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Cool Millions

Shaun Tolson

Since the Petersen museum sale, the value of McQueen-related items has only increased. During a Bonhams auction in Las Vegas this year, two of McQueen’s prewar Indian Chief motorcycles sold for significant sums, including a 1923 Big Chief with a Princess sidecar (restored in 1969 by Von Dutch) for $126,000. In August, RM Auctions expects to fetch more than $1 million for a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 that was once owned by the actor. Despite the fact that McQueen died in 1980, at the age of 50, the demand for the cars, bikes, and most anything else that he once owned is as strong as ever, though blue-chip pieces of McQueen memorabilia are proving harder and harder to find. There are innumerable reasons, many of them intangible, behind the actor’s unwavering appeal, but one thing is clear: Whatever Steve McQueen touched seems to turn to gold.

On-screen in the 1960s and ’70s, Steve McQueen personified cool—though some will say this was true of his entire life. This is a man who once declared, “I live for myself and I answer to nobody.” McQueen made a living playing hardened characters, and he used his exposure in the 1958–1961 television series Wanted: Dead or Alive as a springboard to roles in feature films such as The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, and Le Mans. He also lived a daring life off the set, which only made his fans more fervent. “His attitude and swagger and all of those things, it just creates a cool factor,” says Corky Coker, the CEO of Coker Tire Co., a tire maker for the collector car market. “It’s because of the choices that he and his agents made for the movies that he was in, and his acting style, and how he led his life; he was just a cool dude.”

With a passion for motorsports, McQueen embraced roles and projects that brought high-performance machines into the spotlight. Asked about his profession and his passion and how they intertwined, the actor once said, “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts.” Says Osborne, “He made these fantastic movies, he was always with beautiful women, and he was into motorbikes and racing cars. There’s absolutely no film star, past or present, that commands that adulation and that worship that McQueen does.”

In 2011, Alain Squindo, vice president of RM Auctions, oversaw the record-setting sale in Monterey, Calif., of McQueen’s 1970 Porsche 911S, which he also drove in the movie Le Mans. While he speaks fondly of the car—which drew a winning bid of nearly $1.4 million—he acknowledges that it was the McQueen allure that produced the sale’s headline-making price tag. “On its own merit, that car would have comfortably been one of the most expensive 911Ss sold,” he says, “but the McQueen connection blew it through the roof.”

“The auction business that we’re in is very much tied to boyhood dreams,” Squindo continues. “Being able to imagine yourself behind the wheel of a car that’s connected to your boyhood heroes—and McQueen is the king of cool—it means a lot.”

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