McQueen's Machine

Steve McQueen defined cool, as did his cars—just look at this 275 GTB/4.

McQueen's Machine 1
August 28, 2014

Knowledgeable Ferrari enthusiasts will immediately spot this car’s unusual rearview mirror, and may remark upon the not-quite-right red hue, but otherwise s/n 10621 is a standard-issue 275 GTB/4. Which is another way of saying it’s a seriously cool machine.

Introduced at the 1966 Paris Auto Show, the GTB/4 was the ultimate 275, having benefitted from all of the evolutionary improvements bestowed upon the platform to that point, including more aerodynamic “long nose” bodywork and a torque tube running between front-mounted engine and rear-mounted transaxle. But what defined the new model was the “/4” moniker: The 275’s original 3.3-liter SOHC Colombo V12 was redesigned with dual-overhead camshafts and dry-sump oiling, raising horsepower from 280 to 300 at 8,000 rpm.

Actually, s/n 10621 has one additional attribute that makes it a bit more exciting than most other four-cams: Its first owner was an actor and racer named Steve McQueen.

McQueen's Machine 2

DURING HIS ALL-TOO-SHORT LIFE, McQueen owned four Ferraris: a 250 GT Lusso, a 275 GTS, a 275 GTS/4 NART Spyder (note: this was not the car that appeared with the actor in The Thomas Crown Affair) and the 275 GTB/4 featured here. Weirdly enough, the GTB/4 replaced the NART Spyder in McQueen’s garage.

As the story goes, McQueen hadn’t had his convertible for long before it was rear-ended by a delivery truck in Malibu—reportedly because the truck’s driver was bikini-watching and plowed into a hapless McQueen, who was stopped at a traffic light. The one-of-ten NART Spyder was nearly totaled, and since there were no repair panels in the United States at the time, it was clear that, if the car was to be fixed, the repair job would be long and involved. McQueen had no taste for waiting, so returned to his then dealership of choice, Hollywood Sports Cars, and purchased s/n 10621.

From the factory, the GTB/4 was painted in Nocciola Metallizzato, a warm, medium gold-brown metallic. (This was a much different hue than the Marrone Metallizzato of his famous Lusso, which appeared in issue #72’s “Color Bind.”) According to San Fernando Valley, California paint and body wizard Lee Brown, McQueen didn’t like the Nocciola at all, so the actor tasked Brown with “coming up with something better.”

McQueen's Machine 3

What? McQueen bought a brand-new Ferrari and had it repainted before he took delivery? Yup—and this was not the first time. The aforementioned NART Spyder was originally painted a medium metallic blue, a shade also not to McQueen’s taste. Brown had mixed up a variety of blue hues, finally hitting on one that McQueen liked, and sprayed it on the car not long before its tragic bodywork mishap in Malibu.

Back to s/n 10621: “Steve and I had pretty similar tastes in colors, so he didn’t tell me what color to paint the 275 coupe,” Brown tells me, “but it had a great black leather interior and I like red, so I decided to brew up a special red for him.”

It was a rich ruby color the pair called Chianti. Brown also swapped the standard Campagnolo alloy wheels for Borrani wires (supposedly the same set previously installed on the crashed NART Spyder) and replaced the standard driver’s side exterior rearview mirror with a custom-made curved mirror housing that hugs the front fender line. Soon thereafter, the 275 GTB/4 was delivered to the actor in San Francisco while he was on set filming Bullitt.

McQueen's Machine 4

McQueen owned his four-cam for nearly five years, then sold it to television and movie actor Guy Williams (of Zorro and Lost in Space fame). Williams also kept the car for about five years, and also repainted it—this time in a slightly different shade of red. Williams sold the Ferrari to a Mr. Hyan, during whose tenure it suffered accident damage and spent much of the time at Junior Conway’s House of Color body shop awaiting repairs.

