Steve McQueen’s, “The Hunter”, Trans Am Found
Written by Jim Suva
It is not very often you find a car that is in the original screen used condition, taken directly from the set of a movie.
In October 1979, Steve McQueen was in Chicago and the greater Kankakee, Illinois area filming what turned out to be his last movie, “The Hunter”. The movie was based on the life of bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson. In real life, Papa Thorson had captured over 5,000 criminals and bail jumpers.
In the part of the movie filmed in Manteno, Illinois, Steve McQueen’s character drives a rented 1979 Black Pontiac Trans Am with tan interior. In the pursuit of the Branch brothers, the brothers take Thorson’s TA and a chase through the corn fields begins. Thorson uses their combine and chases them down to a climactic explosion, where the Trans Am is blown up.
This is where our story begins. The stunt crew, the cast and the film crew were staying at the Holiday Inn in Bradley, Illinois. 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.”
I asked Harold what Steve was like in person. Harold said, “He was just an ordinary guy just like we are. He puts his pants on one leg at time, like all of us.”
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 and Harold. 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.”
I asked Harold what his wife and family thought about him bringing home a TA that had been blown up. He said, “It was no big deal, since he was always bringing home stuff.” Harold’s plans originally were to buy a donor car and restore the #1 TA. He has friends in the area that do auto restorations. Unfortunately, in the last 39 years, he never had the time.
Brothers Stan and Randy Harvell grew up in Manteno, IL and through their friends, knew of Harold owning the Hunter Trans Am. In fact, Stan and Randy rode the school bus with Harold’s sister when they were younger.
Stan moved to Arizona in November, 1979 and became interested in collector cars soon after that. He always remembered this particular Trans Am. About a year ago, Stan called his brother Randy, who still lives in town, and asked him to get Harold’s cell phone number from a friend.
Stan called Harold, who was at his winter home in Florida. 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.
Stan then went to see the car and talked with Harold in person. According to Harold, since the car was to be scrapped, the stunt crew and film crew took items off of the Trans Am as momentos, such as the hood, the rear spoiler, the side mirrors, badging etc. Stan took numerous pictures and videos of the Hunter Trans Am, which he shared with his good friend Calvin Riggs. Stan and Calvin had discussed this car for some time and Stan knew that Calvin would be the right partner for this car, because Calvin loves Pontiacs and Trans Ams. He is also the owner of Carlyle Motors in Houston, Texas which sells beautifully restored and original muscle cars. Here is a link to their website: www.carlylemotors.com Carlyle Motors is now the owner of the Hunter Trans Am and Calvin and Stan are partners in regards to this car and its future.
I had the opportunity to meet Calvin in Manteno on Friday October 12, 2018, the day they took delivery from Harold. There is no doubt in my mind that this is “The Hunter” Trans Am. Talking with Harold, looking over the 1979 Trans Am, seeing the damage and how the car is rigged up for the explosion, and the fact the car has only 1300 miles on the odometer just reaffirms that this is the car from the movie.
Additionally, Calvin has an Affidavit of Facts signed by Harold McQueen as to the authenticity of the car as well as a letter from Jim Mattison of the Pontiac Historic Services. Mattison states their records indicate this TA was part of the Pontiac Motor Division Show Car Fleet. The Pontiac Division and the paperwork which Calvin supplied, confirms this 1979 Trans Am was one of several released by Pontiac to Paramount Pictures for use by Steve McQueen in the movie “The Hunter” and the only one that still remains.
*THIS CAR IS CURRENTLY NOT FOR SALE*
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