McQueen’s legacy seems impervious to the passage of time. Part of the reason, Squindo says, is the actor’s 1971 cinematic ode to the most famous of all motorsport events: Le Mans. It remains one of the two most revered movies about car racing, he says, along with the 1966 film Grand Prix. “Those movies are still the gold standard for car culture,” he explains, “and if McQueen is tied to one as intimately as he is, then darn it, he’s our hero.”
McQueen also remains a compelling figure because he died relatively young. “He died too soon,” Coker says. “That creates a mystique. . . . He got in cars and raced, and so did [Paul] Newman, but Newman lived to be 80-something. If Steve McQueen was still alive today he’d still have the cool factor, but I doubt that these cars would be bringing this amount of money.”
Morry Barmak, the owner of Collector Studio, a motorsports memorabilia gallery in Toronto, knows all too well (and with some regret) the value of McQueen-related artifacts. Barmak spent 10 years chasing down the racing suit McQueen wore in Le Mans. Not long after he acquired it in 2010, Barmak sold the suit to one of his clients for about $160,000—and then learned that the client intended to flip it. Barmak believed the suit would appeal only to car enthusiasts, but his client suspected there was a wider pool of potential buyers. The suit was consigned to a Profiles in History auction, where it commanded $984,000. “That showed me the power of McQueen,” says Barmak, who now gets requests for McQueen-related collectibles almost every week.
“He’s an American actor, but I get a lot of requests from European clients,” Barmak says. “Typically, Europeans stay within their own parameters. They have their own icons and actors and movie stars, but McQueen transcended cultural barriers.”
No one would know that better than Osborne, the Bonhams car specialist who spent a boyhood in Britain idolizing the star. “When important pieces of McQueen property come up for sale, the interest that we get is global—billionaire tech guys, Middle Eastern sheikhs, British aristocracy, and everybody in between,” he says. “People respond to him like they respond to no other. He’s a man for everybody.”
There may be just one person—one of the people who knew McQueen best—who remains mystified by his limitless star power. “I am amazed that his stuff still sells, because I knew the guy as a guy, not as a movie star,” Minty says. “He was just a normal guy to me, so this always amazes me.”