The McQueen Mystique

Why does any car, truck or motorcycle once owned by this iconic actor, racer and sex symbol sell for many times its normal value?

August 16, 2007. The Christie’s Auction at the Monterey Jet Center, Monterey, California. The lights dimmed and the music system thumped to Sheryl Crow singing her hit song “Steve McQueen.” An elegant 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso rolled onto an elevated turntable. The crowd hummed with anticipation and the bidding hit a half-million dollars instantly, and nearly as quickly, passed a million—twice the price of a “normal” Lusso. Bidding continued to rise, although once it reached $1.5 million the pace slowed. The crowd collectively sighed when the magnificent Ferrari broke the $2 million mark. When the gavel fell, the final tally for Steve Mc-Queen’s former 250 Lusso was $2.31 million, including the buyer’s premium. What had just happened?

On that day, that particular Lusso may have been the finest in the world. Its provenance was unquestioned, its powertrain and chassis numbers all matched, and it had been restored to the highest levels in its original colors. Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that this one, given its Pebble Beach-quality restoration, but not accounting for its ownership provenance, would have been worth $750,000–$800,000. So what made this magical car crack the two-million-dollar mark? Its stellar celebrity ownership, of course.

Why the “McQueen bump?” People have been speculating on “star cars” for decades, but vehicles owned by other big names, such as Elvis and Frank Sinatra, seldom sell for markedly more than their “normal” market value.

Put aside for a moment any intrinsic value of the sheet metal. Even today, more than 30 years since his passing (McQueen died November 7, 1980, at age 50), his star power has considerable global earning potential. He ranked ninth on Forbes’ 2011 list of Top-Earning Dead Celebrities; his estate, name and likeness are well managed, with the intent of licensing their use only to top-quality products and endeavors. Says Forbes: “Three decades after his passing, the one-time ‘Bullitt’ star continues to personify cool. McQueen’s image and likeness have been licensed for a host of signature collections for high-end brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Persol sunglasses. More recently he became the face of Tommy Hilfiger’s fall ‘icon collection’ and UBS’ global ‘We Will Not Rest’ campaign.”

Was the Lusso’s record price a fluke—just an odd cosmic convergence of factors that vexed one wealthy enthusiast collector into paying three to four times the car’s market value? No. McQueen-owned cars, trucks and motorcycles have continued to sell for many multiples of their otherwise normal (non-celebrity) market value. Bonhams & Butterfields, now known as Bonhams, has made hay selling ex-McQueen machines. At separate sales in 2006 and 2009, the company sold two 2001 Ford Bullitt Edition Mustangs owned by McQueen descendents and family members, for $70,200 and $50,000, respectively. These are current Mustangs, produced decades after Steve McQueen passed away, so they obviously were never owned or driven by the actor himself, yet both sold for more than double their prices when new. At its California Classic Auction in Los Angeles, in November 2009, Bonhams sold a weathered, faded ex-McQueen 1949 Chevrolet pickup for more than $35,000. Again, the McQueen ownership factor pushed it to four to five times its nominal value.

After so many extraordinary sale results, people began to question the longevity of the McQueen phenomenon. That question would be put to perhaps the ultimate test in August 2011, as RM Auctions consigned two notable McQueen cars to its annual Monterey, California, sale with great expectations. The first was the 1970 Porsche 911S driven by McQueen during filming of his motorsport magnum opus, “Le Mans.” The car was delivered new to the set by Porsche, and on sale day came with a foot-thick file of documentation. The second car was a 1953 Siata 208S Spyder. It had less than perfect ownership documentation, and in the end that kept the price down to $946,000.

But the star of that show was without doubt the “Le Mans 911,” as it came to be called. Its McQueen ownership was unquestioned, and it figured prominently, with McQueen at the wheel, during opening sequences of the film. The Porsche served as McQueen’s personal transport in France during the summer of 1970, and he acquired the car after filming was concluded.

If classic car auction sales registered on the Richter Scale, the Mc-Queen Le Mans 911S’s performance on the RM auction block last August would have triggered a tsunami. When the gavel fell, the final sum was $1,375,000; an extraordinary amount of money for a 41-year-old non-racing 911, which would otherwise be worth around $100,000.

“It’s not just about the car,” notes Michael Regalia, previous owner/restorer and seller of the ex-McQueen Ferrari Lusso. “It all comes down to the intergalactic power of Steve McQueen. Remember that Steve Mc-Queen absolutely ‘had it going on’ back then, and his legacy still does today. Steve McQueen was the guy that every man wanted to be, and that every woman wanted to be with. For a time, he was the world’s most popular and highest paid actor. He was a tough character and lived life his own way. He had ‘edge,’ and then as now, people are drawn to edgy personalities. And of course his connection to cars was absolutely legitimate. He was a serious car guy with great taste in cars; ditto his passion for motorcycling. And he was a committed and capable racer, on two wheels or four. Let’s not forget that he placed second overall at the 12 Hours of Sebring, in a Porsche, just a few months before he went to France to film ‘Le Mans.’”

Rob Myers, the “RM” of RM Auctions, concurs with Regalia’s reasoning: “It’s true that guys like Frank Sinatra and Elvis had nice cars. However, they didn’t race and do the kinds of things that Steve McQueen did. McQueen was just so true and authentic as a car guy, and that’s what car and motorcycle collectors love about him and why his pieces command three, four or more times what an ‘ordinary’ example would.”

Writing for Sports Car Market magazine, collector Miles Collier takes a somewhat different view, admitting that “there isn’t an atom of my being that gets the fascination of owning a piece of celebrity memorabilia.” But Collier acknowledges that there is certain value in owning a McQueen machine, explaining that the car connects the buyer to Steve McQueen, which is one of the “drivers for the extraordinary sum paid.”

One area where Regalia and Collier disagree is in the longevity of the reach and impact of McQueen’s star power. Collier wrote that “the day will come when McQueen’s celebrity will be forgotten.” Regalia feels differently, believing that McQueen will always be “a global pop culture and automotive icon” and that “his films, persona and, of course, his cars and bikes are a huge part of that legacy. McQueen’s legitimacy will continue to find favor with new, younger audiences and collectors and has the stuff to stand the test of time.”

So was $1.375 million too much to pay for the Slate Gray Porsche 911S that Steve McQueen owned and drove in the opening scenes of “Le Mans?” Miles Collier feels it was, concluding that “among Steve McQueen fans, this car has to be quite a coup. Among the rest of us, not so much. Very well sold.” Michael Regalia feels “it’s a bargain. This car will only grow in stature and value, and even at this price, I feel it was well bought.”

If future collectors remain willing to pay huge premiums to own a small piece of the Steve McQueen legacy—and so far it appears they are—the LeMans 911 and the McQueen Lusso will prove well bought, though their prices render them better suited for display than driving. McQueen motorcycles—including his Bultaco and various Indians—have been bringing big prices, and other McQueen collectibles have brought their sellers handsome returns as well (see “Marketwatch,” page 32). The trend was most visible at Bonhams & Butterfields’ November 2006 Steve McQueen Auction, where the King of Cool’s Belstaff motorcycle jacket brought $32,760, a folding knife Von Dutch gave him garnered $38,025 and the man’s very own Persol sunglasses made a staggering $70,200—for an item available new for a few hundred dollars. That 2006 sale alone totaled close to $3 million, while many auctions and private sales continue to trade on McQueen’s legacy. And if the provenence is solid and true, as was the case with the Ferrari, Porsche, Bultaco, Indian and the hundreds of lots Bonhams and other auction companies have offered, prices will soar high enough to make any auctioneer smile.

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