01 April 2020
A chance spot online unearthed Steve McQueens’ lost Land Rover. Here is its story from Solihull to Southern California – and beyond
"The minute a picture is over, I run like a thief… I’ll put the old lady and the kids in my Land Rover and take off. Up into the mountains, out in the desert, anywhere… Man, I don’t want to be bugged by anybody.” So said Steve McQueen, as quoted in Marc Eliot’s 2012 biography
You don’t have to be a film fanatic to know that Terrence Stephen McQueen, actor, racer, spanner man and enthusiast of all things mechanical, loved his cars. As he became more successful, his fleet grew exponentially: Porsches, Ferraris and Mercedes featured heavily in his garage, as well as the famous Jaguar XKSS that he enjoyed so much he owned it twice. There was also a 1961 Series II SWB Land Rover, which, appropriately enough for such an unassuming vehicle, is one of Steve’s lesser-known rides.
This discreet and determinedly unflashy Land Rover was a vehicle that brought together all of Steve’s true passions of family, racing and – perhaps most importantly – time away from the superficiality of Hollywood. It was a private space that symbolised his enjoyment of simple pleasures – a love of mechanical objects, the freedom of the desert and calm silence away from the craziness of his profession.
With the Series II McQueen was never happier. Photos: Nick Dimbleby
The Landy isn’t the flash sports car that you’d expect a film star to be driving down Sunset Strip or Santa Monica Boulevard, but I bet that Steve loved every minute behind the wheel. Land Rovers weren’t designed to be cool in the 1960s, yet their no-nonsense attitude and consummate capability attracted people such as Steve. Not because they were trendy, but because of what they did. Like McQueen, his Land Rover’s actions spoke louder than words.
McQueen took delivery of the Bronze Green 1961 Series II Station Wagon while in the UK filming The War Lover. According to Matt Stone, writing in McQueen’s Machines: The Cars and Bikes of a Hollywood Icon, Steve had the purchase of the Land Rover written into his contract for The War Lover, effectively replacing the use of a chauffeur-driven car during filming.
“My agent had a special bit written into my contract,” said McQueen. “He had the studio agree to provide me with a limousine and chauffeur to get me to the set. But that wasn’t my thing, and I told the studio people: ‘Why not let me buy a small car and drive it myself?’ This saved them money, so they okayed the offer. As a result, I got me a 12-speed, four-wheel-drive Land Rover, which I shipped back to California after the film was over. I came out ahead on the deal.”
In between filming at Shepperton Studios and Bovingdon Airfield in Hertfordshire, Steve ran amok around the British countryside in the Land Rover, as well as indulging his passion for racing with Stirling Moss in Mini Coopers at Brands Hatch (much to the production company’s alarm). Filming took place between September 1961 and January 1962, with Steve’s home during that time being a large townhouse in Chester Square, London, SW1, rented to the studio by Lord and Lady Russell. Once the film wrapped, Steve, his wife Neile and the Land Rover headed back to California.
Sporting it's authentic UK and California number plates, McQueen's Series II is back onthe road at last.
A few weeks later, when the Land Rover arrived in the US, McQueen had the legendary custom paint and pinstripe specialist Kenny ‘Von Dutch’ Howard work his magic on the vehicle. Von Dutch had already customised a number of Steve’s motorbikes and his 1957 Jaguar XKSS, and it seems likely that he worked on the Land Rover several times during McQueen’s ownership. Firstly he added pinstripes echoing the vehicle’s boxy shape, then some logos from McQueen’s first production company, Scuderia Condor, on the front doors and tailgate.
Steve’s informal motorcycle and racing ‘club’, Chicken Shit Racing (members included Charles Bronson, Sir John Whitmore, Bud and Dave Ekins, with ‘races’ allegedly taking place after dark on Mulholland Drive), was also immortalised on the right-hand front wing by Von Dutch. To keep things discreet, and as an in joke, Bud Ekins took a sample of chicken excrement to a chemist to be analysed and put into a compound formula. The resulting equation – H2PO3+ (NH4)3C2O4 in case you wondered – was handwritten by Von Dutch onto the wing of the Land Rover (along with United Kingdom Branch), and remarkably these words are just about visible today.
