Book Review: McQueen’s Machines

Review by Andy Saunders
[This McQueen’s MachinesBook Review was originally published in the August 2008 issue of Rider magazine]

Twenty-eight years after the movie actor’s and part-time racer’s death from cancer, Steve McQueen’s motoring legacy lives on. Perhaps this quote from son Chad describes it best: “When we got home from the motorcycle races every weekend, it wasn’t dinnertime; it was time to hose down the bikes, clean the air filters, and tighten all the nuts and bolts. We always put things away clean, tight, and ready to ride the next weekend. Then we ate dinner.”

Or how about the only line McQueen spoke in the classic movie On Any Sunday: “Every time I start thinking the world is all bad, then I start seeing people out there having a good time on motorcycles; it makes me take another look.”
There have been many books about the gearhead icon over the years, some readable, some trash, most disagreeing on the character of this most macho of actors. This book by Matt Stone is the first I’ve seen to approach the actor from the angle he’d really appreciate–looking up from the asphalt. Stone tracks down many of the cars and some of the motorcycles owned by the actor, and tells McQueen’s story through their histories.

McQueen was famous for his love of fine machinery on two and four wheels. He owned an awful lot of cars, motorcycles, airplanes, even tanks over the years, thanks to the payouts from movies like The Great Escape and Bullitt. The majority of the McQueen collection was sold at auction in 1984, and the lots included no less than 95 motorcycles, plus a number of parts bikes. Some–unfortunately, all too few–are mentioned here.

Just a fraction of the book is devoted exclusively to motorcycles–merely 1/10th, in fact–but the love of two-wheelers resonates through it. And the rest? Mostly devoted to author Stone talking about the significant vehicles in McQueen’s life, and driving some of them. Tough job, but somebody thought of doing it.

What this means, since Stone is a car guy, is that the motorcycle section was written by co-author Marc Cook, and lacks the road tests in the rest of the book. No big deal. Although many of McQueen’s cars now rest in museums or enthusiast car collections, the fate of most of his motorcycles is less certain. Just a few were famous enough to save; the rest were scattered around the world. So there are gaps in the motorcycle chapter–frustrating gaps. McQueen’s favorite motorcycle, according to this text, was a home-built Rickman Metisse, yet we only get a couple of lines and no photo of the bike. There isn’t much coverage of his dirt-bike racing antics. His collection also included many older bikes–Ace, Henderson and Crocker motorcycles from the teens and ‘20s, many meticulously restored by Stephen Wright–but there are few mentions here of any of these historic machines, and no mention at all of Mr. Wright.

OK, enough moaning. The book is lavishly illustrated with old and new photos, iconic pictures of McQueen back in the day, movie stills, action pictures and modern studio shots of his cars and bikes (there’s even a small section on the watches he made famous). The layout and most of the photos are professional, and this volume would look good on anyone’s coffee table, bookshelf or workbench. For anyone interested in what drove Steve McQueen, this book is a must-have.

For more information: McQueen’s Machines is available in bookstores or direct from Motorbooks International ( for $26.95


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