The ex-Steve McQueen / Meyers Manx dune buggy is ready for auction
Hot on the heels of the Highland Green Ford Mustang from Bullitt selling for $3.74M, yet another Steve McQueen movie car is headed to auction: the Queen Manx buggy from The Thomas Crown Affair. After its whereabouts were determined in the summer of 2018, the car has undergone an extensive restoration in anticipation of selling at Bonhams 2020 Amelia Island auction in early March. (Editor’s note: it sold for $456,000.)
Three star cars were featured in 1968’s heist caper The Thomas Crown Affair. Millionaire bank robber Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) drove an elegant 1967 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow Coupe. Faye Dunaway (as feisty insurance investigator Vicki Anderson), drove a Ferrari 275 GTS/4 NART Spyder. Crown also had an utterly bespoke Meyers Manx Dune buggy for tearing up the beaches around Boston.
Among the many things that make this special Manx so very unique are the facts that it was cast and costumed personally by Steve McQueen, specifically for its role in this iconic film. Plus, it is one of the last headline McQueen movie vehicles to come out of hiding and be offered for public sale.
The Crown buggy’s look and powertrain were conceived by McQueen, and it was built by Con-Ferr, out of Burbank, California. Pete Condos, of Con-Ferr, was a ‘60s pioneer of recreational and racing off-road technology, and thus a logical source to build the Crown buggy. The script initially called for a Jeep, but McQueen had seen the original Meyers Manx flying through the air on the cover of a 1966 issue of Hot Rod magazine and felt it more Thomas Crown’s style.
Instead of the usual VW flat-four, Con-Ferr stepped it up with a 2.7-liter Chevrolet Corvair flat-six engine. In a period featurette about the making of the film, McQueen told the story of the one-off dune buggy that so clearly demonstrated his automotive passion: “Crown lives at the beach, and he has a sand dune buggy. I helped ’em design it, so I’m kinda proud of that. It’s set on a Volkswagen chassis, with big ol’ wide weenies—big wide tires on mag wheels, Corvair engine stuffed in the back…It’s very light, you know. It’s pulling about 230 horses, and the weight’s about 1000 pounds.” That claim of 230 horsepower was pure fantasy—at that time an amped-up, naturally-aspirated Corvair six would have cranked out perhaps 175 hp.
The bright orange/red bodywork was modified in various ways, including the speedboat-inspired wraparound windscreen, headlights recessed beneath plastic covers, and the hand-fabbed luggage rack on the back. Like most Manxes, the Crown buggy employed a swing-arm rear suspension and four-speed VW transaxle. McQueen tapped Tony Nancy to stitch the custom seats and interior trim, yielding likely the nicest interior ever installed in a dune buggy.
Another interesting bit of kit that Condos added during the build was a pair of handbrake levers allowing McQueen to alternatively lock either rear wheel, promoting easier and more dramatic slides and pirouettes as the buggy blasted through the sand. Similar systems are used in modern drift cars.
The muscled-up Manx appears in The Thomas Crown Affair in several scenes. The most notable moment is several minutes long, with Crown and insurance investigator Anderson assaulting the dunes. McQueen did all the driving with Faye Dunaway in the passenger seat. The scene is a gem and further demonstrated McQueen’s driving prowess. To watch him spin the buggy around the sand, splash water, chase birds, launch over a dune, and fly the Manx through the air is like watching a beaming child with a new toy. Camera rigs could be temporarily mounted to the Manx’s chassis for “cutaway” shots, which clearly show both actors in the buggy as it careened around the beach.
Some of the action was ad-libbed; other elements were more carefully choreographed. “What I’ve got to do,” McQueen said, “is to take the sand dune buggy and drop it straight down [the dune], and then run the rim around the outside of it.” The move worked to great effect, spraying sand everywhere. Onboard microphones pick up lots of engine sound, as well as Faye Dunaway squealing as McQueen thrashes the buggy. It was great live action cinematography caught in real time.
“We did one big jump for the camera right off the edge of a high dune, and it was wild—with the rear wheels [drooping and] clappin’ each other in the air. I looked over and Faye was all bug-eyed; the floorboard was scratched raw from her heels diggin’ in.” About another scene, McQueen said, “The thing just wouldn’t turn. The throttle jammed and we were heading right for the ocean at a terrific rate of speed. Well, on film, all you could see was this orange bug disappearing into the water. Faye came out of it soaked and smiling. Some trooper! They had to take the whole engine apart to get the saltwater out.”
Post production, the Crown/McQueen buggy was sold into private hands and has lived its post-Hollywood life in Hawaii, first as a competitive sand buggy racer and then in quiet retirement prior to restoration and upcoming auction consignment. Urban legend purports that Steve McQueen ended up with the vehicle after filming, but the ownership chain confirms this is not the case; its provenance and ownership history are rock-solid and unbroken since.
After filming, it was acquired by Hawaii Lincoln-Mercury dealer Jimmy Pflueger. He wanted to make a lighter-weight, higher-performance sand racer out of the Crown buggy, and had the Corvair engine swapped for a race-built Volkswagen engine and the Manx then spent several years bombing around Honolulu area sands, prior to being traded to another owner in Kauai, where it clocked more time sand racing, and towing water skiers across the shallow, wide beaches at Hanalei Bay.
The Crown buggy then returned to Honolulu, where the current owner/consignor traded a handsomely restored Mini Cooper S (plus a shotgun) for it. The trade took place in 1997, at which point the Manx was absolutely intact but in sad shape. It didn’t matter to this happy new owner, who was aware of the car being on the islands, and its rich film and McQueen history; he had always kept track of it, and was thrilled to finally own it, no matter its current state. The racy VW engine had seized solid; the buggy by then wore several quick resprays, and its plentiful chrome trim was rusted. The consignor’s wife took one look at the hapless Manx, as compared to the sparkling, freshly-restored Mini they gave up for it, and asked her husband “are you really sure this is a good idea?” The historic Manx required complete mechanical and cosmetic restoration but first went on hiatus, as the owner wasn’t yet ready to take on the project, so it sat stored in a warehouse out of circulation for nearly two decades.
In advance of consignment to auction house Bonhams, where it will be sold at that company’s Amelia Island auction on Thursday, March 5, 2020, the Thomas Crown custom Manx was fully disassembled for a platinum-level concours restoration, with a particular focus on authenticity and originality, returning it back to the moment it first appeared on camera in The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968.
The most significant aspect of the restoration was to refit the chassis with an original-spec six-cylinder Corvair engine and fresh VW transaxle. Everything else was deeply cleaned, mechanically freshened, and restored as necessary. The work focused on reusing original nuts, bolts, and screws when possible, only replacing anything that absolutely couldn’t otherwise be saved and redeployed. The chrome was stripped and replated. The original paint lied preserved beneath cheap prior paint jobs, so the tangerine-ish color and level of metallic could be matched. The instruments, a 1967 registration sticker on the windscreen, and countless small bits have been preserved to make the restoration as fresh, yet unfailingly original, as possible.
When it finally rolls into the sandy spotlight once again, the Queen Manx is sure to make a splash at Amelia Island. For Hollywood movie-car fans this one is a must-see, but it’ll be especially significant for McQueen diehards and Manx disciples to see the film-famous buggy restored to its former glory.