comes over all ‘Steve McQueen’ and finally succumbs to the pressures of advertising…
My relationship with Steve McQueen goes back a long way, then it would, because I go back a long way. We first met in the Essoldo cinema, Hayes, in 1960. He was riding shotgun with Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven. I was in the one-and nines sucking on a Kia-Ora through a straw with a bunch of my fourteen-year-old mates. Steve, we always called him that, became an immediate hero. We hid at the end then watched it a second time.
An avid reader of American comic books, I soon discovered that there was a US TV series starring Steve called Wanted Dead or Alive. It never reached the UK but the comic book spin-off did and always had a great shot of bounty-hunter Steve on the cover, toting his trademark sawn-down Winchester rifle, which he called the ‘Mare’s Leg’ and carried in a holster instead of a weedy six-gun. 1963 was the year of The Great Escape, after which I just had to have an A2 flying jacket and a motorbike. (I bought a genuine WWII A2 for a fiver at an army surplus shop but my mum wouldn’t let me have a motorbike. Steve wouldn’t have had that problem.) For the filming Steve stubbornly refused to wear what a prisoner of war would have worn, he just wanted to look good, not right, and his super-cool chino-and-sweatshirt look set the sartorial pattern for a whole generation of young men.
Steve’s image as the ultimate cool-dude was unassailable after Bullitt hit the screens with tyres squealing in 1968. Despite flower-power blooming all around and sporting shoulder-length hair, I still secretly wanted a cropped thatch like Steve, and a Shelby Mustang. And after The Thomas Crown Affair in the same year, who didn’t dream of being a millionaire, Ferrari-driving, glider-flying, dune-buggying, art-thief playboy? Forget the counter-culture – give me riches.
I couldn’t afford a Ferrari or a Mustang so instead I bought a 1957 Porsche Speedster; Steve’s was a ’58. For me ’68 was the peak of Steve’s climb to the giddy heights of eternal stardom. Le Mans came in ’71 but, even though Steve was as cool as ever, the cars were cooler and the plot, let’s face it, was frozen.
Nine more films followed before Steve died in 1980. And then gradually something strange happened. Steve stopped being merely a film star and became an icon. A cult. A brand. A marketing tool. Like holy relics, artefacts once touched by the man have accrued a value mind-blowingly in excess of their intrinsic value. In 2011, Steve’s 911, the one he drives to Le Mans in the opening sequence of the film, sold for an astonishing $1,375,000 – that’s about $1,300,000 more than you might pay for one that he hadn’t driven. His Persol 714 sunglasses fetched $70,200 at auction, around $70,000 more than on the High Street. His Heuer Monaco went for $87,600, which seems like a bargain when you realize that his Rolex Submariner 5512 soared to $234,000.
But perhaps most astonishingly of all a pair of racing overalls that he wore in the film Le Mans, and were subsequently given away as a prize in a competition, sold in December 2011 for $984,000 – £630,000! If Steve McQueen once wore it, manufacturers are now capitalizing on his iconic status to add new impetus to their sales.
There are ‘inspired by Steve McQueen’ items of every kind, not just reissues of watches and sunglasses but jackets, jumpers, t-shirts and jeans hoping to acquire a little extra lustre by association. Even Barbour, that quintessentially British brand, now has its own Steve McQueen Collection. McQueen, a dedicated biker, was a member of the 1964 US team in the gruelling International Six Day Trial, held that year in East Germany, and in common with most teams wore a Barbour outfit. There’s a much-published photo of a mud-spattered, Barbour-suited, macho McQueen astride his 650 Triumph with cigarette clamped between his teeth about to blast off the start line. Barbour used the shot in their advertising but in the hyper-sensitive age in which we live the cigarette has been airbrushed out – not sure what Steve would have made of that.
After 35-years as one of London’s ‘Mad Men’ (advertising, if you are not familiar with the TV series) I thought I was pretty much immune to its effect… but! Yes, I succumbed to temptation and never having, despite many years as a biker, ever desired a Barbour, I’ve bought the Steve McQueen version, complete with a very non-British stars and stripes lining. My excuse to myself? Unlike Steve who drove his Speedster in the user-friendly Californian sunshine I have to use mine in our damp rheumatism-inducing climes, and a wind- and rain-proof coat is an essential when venturing forth. That, and of course the tiniest glimmer of hope that it might just make me look bit like a mature version of Steve McQueen.
After a photoshoot at the wheel of my Speedster I can see that my hopes remain unfulfilled. But I still love my Barbour – and it at £629,731 less than Steve’s race suit, it was a snip. DM