Cars, Bikes and Steve McQueen Movies

Steve McQueen’s talent at the wheel of an automobile or aboard a motorcycle expanded his acting career and, eventually, gave him the power to influence movie scripts.

| June 2012

McQueen’s Machines (Motorbooks, 2007) by Matt Stone celebrates major motorhead and famous actor Steve McQueen and his passion as a car enthusiast, racer, and motorcyclist. Get a close-up look at the automobiles and motorcycles in McQueen’s garage, those he drove in movies and others he raced. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “McQueen on Screen.” 

Steve McQueen’s talent at the wheel of an automobile or aboard a motorcycle was considerable. He was ultra competitive at anything he did, and mastering cars and bikes became an early passion. By the time he was able to influence the content of the films he appeared in and create opportunities for his characters to drive or ride interesting machinery, he had already done a considerable amount of racing at amateur and semi-professional levels.

Even in early films, where McQueen wasn’t in a position to weigh in on the script, he was often seen at the wheel—a place that came naturally to him. He drove a Ford in The Blob (1958) and was Frank Sinatra’s chauffeur in the war movie Never So Few (1959), piloting a military jeep, of course. But the first opportunity for movie-goers to get a real look at McQueen’s love for all things motorized happened to be in the film that most consider his breakthrough role.

The Great Escape (1963)

As you’ll read about in the next chapter, Steve McQueen’s amateur racing career was in full bloom by the spring of 1962. He’d enjoyed success in the production classes running his Porsche Speedster and later moved up to a Lotus XI sports racer, then a Cooper Formula Junior open-wheeled machine. He was offered a factory ride and was seriously toying with the notion of turning pro. But his acting career was bursting at the seams as well. McQueen was on the glide path to stardom.

His performance in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven was a standout, and he was lauded for his work in The War Lover. His days of small parts and secondary billing were over, and it was inevitable that his involvement in racing would get in the way sooner or later. It came to a boil when the studio sent an attorney to McQueen’s doorstep with what was tantamount to a restraining order, written to keep him off the track or risk his contract. It was racing or the movies.

“They gave me twenty-four hours to make up my mind. I took most of those twenty-four hours thinking about whether I wanted to go on racing, earning my money on the track, or whether I wanted to continue being an actor on the studio’s terms. It was a very tough decision for me to reach. Still, I had Neile and our two young children to consider, and that made the difference. I signed their paper.” It’s a good thing too; otherwise, he may never have made The Great Escape.

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