This article, written by HVA President Mark Gessler, originally appeared on Hagerty.com, published January 14, 2018.
By late October in 1966 Steve McQueen had Hollywood on a string. His company, Solar Productions, inked a six-film deal with Warner Bros., and McQueen was now in the driver’s seat, hired to produce and star in his own films. He and director Peter Yates were intent on bringing real, almost documentary-like action to the screen, and they succeeded with Solar’s first film, Bullitt.
A visceral cops-and-mobsters flick set in San Francisco that was shot and released in 1968, Bullitt famously featured a Highland Green ’68 Mustang in a car-chase scene that forever changed Hollywood filmmaking. Before Bullitt, the chase formula was hackneyed and completely fake. The car would turn onto a side street out of camera view. Next came the sound of a violent crash, followed by a cut to the twisted wreckage.
In Bullitt, the chase was authentic, carefully choreographed in advance by McQueen and stuntman Bill Hickman (he appears in the film as the Charger driver). Real speeds, real streets, and real crashes. It was a classic cat-and-mouse chase, the cars jumping the hilly streets of San Francisco, sliding through turns, smashing a few parked cars, and losing hubcaps as the scene built to the fiery finale. In a short companion documentary released with the film, McQueen said, “The things we did in the streets with automobiles I don’t think will be done for a long, long time.” He was right.
That realism, Yates and McQueen knew, impacted the storytelling, increasing the connection between the audience and artists. So the pair also shot almost exclusively on location. The film’s $42.3 million box-office take, the fifth-highest gross of 1968, plus the critical acclaim—Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called the chase scene “brilliant”—gave McQueen a solid cinematic hit, even if it wasn’t the highest-grossing car flick released that year (Disney’s somewhat lighter The Love Bug made over $51 million).
The Bullitt Mustang became the natural avatar for the movie’s significance. And preserving the history of the Bullitt Mustang and other important cars for future generations is one reason the Historic Vehicle Association was founded in 2009. We wanted to ensure that the stories behind special automobiles, and their impact on our culture, were celebrated in a way similar to what the National Register for Historic Places does for important structures and sites. We exhaustively documented the Bullitt car for inclusion on the National Historic Vehicle Register, and its thick dossier will live, in perpetuity, within the Library of Congress.
In our report, we chronicled the stunning camera work, car prep, stunt driving, and extreme efforts of all involved. McQueen and Yates, for example, enlisted sports car mechanic and race impresario Max Balchowsky to turn their imagination into reality. Besides preparing two green Mustangs for the film, Balchowsky ripped the body off a Corvette and turned it into a high-speed camera car. The Mustang with a VIN ending in 558 was the “stunt car” made for the jump scenes; the 559 Mustang was designated the “hero car” for McQueen’s close-ups.
McQueen insisted on doing as much of the driving as possible—and was certainly capable—but in one of the few concessions made to the studio, he counted on Loren Janes, Hickman, and McQueen’s motorcycling friend Bud Ekins to perform the most dangerous stunts. Ekins, you might remember, worked as a McQueen stunt double on the 1963 movie The Great Escape. The film featured a 60-foot motorcycle jump, performed by Ekins, that solidified McQueen’s persona as a bad-ass on wheels. Janes worked on almost every McQueen film, before and after Bullitt.
The Bullitt chase scene took four weeks to film, an extraordinarily lavish and grueling schedule for a nine-minute, 42-second segment. But the scene was the film’s core, 582 seconds of savage footage with blaring exhaust notes and not a word of dialogue. In addition to box office and critical success, Bullitt received an Academy Award for film editing, a National Society of Film Critics Award for cinematography, and the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best motion picture screenplay. In 2007, the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, further honored Bullitt by including it in that year’s list of 25 films from every era of filmmaking to be added to the National Film Registry.
Naturally, the Bullitt Mustang was always touchstone that appeals to everyone, not just car lovers. But where was it? Did it even exist? When Sean Kiernan contacted us in 2016 and said he owned the untouched 559 car, we were, of course, skeptical. The world is full of fakes and legends, but Kiernan told a compelling story, so we dug deeper to determine his car’s veracity.
That meant first traveling to Kiernan’s house in Nashville, where we discovered a car that was even better than he had described. When the cover came off, we were awestruck. If ever there were a Holy Grail garage find, this was it: one of the most iconic cars in American film, out of the public eye for nearly half a century, in the metal.
It had all the honesty and all the bruises one would expect. Kiernan preserved nearly everything as is, with all the evidence of its Bullitt film life and the gentle patina from years of storage. Here’s an example: One of the key shots of the chase is when the Mustang overshoots one of the corners. McQueen’s character, Frank Bullitt, throws it in reverse and seemingly smokes the left rear tire while backing up. That smoke, however, was fed to the wheel well by a trunk-mounted smoke generator via a duct patched into the fender liner. That ductwork is on Kiernan’s car.
Furthermore, Kiernan has an unbroken paper and photographic trail—from McQueen’s letter to another from Ford—that matches exactly the features and modifications of the car. We solicited outside experts to challenge our belief that Kiernan’s car was the actual one used in the movie.
In this case, the stars aligned. The car matches the overwhelming evidence exactly, and the simple fact is that there are no holes in Kiernan’s tale. Everything checks out; Kiernan’s Mustang is as real as it gets.
An important part of our work is to photograph each historic car in the place it was found, which in the Mustang’s case we did, in early September 2017. A few weeks later, we moved the car to our HVA National Lab in Allentown, Pennsylvania, so that every aspect of the 559 Mustang could be exhaustively photographed and the body 3-D scanned. The results of this work are being finalized for submission to the Library of Congress, to be maintained as the definitive reference.
In April 2018, the 559 Bullitt Mustang will be exhibited in the HVA’s glass display box on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a tribute to McQueen’s original cinematic vision and the Kiernan family’s preservation of one of America’s great automotive artifacts.