McQueen's Land Rover and Jaguar – we know which one we'd have!
The Landy occupied a unique spot among the growing stable of exotic cars that McQueen acquired during the mid- to late 1960s. Unlike the sports cars and bikes that Steve enjoyed piecemeal, the Land Rover was a presence that found its way into all elements of his life, largely because it was both useful and fun. Steve drove it often while in Hollywood, it towed his racing cars and bikes, he enjoyed private time with his family and dogs in it, and it was a vehicle in which he could take out his celebrity friends and family to enjoy the great outdoors, more often than not near his weekend home in Palm Springs.
As such, it was often to be seen speeding across the Southern Californian desert, Hollywood stars and starlets hanging on for dear life in the back; parked out in the scrub, windows fogged by cigarette smoke (or other puffs) while Steve hung out with fellow actors or his biker friends between filming; being used as a family runabout on warm days with the top off; pressed into service as a support vehicle for a motorcycling day out; and loaded down with gear, friends and beer for a weekend of camping, shooting or fishing in the mountains. It’s amazing that the vehicle survived at all, let alone in such original condition.
Despite being an important part of the McQueens’ life in the 1960s, apart from the occasional mention in his biographies and a dozen or so photos where the Land Rover is part of the shoot (most notably a series from a camping trip up in the Sierra Madre mountains with Life magazine in tow), little has been written about Steve’s Landy before. Appropriately enough, this seems to be because the honest Series II just got on with the job, unlike the glamorous Ferraris, Porsches and the famous XKSS that wowed the fans almost as much as McQueen did. In the Land Rover’s case, it just sat there patiently in the background. Dependable, honest and ready to do whatever was asked of it.
At the time, a Series II was not the obvious set of wheels for a Hollywood star, but when you understand that Steve was happier hanging out with dirt bikers and spanner men than he was with studio executives and directors, then the Landy starts to make sense. You can imagine him charging into Bud Ekins’ motorcycle ’shop, his latest two-wheeled purchase on tow behind the Landy, or bouncing along canyon roads, dirt tracks or the desert, roof off, big grin, with the faint smell of petrol and gear oil in the air.
The years between 1962 and ’69 were arguably Steve’s most successful, with his star definitely in ascendance. In that period, he made his most famous and critically acclaimed films and cemented his position as Hollywood’s King of Cool. We don’t know exactly when the Series II left McQueen’s ownership, but I suspect that it would have been in the late 1960s or early ’70s when his life started to become more complicated. Is it a coincidence that his first wife Neile served up divorce papers at the same time, when Steve’s well-documented drug use and womanising became too much for her?
Land Rover specialist Ike Goss of Oregon-based Pangolin 4x4 rescued the Series II.
What we do know is that the Land Rover’s current owner, Ike Goss of Pangolin 4x4, Oregon, can’t quite believe that he owns it. Ike spotted the vehicle on the online classified ad site Craigslist, advertised as an original 1960s Land Rover, but with no mention of the McQueen connection. As a Series Land Rover expert, Goss recognised the original UK numberplate that was still attached: 5085 WD. His interest was piqued, and he tells of an immediate 11-hour overnight drive from his home to Bellingham, Washington, where the Series II was still for sale.
The seller of the vehicle – a building contractor – had acquired the Land Rover in exchange for work he’d done on a septic tank. The contractor didn’t know about the vehicle’s illustrious history, and he hadn’t been kind to the Series II in the ten years that he’d owned it. It had sat outside in an equipment yard for most of this time, and as it no longer ran under its own steam the contractor shunted it around the yard with heavy equipment when it needed moving. It was in a pretty sorry state.
