TRAVERSE CITY — Since “Bullitt” premiered in 1968, millions of Americans have fallen in love with Steve McQueen’s iconic, emerald green Mustang Fastback.
Especially Sean Kiernan and his dad — the car was their best-kept secret.
“It was mostly just between my mom, my dad and myself,” Kiernan said. “It was like having a celebrity in the family you can’t talk about.”
The Mustang, famous for “Bullitt’s” iconic chase scene, has been in the family’s possession since 1974, when Kiernan’s dad spotted the vehicle in a Road & Track Magazine classified ad.
“He was the only guy who called (about the car) and the only guy who showed up,” Kiernan said. “And that was that.”
The Kiernan family didn’t lock the car away — Sean’s mom drove it to work.
“It went from being one of the most iconic cars of all time to a daily driver for a third-grade Catholic school teacher,” said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association. “And yes — they did know it was the ‘Bullitt’ car.”
The family quickly fell in love with their new addition. When Steve McQueen approached the family a few years later to buy the car back, they said no and, fearing a flurry of interest in the car, became more secretive.
“For decades it has been a mystery — where the car was, if it even still existed,” said Tabetha Hammer, Hagerty Insurance senior manager for car culture.
That was, until last month.
Sean Kiernan, in collaboration with Ford Motor Company and the Historic Vehicle Association, is bringing his beloved Mustang back into the public eye for a tour series.
The latest stop is Hagerty Insurance in downtown Traverse City.
“(Excited) is an understatement,” Hammer said. “We are thrilled to have it here and be able to display it to Traverse and the community. It’s such an iconic car.”
She and the Hagerty staff will showcase the Mustang in several events, including a film screening on Feb. 4 at the State Theatre and a speaking event Feb. 6. The Mustang will remain on display in Hagerty’s lobby until Feb. 14.
It made a surprise first reappearance at the Detroit Auto Show last month, drumming up a buzz of excitement over a mystery solved.
Gessler, along with Hagerty CEO McKeel Hagerty, helped Kiernan register the Mustang with the National Historic Vehicle Registry, maintained through the Library of Congress, and got it adequately insured.
“We flew down to Nashville to see the car, and from there kind of became part of the whole secret around it,” Gessler said. “We decided we wanted to make sure the story was told, that we could highlight something as significant to American culture as the lost ‘Bullitt’ Mustang.”
Before the Kiernans, the “Bullitt” Mustang spent a couple months with a Warner Bros. editor. Shortly after the film premiered, he sold it to a detective in New Jersey.
A few years later, the Mustang was, fatefully, listed for sale in Road & Track.
While there’s a bit of new rust, most of the car remains true to its film days, thanks to careful restoration efforts by Kiernan and his father.
They began restoring the car in 2001, after an issue with the clutch linkage retired it to the family garage in the 1980s.
The pair had almost completed the massive project when Kiernan’s father died in 2014.
“It took me a while to be able to get back in the garage, but I finally went in and put it back together,” Kiernan said. “We never wanted to destroy the history of the car, take away the soul and persona of the car and what it originally was.”
Getting the car back into the public eye, he added, was always the plan.
With 2018 being the 50th anniversary of “Bullitt” — and of the Mustang’s creation — it’s perfect timing.
Despite its age, “Bullitt” never lost its status, Gessler says, and the well-known chase scene was a turning point for Hollywood.
“What Steve McQueen did was take those scenes to the next level — real cars, real crashes, real squealing of tires,” he said. “That visceral reality hadn’t been done before. And of course McQueen, they called him the ‘King of Cool.’”
The scene won “Bullitt” an Academy award for editing, and Gessler calls it the ancestor of today’s racing flicks, like “The Fast and The Furious.”
Kiernan’s Mustang still has most of the modifications made for use in the film, like a smoke machine.
“This is something that really reflects American culture,” Hammer said. “And at the end of the day, it’s just really cool.”
SEE THE CAR
The “Bullitt” Mustang is only display now at Hagerty Insurance, 141 Rivers Edge Drive, Traverse City.
Events featuring the car include:
Feb. 4 — A surprise screening will play at the State Theatre at 10 a.m. The showing is free to the public.
Feb. 6 — Collector and car sessions will be held at noon, 12:45, 1:30 and 2:15 p.m. Sean Kiernan and Mark Gessler will be present at the sessions.