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Being McQueen for a day

The late actor's Ferrari goes to auction this week. Auto critic Dan Neil slips into a machine from another age and drives like a Bullitt.

August 15, 2007|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

MONTEREY, CALIF. — For sale: 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso, 56,000-plus original miles, once owned by Steve McQueen, perfect condition, brown.


"It's not my favorite color," admits Mike Regalia, the Thousand Oaks auto restorer whose car is the star of this week's Christie's auction in Monterey. "But Steve loved brown." The Lusso -- a gift from McQueen's first wife, Neile Adams -- was special-ordered from Otto Zipper Motors on Wilshire Boulevard with the "Marrone" paint job, which is what the Ferrari factory called the deep chestnut hue. "Actually," Regalia says with a smile, "it's a very elegant color."

Or colors. When Regalia, 52, pushes the Ferrari out of a storage facility into the Monterey sunlight, the metallic paint ignites with a pale opalescent fire, shimmering in shades of honey and oxblood. Imagine a Ferrari-shaped pool filled with ancient brandy. The Lusso, designed by the famed Italian coachworks Pininfarina, is regarded as one of the loveliest of Ferrari's touring cars, but no Lusso ever left the factory with half the hand-rubbed luster this car has. "I've got 2,000 man-hours in the paint alone," says Regalia.

Will the Lusso shine as brightly when it's pushed under the lights at the Monterey Jet Center on Thursday? That's the million-dollar question, or maybe $2 million. After all, there's a lot of money out there. The euro is huge against the dollar, and the thickets are filled with hedge-fund millionaires looking to diversify their investments while Wall Street wobbles. As the world's car-collecting elite gather on the peninsula before Sunday's Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the Lusso is being eyed as a bellwether of the vintage car market, which in some quarters is experiencing a kind of crazed exuberance not seen since the boom-bust days of the early 1990s.

The McQueen Lusso is "the first important car for sale this week," says Ken Gross, automotive historian and authority on the vintage car market. "People will be watching to see what it sells for. If it does well, other cars will do better. If it falls really flat, there'll be a buzz about that. That car will set the tone for the whole weekend."

The Lusso sale will also index to the state of Steve McQueen's legend. The actor, who died in 1980 at age 50 from surgical complications after a diagnosis of mesothelioma, has emerged as a bona fide icon of automotive culture. Not only was McQueen a talented driver, rider and racer -- he won his class at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970 -- he was, as an actor and producer, responsible for some of the most beloved cult films of autodom, including the weirdly wonderful "Le Mans," in 1971, a movie that does for racing fans what "The Devil Wears Prada" does for shoe fetishists.

"Everything Steve McQueen is hot, hot, hot," says Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum. In November the museum hosted an auction of McQueen-related cars, motorcycles and personal effects. An ordinary pair of Persol sunglasses -- alleged to be the pair McQueen wore in "The Thomas Crown Affair" -- sold for $70,200.

"It was otherworldly," says Messer. "You thought you were in a dream as far as prices were concerned."

The McQueen Lusso finds itself "at a convergence of two tidal waves," says Keith Martin, publisher of Sports Car Market magazine. "On one side is the fascination with Steve McQueen, and the other is the market for fine 12-cylinder Ferraris."

And somewhere in the mix is Mike Regalia, trying not to think about what the car might bring. "I'm not a wealthy man," says Regalia, who bought the car for "under $100,000" and has devoted about 4,000 hours to turning it into the showpiece it is. "This car is the culmination of a lifetime of buying and fixing up and selling cars."

Any other Lusso like Regalia's is worth about $500,000 on the open market. Regalia recently turned down an offer from the Petersen for $750,000. "The real unquantifiable is Steve McQueen," he says. "He was a cool guy, it's a cool car and it's got a cool story," he says. On Thursday, "The market can decide what that's worth."


With some small degree of apprehension, Regalia agrees to let me drive the McQueen Lusso. It is, first of all, as close to perfection as automobiles get. Every shut line -- where hood and doors and trunk and fenders come together -- is dead even down to the millimeter. The chrome sparks with sunshine. Unlike modern production cars, whose machine-applied paint has an orange-rind texture, the Lusso's paint is as smooth as Murano glass, flowing from the brilliant chrome fascia to the distinctive tapered tail, the "Kammback." This is fit and finish the Scaglietti factory -- where the body was built -- could only dream about.

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