Not so long ago, when I was broke but studying Stanislavsky in New York and trying to be an actor, I read a story in a fan magazine about a Hollywood star who had a terrible time deciding which of his cars to take to work. I got mad. Up to then the fanciest car I had owned was a hot rod that a pal and I had put together as teen-agers. In those days in southern California we had rods with Model A frames and Ford 60 engines with Edelbrock manifolds, and they accelerated like the J-2 Allards that some of the sports car people owned. Mine didn't handle, but it did have stark acceleration—when the engine stayed in it—and I always got goose pimples hearing one go up the street. Now that I can afford something better I don't get sore at stories about all the automobiles the stars own and the choices they have to make. But I still get the goose pimples.
Not from every car. To me there are cars, and then there is transportation. I don't have a lot of interest in cars that won't go fast and stop well and corner a little. History is against me, but I prefer a stick shift to an automatic transmission. I'd rather sink my fanny into a bucket seat than park it on a bench. I won't sue if you spread the word that I like to drive flat out whenever the road and the law let me.
Understand that I am an actor, not a racing driver or an automotive engineer, but I've raced some and I ain't a bad driver. The cars you see in these pages are my kind of automobile. They go and they stop and they handle. They are drivers' cars, and most of them have been developed from racing cars. It was a kick driving them at Riverside; a little later I will give my impressions of each.
You will see that only two of the eight are American cars, which is a realistic ratio. We have been a little backward about building sports and Grand Touring cars, just as we have been backward, until recently, in international racing. I am proud for my country that Fords won at the Le Mans race and that the Chaparral won at N√ºrburgring, but I think those wins were overdue. We make very strong engines and chassis in America, but, let's face it, our production-line cars are old-fashioned. The Europeans make driving cars, handling cars. True, there are a lot of narrow roads and mountains and plenty of driving in the wet in Europe, and so European cars are built for those conditions. Build a car over there that won't handle in the wet or has brake fade and you won't sell any. But our cars, man, you hit the brakes four or five times from 80 miles an hour and you've got no brakes. Drive our cars in the mountains of Italy and they are going to be wish-washing all over the place. You are going to be sliding from one side of the seat to the other.
August 7, 1966
What does that have to do with McQueen? Well, I'm prejudiced. I think we ought to have more cars for drivers. Most married men have to compromise by having a car that handles pretty well but still is able to take care of the wife and the kids. I am selfish enough as a male that I like my own car, and I am lucky enough to have a couple that I haven't had to make compromises with. One is a Jaguar XK-SS and the other is a Ferrari Berlinetta.
The XK-SS is a development of the D-types that won Le Mans four times. Jaguar made 15 of them, and then the factory caught fire, and that was that. The cars have become collectors' items. I have tracked down seven in the world, and I have one of them. I dare say, with the skinned knuckles I have gotten working on it, mine is probably the most cherry. I have reengineered the combustion chambers and the cams; I have dropped the oil sump, the radiator and the 46-gallon neoprene gas tank and worked them over. The disk brakes alone are worth $2,400 if you buy them across the counter, with six pads on each leading shoe and four on each side in the back—that's 20 pads in all. The body is magnesium and so are the wheels—and that's my baby. Sometimes when I come home from work and I'm up tight I work on the XK-SS. Bushing the front end is my therapy. That's what I do instead of stealing hubcaps. The car has an old, rigid rear end that makes it bounce around a lot, but it still looks good, and I think it's a fine piece of machinery.
My wife, Neil, bought me the Ferrari, a 3-liter Berlinetta Lusso. It is dark brown and has 15-inch Borrani wire wheels on it, and it's kind of a keen car. It would take a lot of persuading to convince me that Enzo Ferrari can do anything wrong. To me, he is one of the finest engineers in the world. When I am not working on the XK-SS or driving it, I drive the Ferrari. I do my thinking behind the wheel of a car. I find it relaxing. The concentration that I put into acting is the same kind that applies in motor racing or motorcycle racing. If you are locked in on your concentration in racing it makes everything else look like a dish of skimmed milk. In acting it is the same thing. There are six, seven, eight things that you must be able to do instinctively and with simplicity. You have to be perfectly relaxed. You must never get tight and bugged—you know, wound.
