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km : Viewpoint

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1 August 2012

We all have our heroes, and for car guys there’s hardly a better idol than Steve McQueen. An actor by trade, but whose passion for fast cars and motorcycles ran so deep that he was able to rewrite scripts specifically to include them in his work, he left us such treasures as Bullitt, LeMans, The Thomas Crown Affair, On Any Sunday and The Great Escape, each one in some way a tribute to the machines he loved so much. Not only did he often personify the ideal of the gentleman gearhead in his films, he also carried with him a quiet sense of personal style off-camera that today’s celebs would do well to emulate.

It’s been more than three decades since cancer took McQueen at the age of just 50, but like James Dean before him, his legend continues to influence generations of car and motorcycle enthusiasts, most of whom were never alive when he was. I’m no different, having arrived in this world just ten years before he left it; his movie-making days were well behind him before I started frequenting the theater. Admittedly I’m a late-in-life McQueen disciple, “born again,” if you will, at about the same age as when the legend was in his prime.

Having recently caught up on most of his film work, I found myself in Los Angeles with a day to kill and the keys to a Porsche Cayman R in my pocket. Surely no better circumstance would present itself to me than this one in my quest to channel his spirit by sharing his former space. Unless, of course, the Peterson Museum were to lend me his ’58 XK-SS. But that will never happen, so I made do with the Porsche.

McQueen’s passion for fast cars and motorcycles is well documented, but there are two brands with which he is most often associated. With motorcycles it’s Triumph, which he often rode personally in competition as well as on the screen. With cars, the connection is undeniably to Porsche, which likewise featured in both his personal and professional lives.

He owned and raced a black 1958 Speedster 1600 as soon as his budding film career began to take off, and it’s still in the family, owned today by his son Chad. Before filming 1970’s LeMans –a box office failure turned cult classic that today is essentially porn for Porschephiles – McQueen picked up a slate grey 1969 911 S, and that car too remained in the family. Another slate grey 911 joined his personal stable in 1976, this one a 911 Turbo. In real life he raced a 908 Spyder to a legitimate second-place finish in 1970’s 12 Hours of Sebring, and who could ever forget the Gulf-liveried 917K he drove as Michael Delaney?

While it would be foolish to project the Cayman R as exactly the kind of car McQueen would drive today were he still alive, it’s hard to imagine an 82-year-old King of Cool not being enamored of it. As he told Sports Illustrated in 1966, “I don’t have a lot of interest in cars that won’t go fast and stop well and corner a little.”

The Cayman R does all of that and more, particularly in the cornering department. It’s also lightweight, uncomplicated and purposefully pure as a sports car, cut from the same pattern as those that always seemed to find their way into the actor’s garage. With 330 horsepower pushing 2855 pounds around, the mid-engined coupe would undoubtedly be a familiar experience.

What’s less well documented but nonetheless inferred by his choice of cars is that he enjoyed a good exhaust note. Here again the modern Porsche would surely have evoked that signature, devilish grin. In fact, one of the simple joys of driving the Cayman R is playing the tachometer as a musical instrument. Down low, there’s the hollow cough and bark as the engine jumps off idle. In the mid-range, it’s a sheer mechanical symphony of pistons flying, valves opening and closing, timing chains and camshafts whirring and whining. The last third of the tach delivers screams layered in agony and ecstasy all at once as the flat-six pumps air in and out at a frantic pace. You don’t even need to shift to enjoy the performance; just run it up and down under load.

One thing’s for certain though: Steve McQueen would never be caught driving a red Porsche off-screen or off-track. He preferred his personal cars – even the fastest ones – in demure, understated hues. Blacks and greys I’ve mentioned, but others were golds and dark blues and greens. He even had a brown Ferrari, and you can’t blame all of these choices on the times. For all his fame, McQueen was a very private person who preferred to attract as little attention as possible when not working, and as a result, his flashy sports cars tended not to be that flashy at all.

Starting from by basecamp in West L.A., I take the Cayman for a quick tour of Hollywood’s major boulevards. McQueen spent much of his off time in custom shops like Lee Brown’s place at 5640 Hollywood Boulevard, having cars repainted, reupholstered and otherwise reworked to his discriminating taste. Some of the buildings still exist today, but those businesses are long gone. Still, it’s humbling to imagine the film business’s hottest talent at the time pulling in under the radar for a quick consult about inane details like a subtle color change and modest lighting upgrades on something like a Mini Cooper, when just down the road a new breed of Hollywood custom shops stay in business molesting today’s celebrity rides with monstrous wheels, gullwing doors and questionable paint schemes.

From Hollywood I make my way to Mulholland Drive, a sinuous ribbon of asphalt made famous by guys like none other than McQueen himself. Here, the Porsche is truly in its element, as the road dips and climbs and winds itself left and right along the ridge that divides the glamorous Hollywood of our psyches on the south side from the actual TV- and film-making hubs of Burbank and Studio City on the north. The blast across Mulholland is mostly second- and third-gear territory, perfect for winding the engine out. Unpredictable (though thoroughly expected) joggers and bicyclists place high demands on a driver’s reflexes and a car’s brakes. Neither are taxed on this particular run, and I highly doubt McQueen broke a sweat over such matters either.

A short distance off Mulholland, just east of Coldwater Canyon, Solar Drive meanders its way to a peak on the L.A.-facing side of the Hollywood Hills. At the top of the road, near its very end, is the house that McQueen and his first wife moved into in 1960. It’s not an easy place to get to, even today, but for someone who cherishes both privacy and a spirited drive, there’s no denying its appeal. I stop to shoot pictures of the Cayman in front of the house, but it’s virtually pointless, as the home itself sits high above the road well behind a wall. I take a minute to enjoy the view before heading back down to the boulevards below to continue my pilgrimage.

Back in the hustle and flow of Hollywood, I jump on Sunset and head west, passing through Beverly Hills and Brentwood, both of which McQueen would later live in once moving off the hill, and on toward Malibu, yet another of his neighborhoods. The lure of Malibu requires no explanation, with 26 miles of beautiful coastline on one side, and breathtaking canyons snaking into the Santa Monica Mountains on the other. The Cayman begs me to bury the pedal, and it’s a tempting offer, but I lack the appropriate connections to get my way out of a serious speeding ticket on this notoriously over-patrolled stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway.

At this point, I’m no longer hunting specific addresses or locales. Instead, I’m satisfied just basking in the spirit of the journey. Enjoying the drive for the sake of the drive.

It’s been a good day, I tell myself. Then I head back to L.A. and eventually to the real world. It’s often said you should never meet your hero, because you can only be left disappointed. Like so many others, I’ll never have that chance, but I can hardly call this day a disappointment.


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