In 1979, Steve McQueen began filming what became his final motion picture, The Hunter, which tells the fictionalized story of real-life bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson. While the film’s chase sequences are nowhere near as memorable as those in Bullitt, two 1979 Trans Ams were used (wrecked, technically) in filming, with a total of six Pontiacs provided from the brand’s show fleet. One of these Trans Ams — possibly the last surviving example from the film — was recently liberated from an Illinois barn, and new owner Calvin Riggs, owner of Carlyle Motors in Katy, Texas, is seeking additional information on the car from former cast and crew members.
Unlike Frank Bullitt’s Mustang, the Trans Am is ancillary to the plot in The Hunter. The Pontiac doesn’t appear until McQueen — as Thorson — flies to a small airport to apprehend the fugitive Branch brothers in rural Nebraska. At their family farmhouse, Thorson loses the car to the pair, nearly gets run over, and then blown up before giving chase through a cornfield behind the wheel of a Massey Ferguson 760 combine.
The Branch brothers’ weapon of choice (bundles of dynamite, of which they have a seemingly limitless supply) proves to be their undoing. Attempting to outflank Thorson, the brothers toss a bomb where they expect him to be. Instead, Thorson gets the drop on the brothers, forcing them to reverse over the bomb as it explodes, destroying the Trans Am and injuring the brothers. In the next scene, the pieces of the rental car are returned to the airport (along with the now-collared fugitives) on the back of a flatbed trailer, to the horror of the rental company employee.
During filming, the first Trans Am explosion wasn’t dramatic enough for the producer, who ordered another Trans Am to be procured from a local dealer. Like the first car blown up (originally Nocturne Blue, but repainted black for the movie), the second car was repainted black and further altered structurally to produce the engine-and-subframe-ripped-from-the-rolled-over-body effect seen in the final cut. But here, we get ahead of ourselves.
The Hunter was shot in several locations, including the outskirts of Kankakee, Illinois. Filming attracted a crowd of locals, including farmer Harold McQueen, no relation to Steve. Over time, Harold became a regular, and when a truck and trailer was needed to haul the remains of the first blown-up Trans Am (which we’ll henceforth refer to as TA1) to the shop to swap its roll cage into the second Trans Am (TA2), ahead of its date with pyrotechnics, Harold raised his hand to volunteer.
Later, Harold’s brown and tan GMC dually and Heavy Hauler trailer appeared onscreen, bringing the remains of TA1 back to the airport rental agency (and yes, we believe that’s Harold driving as well). When this scene was concluded, Harold was asked to haul away both wrecked Trans Ams, and as payment for his services throughout the Kankakee filming, Harold was given the title to TA1 by Paramount Pictures. His final task was hauling the remains of TA2 to Peter Levin Pontiac in Chicago Heights, but when the dealership refused the car’s remains, it was taken to an Indiana junkyard to be scrapped.
The problem with giving TA1 to Harold was that Pontiac hadn’t signed off on it, and pressured Harold to return the car, fearing it would be rebuilt and returned to the road. That was indeed Harold’s plan, but with the black-repaint-over-Nocturne-Blue Pontiac Trans Am tucked away safely in his barn, life happened. Another 39 years passed, with Harold still making future plans to restore the car.
In 2017, Stan Harvell began asking his brother Randy about the car. Both had grown up in nearby Manteno, Illinois, and knew about it from riding the school bus with Harold’s younger sister. Stan asked Randy, who still lived in Illinois, to get a number for Harold, who was then splitting his year between Florida in winter and Illinois in spring and summer. Stan reached Harold in Florida, and he held firm on the belief that he’d get around to restoring the car. The pair agreed to resume the dialogue in the spring, when Harold returned to his Illinois farm, and in this later conversation, Harold agreed to part with the car. Stan flew out from his home in Arizona and inspected the Pontiac, noting Harold’s studio documentation and the car’s low mileage (1,300 or so), along with the movie modifications that confirmed it as the Hunter Trans Am.
Stan contacted Riggs, who had a passion for Trans Ams, and the pair became partners in the car (though officially, it appears to be owned by Carlyle Motors). Documentation from PHS Automotive Services identifies it as one of the six show fleet Trans Ams loaned to Paramount by Pontiac, while other evidence supports its role as TA1. The remains of the roll cage mount can be seen on the driver’s floor, and the dash is altered to fit the cage. Blue paint can be seen on the cowl, and on the bumper crossmember in the rear of the car. Sleeves welded to the frame (part of the explosion sequence) are still in place, along with the hooks used to tow the car and trigger the detonation. Up front, gaffer’s tape is still affixed to the front bodywork, in the same location seen in vintage photos.
PHS Automotive Services claims this is the sole-surviving Hunter Trans Am, a strong possibility since the second one was delivered to a scrap yard in pieces. There’s little doubt the car is genuine, but Riggs still wants to know more about the Firebird from locals on set during filming, cast, and crew.