The first sports car I owned was a TC-MG. I found it in Columbus, Ohio when I was touring in a play called Time Out for Ginger. I wasn't getting much money, but we were playing poker every night, and I was winning. They wanted seven and a half for the MG. I left $450 with the man, and every week I sent money until I had it paid for. It was delivered to me in Chicago. Then I got fired from the play and took the car back to New York with me. I thought I was kind of Jack L. Warner's son, you know. I didn't have any dough and lived in a cold-water flat, but I had that MG parked outside. Finally I sold it to pay the rent.
Next, I bought an Austin-Healey, after I was married, and after that a Corvette. I shined the Corvette three times and drove it twice while my wife was working in Vegas as a dancer. Then I went back East for a job, and Neil, who was just learning how to drive, stuffed the Corvette into a used-car lot and came out with a Lincoln Continental. So that wiped out my Corvette.
With my next car, a black Porsche Super, I started going out to practice for club races in southern California and got very interested in competition. My first race was Santa Barbara. Everybody was growling at me. They'd all seen the actor who sat in a racing car for publicity, you know, and I understood that. But I was very earnest about it. I was sitting there trying to look very relaxed. Guys were yelling. One said, "Hey, McQueen, you better make a hole when they drop the flag, because I'm coming through." But I won the race. And I was hooked. The fellows accepted me when they discovered I wasn't a know-it-all, that I was willing to learn.
I was working in a television series called Wanted Dead or Alive, and the television people told me not to race. If I had gotten hurt the insurance company could have sued me for the price of the show. But the sport meant enough to me that I raced with that hanging over my head. I must say, when you are racing against somebody and he wants to win and you want to win, you find yourself thinking, "Christ, if I end up on my head, there goes the house and the car and everything else."
But I did pretty well and cooled the insurance company, and after the Porsche I had a Lotus LeMans Mark II. Then I took a picture that was to be made in England, The War Lover, because I wanted to learn more about motor racing. Motor racing in Europe is like studying medicine in Vienna. I scammed and shammed and used my juice as an actor to get a ride. I was a race bum. This was 1961, and I was driving underpowered little cars, but to me it was a big thing. Afterward I raced at Sebring and then back on the Coast.
The pictures were getting more difficult. They were better pictures, but harder parts. To be a race bum is marvelous, but I had to choose between cars and pictures, and I decided to quit racing. It was a sorrowful thing because I had been offered some pretty good rides.
I knew there was a great picture to be made about motor racing. We had had nothing in films but the guy who wanted to die or the guy holding the broken steering wheel in one hand while he was kissing the girl. It is not really quite that way. I am going to try to make a decent racing picture next year. It will be called Day of the Champion, and it will be about an American racing in Europe. He is not the world champion. He is a guy who has the handle of crashing. He has a psychological problem. He has the other problems submitted to human beings who put their lives on the line time after time. I think I can bring a little reality to it, and I think John Sturges is a good director.
I knew there was a picture there but for a long time I kind of held off. I thought maybe we weren't ready for it. Maybe I held off a little too long. When we started getting Le Mans Pontiacs and GTO Pontiacs and when John Cooper came to Indianapolis for the first time with a 1½-liter Climax and Jack Brabham made the fastest times through the corners in it, I knew the time was coming when we would be ready for a racing picture. We're ready now.
Riverside Raceway, a couple of traffic clots up the freeway from Los Angeles, has been ready for quite a while. Before I get to the cars, let me say two words about Riverside, where I drove them. Winning at Riverside is done on guts and a lot of horsepower, because you can win a race on horsepower down the one-mile back straightaway. The start-finish line is on a short straight. Turn One is an uphill left-hander, quite dangerous. You go into it blind, all the way over to the right, then cut to the left-hand side and come out sliding. Then you throw the car into opposite lock for a downhill right-hander, which is Turn Two. After that comes the Esses. Three is to the left, Four to the right and Five to the left again. Then you go uphill into Six, which is a right-hander with a tightening radius and a guardrail that is very inviting. Through the Esses maximum speed is about 125 mph. Six is a good bit slower—60 to 65. Seven is a downhill lefthander. Eight is a little right-hander, and then you set yourself up for the back straightaway. The fastest I've gone there is 157 in a Lola T-70. At the end of the straight is the ninth and last turn, a right-hander that keeps tightening up. As you come to the shutoff markers you set yourself all the way over to the left and start panic braking and shifting down. The turn goes downhill and sort of corkscrews. It is very easy to run out of road. Halfway through you have to give your car a jog and set it up again for the pit straight. It is a fast course, and there are not many places that you can afford to spin on it; you must respect it.
