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Steve McQueen - A Passion For Speed.


Frederic Brun.
ISBN-13: 978 0 7603 4248 0
Published 2011. (Hardback, 192 pages).
Review date 2011.
Book on Steve Mcqueen and his cars


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Steve McQueen splits opinion now just as he did when still alive. Detractors will point to the stories of how difficult he could be to work with, or live close to, while fans will point to the charisma he exuded, both on- and off-screen, that lead to many referring to him simply as the King of Cool. Car enthusiasts may well also know of his great fascination for speed, whether in the air, on water, or on land (on both two and four wheels).
Books on Steve McQueen are nothing new, however this hefty tome concentrates on his relationship with the high octane thrills he sought from his dazzling back catalogue of fabulous cars and motorcycles that he owned, during his all-too-short life, and the influences they had on his screen roles. As with Paul Newman, I get the impression that McQueen's day job was a very enjoyable pursuit, but was ultimately the chosen method of fuelling his real passions, those of speed, competition, and no-holds-barred adrenalin kicks behind the wheel.
Brun originally published this book in his native French, before it went on to be translated into English for this publication.
The introduction presents an overview of Terrence Steven McQueen prior to becoming a screen legend, his less-than-smooth upbringing in Indiana, and the many varied jobs he undertook to keep his head above water. There's no doubting he was a tryer, from being employed selling encyclopaedias, to repairing TVs, driving a taxi and more, anything to fund his passion for motorcycle racing, again an interest that would overflow into several of his movie roles, the best known probably being The Great Escape, and his pursuit by the bad guys on board a "BMW" (actually a dressed-up Triumph). In later years he'd amass a fine collection of cars and motorcycles, some of his earliest four-wheeled adventures would be at the wheel of an MG TC, bought for $450 in 1952.
Chapter One, The Pursuit of Speed, describes how McQueen became bitten by the racing "bug", and contemporaries confirm that had he not found fortune in front of the camera, he'd have carved a handy career behind the wheel of competition cars, so dedicated was he to the art of driving and keeping himself fit, both physically and mentally (despite a penchant for the evil weed, regular work-outs were an integral part of McQueen's daily routine).
Undoubtably many car fans, both then and now, will read of McQueen's car history and quietly wish they'd been able to achieve the same. Stunning cars, such as a 1958 Porsche 356 Speedster, a Lotus Eleven sports/racing car, and his favourite of all, the ultra-rare and desirable Jaguar XKSS, found homes in his garage throughout his career, the XKSS being bought twice in fact as, for a number of years, it lived with another owner before McQueen re-purchased it.
Stunning photographs, black & white and colour, are peppered throughout this book, and add to the interest that the subject still commands to this day with film and car enthusiasts alike. Whether behind the wheel of a Gulf-liveried Porsche 917, at Sebring or during filming for the movie Le Mans (a pet project of his), or performing a series of roadtests in icons such as the AC Cobra, and Aston Martin DB6, he never looks out of place.
Chapter Two diverts away from cars and racing, concentrating on McQueen's exercise regimes that kept him fit for both film and racing roles, as the need arose. Not being much of a keep-fit fanatic myself, I skipped through this to the following Chapter, titled Speed and the Silver Screen, where normal service is resumed, and the influences of fast cars and his film roles are discussed in greater detail.
The Ford Mustang in Bullitt featured in one of the most memorable car chases of all, although smart-alecs today, with the benefit of freeze-frame and re-wind, will point to the repeated appearance of a green VW Beetle throughout many of the chase scenes. This however doesn't matter a jot, what's important is the end result. McQueen did most of the driving himself as you'd expect, although the eagle-eyed will notice that any references to the car's manufacturer are absent from the two cars used during filming, the reasons for his are explained in the book. In The Thomas Crown Affair, McQueen finds the perfect vehicle to enjoy both his enjoyment of fine motor-cars and sport, in the form of a two-door (MPW) Rolls-Royce and his taking part in a game of polo. The role also reveals his keen eye for style and fastidious attention to detail, the reasons for his other great love - that of fine wristwatches. The actor, and the details in which he delighted, make a perfect match for the monied and debonair character he would play, alongside Faye Dunaway, in The Thomas Crown Affair. Illustrations of McQueen during filming for both of these films feature regularly throughout the book's 192 large-format pages.
The quote "Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting" could only apply to one of just two or three screen actors, and there's no doubting McQueen's keen interest in motor racing, and in particular the racing of sportscars. This led him to his pet project, a film acclaimed for its on-track cinematography (especially by petrolheads), if less so for its rather uninspiring plot, Le Mans. Chapter Four describes the 1970 film, accompanied by a large selection of colour photographs taken during filming. While it was not a commercial success, as a glimpse into the world of sportscar racing at the time of the mighty 917, the film cemented itself on the "must watch" list of anyone with a shred of motor racing interest in their lives.
Time spent away from the limelight was no less high-paced for McQueen, and the final chapter concentrates on the cars and motorcycles that kept him quiet when the cameras had stopped rolling on his latest film. Most people would be quite content to own just one of the cars he put his name to at one point or another. In addition to the MG TC, the Speedster and the XKSS, he'd also own a Siata 208S Spider, an Austin-Healey 100M, a Stingray and a Mustang, a Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3, Porsches 911S and 930 Turbo, V12 Ferraris, R-R Corniche Cabriolet, and a lengthy list of "already-classics" such as pre-war Chryslers, Packards and many more. His list of motorcycles was no less impressive either.
As well as occupying garage space, his collecting habits would go on to occupy "hangar space" also, as in the late 1970s his interests veered in the direction of vintage aircraft, leading to him buying a selection of superb aircraft, undertaking restoration as necessary to return them to A1 condition. All the vehicles he owned were because they impressed him in their design, history or performance, rather than to impress his contemporaries or exhibit great wealth, and he seemed most content of all when working or competing on his motorcycles, driving one of his cars, or flying up high in his Stearman, as quiet sanctuaries from the hectic world he inhabited. The remainder of the book comprises full-page images of the actor, doing the things he enjoyed best.
No-one could argue that he led a model life, or was always the easiest of people to be around, but it's unlikely there'll ever be anyone quite like him again, especially one with such an interest in fine motor-cars, and driving them flat-out to the limit in both the course of his private and professional lives. I enjoyed this book a great deal. Tittle-tattle and gossip on his private and public life can be found in greater detail elsewhere, this book simply celebrates his passions, and the one that - along with acting - meant the most to him - speed, and for that reason this book is definitely worth a look.
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