Driving the car that gave Steve McQueen his first taste of Porsche 911 ownership After 21 years quietly tucked away in a Home Counties workshop, Steve McQueen’s first 911 has been dusted off for us to drive. Words Russ Smith. Photography Jonathan Fleetwood.
The Car of Cool
Taking the driving seat of Hollywood superstar Steve McQueen’s first Porsche 911 after its 21-year slumber Steve McQueen’s first 911 driven
There’s a seat staring up at me, and I’m not sure if I’m entirely worthy of it. This is the seat that was regularly occupied by the archetypal King of Cool – actor, racer, pilot and all-round Hollywood bad-boy Steve McQueen. It’s the real deal too, not some artfully replaced or over-restored vague reference to a piece of our cultural history. This seat is part of an almost accidentally original 1969 Porsche 911E that wears its 50 years as honestly as the weather-beaten face of a farmer. There might even still be some McQueen DNA somewhere in that well-preserved perforated black vinyl.
Even if I did repeatedly fail all my ‘cool’ exams in the past, I can at least bask in a little reflected glory by being the guy who drove Steve McQueen’s Porsche. As ever with a 911, there’s no threshold drama, no contortions. You just step in and sit down. It takes a fair bit of body heaving to persuade the seat runners to budge forward from their long-set position. That’s fair. It’s a long time since this car was last used, and even longer since it was used by anyone other than its owner Daniel Parker. Still, I quickly find a comfortable position and can turn the key.
Pre-warmed from a just about long enough run to our location, the flat-six clatters into life. As ever with these units, the five-speed ’box with its dogleg first gear is awkward to use until you get used to it. In this left-hand drive setting I hit my right knee almost every time I pull the lever towards me and down into first, then regularly hit fourth instead of second when changing up on most of the first half-dozen attempts. The clutch is not heavy but it bites pretty high in its travel, suggesting it’s almost used up. Parker admits this is a job that will need to be done soon.
The engine is a two-litre – the first and smallest of 911 units, from the final model year before it was bored out to 2.2 – but the Bosch injection perked it up for the 1969 model year. That capacity kept growing, but four years later the extra 400cc the engine had gained was blunted by carrying another 70kg about. The performance difference between the 2.0 and the 2.2 feels small. Put that down to the 2.0 911E’s lightness.
Parker has told me that it likes revs, but I’m apprehensive about using too many of them. I know McQueen will have ragged it most of the time, but that was decades ago. This car has sat for an age and has covered precisely 36 miles between 1998 and now. My heart tells me to baby it for a bit. Unsurprisingly, a few foibles pop up once we’re rolling. Like the charge light illuminating at low revs, a flat spot at 2000rpm, and the odd backfire on the over-run. Mind you, that last trait is far from unknown with these early pre-electronics injection systems.
But as soon as you put all that out of your head, the magic kicks in. This car still does that infectious, all-enveloping 911 thing, and the more revs you use the better it does it. Even with wider than standard tyres – it has 195/60s on the front and 205/60s on the back, compared to the factory 185 R15s – the steering remains as tactile and communicative as ever.
The car was set up like this when Parker acquired it, so it must have been how McQueen wanted it when, in around 1977, he changed the wheels from the standard Fuchs alloys to the understated chrome steel rims from a lesser 911T. Those rear tyres looked pretty squeezed onto the six-inch rims, but they make full use of the 1969 model year’s slightly flared wheelarches.
‘It’s survived for 40 years like this... to fix a past-life scar would be a crime’
A few more sweeping and dipping turns with the sun flickering through the foliage and I’m starting to see this leafy part of Surrey as a hilly Los Angeles suburb, feeling what McQueen felt, albeit at much lower speeds. He really could drive, but even he would have needed total focus you need to drive one of these really quickly.
The Porsche is loving it too. It still has some tautness about it. Despite its age, only 58,000 miles have been racked up, most of them quite early in the 911’s life. This is the first year of the 57mm longer wheelbase cars, so this car isn’t quite as twitchy as a really early 911. The wider tyres must be helping too. Trees lining the road are a hard reminder not to lift off in mid-corner, but the overall feel is planted and friendly. With not too much grunt on tap, powering all the way through each bend soon becomes second nature, as does massaging the gearshift and being as delicate as possible with the clutch to preserve what’s left of it.
