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McQueen's 911

The Real McQueen

Steve McQueen’s Le Mans movie 911 has been missing since it left La Sarthe in 1971. So how did it manage to be off radar for so long?

 
To make his stay in France more agreeable McQueen bought a 911S, which he would use both in the movie and as personal transport

The road unravels, turning first to the right and then to the left. The grey 911 bobbles as it crosses a tiny bridge. Climbing now, up a gentle rise, before dropping down into the still of a tree-lined avenue. Across a single-span bridge and into town. Easing past a pretty little restaurant with flower-filled window boxes for decoration. A long-shot as driver and Porsche enter the cathedral square. He eases to a stop and watches as a pretty woman buys flowers.

On the move again, out of town and back into the countryside. The land is flat and the road takes a hard right, the location now revealed by a sign that reads ‘Le Mans’. Armco takes the place of trees at tarmac’s edge. The car pulls over and the driver steps out: suede jacket, watch, bracelet. The camera circles the driver. Slowly but surely we recognise him, as the face of Steve McQueen fills the screen.

It’s autumn 2007 and the scene shifts from early 1970s
La Sarthe to Los Angeles, California. Sitting at the wheel of the car that so famously filled the first four minutes of Le Mans, I see the tree-lined avenue and that beautiful woman buying flowers, but only in my mind’s eye. Through the tinted glass there are burger joints instead of cathedrals, signs that read Long Beach rather than Le Mans. Check the mirrors: not a 917 or Ferrari 512 in sight. I pull Steve McQueen’s ‘lost’ 911 out into the LA traffic.

It’s early Sunday morning and there are more joggers out than cars, but the situation is no less surreal. This is STEVE McQUEEN’S car: the man who put out a Towering Inferno; the man who jumped barbed-wire fences as he rode to win his Great Escape; Bullitt, Papillon and of course Le Mans. Jesse Rodrigues, the car’s third owner, sits at my side. ‘Give it some more power,’ he yells as we head for Highway 110.

Back in the spring of 1970, Solar Productions descended on Le Mans to start work on the film. To make his stay in France even more agreeable McQueen bought a 911S, which he would use both in the movie and as personal transport. McQueen was so happy with his 911 that at the end of filming he decided to keep it, once it had been sent to Stuttgart for different gear ratios to be fitted. The 911 was then shipped to McQueen’s home in California.

The problem was, Steve already owned a 1969 911 and had gone to some expense installing a state-of-the-art stereo system. The Le Mans 911 was surplus to requirements and was advertised for sale in the LA Times. Jesse laughs as he recounts the story.

‘The guy I bought the car from, the second owner, is a real 911 enthusiast. He bought a Targa S in 1969, but unfortunately the car was stolen in early 1971. He wanted to buy another S so he went to the LA Times and found an ad for a 911S. He called up the number and arranged to go and see the car and guess who opened the door? Steve McQueen. The McQueen family owns the 911 “stereo” car to this day.’

McQueen’s Le Mans 911 stayed in the hands of its second owner for the next 34 years, 20 of which it was used as a daily driver. Then in 2005 Jesse attended an office luncheon.

‘It’s a once-a-month affair,’ he recalls. ‘And just like any other group of colleagues we talk about work and hobbies. On this particular day I mentioned I like old Porsches and one of the ladies said her husband owned an old Porsche, but didn’t go on to say whether it was a 911, 912 or 356. At the next luncheon she mentioned it again and I said I’d like to see it; I have four 356s so I was interested. It went no further until one day I met her in Starbucks and she said her husband was thinking about selling the car. At no point had there been any mention of McQueen or Le Mans.’

In truth, Jesse was not really interested in the car. He had discovered it was a 911 but his passion is for the 356. The two of them continued to talk over a number of weeks until finally a meeting was arranged. ‘I went up to the owner’s house,’ remembers Jesse. ‘The car was sitting, pretty much in the condition we see it today. It was in the open, in the driveway next to the garage. There were dusty cat paw marks over the hood and roof. Not being into early 911s at this point, it just looked like any number of other cars to me. We talked for a little while, and then I left.’

