The King of Cool at the Petersen

by • August 5, 2014 • FeatureComments (1)2390

Steve McQueen left an indelible imprint as one of Hollywood’s sexiest leading men. His balance of masculinity and sensitivity made him both a man’s man and a ladies’ man all at once. His revered roles in films such as Bullitt, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair and Papillion have been often imitated but never repeated. An actor, race-car driver, and father, McQueen was the epitome of the American dream, rising from hardscrabble circumstances to become one of the most famous movie stars in the world, otherwise known as “The King of Cool”.

Rare vintage sports cars on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum are not unusual. But these two stand out as different. They were both once owned by the late Steve McQueen. “You can’t have a museum in Los Angeles and not have a Hollywood gallery, and you can’t have a Hollywood gallery without talking about Steve McQueen,” said Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum.

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His Jaguar XKSS is in the museum’s permanent collection. But his red Ferrari is paying a short visit before it heads to the RM Auction in Monterey. The 1967 275 GTB/4 Chianti colored Ferrari was delivered to him on the set of Bullitt.

A keen driver and car collector, McQueen insisted on performing his own stunt-driving scenes in his films and owned the Ferrari until 1971. Although this vehicle is undoubtedly valuable having been described by Ferrari as “One of the most interesting cars to ever leave the factory” – McQueen’s ownership has rocketed its value. Had it been sold without McQueen among its past owners, it would only have sold for roughly a third of what it’s expected to sell for.

The car was restored in Ferrari’s own ‘Ferrari Classiche’ department where McQueen requested a few modifications including a custom paint color and a particular set of wheels.
The Jaguar XKSS sat beside the Ferrari may very well qualify as the “King of Automotive Cool.” It is essentially a Jaguar D-type racer with the modifications necessary to make the car street legal, only 16 XKSS models were produced (18, if you count factory conversions), and Steve McQueen owned one he affectionately called the “Green Rat.”

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The 1956 Jaguar XKSS was the brainchild of American racer and entrepreneur Briggs Cunningham. Upon hearing that Jaguar had 25 D-types remaining in inventory after the automaker’s withdrawal from factory-backed racing in 1955, the ever-persuasive Cunningham reached out to Jaguar head Sir William Lyons to request a car for SCCA production sports car racing. Such a car would need to be street-legal, and it would need to be constructed in a minimum quantity of 50 units for homologation. Lyons agreed, and the resulting effort was dubbed the 1956 Jaguar XKSS, the SS suffix reportedly denoting “Super Sport.”

To make the car road-legal, Jaguar added a passenger-side door, a larger windscreen (complete with chrome frame), turn signals, side windows, more substantial taillamps and a rudimentary folding top. Some cars even got trunk-mounted luggage racks, further proof of their “touring” mission. What didn’t change was the D-type’s drivetrain, a 3.4-liter inline six-cylinder engine rated at 250 horsepower and mated to a fully synchronized four-speed manual transmission. The combination was good enough to deliver a 0-60 MPH time of a little more than five seconds, on the way to a top speed of 149 MPH.

McQueen acquired his example in 1958, and quickly developed a reputation for amassing speeding tickets behind the wheel of the Green Rat. The XKSS was reportedly responsible for McQueen’s license being suspended on two different occasions, and the actor allegedly dodged one speeding ticket by claiming that his six-month pregnant wife, Neile, had gone into labor. The stunt earned him a police escort to the hospital, but the officer departed the scene before McQueen sheepishly explained to the ER staff that it was only a “false alarm.”

The actor sold the Jaguar in 1969, but soon regretted his decision. In 1977, he repurchased the car and retained ownership until his death of mesothelioma in 1980. It sported several custom touches not found on other XKSS models, including a leather interior crafted by Tony Nancy and a glove box door constructed by McQueen’s friend, Von Dutch. Delivered from the factory in white with a red interior, the color was changed to British racing green with a black interior under McQueen’s ownership.

This special McQueen “pop-up exhibit” includes all three vehicles as well as historical documents about the cars and the actor. Museum-goers can also see the McQueen’s 1934 Ford Panel Delivery on the way into the museum, then take a trip to the Petersen’s vault to see McQueen’s “low profile” daily driver, a 1952 mint green Hudson Wasp.

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