On the evening of 12 February, 1957, a fire broke out. It crackled through Jaguar’s Coventry-based Browns Lane factory, destroying nine Jaguar XKSS road-going racing cars being built for North American customers. Already a limited edition, this left only 16 of these singular cars left in the world — with one, famously, belonging to Steve McQueen.
It’s easy to see why the film star was drawn to the XKSS. The car — like the actor — was stylish, striking and had motor racing aspirations. When Jaguar withdrew from motorsport at the end of the 1956 season, the British carmaker attempted to recoup some lost money by repurposing half-built D-Type racing chassis into road cars. 25 XKSS models were planned, but the fire meant that only 16 made it to the tarmac.
And what cars they were. Jaguar retrofitted a full-width windscreen, fixed-pane side curtains and a vestigial exhaust to make the models road-worthy. The lighting was converted, two seats added and sleek bumpers attached. The original racing dorsal fin was even replaced with a more practical luggage rack. These sleek looks attracted celebrities; with Los Angeles gameshow host Bill Leyden putting in an order for his own XKSS.
But Leyden, host of NBC’s It Could Be You, wouldn’t hold onto the car for long. After Steve McQueen, who was currently starring in CBS’s Western Wanted: Dead or Alive, made a guest appearance on the gameshow, he spotted the road-legal racer parked up on the Sunset Boulevard studio lot — and bought it off Leyden in 1958.
McQueen paid $5,000 for the car — the equivalent of $46,000 (or £33,000) today. His then-wife, Neile Adams, signed the check.
And it was worth every cent. Under the bonnet, a 3.4-litre, double-overhead-cam, inline six-cylinder engine burbled away — and McQueen would frequently tinker with it between takes of his hit TV show. Inside, the car featured original Smiths gauges, a wooden steering wheel and brass knobs along the dashboard. The exterior was painted in the original launch colour of ‘Sherwood Green’. But McQueen, always one to stand out from the crowd, wanted his limited edition XKSS to be even more unique.
The first tweak was a big one; stripping off that ‘Sherwood Green’ and repainting the car a deeper, darker hue. Similar in shade to the ‘Highland Green’ Ford Mustang McQueen would drive a decade later in Bullitt, the actor opted for a classic ‘British Racing Green’ for his newly acquired XKSS — a decision that afforded the car its affectionate nickname; ‘Green Rat’.
He also customised the cabin. Renowned Southern California hot-rodder Tony Nancy reupholstered McQueen’s ‘Green Rat’ in full black leather. Famed fabricator and motorcycle mechanic Kenny Howard (AKA ‘Von Dutch’) even created a custom locking glovebox for McQueen — presumably somewhere for the actor to stow his precious Persol sunglasses…
And McQueen couldn’t get enough of his new wheels. The movie star would commonly take the ‘Green Rat’ out into the Santa Monica Mountains in the dead of night, roaring up and down Mulholland Drive on high-speed runs with his friends.
The sheriff of the LAPD reportedly challenged his officers to catch McQueen breaking the speed limit and to issue him a ticket. If they managed this seemingly impossible fear, the sheriff promised them ‘an expensive steak dinner’ as a reward. McQueen, however, was never caught — and the dinner never claimed.
But the police came close — once. In 1959, McQueen was pulled over for speeding in Los Angeles. His wife, Neile Adams, was also in the car — six months pregnant with McQueen’s son, Chad. The actor lied to the lawmen, told them Adams was in labour — and ended up getting a police escort to the hospital. After the police left, McQueen told nurses it had been ‘a false labour’, and left. Adams, McQueen later recalled, had been ‘pissed’.
But he kept the car his entire life. McQueen died in 1980, and his prized ‘Green Rat’ was sold in 1986. Richard Freshman, a one-time Hollywood Hills neighbour of McQueen’s, bought the car for $148,000 — the equivalent of $358,000 today (or £257,000).
He tasked British-based Lynx Motors, restorers and recreators of classic Jaguars, with fixing the car up — stipulating that McQueen’s alterations (including the locking glovebox and upholstery) remain firmly and fashionably in tact.
Today, the ‘Green Rat’ is in the carefully curated care of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles — where its old, movie star owner is fondly remembered. Ex-Museum Director Dick Messer, a lifelong Angeleno and motoring enthusiast, said of the car: “I remember him driving this car a lot. People who lived up in the Hollywood Hills would hear the Jag coming and say ‘Yep, there goes McQueen.’
Want more of McQueen’s motors? Here’s the inside story of Steve McQueen’s Métisse Mk3 Motorcycle…
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