Steve McQueen is probably best known for the iconic scene in The Great Escape where he attempts to jump a captured German Wehrmacht BMW R75 (actually a tricked up Triumph TRG Trophy) over the fences that separate him from the Swiss boarder and freedom.
This scene really shows us the heart of Steve McQueen. Here is a man who loved the freedom that driving offered, loved all things mechanical, and was, at heart, a racer first and an actor second.
Indeed, his love of racing was almost inseparable from his film roles and he preformed many of his own stunts in films such as Bullitt and Le Mans – the former containing what is arguably the best car chase in cinema, the latter (which covers the 24 hour 1970 Le Mans race) a film that McQueen intended to be the ultimate racing movie.
It’s fair to say that McQueen has been associated with many different models and marques over the years. The Ford Mustang he drove in Bullitt is probably the most famous, as well as the Porsches he drove for Le Mans, but it is his own Ferrari 250 GT Lusso that I always think of when I picture McQueen.
Purchased in 1963 as an early 34th birthday present by his wife Neile, this was to be McQueen’s first Ferrari. The car was ordered in the rather unusual (but utterly elegant) Marrone Metallizato, a metallic chestnut brown, with a cream leather interior. Lusso translates as Luxury from the Italian, and this car was certainly luxurious. Penned by the instantly recognisable hand of Pininfarina, the Lusso has exquisite, fluid lines, a sumptuous and spacious interior, trimmed with soft leather and deep carpeting.
Despite all the luxurious trimmings, the Lusso is still very much a drivers’ car. Aerodynamic, responsive and refined, the Lusso drew on many of the technical achievements of the previous 250 GTs. This was not just an elegant luxurious car, it was a car designed to be driven, and this balance of mechanical refinement and luxury made it the perfect car for McQueen.
For its maiden voyage, McQueen, along with his wife Neile, drove the Lusso on a long road trip that took them from Los Angeles to Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey, then through San Francisco, Reno, Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, and back to Southern California. Accompanying them on this trip were Steve’s friends William Claxton – a noted pop-culture photographer and the former art director of Motor Trend magazine – and Claxton’s wife Peggy Moffitt, a renowned fashion model, who featured in Antonioni’s Blow Up. Claxton recalls the trip and McQueen’s love of his latest acquisition.
“We would set a place to meet for lunch and then take off, Steve in the Lusso and me in my Porsche 356 SC 1600. Steve’s idea of fun was to go roaring off and, a couple hours later, be parked at the side of the road pretending to be bored waiting for us to arrive. It was a great time. He really loved that car.”
Claxton also photographed McQueen for Cosmopolitan, and the shoot features the Lusso, as well as Claxton’s wife, Peggy.
McQueen’s love affair with the Lusso lasted many years, and he purportedly drove the car until 1973, although he acquired a Ferrari 275 NART Spyder in 1967 after driving one during the filming of The Thomas Crown Affair.
The car has since had a chequered history, although it has recently been restored to its original pristine condition where it was sold at auction for $2.3 million.
McQueen was a man of style and taste, but also a racer, a mechanic, and a true man’s man, never happier than behind the wheel or talking with the boys in the auto shop. No wonder then that it is this car, with its blend of Pininfarina’s style and sophistication with Ferraris’ and Scagletti’s engineering excellence, that always springs to mind when I think of McQueen, and not the Ford Mustang or the little Triumph scrambler making a bid for freedom over the fences.