Odds are, your nickname is not "The King of Cool." Of course, odds are that you never ran away from the farm to join the circus, worked as a towel boy in a brothel, jumped ship from the merchant marines in the Dominican Republic, were a lumberjack, joined a street gang or bought your first motorcycle with winnings from motorcycle racing. Nor were you busted down to private seven times while a Marine only to redeem yourself by saving the lives of five men in frosty arctic waters and then being assigned to guard Harry Truman's yacht. Oh, and you're first film role wasn't in a Paul Newman movie. In other words, we know something about Steve McQueen, and you're no Steve McQueen. Sadly, neither are we. For that matter, neither is anyone else. Oh, and today would have been his 80th birthday.
McQueen is most famous for being a Hollywood heartthrob and anti-hero, rising to prominence as a hunky, square-jawed outsider. His first big screen success happened when none other than Frank Sinatra replaced (none other than) Sammy Davis Jr. with McQueen in a film called Never so Few where McQueen's character was required to drive a Jeep at high speeds. Then came one of his most memorable roles as Vin in John Sturges classic western The Magnificent Seven, where he shared the screen with Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn. Then came The Great Escape and the rest, as they say, is history.
Being supremely and ridiculously cool is all well and good, but it's still not enough to get your birthday mentioned on Autoblog. No, you've got to have a pretty strong connection to cars to wind up here. Did we mention Steve McQueen was the car guy's car guy?
Paraphrasing what was told to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Two words: Bullitt. A decent cop drama built around one central goal: The best car chase the world had ever seen. McQueen, director Peter Yates and legendary stuntman Bill Hickman did the seemingly impossible, racing a customized 1968 Mustang against a sinister Dodge Charger sporting a 440 Wedge throughout the streets of San Francisco. And McQueen did most of his own driving. Despite losing around nine hubcaps, legend holds that the bone-stock Charger held up very well to the then unprecedented level of abuse, but that the Mustang had to be put back together again several times. Regardless, the notion of McQueen equals cars was cemented for all time
McQueen also flirted with becoming a professional race car driver. In 1970 he and Peter Revson almost won the 12 Hours of Sebring in a Porsche 908. Their 908 did win the 3.0-liter class, and finished just 23 seconds behind Mario Andretti's 5.0-liter Ferrari 512S. It should be pointed out that Andretti had two teammates (Nino Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunti) to McQueen's one. Also, McQueen ran the entire 12 Hours with a cast on his left foot because he'd broken it crashing a motorcycle two weeks prior.
McQueen wanted to race a Porsche 917 (perhaps the deadliest race car of the modern era) with Jackie Stewart at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Due to some contractual obligations, McQueen didn't race, instead deciding instead to make the film Le Mans, which gave him an entire summer of Porsche 917 driving. McQueen later admitted that he nearly died during the production of the film. Sadly, the film was a commercial flop and greatly hurt McQueen's career.
McQueen also had a pretty sweet collection of cars including a brown 1963 Ferrari 250 Lusso Berlinetta, a Ferrari GTB/4, a Jaguar D-Type, three of the coolest cars from Le Mans – a Porsche 917 and 908, Ferrari 512S – and a Porsche 356 Speedster. McQueen did own one of the Chargers from Bullitt, but he was never able to get his hands on the Mustangs. One was so beat up it was declared totaled, and the other was and is owned by a man refusing to sell at any price. We have to say that our personal favorite is McQueen's 1952 Hudson Wasp. According to the Peterson Museum, the Wasp was the car McQueen used when he just wanted to cruise around LA like a regular guy. We really dig that. And in a way, McQueen was a regular guy.
McQueen lived up the street from fellow actor and racing enthusiast James Garner and the two men were friends. However, Garner relates, "I could see that Jim was very neat around his place. Flowers trimmed, no papers in the yard... grass always cut. So, just to piss him off, I'd start lobbing empty beer cans down the hill into his driveway. He'd have his drive all spic 'n' span when he left the house, then get home to find all these empty cans. Took him a long time to figure out it was me."
However, in other ways he was anything but. Some might even say weird. For instance, McQueen had this bizarre habit of demanding things in bulk from Film studios as part of his contract. Stuff like toiletries and clothing. It was also assumed that McQueen was just eccentric (he was known as a hard drinker and according to some a heavy drug user). Later though, it was discovered that the bulk items were given by McQueen back to his old reform school Boys Republic. And on that note: Happy birthday, Mr. McQueen.
Also, check out LIFE's gallery of 20 never-before-seen shots of McQueen during his rise to fame in 1963.