My (very brief) movie career
Answering the call were Jo Siffert, Vic Elford, Richard Attwood, David Piper, Hughes de Fierlant, Derek Bell, Jonathan Williams and me, all of us exhausted from the preceding four days of the real contest. Richard had won with Hans Herrmann, driving a Porsche Salzburg 917. Hughes was the best of the rest of us, finishing fifth, and not far behind in ninth place were Jonathan Williams and Herbert Linge driving McQueen’s Porsche 908/02. This was an exceptional achievement for a camera car with its aerodynamics compromised by protruding photo equipment and with pit-stops requiring the exchange of film cartridges as well as drivers. This genuine on-track action provided many of the film’s best moments. Although Siffert and I failed to finish the real race, the film’s story centred on our Gulf Porsche 917 – car number 20.
Since Porsche had constructed 25 917s, there were plenty left over for other purposes. Those used in the film’s production were new and authentic, numbered to match the cars that actually raced. Jacques Swaters, the Belgian Ferrari dealer and racing privateer, orchestrated the necessary allocation of Ferrari 512Ss. It seems that when Il Commendatore learned that a Porsche triumphed over a Ferrari in the movie, he declined to offer factory cars and have his Le Mans entries humbled twice in the same year. It made little difference since Swaters’ Ferraris were very similar to the works entries and the actual competitors’ numbers were easily replicated.
The remuneration McQueen offered to each driver was good by our non-demanding standards, but clever Jo Siffert found a way to turn this modest opportunity into a spectacular financial killing. Seppi owned a Porsche dealership in Switzerland and had developed a knack for wheeling and dealing in used racing cars, of which McQueen’s production needed many. When the props department produced a list of specific models, Seppi’s eyes grew wide. Shoulders raised in astonishment, he simply had to confess that each and every one of the desired cars was waiting in his Swiss garage, ready to take to the track. Of course, Jo had nothing like the sort of collection he professed to own, but he knew he could procure the entire fleet and then rent the cars to McQueen’s production at Hollywood prices. When the filming was complete, Jo also realised that his enterprise had an Act II. He persuasively promised that each car he sold bore McQueen’s famous fingerprints, and more than one 917 became the actual Delaney/McQueen car. Then, as now, the resale values of racing cars were burnished by the lustre of stardom.
A little later, in a moment of good fortune, the genuine McQueen 917 became mine. Yes, really! Following my neck-breaking accident in Canada, however, I sold it to an unimpressed Richard Attwood, who had won the real thing in a 917 and had little need for the additional McQueen stardust.