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Original Steve McQueen Bullitt Mustang Uncovered After 50 years

Original Steve McQueen Bullitt Mustang Uncovered After 50 years

Author: Ron Moorhead

The major motion picture "Bullitt," starring Steve McQueen, is perhaps most famous for its pinnacle of movie car-chase scenes. Steve McQueen drove the Mustang GT fastback as he chased or was chased by the villain's black Dodge Charger through the streets of San Francisco. The 10-minute, action-filled segment helped the film win an Academy Award, as well as cement its place in automotive history.

To celebrate the film's 50th anniversary, Ford introduced a modern version of the Bullitt Mustang for 2019. Available in classic Dark Highland Green or Shadow Black, the 2019 Bullitt Mustang personifies the same Steve McQueen cool as the original. As was the case with the original, the car will carry an understated persona, with no outlandish graphics or badges. However, the white cue-ball shift knob is used. The 2019 Bullitt Mustang brings performance to the street with a 5.0-liter V8 engine that delivers 475 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque.

Two identical 1968 Mustang GT fastbacks with modified 390 cu-in. V8 engines were used during the filming. Both vehicles had specially modified camera mounts. One was equipped with a roll bar and fortifications to help it survive the brutal jumps and fender-banging segments. The other was driven by McQueen throughout the film.

When filming wrapped, both Mustangs seemed to disappear. Rumors flew for years -- that they were hidden away, or that both were sent to a salvage-yard crusher and destroyed. However, the action car was discovered recently in a junkyard in Mexico. As for the most sought-after Bullitt Mustang, the one McQueen personally drove, only one man knew where it was, and he was holding the location very close to the vest. That is until now.

It turns out that Sean Kiernan's father Robert bought the car in 1974 through a classified ad in a popular car magazine. Adding a twist to the story, the man from whom Kiernan purchased the car was a police detective (McQueen's character in the film was a San Francisco police detective).

You would think with the importance of such a vehicle, Kiernan would have stored it away. On the contrary, it became the daily driver for Mrs. Kiernan. Obviously the Kiernans believed a car is meant to be driven, even a special car.

As the miles ticked along, so did life's roadblocks and issues. In the early 1980s, the Mustang was put into storage with a clutch needing repair. It appears the younger Kiernan knew the car only as that old car under blankets in the garage.

Perhaps the most famous movie car of all time did not go unnoticed by its famous actor-driver, Steve McQueen. According to Robert's son Sean, McQueen contacted Robert in an effort to "get back my '68 Mustang" in a letter sent to Robert in 1977. The senior Kiernan was appreciative of the interest but was not going to relinquish ownership of his Mustang.

Through the years, it might have been tempting to let the Mustang go, but the Kiernans held on to the green fastback through moves to Ohio, Florida, Kentucky and Nashville. It wasn't until Bob retired from his insurance position that they decided to make an effort to bring the famous Ford back to the road. Yet again life threw a few curves in the way.

The Mustang sat, seemingly abandoned. Then Robert was diagnosed with the early stages of a disabling disease, so the plan was pushed back further. Then, when Ford made the decision to introduce a special-edition Bullitt Mustang, the father-and-son team began to work on the car again.

However, life's diversions got in the way of the project yet again. Sean and his wife had a second child. By this time, Bob and his wife had moved to a horse farm in Tennessee, and the chores of keeping their spread operating took up all their free time. Then Robert's condition worsened, taking an even large toll. On top of that, Sean was enduring a divorce. In true car-lover fashion, the Kiernans never entertained the idea of selling what had now become part of the family.

Ford spurred the recent flurry of interest in the 1968 Bullitt Mustang once again by introducing a new iteration, the 2019 Bullitt Mustang at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. This new interest awakened new speculation as to what the original was worth as it sat alongside the 2019 version.

According to McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty Classic Car Insurance, "The rediscovery of the Bullitt Mustang is huge in the car world. Many people consider the chase scene featuring it to be one of the best, if not the best, car chase scenes of all time. The mystery of where it's been for 40 years only adds to its allure ... the one actually driven by Steve McQueen, the 'King of Cool.' Everyone probably assumed it was gone for good, and now it turns up in mostly unrestored condition, modifications made for filming, and with the original interior, including the seats McQueen himself sat in. That's remarkable." Hagerty continued, "Valuing a vehicle that is among the most cherished movie cars of all time is difficult, if not impossible. It's ultimately worth what someone will pay for it."

The 1968 Bullitt Mustang was more than a movie star; it became an American muscle-car icon.

Photo courtesy of Team Killeen

Published Feb 21st, 2018

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