Car Mysteries

The assassin within

Photo credit: Alamy, bamfstyle.com

He should have been at the Bel-Air mansion at 10050 Cielo Drive in the hills above Los Angeles on the evening of 9thAugust 1969. He had planned to go with a friend who in the end convinced him to spend the evening alone. And so it was that Steve McQueen escaped the horrible deaths by the hands of members of the sect known as the Family” of the wife of director Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, and four other guests of the villa. The brutality of the crime – Sharon was eight months pregnant but they showed no mercy for her – and the unknown motives behind the crime devised by the leader of the cult, Charles Manson, shocked the entire world. But Steve McQueen had even more reasons: he had escaped the massacre by luck but feared that the brutality of the sect towards the stars from Hollywood might shortly be turned on him. From that moment on, in addition to being protected by a bodyguard, Steve McQueen who loved his moments of absolute freedom in his cars and on his motorcycles, as well as spending time with his friends and colleagues, was no longer the same. He had no idea that 11 years later he would be killed by an assassin he had been carrying inside his own body since he was punished while in the army.

Steve McQueen’s story was far more than a simple passion for racing, he was a real driver capable of going fast and of winning. Here he is pictured next to the Ferrari 512 S during the shooting of the film “Le Mans”

Steve was a racing driver before he became an actor. A committed driver at that, who debuted with the Porsche Speedsters from a Californian dealership and made so much of a name for himself that he was invited to participate in endurance races that qualified for the World Sportscar Championship, such as the 12 hours of Sebring, where he came second overall along with Peter Revson with the Porsche 908, just 22” from the Ferrari 512 winner driven by Mario Andretti, Ignazio Giunti and Nino Vaccarella. His passion led him to take serious risks, especially on motorcycles. A clear example of this was that at Sebring he drove with a broken leg caused by a motorcycle crash just days before the 12 hours race was due to start. In the famous film The Great Escape, he was the one who played the scenes driving the fake BMWs of the German army (in realty they used a lighter and more agile Triumph) and the Production Company was forced to oblige him not to do the jump scene that he desperately wanted to shoot.

Steve McQueen was also passionate about motorcycles, so much so that in the film “The Great Escape” he personally wanted to do all the scenes except the one in which he jumped the fence because the production company didn’t want him to do it

Yet this captivating and highly-talented man carried his own killer. How come? After a wild childhood, and time spent in a correctional school in Los Angeles, he enlisted with the Marines. He was still 17 and stayed with them until he was 20. He was not, however, a calm soldier and one day he was punished, along with some comrades, for yet some other mischief. His punishment was to spend a few days in the brig and remove asbestos insulation from pipes. In those years, they were unaware of the damage caused to the human body by breathing in particles of malignant and indestructible minerals. When he was diagnosed with a pleural mesothelioma in 1979, there was very little hope of saving him. He was well known and loved even more, and for a year he fought the disease, even attempting an operation. All in vain. When his death was announced on 7th November 1980, they came up with a number of stories to protect the reputation of the US Navy: pointing the finger at the asbestos particles contained in race-drivers’ protective suits and helmets. But asbestos has never been used in racing suits because it makes them heavy and stiff. A few experiments were carried out in France but little else. Instead, if you look at the causes of death of other sailors who worked with him on that ship, there is only one answer: pleural mesothelioma.

This picture of Steve McQueen wearing the US Navy uniform from the film “The Sand Pebbles” recalls the fatal episode that led to his death