By the time Steve McQueen had accepted the leading role in "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968), he had not only used his acting skills and screen presence to become one of the world's most popular movie stars, he'd also become known as something of a demon on road and track - having finished 3rd in the 1961 British Touring Car Championship driving a BMC Mini, whilst later displaying his motorcycling prowess during the filming of "The Great Escape" (1963).
McQueen takes co-star Faye Dunaway for a spin
Originally, the script had called for a Jeep to be driven across the sand dunes surrounding Thomas Crown's beachfront home, but McQueen's knowledge and experience of motoring style and performance gave him the authority to influence the final choice of vehicle... and to perform the stunt manoeuvres whilst driving it.
Camera rigged to capture the joy of driver and passenger
In a period documentary that covered the making of the film, McQueen makes reference to the machine that was chosen to replace the Jeep:
"Crown lives at the beach, and he has a sand dune buggy. I helped 'em design it, so I'm kinda proud of that. It's set on a Volkswagen chassis, with big ol' wide weenies, big wide tires on mag wheels, Corvair engine stuffed in the back...It's very light, you know. It's pulling about 230 horses, and the vehicle weighs about 1,000 pounds."
The basis for McQueen's design was, of course, the Meyers Manx.
The Meyers Manx "Crown" Buggy (Photo: Bonhams)
McQueen had supposedly first seen an image of a Meyers Manx flying through the air on the cover of Hot Rod magazine in 1966, and he was sure (with a few modifications) it would be the perfect Crown buggy. The customisation was undertaken by an East Coast company called Con-Ferr, owned by Pete Condo who was an early pioneer of off-road racing equipment and technology. He dressed the bodywork in blood-orange livery and treated it to a distinctive speedboat-inspired windshield, sunk the headlights beneath plastic covers, and attached a chrome luggage rack to the rear.
Big Ol' Wide Weenies (Photo: Bonhams)
Like most Manxes, the Crown buggy employed a Volkswagen floorpan, swing arm rear suspension, and four-speed VW transaxle. The "big ol' wide weenies" McQueen mentions are Firestone racing tires (Indy 500 superspeedway rubber, purportedly purchased from race team owner Andy Granatelli) on specially cast American Racing wheels.
The powerplant (Photo: Bonhams)
What really set Crown's Manx apart was its powerplant. Most Manxes employed an air-cooled VW flat four. Depending upon the state of tune, power outputs ranged from 40 to perhaps 125 horsepower. Not good enough for McQueen. So this one was built using a Chevrolet Corvair's horizontally opposed, air-cooled six-cylinder engine, but despite the "200 horses" the famous actor claimed, power was probably around 140bhp - still enough with the buggy’s light weight for storming performance, as amply demonstrated by McQueen in his antics on the beach.
A comfortable ride (Photo Bonhams)
As with many of his personal cars, McQueen commissioned Tony Nancy to stitch the custom seats and interior trim. The seat frames came from a Datsun Fairlady Z sports car, and it's likely that this Manx had one of the nicest interiors ever installed in a dune buggy. Another interesting feature of the interior is the dual-handbrake set up... installed to allow McQueen to pirouette around the beach by locking each of the rear wheels independently.
The "Crown Buggy" on the block in 2020 (Photo: Bonhams)
Legend has it that McQueen kept the Manx after the film had been completed, but ownership records show that was not the case. The vehicle passed through several hands before being confined to storage for over two decades. It was finally brought back to life with a no-expense-spared concours restoration, which proved to be worth the cost. The "Crown Buggy" was sold at the Bonhams Amelia Island Auction on 5th March 2020 for $456,000.00.