Editor’s note: Late in 2017, the stunt car used in the movie Bullitt was discovered in Mexico. Earlier this year, the ownership of the Bullitt hero car was revealed. Now, the presence of another McQueen movie vehicle — from his final film — has come back into the limelight.
Steve McQueen’s final movie was The Hunter, a 1980 release in which he portrayed real-life bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson. Eli Wallach and LeVar Burton and Kathryn Harrold also had significant roles in the film.
In one of the movie’s scenes, McQueen flies into Nebraska, rents a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and heads out in pursuit of Branch brothers, Luke and Matthew. As McQueen searches for them on a farm, they steal the Trans Am, try to run him down and then plow their way through a field of corn.
McQueen sets out after them in a combine — a large farm implement with front-mounted rotating knife-like cutter bars. The fast and nimble Pontiac and the slow-moving but monstrous Massey Ferguson make for one of the more unlikely car chases in movie history. The chase ends when the brothers, fleeing the combine, run over their own stick of dynamite, sustaining injuries and all but destroying the Trans Am.
“This is where our story begins,” says the classic car dealership in Houston that is advertising the movie-used Trans Am on ClassicCars.com.
The car/combine chase was shot on a farm in Manteno, Illinois, south of Chicago.
“The stunt crew, the cast and the film crew were staying at the Holiday Inn in Bradley, Illinois,” the advertisement continues. “The citizens of the greater Kankakee area, including a local farmer, Harold McQueen were following around the cast and crew to the different filming locations. Harold became friendly with the stunt and film cast and crew and he was invited to join them, for several meals as he really got to know them. Someone on the production crew asked if anyone had a truck and trailer, that could haul the Trans Am down to Kankakee. Harold stepped up and said he could do it.
“Harold and his family had always loved Steve McQueen and his movies. In fact, they loved them so much that they jokingly started calling him Uncle Steve, even though they were not directly related. When Harold finally had the opportunity to meet Steve McQueen, Steve made the comment that all the McQueen’s are related because they all originally came from Scotland. Harold said, “I guess down the line we are all related.”
“According to Harold, the production company had six Pontiacs for this movie. These vehicles were on loan to the production company from the Pontiac Division of General Motors. The vehicle identification number plates, on the dash boards were removed from these cars so that the cars would have to be returned to General Motors.
“Harold stated that the production company blew up two Trans Ams. The #1 Trans Am did not explode as well as they wanted so, according to Harold, the production company went out and purchased a 7th car (referred here as #2 Trans Am) to be used to reshoot the explosion.
“Both Trans Am cars that were blown up were painted black and the frame rails were modified by the production company with slides, hooks and chains at the firewall. Then, a cable was attached from the frame rails to a tree. This was done so that when the Trans Am was going in reverse, the front end of the car would separate and would set off the explosives on the car.
“After the first TA (#1) was blown up, Harold was asked if he would haul the TA down to Aroma Park, Illinois so that the crew could remove the roll cage from the 1st car and install it on the 2nd car. At that time, the stunt crew showed him around their shop. They let him watch a few of their stunts including the explosion of a house they built on the Kankakee River for the movie. Harold was present as they filmed both car explosions.
“The end result of the second shot of the exploding TA (#2) was spectacular. In fact, after the #2 TA exploded, the stuntman’s girlfriend thought that her boyfriend was dead, because the car ended up upside down on the side of the road. Of course, the stuntman was fine.
“The next scene shot was Harold’s truck towing his trailer with the #1 blown up Trans Am back to the Kankakee airport, with Steve and the two Branch brothers. Once the scene was shot the crew asked Harold to take both blown up TA’s away.
“One of the production crew asked Harold what he was going to charge for hauling around the cars. He said, ‘You guys figure out what is it worth to you.’ They decided to give him the #1 blown up Trans Am, as payment for the use of his truck and trailer. Harold received a letter from Paramount Pictures Corporation stating this, which is signed by William O. Sullivan, Production Manager. Harold also agreed to deliver the #2 blown up TA to Peter Levin Pontiac in Chicago Heights, Illinois.
“When Harold brought the #2 blown up TA to Peter Levin Pontiac, they told him it was not the right TA and he should take it to a junkyard in Indiana to dispose of it, which he did. Pontiac wanted the #1 TA back because it was never supposed to be put back on the road. Harold told them he had a letter from Paramount giving him the car. Harold said, ‘Pontiac eventually gave up wanting the car back, figuring the TA was blown up so bad, it would never be put on the road again’.”
According to the advertisement, Harold planned to buy a donor car and use it to restore the move Trans Am. But Harold never found time for the project.
Which brings us to the Harvell brothers, Stan and Randy, who grew up in Manteno and rode the school bus with Harold’s sister when they were youngsters. Stan Harvell moved to Arizona in late 1979, became interested in car collecting and called his brother back in Illinois, asking him if he could get Harold’s telephone number.
“Stan called Harold, who was at his winter home in Florida,” the story resumes. “Stan asked about the Trans Am and Harold told him he was considering restoring the car, but told Stan to call him again in the spring when he returned to his farm in Manteno. Stan contacted Harold again in the Spring and Harold told him that he would consider selling the car.
“According to Harold, since the car was to be scrapped, the stunt crew and film crew took items off of the Trans Am as mementos, such as the hood, the rear spoiler, the side mirrors, badging etc.”
Nonetheless, Stan took photos and videos and shared them with Calvin Riggs, a friend and owner of Carlyle Motors, a Houston-based specialist in original and restored muscle cars. Stan and Calvin have become partners in The Hunter Trans Am, which shows 1,300 miles on its odometer and which they are advertising but which they add presently is not for sale.
Who was Ralph “Papa” Thorson?
In The Hunter, Steve McQueen portrays bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson, whose biography by Christopher Keane was the source for movie.
While McQueen might have been returning to a familiar role, one of his early jobs was staring in the television Western series Wanted: Dead or Alive, he bore no resemblance to Thorson, who reportedly weighed more than 300 pounds and, in addition to working as a bounty hunter, was a preacher, bridge champion, astrologer, nutritionist, classical music enthusiast and held a degree in criminology from the University of California where he enrolled to study medicine.
He also was a U.S. Navy flier during World War II.
As a bounty hunter, he reportedly apprehended more than 5,000 people, including Manson Family member Squeaky Fromme.
Thorson, who played a bit role as a bartender in The Hunter, was killed in 1991 by a car bomb.