The GTB/4 was next sold to trucking-company owner Robert Panella. Panella then decided what he really wanted was a NART Spyder, but, since they are rare and rarely for sale, he commissioned bodywork master Richard Straman to convert the car to Spyder configuration and paint it Fly Yellow. Panella kept the Ferrari for some time, before sending it on to a short string of new owners.

By the time it wound up in the hands of champion sports-car racer Vern Schuppan, in August 2009, the four-cam had been repainted once again, in silver. But Schuppan was having none of it. He wanted the 275 to be returned to its natural-born coupe form, and he decided that Ferrari’s Classiche division was the proper place to do so.

McQueen's Machine 5

IN A SERIOUS STROKE OF LUCK, Schuppan discovered most of the 275’s original parts and body panels had survived the convertible conversion. “In November 2010, I tracked down previous owner Robert Panella,” he explains. “He informed me that Straman had returned most of the original parts removed during the NART conversion to him. However, he had sold the parts a year earlier to Georgia-based Ferrari parts dealer Ted Rutlands.”

Schuppan phoned Rutlands and discovered they still had the parts, including the original rear glass, trunk lid, fuel-filler assembly, various chrome fittings and the large metal internal ventilation structures that fit behind the roof buttresses. “I bought the parts—obviously!—and Rutlands crated and shipped them to Ferrari,” says Schuppan. “The Ferrari people of course were quite astonished.”

The job ahead of the factory’s Classiche craftsmen was still substantial. In addition to being turned back into a coupe, the 275 would be restored stem-to-stern. But all the parts were there and the car was complete mechanically, still running its original four-cam V12. Classiche began work on the car in July 2011.

McQueen's Machine 6

The cost of this very special restoration is unknown, but I understand that the tab just to build the custom tools and jigs needed to convert the body back to coupe form topped $100,000. Whatever the cost, it was worth it: After nearly two years of painstaking research, parts acquisition, disassembly, refurbishment and restoration, s/n 10621 looks for all the world as if it just rolled off the Maranello assembly line. Which it basically did. In spite of the complex reconstructive surgery needed to properly refit the entire coupe roofline and decklid, there’s no sign whatsoever that the car has ever been anything than what it is now; the bodywork and Chianti paint are flawless.

Chianti? Although Ferrari Classiche is very much about originality and authenticity, which would dictate Nicciola paint, the factory understood Schuppan’s desire to make this car the real McQueen, just as Steve had customized it in 1967. So the Classiche crew sprayed Lee Brown’s color, installed Borrani wire wheels and re-created that custom, curved exterior rearview mirror. And yes, then awarded it Classiche certification.

The interior too is perfect, with proper black leather that looks and feels period correct; it is supple but not too soft, and certainly not “mushy” like purse leather, a mistake often made by restorers. All of the car’s instrumentation has been cleaned and refurbished, while much of the cabin’s bright aluminum, chrome and stainless-steel trim are the original pieces, renewed to a not-overdone lustre.

McQueen's Machine 7

After a proper running-in and tuning process on the Fiorano test track, a facility not yet built when this car was first produced, the reborn 275 spent some time being shown off around the factory and at the Galleria Ferrari museum. I caught up with it at RM Auctions’ Los Angeles office; by the time you’re reading this, the car will have crossed the auction block in Monterey. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first let’s take a drive in Steve McQueen’s four-cam.

JUST STANDING IN FRONT of this Ferrari at Willow Springs Raceway, where it’s being photographed for the auction catalog, makes me tremble a little bit. It’s the car’s history and provenance to be sure, but I’m also enthralled by its sheer physical presence and beauty, as well as all too aware of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent restoring it and the many millions it’s expected to bring at auction.

“Drive it however you like,” the 275’s handler tells me. “But don’t hurt it!”

McQueen's Machine 8

No pressure there.

