toss odds on survival he’d been given. When he regained consciousness, they were all euphoric and believed McQueen was going to do the impossible and beat his cancer. But later that night, he passed away in his sleep at 3.50 am on the 7th November 1980, with Billy Graham’s Bible held to his chest. Not from the cancer itself but a post-operative blood clot that lodged in his heart. Having dodged death so many times in cars, on motorcycles and at the hands of fanatics, fate had finally caught up with him. He died aged only 50 but had packed a dozen lifetimes worth of experiences into them. Even in death, the press wouldn’t leave him alone and someone slipped into the mortuary and photographed his corpse, which Paris Match and The New York Post were tasteless enough to publish on their covers.
After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in December 1979, McQueen had distanced himself from most of his old showbiz friends and his family too. He did not want to be seen in a sickly state or his children distressed by it. And in the traumatic aftermath, people had very divided opinions about the alternative treatment he’d chosen. Some thought he’d been exploited by a quack, others that at the very least he’d bought himself a little more time. Some resented those who’d supported McQueen’s decision just because they disagreed with it. Others were frustrated they’d been left out of the loop altogether. But all the acrimony was just an expression of the deep grief they all felt at losing him.
Understandably, Barbara was utterly devastated. She been at McQueen’s side throughout and occasionally, on the receiving end of his anger when venting the enormous pain he was in. But to have come so close to making it to the quiet life running a country antiques store which they’d planed for themselves, only for it to be cruelly snatched away just when it looked achievable, must have been emotionally overwhelming.
A small service for McQueen was held at the Santa Paula ranch, attended by his family and closest friends. His pilot buddies flew overhead in the lost man formation and then out over the Pacific Ocean where they scattered his ashes.The next day, Barbara packed her possessions and left Santa Paula for good, the memories just too painful be around. But as a parting gift, she gave her Porsche 911 to Grady Ragsdale who with his family, moved in to the ranch as caretakers. But the cars Solar title meant technically it wasn’t hers to give away and when the McQueen estate got wind that Grady planned to write a book, they were suspicious of his motives. They evicted him from the Santa Paula ranch, repossessed the Porsche 911 Barbara had given him and it then went to McQueen’s daughter Terry.
But his book,‘The Final Chapter’ was published in October 1983 and they needn’t have worried. It was not the sensationalist exposé they’d feared, just an honest and tender hearted account of what had actually happened. Something Grady needed to share in his healing process after the traumatic loss of such a close friend. After McQueen’s diagnosis, the already strong bond between them had been further strengthen by the mutual recognition that death was stalking both of them and sadly, Grady died in 1986 from heart failure. Today, it’s Barbara’s belief that her old Porsche 911 is currently owned by Chad McQueen, which he inherited in 1998 when his sister Terry passed away.
So what happened to the Steve McQueenʼs first Porsche 911, the 1969 911E? When the annual registration on it became due on the 8th July 1980, McQueen put it into Barbaraʼs name. Sheʼd given up on her unreliable 911S by then or it had expired on her and was driving a 1953 Chevrolet pickup nicknamed Cline around town instead. McQueen was receiving treatment in the San Fernando Valley at the time but was also planning ahead. Cline was not up to any trips to Mexico and back which was on the agenda if that treatment failed.
But during those months at Plaza Santa Maria, Barbara stayed by his side and it was Grady and others who brought McQueen anything from home he needed. It must have dawned on McQueen then that Barbara was done with old and unreliable Porsches and had no interest in using it. So when McQueen returned to Santa Paula in late October 1980 and was making his final arrangements before his imminent surgery, it was one of the penny sales Matt Stone mentioned in ʻMcQueenʼs Machinesʼ, effectively a gift to a friend. The guy I bought the car from in 1991 had only told me heʼd bought it from a pilot whoʼd flown for a major airline and had kept it privately never using it. Until a problem with his pension had forced him to sell it and the clues to his identity were in Grady Ragsdaleʼs book.
On that first trip up to Santa Paula in March 1979, McQueen and Barbara had wondered about the airport and there werenʼt many people about. McQueen had called out into an open hanger and was welcomed in by Perry Shreffler. He was a legendary pilot in vintage aircraft circles, whoʼd flown B17 bombers over Germany during WW2 and retired after 34 years flying for TWA as chief pilot. McQueen told Grady later that he wasnʼt sure if Perry had recognized him and although he had, Perry had treated him like anyone else and just the way McQueen wanted it. It was Perry Shreffler whoʼd advised McQueen about where to look for the Stearman biplane he was after, what to look out for in purchasing one and most importantly, who to do his training with. Maybe even helping to persuade Sammy Mason when he was initially reluctant. And Sammy Mason had a much greater influence on Steve McQueen than just teaching him to fly, he helped him find inspiration again in other ways too. He was a devout Christian who guided McQueen towards Christianity and as Barbara described him, became the father figure McQueen never had.
It was Perry Shreffler who first took McQueen for who he was, not what he was and welcomed him into Santa Paulaʼs close knit community of aviators where McQueen found so much happiness in the last years of his life. Perry was a car guy too, who ran around the airport in a London taxi at the time and drove a custom VW when in his 70ʼs. So itʼs easy to understand why McQueen gifted him his Porsche as a thank you for the help, guidance and kindness heʼd shown him. But when the McQueen estate repossessed the Porsche 911 Barbara had given to Grady Ragsdale, Perry must have thought they might try and get his back too. Which would explain why he kept it so privately and never used it.
In 1985, the Trans World Corporation sold off TWA to Carl C. Icahn and in 1986, the original holding parent company was liquidated. Problems with who then honored TWAʼs pension commitments began and litigation went on for many years. After so long not knowing about my car’s history, the last piece of the puzzle finally fitted into place.