Even so, Ike had a hunch that it was McQueen’s old Land Rover – but this was based only on that numberplate and a photo of Steve McQueen standing next to a green Land Rover, which he found on the internet. Another clue was the vehicle’s keyring, which had the name Steve imprinted on the paper tab where ink from a Biro had once been. Surely this must be McQueen’s old vehicle?
Original keyring shows Steve imprinted on the tab.
After some deliberation, the deal was done and Ike took the vehicle back to his workshop to get it back up and running, and to try to find out whether it actually was Steve McQueen’s Land Rover. One of the first things he did was to call Michael Bishop at JLR Classic to see whether there was anything in the company’s records that might confirm things. The original Rover Co. chassis plate was in situ, and because the Series II had spent its life in California, that same number was still visibly stamped on the front-right spring hanger – something that would have long since rusted away had the vehicle remained in the UK.
Michael checked the archive and struck gold. The original handwritten ledger showed that chassis number 24400689 entered the despatch office at Solihull on October 18, 1961, leaving on November 1, 1961 to go to Queen Esq. London, SW1. Rover Los Angeles. Despite the misspelling, this was the concrete proof that Ike was searching for – it had to be the vehicle bought for Steve McQueen as part of his contract for The War Lover. The Land Rover would have been registered by The Rover Company as part of the delivery, with the WD registration originating from the Warwickshire vehicle-licencing office.
Once filming was complete, the vehicle was shipped back to California and re-registered with licence plate number JNH 815; only six digits away from Steve’s XKSS that he’d purchased in 1958 (JNH 809). McQueen chose to keep the UK registration plates on the vehicle, leaving the front one exposed and the rear plate all but covered by the new, smaller US number. Amazingly, both the original UK plates remain in situ to this day.
The chassis number that solved the mystery.
It’s this originality that really stands out as Ike and I look around the Land Rover, and I’m amazed that the special features Von Dutch added to the vehicle are still in place. Apart from the pinstriping, other surviving features include the optional mesh floor mats that can be seen in period photos of Steve with the car, the whip aerial fitted behind the driver’s door, Steve’s original tool box (complete with rusty tools) and the two Lucas additional front lamps – one a spot, the other a driving light.
McQueen's toolbox and mats are still present and correct.
There are two worn-out oil-change stickers stuck to the driver’s seat base, too. The garages’ addresses are: Mobil, 1708 N Palm Canyon, Palm Springs (less than five minutes’ drive from Steve’s first desert home at 811 Grace Circle) and Marsh Manor Shell, 995 Marsh Road, Redwood City, CA. Redwood City is near San Francisco, so this maybe offers a clue as to where the Land Rover ended up after his ownership. Von Dutch’s signwriting is still visible on the panels, with Scuderia Condor still proudly present on both doors, as well as some Egyptian-style hieroglyphs and a Desert Palm on the tailgate. Under the fuel cap he wrote Petrol (instead of Gas), as well as that H2PO3+(NH4)3C2O4 United Kingdom Branch on the front right-hand wing. The only modern reproductions are the rear GB and United States Auto Club stickers, which seem appropriate considering they were there when Steve owned the vehicle.
When Ike first got the Land Rover into the workshop, there was quite a bit of mechanical work to be done to get it back to serviceable condition. However, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Series Land Rovers, he was the perfect person to carry out the work sympathetically, leaving the exterior and interior largely untouched to maintain the vehicle’s originality. Driving in the Landy, there is definitely a feeling of McQueen’s presence – especially if you have just looked through the numerous images of Steve with the vehicle that Ike and his partner Jenna have put together in a photo album.
As you might imagine, they are extremely proud to own this amazing part of Land Rover history that, until recently, was lost, unloved and could have ended up being broken for parts. But being a Land Rover enthusiast first and foremost, Ike is pretty pragmatic about the vehicle, and he’s not afraid to drive it. “At the end of the day 5085 WD is a fantastically original 1961 Series II Land Rover and it’s great to drive,” he tells me. “The McQueen connection is just a nice bonus.”
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