Every time I climb into a 275 GTB, I’m reminded of what a perfect fit this car is for my chunky, short-legged, long-armed frame. Everything is exactly where it should be. The instrument panel is dominated by the binnacle encompassing the large, legible speedometer and tachometer, as well as smaller oil temperature and pressure gauges. Four ancillary gauges—water temperature, amps, fuel level and a clock—are spread out to the right but are still in my line of sight. The gated, five-speed shifter, with the dogleg first gear to the left and towards me, sits an easy handfall from the steering wheel. The wheel is also worthy of mention; its aluminum spokes have been polished brightly but the now four-decade-old wood isn’t too shiny or over-lacquered.

I give the throttle one long pump, then turn the key. The starter motor whirs like a turbine and the dozen pistons begin effortlessly working their way up and down through a relatively short stroke. The engine then lights easily, and quickly settles to a purring, whirring idle. A few zings of the gas pedal reveal the Weber carburetors’ throats are clear. First gear engages with a satisfying mechanical clink, and with a little throttle and no clutch take-up drama, I’m away.

McQueen's Machine 9

My first few laps around Willow’s twisty “Horse Thief Mile” road course are slow, intended to warm the mechanicals and test the controls. The 275’s steering is linear, weighty and feelsome, and its transaxle shifts easily from gear to gear. People often fret over Ferrari brakes, but these four-wheel discs respond quickly and provide strong stopping power.

With the car warmed, and my nerves less frazzled, I toe a little deeper into the Webers and am rewarded with a strong, stumble- and smoke-free rush of power, even from relatively low revs. Naturally, the quad-cam V12 is at its best above 3,000 rpm, and really begins to sing at 4,000, but it’s happy and vice-free even when doddled a bit. Pushing hard, I can feel every single one of those 300 ponies. The snick-snick of the shifter gate and the engine’s bright response encourage heel-and-toeing, which is a pure joy in this car.

The ride is compliant but this Ferrari maintains a proper Gran Turismo’s sure-footed purpose and control. The steering loads up nicely in moderate corners, and the car’s response is one of balanced neutrality, with no bump steer to throw me off course.

In the end, though, it’s the view over those prowed fenders and the engine’s power and sound track that really intoxicate. Like a 3-liter 250 GT, the 3.3-liter 275 has that famed “ripping silk” sound, but here it’s underpinned by a deep bass track and overlaid by the hungry throb of those Webers. The throttle pedal and the shifter are the batons that let me conduct this fabulous Italian orchestra however I want. The rest of the car’s persona only complements the score. The GTB/4 is everything a great Italian GT should be: elegant, beautiful, sporty, fast, composed and comfortable at any speed.

Given this car’s charms, it’s no wonder that McQueen clocked around 10,000 miles in it. I too would drive it regularly if I owned it but, much to my disappointment, even the rattiest, rustiest, clapped-out 275 is well beyond my means. Which brings us back to RM’s Monterey auction.

Today’s vintage Ferrari prices are climbings faster than, well, anything else I can think of. Values regularly rise 50, 100, even 200 percent per year. Other steel-bodied 275 GTB/4s have recently sold in the $3 million range, but I don’t think that will be enough to buy s/n 10621.

Call it the McQueen effect, call it celebrity, call it provenance. Whatever it is, if the legendary actor, racer and pop-culture icon once owned a particular car, that car is likely to pull a strong premium over a “regular” example of the same model. At a Christie’s auction in 2006, McQueen’s Lusso brought two to three times the going rate. With nearly every McQueen car sold since, the multiplier has proven to be three, five and, in one case, nearly ten times the market value of a normal machine.

Does this mean s/n 10621 will be a $10 million sale? $20 million? I don’t know. And I really don’t care, either, because what matters is that this is one spectacular car, breathtaking in every way—and for that, I’m already envious of its future owner and the fun I hope he or she has driving this fantastic Ferrari.

Forza 137 cover

Also from Issue 137

  • Tailor Made F12 Berlinetta
  • 328 vs F355 comparison test
  • 375 MM-powered hydroplane
  • Vintage Ferrari prices continue to climb
  • F1: Ferrari scores its second 2014 podium
  • FORZA Tifosi Challenge: Road America
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