McQueen is Dead


Words: Gary Inman Images: William Claxton, Warner Bros, Life Magazine Archive

The atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, while the motorcycle-related media is 56% Steve McQueen.

It is virtually impossible to look at a bike or classic car magazine or decent-sized website without seeing an image of the actor. Just look around you. He is, as a motorcycle obsessive, the very air I breathe.

A star with over 40 films and one Oscar nomination (for Sand Pebbles in 1966) to his name, McQueen is now the petrolhead’s Che Guevara – a go-to, shorthand icon, but used to define ‘cool’ rather than left-wing idealism. Dead at the age of 50 and gone for over 30 years, McQueen is used, with increasing regularity to sell, endorse or add cachet to a frankly bewildering list of products.


Ford Europe were ahead of the curve when they cleverly (eerily?) spliced footage of McQueen from 1968 with their then new transgender Fiesta, the 1997 Puma. ‘Look,’ Ford would have us believe, ‘it has the spirit of a V8 Mustang GT!’ That rumbling you could hear wasn’t the throaty, catalytically-converted burble of the Puma’s truly awesome 1.4-litre four-banger, but a dead actor spinning in his grave.


Perhaps to prove they were devoid of fresh thought, Ford couldn’t let it lie and copied their own idea for a US TV advert for the Mustang in 2005. Watching it today makes my skin crawl.

More recently Barbour have heated up the McQueen legacy so often you can see the wriggling of e-Coli on the surface of their wares with the naked eye. He wore the British company’s waxed cotton jacket from time-to-time and Barbour won’t let us forget it. The nadir of their reanimation was a limited edition Barbour International four-pocket jacket, like the American wore when he took part in the 1964 International Six Days Trial as part of the official USA team. This version was special because it had fake mud splatters printed on the front. Yes, really – 100% genuine real fake dirt guaranteed not to come out in the wash.


There is a whole ‘unofficial’ website selling McQueen-related goods. Needless to say there are T-shirts with depictions of the man on them, DVDs of his films and documentaries about him. Books too. But the most bizarre are the replicas of clothes McQueen wore both in films and his private life. An ‘authentic’ Great Escape sweat top is a plain, petrol blue sweatshirt with the sleeves roughly hacked off at elbow height. No? OK, perhaps you prefer the Frank Bulliitt jacket. It’s a tweed sports jacket!

The site gets in a froth about a brown cardigan. Yep, perhaps like your granddad wore to cut his hedge. But no, and I quote, ‘This is a very special piece that we are incredibly proud of and very excited about. If you’re a McQueen fan, you’ll probably know that this style of cardigan was a favourite of the big man. There are hundreds of different photographs showing him wearing one.’

To reiterate, it’s a brown cardigan, not the Turin Shroud.

McQueen was a stylish man, living in a stylish time, and I have no problem with anyone being inspired by the mid-1960s when William Claxton shot his friend living the life. Personally, I am. It is, for me and many others, the definitive period of men’s style, but just glancing at the cash-ins makes my bulls*** detector hit the rev limiter.


What people don’t seem to grasp is McQueen became an inspiration and was adored because he was a man of his time. The Baracuta G9 Harrington jacket and Levi’s he chose were contemporary. The Heuer Monaco watch he wore for the 1971 film, Le Mans, was a recently introduced model when he wore it for filming his part as a racing driver. It wasn’t a cash-in re-issue of something Errol Flynn wore. The Porsche 911S he drove was the cream of its era.

McQueen raced Triumphs and Husqvarnas – the hottest off-road bikes of the day. The Triumph chassis wasn’t up to the punishment he gave it, so he bought a British-made Rickman and the best components of the period. He didn’t bounce around waiting for the welds to crack, revelling in the heritage and authenticity of the original, he searched the globe for a cutting edge improvement. Later, when he retired from racing, he’d become a collector of antique bikes, but while he was young and virile, he wanted the very best on the market. It seems quite normal.


If McQueen had dressed as someone from the mid-20s, driving cars from 40 years earlier, he’d have looked like a kook at best, a self-regarding ponce at worst. He had style and taste to choose what was new and fresh. These lame Xeroxes of him and his passions are into the realm of embarrassing.

It’s time to move on.