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26 April 2011

What happens when you come across a car that is itself iconic, then consider the fact that it was not only driven by an iconic personality, it was driven by that icon in an iconic movie? You get a lot of icons in one place, and you get what the kids like to call meta. You also get Steve McQueen’s 1970 Porsche 911S from the intro sequence to Le Mans.

It’s a great three minutes or so, too — cool and dialogue-free in a way only that could only fly in the 1970s. Nowadays, a racing movie can’t seem to go three minutes. . . actually, no one makes racing movies anymore at all. McQueen and his slate gray 911 cruise gracefully through the small towns and countryside on the way to Circuit de le Sarthe with little more than engine noise providing a soundtrack. It goes on until McQueen reaches a stretch of the road lined with fresh Armco and flashbacks foreshadow the tension that dominates much of the film’s remaining minutes.

One particular (fake) Porsche 917 might not survive the rest of the movie, but the 911S did not only that, it survives today and is headed to auction with RM at this coming year’s Monterey weekend.

According to the auction site, the car returned from filming in France and “joined McQueen’s personal stable of extraordinary motor cars in California,” but that’s likely simplified for the sake of making the auction sound more attractive. The real story is a bit more complicated.

In his book “McQueen’s Machines,” Motor Trend editor Matt Stone writes that McQueen already owned a 1969 911S before the movie, a car that was nearly identical other than a few choice options. He adored that car and, rather than shipping it overseas to use during filming, picked up a 1970 model in France. It was invoiced to the film’s production company, Solar Productions, and was shipped to Los Angeles after Le Mans wrapped. For unknown reasons, McQueen kept the ’69 and sold the 1970 to an L.A. lawyer, who then kept the car for a number of decades. It has changed hands multiple times, however, since the turn of the century.

So yes, the car did technically move to California and was part of McQueen’s collection, but only for a very short period. Perhaps because Steve owned the identical 1969 car, it’s not surprising that many people believe he actually held on to the movie car.

Even without the Le Mans angle, this would be a great early 911 for any collector. We recently got to take a peek up close at this year’s Amelia Island Concours festivities. It sits more on the original end of the collector car spectrum versus the restored end, though we’re told that it has seen a new paint job (in the original slate gray) and new upholstery for the front seats. That isn’t surprising for a car that’s seen real use and has spun six digits on the odometer, but its condition otherwise is pretty amazing. The car has a nice patina, as any 41-year-old car should, but it’s obvious that the car’s second owner and the untold others since have cared for it just as much as McQueen did.

The car’s collectable, too, for its host of desirable options. McQueen spec’d the car out with an upgraded Blaupunkt Frankfurt radio, air conditioning, a “comfort” package that upgraded the interior, as well as fog lights. The lights were originally yellow, as required in France at the time of the filming, but ended up with clear US-spec lenses at some point. An original sales slip in Matt Stone’s book reveals the car cost 30,267 Deutche Marks new (roughly $8300 in 1970, or the equivalent of about $49,000 today).

There’s an argument to be made that for real McQueen fans, the 1969 911S he owned first and then kept (and even passed to his son, Chad) is the more desirable of the two twins, but to us, there’s something far more alluring about the idea of being able to watch the intro sequence to that movie and knowing the same car could be sitting out in the garage, ready and waiting for another adventure.

McQueen, a legendary collector and car lover, also owned more than a few other cars that are far more desirable to today’s millionaires. His Jaguar XK-SS or the Ferrari 250 GT Lusso that sold for $2.3 million a few years back immediately come to mind, but there are others, plus a number of rare motorcycles. But again, the Le Mans 911 might remain the one McQueen car we’d want to own if we were allowed just one. It doesn’t beg to be locked away in a bubble like the Jag or the Ferrari, and there’s no concern about keeping its mileage down. It’s a special 911 from an era we already think is special for 911s, and it’s a famous machine that can be appreciated and shared.

How much such an opportunity is worth will be decided this August in Monterey. We’re willing to guess it command the highest price ever paid for a 1970 Porsche 911S, and we’d like to hope that the new owner does the right thing and takes it right from the auction block to the historic races. Isn’t that what Steve would do?

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