I notice a paperback copy of Enter the Dragon poking out of the passenger footwell map pocket. ‘Ah, the Bruce Lee incident’, says Daniel. ‘Long before Lee became a movie star he taught martial arts skills and was McQueen’s personal trainer for the filming of The Reivers in 1969. According to McQueen’s friend Pat Johnson, Lee mentioned to McQueen that he intended to buy a 911, so McQueen suggested a ride in his one to show what Lee was getting into. ‘McQueen drove flat-out along Mulholland Drive, trying to scare Lee – and succeeding. So much so that Lee was out of his seat and cowering in the footwell, threatening vengeance on a highly amused McQueen, who then refused to slow down until Lee promised not to hit him when he did.
‘When I was a teenager in 1975, I bought the book of the movie, so that footwell seems the perfect place to keep it now.’ Anyone with prior knowledge of Steve McQueen’s Porsches must be wondering about one key point – how come this car isn’t cloaked in McQueen’s signature shade of Slate Grey, like the 911S in the opening credits of his Le Mans movie, and several others including a 1976 Turbo? Don’t worry. Daniel Parker has spent his decades with the car nailing down its history with the aid of McQueen’s third wife Barbara Minty and biographer Marshall Terrill. Parker picks up the story, ‘After going to the 1969 Le Mans 24 Hours race in June and sealing the deal for Porsche’s full co-operation in his film project, McQueen bought the 908 Spyder that had failed to finish in that year’s race.
‘As part of his new allegiance to the Porsche brand, he also ordered his first 911, which is my car. That was first registered in McQueen’s name on the 8th August 1969, and stayed with him until October 1980.’ I’ve seen a California registration renewal that shows McQueen’s name and address and matches this car’s chassis number. And when he took delivery of this car it was indeed Slate Grey. The undisturbed chassis plate carries the correct ‘6801’ paint code, and perhaps even more telling is some original paint emerging from beneath a couple of peeling stickers on the rear lip of the engine bay. It leaves no doubt that this is the real deal.
Other eagle-eyes may have spotted that the rear lights are all-red US spec items. The car has the correct lenses for regular road use, which were fitted to get it MoT’d here, but Parker wants it to look right for its 50th birthday shoot so has fished these original lenses out of the boot and swapped them for the Euro-spec ones.
What isn’t correct for a 911 are some of the panel fits, which certainly aren’t ‘Porsche-right’ in places. Most noticeable are the driver’s-door-to-wing and front bonnet fits. Add in the repaint, which is also far from Stuttgart standards, and you have to wonder if the car was crashed at some point in the Seventies, then quickly patched up and painted. There’s no record of this, or any memories to draw on, but it feels like a fair speculation. This is exactly how the car appears in a May 1979 photo taken by McQueen’s third wife Barbara. Clearly it was something McQueen never felt the need to put right, and it’s survived for 40 years like this. It would almost be a crime to straighten out a past-life scar.
My next question is an obvious one – how did the 911E come into Parker’s possession? The answer turns out to be quite a tale. ‘In the early Nineties I visited Los Angeles frequently. I got tired of characterless rentals, so decided to buy something more interesting and keep it in a close friend’s safe place in my absence. As I’d already bought a couple of Porsche 356s to bring home on previous trips, an early 911 was the logical next step in my Porsche family journey, which had started with a Beetle. A long wheelbase, pre-impact bumper 911 from 1969-1973 was my target.
‘Back then in LA, early 911s and 912s were still plentiful and at the bottom of their desirability curve. They were too old to be cool but still too young and abundant to have achieved much classic car status. They were just 20-year-old sports cars and so relatively cheap, in the same way that 928s and 944s are today.
‘I looked at plenty on used car lots and from private sellers, mostly 911Ts which were either pretty shabby or horribly updated as clones of newer models – that was the vogue back then. ‘I then came across an advert for a 1969 911E from a dealer some way north of Los Angeles. It was outside my budget, but it came with the bonus of having previously been owned by Steve McQueen, so I decided to go and check it out anyway.
