Steve McQueen died in 1980, over thirty-five years ago, yet the “McQueen Factor” remains in everything he touched. In 2014, a 1967 Ferrari he once owned sold at auction for £6 million, around four-times more than the car’s worth had it not belonged to The King of Cool, so what is it about the man that makes him such a timeless icon?
The McQueen Factor
At the time of the sale, the RM Auctions managing director Max Girardo said, “The Steve McQueen factor is simply immeasurable. There is nothing better to spend your money on than a Steve McQueen Ferrari,” and it seems that the same can be extended to any car once owned by Steve as in 2011, his old Porsche 911 sold for around twelve-times more than its typical value.
Perhaps associated with the movie star lifestyle of fast cars and motorbikes more than any other star before him or since, Steve McQueen owned over 100 vehicles at the time of his death. His legendary obsession with cars and motor racing is well documented and led to the making of what’s often described as his worst ever film. Le Mans was released in 1971 and generally panned by everyone other than dedicated petrolheads, but Steve McQueen didn’t care what critics or anyone else thought, and that’s what creates the enduring McQueen Factor.
I live for myself and I answer to nobody
The Man Behind the Legend
In 1958, Steve had a few lines in The Blob; in 1960, he shot to fame in his role as Vin Tanner in The Magnificent Seven; in 1963 came Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape; in 1965, The Cincinnati Kid; in 1968, The Thomas Crown Affair and then Bullitt; in 1972, he starred in The Getaway; then Papillon in 1973; followed by The Towering Inferno in 1974, the disaster movie that set the bar for all other disaster movies to follow.
So many of Steve’s films are considered classics, but the McQueen Factor has never been about his films, it has always been about him – the man.
He’s famed for playing anti-hero roles in his acting career, but to a large extend, Steve McQueen was the characters he played. Abandoned by his father as a baby, brought up by his uncle and grandparents more than his mother, then beaten by two stepfathers, Steve escaped to a life of petty crime on the streets, eventually finding himself in the California Boys Republic, a reform school for juvenile delinquents. He was released at the age of 16 and joined the merchant marine, followed by the United States Marines.
In a Military.com article, he’s quoted as saying, “It was all very pleasant just lying in the sun and watching the girls go by, but one day I suddenly felt bored with hanging around and went and joined the Marines.” He was soon promoted to Private First Class, but his rebellious nature saw him demoted to Private at least seven times.
On one occasion, a weekend pass turned into two weeks spent with his girlfriend, and then, after resisting arrest by the shore patrol, he found himself spending 41 days in the brig, half of which he endured on just bread and water – not dissimilar to the insubordination displayed by his most iconic film characters! Steve McQueen was Vin Tanner, just as he was Virgil Hilts.
He later said, “The Marines gave me discipline I could live with. By the time I got out, I could deal with things on a more realistic level. All in all, despite my problems, I liked my time in the Marines.”
The King of Cool
His bad boy image was never an image – it was always authentic. Steve McQueen was always Steve McQueen, and he didn’t try to be anything other than himself. He may not have been at the wheel in the famous fence-jumping motorbike scene in The Great Escape or every high-speed car chase scene in Bullitt, but he had the skills and he would have been had the film company permitted it.
To this day, much is made of Steve McQueen’s “style” and many men’s fashion magazines give hints and tips on how to get the super cool look, but, of course, anyone trying to get it simply doesn’t have it – Steve didn’t have to try.
In a GQ magazine interview, his son Chad McQueen said, “He would just get dressed in a quick second and always look great. I never saw him once get out of something to get into something else … He would always say: ‘Just make sure you’re clean son. Just make sure everything’s clean’”.
At the height of his career in 1974, Steve was Hollywood’s highest paid actor, but he wasn’t trying to stay there. He turned down the title role in Dirty Harry and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Apocalypse Now to name just a few. Straight after Towering Inferno, Steve chose to stay out of the limelight and to concentrate on racing motorbikes instead.
As always, he did what he wanted, when he wanted, and fame didn’t matter – other than funding his true passion. “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting”.
Steve McQueen had the fame and the money to live life by his own rules, but he became the timeless King of Cool because he always did. All the way from reform school to the Marines to Hollywood, Steve McQueen did it his way – who wouldn’t want to be like him?
“When I did The Great Escape, I kept thinking, ‘If they were making a movie of my life, that’s what they’d call it—the great escape.'”