All right, the Ferrari. Bill Harrah was kind enough to send it down from Reno, and it was a wonderful car. With more inches than mine and a better power arc from its six-Weber carburetor—mine has three—I was pushing 140 mph. Top speed in ideal conditions is better than 150. The car was set up just the way I like it—for oversteer in tight corners and understeer in fast ones. Oversteer is when the rear end wants to break traction, where you hang the rear end out. Understeer is when the front end has a tendency to get light and push a bit.
The steering was heavy at 20 mph, as it should have been, and became progressively lighter as I went faster. If you have power steering and get going fast you don't feel anything—and you must feel the steering if you want to drive quickly. Clicking through the five-speed gearbox was a pleasure; Ferrari gearboxes shift like a knife through butter. You throw the stick, and it just kind of finds its own way in.
I thought Pininfarina's sculpturing was just beautiful. When the man drove it away, all eyes looked over there. The leather bucket seats were perfect, and the spokes in the steering wheel were set up so that you could easily read the speedometer and the tachometer. The car was redlined at 8,500 RPMs, and I respected that limit, although I was having a little fun pushing hard through the Esses. The shift had a very short, good throw. The pedals were hung so that you could play heel and toe if you wanted to. The power was such that a woman could go piddling along in third gear in traffic without any problems, yet a man could motor along just as easily at top RPM, so long as he respected the car.
The Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider comes from the same part of the world as the Ferrari. It is built by a company with a very old racing tradition and, as I expected, it was marvelous to drive within its limitations. On the narrow, mountainous roads of Italy it would be perfect. The five-speed gearbox was quite good, and I must say I was very impressed by the brakes. I stopped six or seven times from 90 mph and had absolutely no brake fade or locking. The Alfa handled well. Going through Turn One in fourth gear at the RPM limit of 7,000, which is close to a speed of 90, I could not break the rear end loose. I finally got it skating by throwing it to the left and then to the right. It is a very forgiving car. Very pretty, too; the Pininfarina body is swell. But with only 1,600 ccs. in the four-cylinder overhead cam engine it was a bit underpowered for my money. I prefer more passing power.
The Mercedes 230SL was very handsome, and it sure did handle well. But, again, I thought it was underpowered for the money. The model I drove had the Mercedes automatic transmission. It was the best from Europe that I have come across, but if I were buying the car I would take the four-speed manual. To be fair about this automatic, it shifted quite accurately, and there was no slugging or mushing. It snapped right in. For people who do not like to shift in traffic the car would be very suitable. This Mercedes is an outstanding lady's car, yet it will also take some manhandling. I drove it hard and got it out of shape a bit, and the car behaved very nicely, never tried to bite me.
Like the 230SL, the other German car, the Porsche 911, was a six, but a very different kind of six. The Mercedes straight-six is in the front. The Porsche flat-six, with horizontally opposed cylinders—an engine developed from the Grand Prix car of a few seasons ago—is in the rear. I was curious to see how much the Porsche had changed since I raced my Super, which had the four-cylinder engine. Boy, it's changed. Road noise used to be a problem with that rear-engine location, but on the 911 I got very little noise. The old Porsches had that violent oversteer tendency, and they would get out of whack with no warning. You'd be hung out and locked in your steering with nowhere to go. We used to decamber the rear wheels 2½°, to 3½°, so they kind of looked like somebody had sat on them, and toe them in half a degree to get a certain amount of stability. Now the problem has been corrected. The 911 was a very neutral-handling car, very docile, very pleasant to drive, and the five-speed gearbox sure was easy to use. The brakes were just fine. Once a gust of wind caught me on the back straight and slid me over a few feet, but the car didn't get radical in its handling.
