Driving Steve McQueen's Porsche 911 Turbo
The Ghost in the Machine
These days lots of people claim to know Steve McQueen. In fact a little niche of celebrity journalism about the late actor has sprung up, and naturally there are plenty of references to the cars he owned, many of which have crossed the auction block.
But the truth is, it all happened a long time ago. McQueen died in 1980 at age 50, and his cool, laconic style on the screen is the antithesis of the well-meaning but smarmy things that are written about him today.
The one thing that can safely be said about Steve McQueen is he liked machines — things that clattered, rattled and zoomed. He owned airplanes, motorcycles and especially cars.
Like this 1976 Porsche Turbo Carrera.
The Porsche Thing
McQueen's first-ever new car was a black 1958 Porsche 356A 1600 S Speedster that is still owned by the McQueen family. When the actor took his new car to the Santa Barbara road races in May 1959, he received a lukewarm reception until he won the novice event. Soon he bought the 1956 Jaguar XKSS that had been owned by James E. Peterson, the architect of Riverside International Raceway. And he went on to race a variety of cars while filming movies, including a Mini Cooper S, an Austin-Healey Sprite and a Cooper T56 Formula Junior.
He quickly became known as a car enthusiast, and Sports Illustrated even collared him for one of those celebrity automotive stories (some things never change) in the edition of August 8, 1966, in which he drove eight cars at Riverside, including his first-ever Porsche 911. Of this newly introduced Porsche, McQueen said, "The old Porsches had that violent oversteer tendency, and they would get out of whack with no warning. Now the problem has been corrected. The 911 was a very neutral-handling car, very docile, very pleasant to drive, and the five-speed gearbox sure was easy to use."
Finding the McQueen Ferrari
But Mike Regalia found Steve McQueen because of a Ferrari, not a Porsche. A longtime specialist in custom cars and now the owner of Regalia Concours Restorations in Sun Valley, California, Regalia had just sold his own Ferrari Testarossa in 1997. Prices in the classic car market had ebbed after the recession of the early 1990s and he thought it might be his last chance to personally own a collectible Ferrari. Regalia went looking for a Ferrari 250 GTL "Lusso" Berlinetta, perhaps the most beautiful of the early Ferrari GT cars. Then a friend called him with news about a Lusso locked away in an industrial space in San Francisco.
Regalia went to see the car and met Tom Sherwood, who had owned the Lusso since 1972. Regalia recalls, "The seller claimed Steve McQueen was the original owner, but he had nothing to confirm it. He was asking $135,000 when Lussos were selling for $85,000. I made a fair offer and kept in touch. It took two years to do the deal."
Eventually the car was sold for cash (plus a custom handgun previously owned by McQueen that Regalia had acquired). Later the Lusso's original sales document was uncovered and it transpired that the 1963 Ferrari 250 GTL Berlinetta had been purchased for McQueen's 34th birthday by his wife, Neile. Specially painted Morrane, a metallic dark brown, the car was a favorite of McQueen's until the engine started smoking under acceleration in 1967 and he sold it.
Regalia was slowly restoring the Lusso when the organizers of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance asked him to complete the car in time for their 2005 event, which would honor Pininfarina, the design house that did the Lusso's bodywork. And after some 4,000 hours of restoration, the McQueen Lusso finally appeared in public.
In August 2007, the McQueen Ferrari Lusso became the centerpiece of Christie's last-ever car auction, selling for a stunning $2.31 million. But letting the Lusso go left a hole in Mike Regalia's life. What could ever replace such a precious possession?
Steve McQueen's connection with Porsche during the production process of Le Mans (1971) had been quite well documented by 2008. During preparation for the film, he drove a Slate Gray 1969 Porsche 911S. In the months before filming began in 1970, he owned and raced a Porsche 908 racing car. For his personal use during filming in France, he purchased a Slate Gray 1970 Porsche 911S in Europe. The '69 911S is still owned by the McQueen family, while the '70 911S is in private hands and is driven weekly.