‘The dealer was a nice guy. He didn’t have a vast lot or a swanky showroom, just a tidy workshop with a couple of superb convertible 356s in stages of better-than-new restorations. The 911 was the opposite – an unrestored car that, although showing its age, had clearly been cared for. It wore an obvious respray well enough and the original interior was in terrific shape compared to all the others I’d seen. It had a little over 53k on the clock and although there was no service history to support that, from its general condition it looked about right. The engine, gearbox and brakes all functioned as they should, so it was an honest car for regular use, and exactly what I was after.
‘The McQueen documentation all checked out with the chassis number and the dealer told me he’d purchased the car locally from a retired TWA pilot. He’d never used it, just kept it garaged, but a problem with his pension had forced him to sell it.
‘As the Porsche had been off the road for so many years, the dealer had put it back into running order and re-registered it before adding it to his own personal collection.
‘The early Nineties were not a good time for collectable cars. The market had more or less crashed. The dealer was heavily invested in his 356s and I sensed he was a very motivated seller. I upped my ante, he dropped his expectations, and a deal for cash was done on 10 June 1991. I think it’s important to mention I didn’t buy the car just because of its connection to Steve McQueen. Although I’d thoroughly enjoyed many of his movies, I wasn’t a fan especially. I was just a Porsche guy. If it had been another worn-out example, I would have passed.
‘Also, although McQueen was a major Hollywood star in his time, his last hit movie has been 17 years earlier, he’d been dead for ten and his star had waned considerably. His current status as the legendary ‘King of Cool’ simply hadn’t happened yet. With plenty of movie stars living around LA, a car with a celebrity history wasn’t that unusual either. I bought it solely because it was by far the best 911 I’d seen. The fact that McQueen used to own it was just the cherry on the cake.’
Later research revealed that the retired pilot, Perry Shreffler, had become friends with McQueen after he’d quit Hollywood and bought a small ranch along with a large hangar for all his planes and cars in small-town Santa Paula. When McQueen was ill with cancer in 1980 and putting his affairs in order, he gifted the car to Shreffler. We actually ran a letter from Daniel Parker with a small photo of this Porsche in the September 1992 issue of Classic Cars, written in response to our June 1992 article on the Le Mans movie and the four 911s used in it. The car was still in LA at the time, though not for much longer as things turned out. ‘On a trip in 1993 I decided to bring the car home,’ says Parker.
‘It passed its MoT in July 1994 with 55,545 miles on the clock and was UK-registered. Further US trips meant it was used sparingly, then when the MoT ran out in July 1998, I parked it up with 58,186 miles covered. I wanted to preserve it in as-owned condition, and it became one of those “I’ll get back on that one day” projects. ‘Long ago, I met a guy who had a Bugatti Type 35 and a Vincent Black Shadow parked outside his office. They were there to look at every day and make working a bit more pleasurable, he said. It was the coolest thing I’d seen, so I’ve kept my McQueen 911 similarly close and have never been less than a few feet from it, almost every day for the 20 years it has been resting.’
McQueen rested it through the mid-Seventies too, because that signature Slate Grey paint was too widely recognized and he really didn’t need the attention. But this was the 911 he kept, not the Le Mans-featured 911S he’d got from Porsche nine months later. After the movie, he was pretty much broke, and when the ‘S’ was repaired and shipped back to the States, that’s the one he sold.
The 911E was resurrected in or around 1977, at a time when McQueen was getting nostalgic about his past and buying back cars he’d owned back in the day, including a 356 Speedster and of course his Jaguar XKSS. Painted silver – however that came about – the 911E was anonymous enough to be used again properly, which he almost certainly did in his usual full-on style.
McQueen may have owned faster 911s, but this was the one that survived the test of time in his ownership. After a day driving it, I can understand why.
Without the provenance, this is a £75,000 911. Add the McQueen factor and come up with a number. Easy to imagine him sat here with one boot on the bumper and a fag on the go Original red lenses aren’t UK-legal but luckily nobody noticed. McQueen switched the Fuchs alloys for 911T steel wheels. 195/ and 205/60 tyres have neatly replaced the factory 185/R15s Did McQueen ever wear Primark check shirts? Or non-Persol shades? 2.0-litre motor features Bosch mechanical injection and Baja dust. This dash design got a pasting from the press, but Porsche is still using it 50 years later. Enter The Dragon references a terrifying passenger ride McQueen gave to Bruce Lee.