There’s an Indiana town that still has a soft spot for the man who some would say personified the term “cool.”
Ride through Beech Grove (pop. 14,000) just southeast of Indianapolis and you still get the impression that Steve McQueen never really left. In many ways, he didn’t.
Dig into the archives at the Beech Grove Historical Society and they’ll gladly remind you that one of the city’s most famous residents is still close at heart.
“Steve McQueen?” a member of the society says from the group’s office at the local library. “Oh, yeah, did you know he was born here? We still think of him as a family member.”
What a son to have.
More than three decades after his death in 1980 at age 50 of mesothelioma, a rare and painful form of lung cancer, the Rolex-watch wearing, fast-car driving McQueen is still larger than life mainly because so few lived one as fast and furious as he did.
His impact on the movie and automotive scene can be counted in the number of vehicles he owned – 265 before his estate was auctioned off in 1984 – and the influence he left on both worlds.
McQueen was a movie legend, yes, but he was also the last of the legitimate American musclecar icons. He was the finish line for movie producers and car manufacturers looking for that machismo.
McQueen added sizzle to the 1968 390 GT Mustang fastback in the Hollywood hit “Bullitt,” making for one of the most exciting car chases of all time. Everyone knew the good guy drove the Ford, the bad guys drove the Black Dodge Charger.
McQueen added adrenaline to the movie “Le Mans” while competing in a special race-prepared Porsche.
But he was so much more.
Long before he became the highest paid and most popular movie star of the 1960s and 1970s, McQueen was a racer at heart.
He loved anything mechanical, but especially loved motorcycles and cars. He professionally raced both, at one point considering a move to take up the sport full time and leave acting behind.
He drove his Porsche in the famous 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race in Florida. He drove a terrified Bruce Lee through the tight curves of Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles at 140 mph. He rode motorcycles like a man possessed.
“I would have done it for the rest of my life if I didn’t think I would die doing it,” he once told the Los Angeles Times daily newspaper. “That would have made a good story.”
But McQueen’s own story was just as good.
A small-town boy born in March of 1930, he overcame a father who left him, a mother who left him, a lack of education and a whole lot of misdirection early in life to end up as one of the most sought-after stars of his time.
After moving from Indiana at an early age, McQueen lived with his uncle in Slater, Mo. At 12, he decided to move back with his mother who lived in Los Angeles. Four years later he was in New York working a number of odd jobs before a winding road would take him from the U.S. Marines to Canada as a lumberjack and back to New York as a TV delivery man and a bouncer at a Cuban bar.
Acting wouldn’t come easily, but it would eventually find him. An actress McQueen was dating suggested he try the stage. After giving it a go, he was accepted into the Neighborhood Playhouse, a famous New York acting school. Driving a postal truck at nights and acting during the day, McQueen finally found a home.
One play led to another that led to a TV part in Los Angeles in the series “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
Big parts followed and McQueen was on his way, all the while never relinquishing his love for cars and racing.
In fact, after striking it big in Hollywood, he became even more involved with automobiles. McQueen was all about things that moved: the faster the better. His professional achievements included patenting a racing-car seat and appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1971.
When he died, McQueen owned 210 motorcycles, 55 cars and five airplanes. He even owned a Jaguar XK-SS, a limited edition touring version of the D-type Jaguar that won the 24 Hours of LeMans (France) endurance race from 1955-’57. McQueen had used it as an everyday ride, then sold it in the 1960s. When he bought it back a decade later, he had planned to restore it to its original condition. He never got that chance.
In 1984, it was sold at the McQueen estate auction for $147,500 to a collector who restored it to McQueen’s specifications.
In many other ways, his legacy still lives on – whether it’s on the website for Beech Grove (“Most Famous Resident: Steve McQueen,” it still reads) or in Ford’s special-edition Bullitt Mustangs, or in the lyrics of Sheryl Crow’s hit single simply named “Steve McQueen.”
“He’s my idea of fast,” Crow told MTV.
More than three decades after his death, she’s hardly alone.
Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.shiftweekly.com by using the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.