finally admits to his magazine addiction and wonders what might have been…

McQ ad black.jpg

Further to my trawl through back-issues of my vast collection of car magazines that I rambled last time, I’ve become temporarily addicted to reliving the past, month by month. By suspending hindsight I find you can get quite excited about ‘future’ groundbreaking developments, eagerly anticipating what might happen, with the benefit that you don’t have to actually wait a month or more to see how things pan out – you can just pick up the next issue and find out.


One curiosity that caught my attention was an ad in the July 1966 issue of Sports Car Graphic – not for a car but a forthcoming movie starring Steve McQueen. The surprise was that it wasn’t for that favourite of Porsche-petrolheads, ‘Le Mans’, but a film about Formula One! For a moment, fearing that I had developed a blind spot in my Steve McQueen filmography memory bank, I checked on Google to find, reassuringly, that ‘Day of the Champion’, like many other dream-machines before and since, had failed to reach the checkered flag.


This raised the question why would Warner Brothers have publicised a new film that had only just started shooting? It seems that the film was itself in a bitter race with a rival production, so was it a ‘spoiler’, a ploy to psych-out the competition? McQueen, of course, had long been a racer, on two and four wheels, entering his first official race in Santa Barbara in 1959 – which he won, driving a Porsche Speedster. Quoted as saying ‘I’m not sure I’m an actor who races or racer who acts,’ McQueen had long harboured the desire to make the definitive film about Grand Prix racing.


He had spent several years working on the project with the director John Sturges, who had directed him in ‘The Magnificant Seven’ and most recently ‘The Great Escape’. The pair had a contract with the Auto Club of Germany for official use of the Nürburgring and, as the advert states, they had started filming there, even engaging the services of Steve’s friend Stirling Moss for some high-speed on-car camera work. But as so often happens in Tinseltown, another team was in production with its own Grand Prix story, called…‘Grand Prix’. And what’s worse they had hired the services of McQueen’s buddy and next-door neighbour, James Garner, to play the lead.


Garner had the decency to ring McQueen, then on location in Taiwan, to break the news. In her biography, McQueen’s wife, Neile, recalls his reaction on taking the call. Looking shaken, McQueen turned to her with the words, ‘That f****r. He’s just signed to do Grand Prix. He wanted to tell me himself before I read about or heard from somebody else. You see, baby, you just can’t trust anybody in this business’. McQueen took the news badly, refusing to speak to Garner for two years.  


To make matters worse, director John Frankenheimer intended to use footage he had shot at the German Grand Prix – on the Nürburgring. Litigation flew between MGM and Warner Brothers with the case eventually settled in favour of McQueen’s project and MGM having to relinquish their footage. In the words of the ad, ‘Day of the Champion’ may have ‘got off to a roaring start’, but it lost the race. ‘Grand Prix’ was released in the US on 21st December 1966 by which time ‘Day of the Champion’ had run out of gas. But not before, reputedly, a million feet of film had been shot.


Steve didn’t abandon his ambition to make the definitive motor racing movie. After 10 minutes and 53 seconds of tyre-burning, hub-cap shedding, door banging mayhem racing around the streets and hills of San Francisco in 1968’s classic cop drama ‘Bullitt’, McQueen was an even bigger star and ‘Le Mans’, the movie, using much of his own money, beckoned. As a warm up for what McQueen hoped would be a drive in the 1970 event, he ran some impressive races in the US in his Porsche 908, famously coming second with Peter Revson in the 1970 Sebring 12 Hour, despite having a broken foot in plaster. The 908 made it to Le Mans, complete with cameras mounted, but McQueen’s insurance company would not let the star drive.


‘Day of the Champion’’s loss was ultimately every Porsche fan’s gain. The movie ‘Le Mans’, just as the movie ‘Grand Prix’, suffers from the same affliction as every other motor racing themed movie, a creaky plot and banal dialogue – though mercifully there’s very little dialogue in ‘Le Mans’, considerably reducing the ‘wince-factor’. The true stars are the cars and it’s hard to imagine more of a star car than the Porsche 917 – and there could be no better candidate for ‘best supporting car’ than the Ferrari 512.


Another motor racing ‘spectacle’, starring another of McQueen’s buddies, made it to the screens before ‘Le Mans’ flickered into life. ‘Winning’, released in ’69, starred Paul Newman who took to his role so seriously that he virtually became a professional driver and almost won the real Le Mans in 1979. But that’s another story. Haven’t got that deep into my magazine pile yet… DM