The crashing Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 were actually outdated Lola T70's 'made up' to look like a 917 and a 512, since it was out of the question to sacrifice one of these priceless cars. The fake Ferrari was remote-controlled.
The movie was made in 1970, and depicts a Porsche 917 winning the 24 hours of Le Mans. The 1970 edition of Le Mans was indeed won by a Porsche 917. This marked Porsche's first overall win at the 24 Hours.
In many ways, it was lucky this film was made in 1970, since the star sport cars Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512, arguably the two most legendary sports prototypes ever conceived, were actually very short lived. The Porsche appeared in 1969, the Ferrari in 1970, and both were withdrawn at the end of 1971 (as official factory-cars that is). The 1970 edition of Le Mans was the only one the Ferrari appeared in. The Porsche 917 won the 1970 and 1971 editions, Porsche's first two overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. They would go on to become the most successful marque with 16 overall wins. The most recent was 1998.
Steve McQueen was a car-racing fanatic and owned a Porsche 908. Driving this car during the 12 Hours of Sebring's 1970 edition with professional driver Peter Revson, he finished a close second behind Mario Andretti, who was determined "not to be beaten by a movie star". Andretti was driving a Ferrari 512. McQueen also wanted to be in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but was denied permission by the film's producers. His Porsche eventually did participate, driven by Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams, with three cameras to get "live" footage for the movie. Despite the spoiled aerodynamics and frequent stops to change film rolls, the car managed to finish ninth. According to a persistent rumor, McQueen may have driven it secretly after all.
Although the film was Steve McQueen's dream coming true, it left him with bitter feelings. There was the conflict with original director John Sturges, budget excesses, and even a strike by the entire crew.
Derek Bell had a lucky escape during shooting. The Ferrari 512 he was driving suddenly caught fire while he was getting into position for a take. He managed to get out of the car just before it was engulfed in flames and received only minor burns. The car was badly damaged but later rebuilt.
All Ferraris appearing in the movie were borrowed from Belgian Ferrari distributor Jacques Swaters, since the Ferrari factory had refused its participation because the movie ends with a victory for Porsche.
The Porsche 917 which McQueen drove in the film (chassis 022) would later be sold to a privateer for its last competitive year driven regularly by Reinhold Jöst and Willi Kauhsen, before later being sold to race driver and film participant Brian Redman. Redman then sold it to Richard Attwood, the 1970 winner and another film participant, who referred to it as "his pension". Attwood then resprayed it to his 1970 winning color of red with white stripes as well attending numerous shows with it. He later sprayed it to the blue and orange Gulf Oil colors for promotional purposes and auctioned the car off at RM Auctions during the Monterey Historics weekend for less than £1 million in 2000 to Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, a noted collector. Chandler then sold the car to Bruce McCaw, and it was maintained at Vintage Racing Motors in Redmond, WA. Later, it was moved on to the hands of its current owner, Jerry Seinfeld.
The Heuer Swiss watch McQueen insisted on wearing throughout this shoot, was reissued in 2009 in commemoration of its 40th anniversary. The latest (4th) update is a replica of the 1969 original Monaco model, complete with automatic self-winding movement and red chronograph hands. RRP: £3,500.