Found: McQueen’s Trans Am survives an explosion and a 40-year slumber


Steve McQueen’s last movie was The Hunter filmed in 1979, a year before his death. McQueen played bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson, a larger-than-life figure once described in a biography as “the only man who can do a bastard’s job with taste and come off looking like a nice guy.” McQueen, despite looking nothing like the 300-pound Thorson, seemed to match that kind of description in real life.

And starring alongside McQueen was a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am, black with a tan interior, which in the movie is stolen by a bunch of bad guys and driven through a cornfield. McQueen’s character is in hot pursuit with, of all things, a combine harvester. (If Pixar’s Cars is any indication, combine harvesters can be pretty damn scary.) The Trans Am meets an ignoble fate, exploding. McQueen nabs the baddies, and the movie ends. Bravo.

Barn Find 1979 Pontiac Trans Am
Carlyle Motors
1979 Pontiac Trans Am engine
Carlyle Motors

1979 Pontiac Trans Am on trailer
Carlyle Motors

Turns out, a local farmer named Harold McQueen, out of sheer coincidence, got involved with the film’s production in northern Illinois. He became friendly with the crew, meeting the other McQueen, and eventually got roped into helping tow and transport some of the seven total Trans Ams used for the movie. As a thank you, the production team gave him the first Trans Am blown up for the movie—verified and authenticated by Paramount Pictures. (While a neat little gesture, the letter also prevented the Pontiac Motor Division from demanding the car be returned to them and crushed.) So Harold trailered it home to his barn in Kankakee, Illinois, where, according to him, he “was always bringing home stuff.” He had grand plans to restore this hacked-off piece of obscure action movie history, and put it back on the road. Then, four decades passed.

For a car that was supposed to have been blown up, what’s left of The Hunter Trans Am #1 is surprisingly intact. The production team had rigged the explosion to pull the car in half: the front end was attached with chains to a sturdy nearby tree, so when stuntmen drove the car in reverse, the front would be ripped right off, triggering the explosion. As found in McQueen’s garage, the front fenders and hood are missing, as are badges and side mirrors, all stolen by the crew as souvenirs.

The tan interior is intact, albeit resembling an Egyptian tomb. The odometer shows just 1300 miles. The 403-cubic-inch Oldsmobile V-8 and four-speed automatic are both original to the car. There are authentic, numbers-matching holes and indents from where a roll cage had been installed and later removed for another car. Somewhere down the line, the front subframe was reunited to the rest of the Trans Am, and the four gold snowflake wheels are in their appropriate places, just as God and Burt intended.

Brothers Stan and Randy Harvell from a neighboring town knew about the car, and after so many years reached out to Harold, who agreed to sell it to a classic car dealer in Houston. After 39 years, Harold and the brothers rigged the Trans Am up to a John Deere and pulled it out of the barn, and into the light of day. Stan and dealer Calvin Riggs are still vacillating between whether to restore it, as Harold intended, or to show it off in its exploded state. For now, though, it’s not really for sale.

Yes, the Trans Am gets top billing with Smokey and the Bandit, and rightfully so—but the addition of the so-called “King of Cool” truly heightens the Trans Am’s badassery. And yes, The Hunter is an obscure movie. But that aforementioned McQueen connection gives it a particular gravitas among a certain fanbase—and, in this case, there’s double the McQueen. And as it turns out, Harold McQueen was a noted tractor pull champion, one form of motorsport which elevates him in front of the other McQueen.


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