Yet McQueen apparently wasn't yet done with Porsche after Le Mans. The introduction of the 1976 Porsche Turbo Carrera in the U.S. caused quite a stir, as it represented Porsche's first real supercar, a monster 911 with the then-impressive output of 234 horsepower at 5,500 rpm in U.S. trim, with torque rated at 246 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm. The actor immediately ordered one ($25,880) from Pete Smith at Bob Smith Porsche in Hollywood. He asked for three special options: a sunroof ($675), a limited-slip differential ($345) and Slate Gray paint ($250).
When the Turbo Carrera arrived some months later, McQueen was in no great rush to pay for it and pick it up. Pete Smith put 100 miles on the car to break it in. Finally Smith and his wife Becky arrived in the Porsche 930 for a dinner with McQueen and Ali McGraw, McQueen's second wife. Seeing the car in the metal sealed the deal and McQueen finally took delivery of his third 911.
The Turbo didn't stay stock for long. The first change was a switch on the dash to knock out the taillights and brake lights in case of hot pursuit by law enforcement personnel. Later the standard 15-by-7-inch front and 15-by-8-inch rear Fuchs wheels were replaced by 15-by-8-inch front and 15-by-9-inch rear Fuchs wheels.
By 1978, McQueen's divorce from McGraw was in the cards. Barbara Minty, the model who became the actor's third wife, still remembers the Porsche Turbo as quite a handful when she rode at McQueen's side. In the midst of his domestic mayhem, McQueen happened to be talking to Pete Smith about the 3.3-liter version of the Turbo that had just been announced, and he offered to sell his Slate Gray Turbo back to Smith,
For this Porsche 930, the McQueen years were over.
Discovering the Gray Ghost
After McQueen, the Porsche's ownership can be traced to car dealer Pete Smith, film director Floyd Mutrux, and then to Dean Paul Martin, the son of singer Dean Martin and an actor in his own right who was killed in 1987 in a jet fighter while serving in the Air National Guard. Enthusiast Craig Barrett next owned the McQueen Porsche.
In 2008, a year after the sale of the Lusso at Christie's, the McQueen Porsche Turbo found itself in a Gooding & Company auction at Monterey. It was one of the last cars added to the catalog and not much was being made of the McQueen connection. Still mourning the sale of his McQueen Lusso, Mike Regalia went along to see the Porsche.
Since a pair of McQueen's sunglasses had recently sold for $70,000, Regalia didn't expect his budget would stretch far enough to purchase the car, which the auction house estimated to be worth between $125,000 and $175,000. But as the bidding began to stall just past the $100,000 mark, Regalia's hand went up. He bought the car for $137,500.
The Ghost Drives Again
Since picking up the McQueen Turbo in 2008, Regalia has done nothing but drive it, although he's installed 16-inch Fuchs wheels with low-profile Michelin tires. It shows evidence of a restoration completed in 1995 and has 152,000 miles on the odometer.
The auction spiel at the time of sale said this car was in perfect mechanical condition, but the clutch cable is unhappy, the shift lever is looser than you'd like and there's a curious sound from the left front. A box of air-conditioning parts is also awaiting installation. But today we get to photograph the car at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, so it feels just fine to us.
As we leave the track, we narrowly escape a speeding ticket from a ranger patrolling the state park that surrounds the motorsports facility. "Steve would have loved that," notes Regalia. "A speeding ticket at Laguna Seca!"
Once you put your foot down, this turbocharged 3.0-liter flat-6 spools up delightfully, though it's not as almighty as we're expecting. The 1976 Porsche Turbo didn't feature a boost gauge and probably the single turbocharger's 11.5-psi output wouldn't impress us anyway, since we're only talking about 234 hp here. The 930 was really only a monster because it made 77 hp more than a standard 911 of the time.
As we rumble back to the parking lot at the end of our drive, Chad McQueen — Steve's son — is on hand to say hello. "When I was 15, I got caught borrowing this car for a ride around the neighborhood," recalls Chad. "I got my ass kicked for that one, but it was worth it!"
Mike Regalia might say the same thing. Though he made some money from his sale of the McQueen Ferrari, he remains simply a McQueen fan at heart. He has the freedom to drive the hell out of the Porsche and apologize to no one, and that's about as close as you can come to the real Steve McQueen.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.