There is a four-cylinder Porsche—the less expensive 912—and I imagine it has a little more snap at low RPM than the 911 but not as much top speed. With that six the 911 honks right along.
The English cars, the Aston Martin DB6 (minus the James Bond gadgets) and the Jaguar 2+2, are examples of the current trend toward stretching out the old type of Grand Touring two-seater to make some room in the back for kids or small adults. If your friends have 29-inch waists, you're O.K. The cars have somewhat similar engines—straight-sixes with overhead cams.
After driving the 2+2 with automatic transmission I felt that if you really wanted to get on it a manual box would be a must in this car. I thought the transmission was sluggish. Since the car was very new, I had to keep the RPMs down and I didn't push it. I had driven the two-seater XK-E and, as far as I could see, the 2+2 handled just like it, which is bloody good. I found it very smooth down the back straight at 110 mph. The seat was fine; the visibility was good; the brakes were solid. There is great appeal in the 2+2 for the man who will accept a compromise. He can put his two kids in the back, run his wife in the front and take off for his vacation. My wife was kind of keen on that 2+2. I don't see how they make it for the price.
The Aston, let's face it, is a gentleman's automobile. Neil was crazy about it, and I thought it handled very, very well. There are two things that I would like to see them do with the car: put wider wheel rims on it so you get more meat on the road and redesign the seats to give you more control of lateral thrust. I found that I had to hold onto the door with one hand going around corners. I'll say this, I was driving it a little harder, perhaps, than the average person would, and Jimmie O'Brien, whose personal car it was, took it like a gentleman.
The Aston is not a light car, by any means, but the brakes were quite good; there was slight fade after some exceptionally hard use. But, shifting up from fourth to fifth at top revs, you seemed to lose all your beans, lose your power. Both Jaguar and Aston may have to go to more cylinders some day to stay competitive. Nowadays the American market is putting out V-8 blocks that are able to pull 400 to 425 horsepower, stock. Those long-stroke English sixes are beginning to be just a little bit old-fashioned by comparison.
The Corvette was one of those V-8s, and the Cobra another. I was very impressed by the Corvette. Other than the Ferrari, it was the best car I drove at Riverside. And let's face it, it went out the door at $5,500 instead of $14,000. It had the big 427-inch turbocharged engine, and the four-speed gearbox, the stiffer suspension, short steering, and they were running low-silhouette racing tires on it. No question, it's a brute, a terribly quick car. It must be one of the fastest production cars you can buy for that kind of money.
I was doing a notch over 140 mph in it and could have gone faster. The brakes bobbled a bit at first. I got a little sideways on my first lap when I dive-braked coming into the shutoff marker for Turn Nine. But as soon as the brakes warmed up on the second lap they seated right in. The car handled just beautifully. Once I was going to race one of the old Corvettes, but I passed on it because it handled so badly. GM has done a wonderful job of making the Sting Ray handle right. At Riverside somebody turned on a sprinkler that got some water on the track, and as I was going into Turn One doing 120, I hit it. I kind of got on tippytoes when I hit the water, lifted everything and tippytoed through it, and then I got back on it right away to clear off the tires. No problem. No panic. The gearbox was smooth, and the ride was not stiff or bumpy. Yet when I threw the car into a slide I didn't pick up any rear wheels and I could straighten right out again.
The Cobra I enjoyed very much for its acceleration, which is brutal, and its brakes, which really get you stopped. I could not get a realistic idea of how well this particular car can corner, because the gas would slosh to one side of the carburetor bowl and starve out the engine. I know the work Carroll Shelby has put into the car, and I realize that the ones he prepares for racing are set up just right, so I am reluctant to call myself an expert on it. My knees were crying ouch an awful lot because of the seating position. When I went to hit the brakes I would hit my knee on the steering wheel, which could be a little smaller. But it was a real stoplight bandit on acceleration. I understand the 427 can get up to 100 mph and get stopped in just over 13 seconds. That is motoring.
And motoring is kind of a good part of life.