This article originally appeared in the Florida Times-Union, written by Dan Scanlan, on April 13, 2018
It may be the most iconic chase in an American film, as the Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback screamed through the streets of San Francisco with Steve McQueen at the helm during 11 minutes of “Bullitt.”
Versions of the car has been cloned by those wanting Lt. Frank Bullitt’s machismo, while Ford made official Bullitt Mustang tributes in 2001, 2008 and 2009. Yet for five decades, the two original cars used in the 1968 film had disappeared.
But as Ford announces its third tribute Bullitt Mustang coming as a 2019 model with a 480-horsepower V-8, the original “hero” car — the one McQueen drove throughout the movie — has resurfaced. This week, it joins the fourth annual Cars at the Capital display on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. That comes after it and the 2019 Bullitt ’Stangs were paired at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the iconic movie, and it made an exclusive appearance at the recent 23rd annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
Robert Kiernan, a New Jersey insurance worker, bought the car and kept it for 44 years, always wanting to reveal it, says his son, Sean. Now the son can do what they both wanted before his father’s death, joining the battle-scarred Mustang under Hagerty classic car insurance’s movie marquee on the Amelia Concours field.
“There was always that provenance behind the car and what it was,″ Sean Kiernan said. “I will always take care of my father’s farm; I will always take care of my mother. But the best way to honor my father was bring this car out in the right way.
“It feels gratifying [to show it at Amelia]. To be able to tell everyone I am a car geek as well, that’s the gratifying part as well,″ he said. “This is how deep it goes. To finally be able to say that is the most gratifying thing I could possibly do.”
Hagerty joined up the Mustang in Detroit, then spokesman Jonathan Klinger said they decided to bring it to Amelia for display. Hagerty has its own unique video on the Mustang, and insures the car.
“Working with Sean, we wanted to make sure that he was able to document and authenticate his story so no one could steal it from him,” Klinger said. “That was the work we really did behind the scenes. It is so neat to see them bring the story to light. It will be at different events and we will support him along the way.”
The history started when McQueen, known for his love of motorcycles and fast cars, joined director Peter Yates to make a police-action film set in San Francisco. They bought two Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustangs, one the “hero car” used for driving and close-up scenes, while a second car did the wild jumps.
The National Historic Vehicle Register says the stunt and “hero” cars were built at Ford’s San Diego plant. Both got black vinyl “luxury” bucket seats, GT equipment group, wide whitewall tires, power disc brakes, AM radio, deluxe seat belts and heavy-duty battery.
Legendary “Ol’ Yeller” race car builder Max Balchowsky added a Borg-Warner T-10 heavy-duty four-speed manual transmission and clutch, modified 390-cubic-inch V-8, 4:10 Positraction rear ends, reinforced parts, iconic five-spoke American Racing mag wheels, custom exhaust and a Shelby-type steering wheel. All badging was removed, green paint scuffed to look dull, and features like the rear gas cap painted black.
“This was the moment when McQueen became ‘the king of cool,’” Historic Vehicle Association President Mark Gessler said. “It was the first movie he created on his own and had all the signature qualities for which he aspired. … What he needed was a car to complete his image to enhance his persona. The 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback was just that car.”
After filming, “Bullitt’s” dents were smoothed out with Bondo and a Highland Green repaint, Kiernan said. Seats, interior and camera mounts remained. Bought by a New Jersey police detective, it was then offered it in a 1974 Road & Track magazine classified ad: “1968 Bullett Mustang driven by McQueen in the movie. Can be documented. Best offer.”
Robert Kiernan bought it for about $6,000, and thus began his family’s 44-year journey with cinematic history. The Bullitt was used by wife Robbie Kiernan to get to her teaching job as her husband commuted into New York City by train.
Sean Kiernan said the Mustang had no muffler and “shook the pavement.” The trunk still has a cut-out for a smoke machine used to add effects to a scene where McQueen backs up to continues the chase. It has no air conditioning, rear seat belts hidden with tape.
In 1977, McQueen asked twice to buy the car back — a guy “not used to hearing the word ‘no,’” Sean Kiernan told Hagerty.
“But my dad told him, ‘No thanks, we are not interested in selling,‴ Kiernan said. “McQueen followed up with a letter reiterating his interest, saying he wanted the car back and offered a trade or something as long as it wasn’t ‘too much monies.’ Dad never answered that letter. Bullitt was part of our family. By the time it was parked, our family had put 46,000 miles on the car.”
McQueen died in 1980, Sean Kiernan was born in 1981, about the last time the old Mustang was used. When the family moved to a Kentucky farm, the Bullitt was parked, but Sean said he’d sit in it, “grab the steering wheel and run through the gears.”
As the years went by, more people sought the old Mustang, although the Kiernans never told anyone what they had. Then in 2001, when Ford launched its first anniversary Mustang Bullitt, his father began to restore the original with Sean.
Sean admits it wasn’t too tough to keep the secret.
“All my friends were Camaro guys. That’s the answer, honestly,” he told the Times-Union. “I didn’t have a ton of friends. My father and I were best friends and were tied together by horses, the farm and the car. Honestly, we always had a plan.”
Then Robert Kiernan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and died in 2014. But Sean, who had worked for an automotive paint company, got the engine rebuilt, old carpets replaced and a replica steering wheel added. The paint remains as it was, with a new front bumper and valance after earlier damage. Then the decision was made to reveal it.
“Maybe about six months after my father passed away, I was in New Jersey and that was the moment I decided,” Sean told the Times-Union. “The 2001 Bullitt came out, then the 2008 Bullitt came out. Then 2018 was 50 years, so I was thinking and the stars aligned. That was the force behind it.”
Mustang expert Kevin Marti and automotive expert McKeel Hagerty were contacted to verify car and condition. The Historic Vehicle Association gave guidance on preserving it as it was documented for the National Historic Vehicle Register. Ford was contacted, the classic unveiled at a 50th anniversary commemoration of the film with the 2019 Bullitt Mustang at the Detroit auto show.
That 2019 Bullitt Mustang has a classic cue ball shifter, GT350 intake manifold, larger throttle body and powertrain calibrations for 480 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque and a top speed of 163 mph.
Two color choices: Shadow Black and Dark Highland Green, with classic torque-thrust 19-inch aluminum wheels. It’s on sale this summer for $46,595.
FYI: The “Bullitt” Mustang will next be shown from Tuesday through April 23 at Cars at the Capital in Washington D.C. The 1968 Bullitt Mustang stunt car has also been found heavily damaged in Mexico. And HVA is producing a documentary, entitled “Little Pieces; The Untold Story of the Bullitt Mustang,” about Kiernan’s car. Visit historicvehicle.org.