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Retracing Steve McQueen's Los Angeles in his Jaguar XKSS

Mon, 21 Apr 2014

In 1958, Steve McQueen bought this Jaguar XKSS from a local TV personality who kept it parked in a studio lot on Sunset Boulevard. McQueen cajoled his wife Nellie into writing a check for $5,000 -- today around $40,000 -- and became the third owner of XKSS chassis No. 713, a car that had originally been imported a year earlier by Jaguar North America. It had been purchased new by a man who helped develop Riverside Raceway. The ingraining of motorsports history, even tangentially, was only appropriate. McQueen was early in his career and showing glimpses of the potential hell-raising that would come at the height of his powers; that the Jaguar, with its stubby proportions, inflated curves and race-derived everything, appealed to him was only natural.

XKSS No. 713 was off-white with a red interior -- a thoroughly handsome color scheme, especially for a convertible, but McQueen wouldn't have any of it. ("He liked darker, subtle colors," reminisced son Chad McQueen years later. "He just had the greatest taste in cars.") Off went the white, on went British Racing green. The red interior, gone -- swapped out by hot-rodder Tony Nancy, "The Loner," for black upholstery at his Sherman Oaks shop. Not a trace of white remained. The car had been stripped down for the repaint, covering every delicate aluminum body panel on both sides; the doors open above the achingly tall doorsill, upwards and outwards like an Aston Martin DB9 -- had it been a coupe, Sir William Lyons would have been tempted to fit gullwing doors, a la Mercedes. But alas.

Jaguar built the XKSS as a way to use up leftover D-type chassis; the car had stopped racing in 1957, departing as an undisputed champion. Straight Le Mans victories in 1955, 1956 and 1957 cemented Jaguar's reputation even as the company pulled out of factory efforts after the first year of winning. Lyons figured Americans loved fast European sports cars, so the Le Mans champion became a thinly veiled race car for the street: Off went that fabulous fin and on went a passenger door, chrome bumpers and a rudimentary top. For the most part, that was it.

McQueen nicknamed his car the "Green Rat," perhaps in reference to James Dean's "Lil' Bastard." While he was shooting the show "Wanted: Dead or Alive," starring McQueen and his legendary sawed-off "Mare's Leg," he would sometimes tie his horse to the Jaguar. He drove fast and ran from the cops without second thoughts. Once, he tricked a patrolman into racing him and a supposedly in-labor Nellie to the hospital; Nellie was pregnant, sure, but only by six months. McQueen waited for the patrolman to leave, then told the nurses, "false alarm." Nellie was so angry she didn't speak to Steve for the rest of the day. "But, by God, it worked!" he said. "I didn't get the ticket!"

The sheriff of the LAPD introduced a lottery for his men: Whoever could finally nab the son of a bitch would win a steak dinner at Lawry's.

Not a single cop won.

In 1963, McQueen co-starred with Natalie Wood in "Love With the Proper Stranger." Wood was rumored to have spent much of the shoot trying to seduce McQueen, but he didn't bite. (McQueen reportedly respected his friend Robert Wagner, Wood's husband, far too much to make her just another notch on his belt.) Nevertheless, the two became friends. And in the early morning before the day's shooting, McQueen would wind his way down from Solar Drive, across Mulholland, down Laurel Canyon Road, pick up Natalie Wood and drive her to Old World Caf

By Blake Z. Rong