A few weeks later Jesse returned to look at the car, this time with his wife. ‘Again we stood talking in the driveway, which is when the owner told me the car was Steve McQueen’s 911. Obviously I know who Steve McQueen is, but it was almost of no consequence to me. Because I have other commitments I wasn’t sure I could afford the car anyway, and we hadn’t even spoken about a price yet.’

Jesse and his wife headed home and nothing happened for another week. During this time Jesse talked to his automotive mentor, who has owned Porsches since 1960. Once again the significance of the first owner was sidelined as more practical matters came into focus. At this time the car had covered 116,000 miles and concerns over engine and transmission rebuilds troubled the deal. However, on hearing about the McQueen connection, another of Jesse’s contacts implored him to buy.

Encouraged and discouraged by his advisors in equal measure, Jesse decided to show his hand and told the owner he wanted to buy, but the response came as a surprise.

‘The owner felt it was only right to offer the car to the McQueen family, which I totally agreed with. In hindsight, if I’d known then what I know today I would have been far more concerned.’ Jesse laughs at the thought today, but in early 2005 it was a problem and not the only one. A third party had expressed an interest and Jesse was told whoever sealed the deal first got the car. Jesse needed no further encouragement.

On the drive over Jesse revisited his concerns about the engine and transmission – in relation to the price asked for the car, rebuilding the motor or gearbox would be a huge issue. He had a mechanic willing to look over the 911, but he wasn’t available for three days. ‘I told the owner about my concerns,’ recalls Jesse, ‘and that my mechanic couldn’t look at the car for days. Incredibly he handed me the keys and said, “Take it.” ’

After three long days the mechanic was able to give the all-clear and Jesse headed back to the owner’s house. ‘Until then all our conversations had been held out on the driveway, next to the car. It’s better not to negotiate business like this in someone’s home. When I finally walked into the house there was a poster on the wall of Steve McQueen and he’s doing the “V” for victory sign. The owner looked at me and said, “Yes, that’s a movie poster.” I didn’t know which movie until he told me it was Le Mans. Can you believe I had never seen the movie?’

At this point the now ex-owner started bringing out file after file of documentation to go with the car. ‘I really didn’t know what I had,’ admits Jesse. McQueen had kept every piece of correspondence, every detail of his ownership, every step of the car’s trip to the US, its registration... no part of the car’s life that could be documented had escaped archiving.

Little has changed on the car since it left La Sarthe. It has certainly been repainted at sometime and Jesse has restored the wheels, fitted new tyres and a new windscreen, which is why the stickers that can be seen in the film are not present on the car’s glass today. But the McQueen-ordered air-conditioning, leather, tinted windows, muffler skirt, electric sunroof, aluminium wheel mouldings, Blaupunkt AM/FM US-band radio with manual antenna and driving lights are all present and correct.

‘I’ve now bought the movie,’ says Jesse as we drive the quiet Sunday morning Los Angeles streets in Steve McQueen’s 911. ‘Some people say this is the most iconic 911. They could be right, but this is Steve McQueen’s car, not mine, and that is how it should stay. The person who owns it now should be of no consequence. The funny thing is, though, I recently ran into the guy who sold me the car and he said to me, “What would you think if I gave you back the money you paid for the car and the expenses you have incurred and took the car back?” We laughed about it and I said I respectfully decline your offer, but will bear it in mind.’

Of course the daily-driving days for McQueen’s Le Mans 911 are well and truly over. While the car has spent its entire life in Los Angeles following its departure from Europe, today’s Californian traffic chaos makes driving it seven days a week too risky. But every Sunday morning, before sun-up, Jesse pulls the grey 911 out of its garage and heads for the freeway and a 20-mile blast.

I glance to the right as we drive past another burger joint, Jesse still at my side. The Sunday-morning LA roads remain mercifully quiet as the plate-glass restaurant window throws back its reflection clear and true. My eyes rest for a moment on the surface of the glass. I see the car, myself at the wheel, a French restaurant with a flower box for decoration. Is that a cathedral too, and a pretty woman buying flowers? Finally, I notice the road sign: it’s pointing east and in my mind’s eye it reads: Le Mans 5627 miles.

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