This article originally appeared in Car and Driver, written by Rich Ceppos, on March 17, 2018.
Steve McQueen’s Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback vanished 38 years ago. The ominous-looking pony car with the barking 390-cubic-inch V-8, which starred in one of the greatest chase scenes in movie history in the film Bullitt—with McQueen doing the driving in many of the shots—may have been lost, but it was never forgotten. Certainly not by Mustang aficionados, who speculated on its whereabouts for almost four decades, titillated by the occasional internet post or word of a spectral sighting. So when the Bullitt Mustang suddenly appeared at a Ford press preview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on January 14, 2018, the assembled journalists, car nuts, Ford execs, and Mustang fans went full geek.
The synchronicity of the car’s breaking cover in the same year as the Bullitt movie’s 50th anniversary, and at the same event where Ford revealed its 2019 Mustang Bullitt tribute model—the third since 2001—is just too perfect for it to have been happenstance. And yet it largely was.
As those involved tell it, the Bullitt Mustang never would have resurfaced in Detroit had it not been for a coincidence of cosmic proportions, the sheer luck of fortuitous timing, and, especially, the efforts of a determined coterie of emotionally invested volunteers. It took 30 seconds for the BullittMustang—in original, if dilapidated, condition—to rumble onto the stage at Detroit’s Cobo Center, but it took a village to make it happen.
The Back Story
The movie car’s trip to the auto-show stand actually started in earnest in December 2015, according to its owner, Sean Kiernan. Kiernan, 36, inherited the Bullitt from his late father. Bob Kiernan had purchased it in 1974 from an ad in our sister publication, Road & Track, to replace the family’s only car, an MGB/GT. “You have to remember that, at the time, ‘movie cars’ were not really sought after,” says Kiernan. His father liked the idea that it had been used in a movie, “but the big factor was that it handled amazing and had huge amounts of power, especially compared to an MG.”
The Kiernans initially felt so casual about the Mustang’s connection to the film that they employed it as a daily driver. Sean’s mother, a schoolteacher, drove it for about five years, at which point it developed clutch trouble. It was parked in 1980, a year before Sean was born.
Kiernan grew up to be a car enthusiast like his father, and the two made a couple of attempts at fixing up the old green Stang themselves. They got as far as taking the car partly apart and having the engine freshened.
“The odd thing that happened,” says Kiernan, “is that the car just stayed in the garage all those years, as a project car does, and the internet was born while she just sat there—and in turn the rumors began to form. Not until 1999 was there any intention of keeping it under lock and key and a secret. My father and I always wanted to reveal it in the right way to squash any rumors that he was a hoarding car collector, and then I was just going to drive it to have fun.”
But Kiernan’s father fell ill and passed away in 2014 before they could get the Mustang reassembled. At that point, says Kiernan, he was feeling the emotional gut punch of his father’s death and was in a quandary about what to do with the car. “I was struggling,” he says.
Then came the coincidence that changed everything. In December 2015, Kiernan, a salesman of automotive paint and supplies who lives outside Nashville, was returning from a day of sales calls with his boss, Casey Wallace. Wallace, the company’s regional sales manager, had come in from out of town. On the long drive back to the office, Wallace asked Kiernan what cars he had inherited from his father.
“A ’75 Porsche 911 and a ’68 Mustang GT 390 fastback,” answered Kiernan. Wallace was intrigued and wondered what color the Mustang was. “Green,” replied Kiernan. “Huh,” responded Wallace. “Sounds like the Bullitt Mustang.”
Kiernan recoiled. Was the family secret blown? Kiernan knew Wallace was no car guy. “He barely knows how many tires are on his truck. How the hell did he know anything about Bullitt?”
What Kiernan did not know about his boss was that Wallace had a side business. Wallace explained to Kiernan that he and his best friend, independent film and video director Ken Horstmann, were partners in a film-production company called Spyplane Films. They’d been trying to get an action-adventure movie made that Horstmann had written several years earlier. It revolved around two 18-year-old friends discovering the Bullitt Mustang in a barn and what happens after they buy it for a few thousand dollars from the owner, who doesn’t know what it once was. Bad guys arrive and separate the kids from the car. Mayhem and car chases ensue.
Wallace and Horstmann were working on financing their movie venture. Wallace, who lived in Atlanta, was taking advantage of his trip to Nashville to speak with a potential investor while he was there. “How close is your car to looking like the Bullitt Mustang?” asked Wallace. “Um, damn near exactly like it,” Kiernan answered, stunned.
What were the chances that a fellow paint salesman who happened to be Kiernan’s boss also happened to be in the movie business? And that that same person also happened to be trying to make a film that happened to be about the Bullitt Mustang that Kiernan happened to own?
“And then,” recalls Kiernan, “I had this overwhelming feeling. It was actually the first time I had felt my father’s presence since he had passed away. I felt him in the truck with us.” And suddenly Kiernan knew what to do. “The car you’re talking about,” he said to Wallace, “the one that’s been lost forever? It’s sitting in my garage. I’ve got it.”
“I couldn’t breathe,” recalls Wallace. Once he recovered from Kiernan’s revelation, he asked if his filmmaking partner could see the car. The three met the next day and spent hours talking about what they might do together. “We made a pact,” recalls Horstmann. “We decided to do three things: to tell Sean’s story as a way to honor his father, to reveal the Bullitt to the world, and to make our movie.” It was enough to motivate Kiernan, a hands-on car guy with lots of experience wrenching, to reassemble the Bullitt and get it running again.
But how to proceed with their three-pronged plan? The first step was to get the car authenticated. “Of course, we knew it was authentic,” says Kiernan. He even had a letter from Steve McQueen to his father written in 1977 asking if he could buy the car back. (Bob Kiernan turned McQueen down.) After some research, Horstmann reached out to John Clor through LinkedIn. Clor, a gonzo Mustang nut, is also Ford Performance’s enthusiast communications manager—the company’s public-relations liaison with all of the Mustang clubs scattered across America.
That first connection was key. “I’m a Mustang enthusiast,” says Kiernan, laughing, “and I’m also a lurker on all kinds of Mustang forums. I had to be; I never wanted it to be discovered that we had the Bullitt. John Clor had a big presence on the forums. And I’d seen him in the Mustang documentary A Faster Horse.” Although Horstmann’s note was of necessity vague, Clor wasted no time in responding.
Clor quickly led Kiernan to contact number two. Recalls Clor, “I told them I wasn’t the guy to authenticate their car; they needed Kevin Marti.” Marti is renowned in Ford circles. Trained as an engineer, he runs a well-respected Ford reproduction-parts business. But more important, he has a license agreement with the Ford Motor Company to manage a database containing all of the company’s U.S. vehicle-production information from 1967 to 2014. That includes vehicle identification numbers. He is the man to consult if you want to know exactly how your vintage Mustang was equipped when it rolled off the assembly line, and a Marti Report carries a lot of weight in FoMoCo collector circles.
Clor convinced Marti to join him to examine the car in May 2016. At the initial meeting, all of the parties signed nondisclosure forms so they could talk safely. Next followed a check of the old Mustang’s VIN and an inspection of the car—it still has the camera mounts that were welded under its rocker panels, which are clearly visible in the movie—after which Marti bestowed his blessing.
Bringing In the Blue Oval
What was needed next was a deeper connection with Ford. “I knew I wanted to reveal the car with Ford’s help,” says Kiernan. After all, Ford had produced two special-edition Mustang Bullitt tribute models, in 2001 and 2008, and was likely ready to launch another soon, according to Clor. If the Bullitt Mustang showed up in an official Ford event, Kiernan figured, “then nobody’s going to wonder if it’s the real deal.” And to a paint salesman from Nashville, the huge company possessed immense marketing and communications resources—if only Kiernan could get its attention. Clor suggested that might be possible and implored Kiernan wait to reveal his car until the upcoming production Bullitt was shown to the media.
Marti knew just whom they could call upon to be a champion inside Ford: Mike Berardi, Ford’s global director of service engineering operations. C/D met Berardi in 2017 when he lent us a 1983 GT from his vast Mustang collection for a story that first appeared in our 750th print issue in December 2017. (He retired from Ford at the end of 2017.) Berardi was the connection with all the right connections. He immediately understood the historic significance of the Bullitt Mustang and took it upon himself to help.
From October 2016 to June 2017, Berardi doggedly rallied the support of top Ford execs while coaching Kiernan about working with a big company—how it moves in fits and starts. “My job was to get the teams together and make sure they stuck,” he says. Berardi connected Kiernan, Wallace, and Horstmann with the Mustang engineering team and Ford’s communications people, two groups that could help make something happen.
That something, it was ultimately decided, would indeed revolve around the introduction of the new Bullitt special edition, which was one of several special Mustang models under development. Ford would include the McQueen Bullitt Mustang in its 2018 Detroit auto-show launch event for the 2019 Bullitt production model. It took the first half of 2017 to set up all of this, and it had to be undertaken in complete secrecy so as not to spoil the surprise.
Connections begat connections. Marti had discovered that—amazingly—Kiernan didn’t have any insurance on the Bullitt. Says Marti, “Sean’s such a nice guy that he thinks no one would ever steal the car.” He adds, “I don’t get into appraising cars for their value,” but it was clear that this was one very valuable Mustang. So Marti connected Kiernan with McKeel Hagerty, head of the vintage-car insurance company Hagerty Insurance. A value was set for the car. Although no one’s saying what that is, it’s easily worth millions. “I’m not a wealthy man,” says Kiernan, “but I bought as much insurance as I could afford.” Hagerty has its own car magazine, an impressive tome that it sends to its customers. It jumped on the story early enough to have copies at the Detroit-show reveal.
And Hagerty in turn connected Kiernan with the Historic Vehicle Association, which decided that the car was so noteworthy and well preserved that it was worth fully documenting. The HVA is submitting the documentation to the Library of Congress, something it has done for only 20 other historically important vehicles. The HVA is also making a documentary about the car. All of this activity was taking place shrouded in secrecy, with each new connection signing nondisclosure agreements in order to be able to talk freely.
Ford responded. The Bullitt, now running, was spirited to Ford’s product-development campus in Dearborn, Michigan, where it was squirreled away in the same basement studio where the new Ford GT supercar had been developed. It came out of hiding for an afternoon in the fall of 2017 only long enough for Jay Leno to cruise it around Ford’s Dearborn proving ground for a segment of his TV show, Jay Leno’s Garage.
It then returned to its basement lair to wait until its dramatic appearance onstage at the Detroit auto show. Its sheetmetal dinged and dented, its Highland Green paint badly weathered, its racing alloy wheels corroded, and its upholstery split, it looked like a million bucks. We hope it was insured for more.
Standing proudly beside it at the launch was a smiling Kiernan, and next to him was actress Molly McQueen, Steve’s granddaughter. She had just introduced the new 2019 Bullitt. It had taken more than two years and the behind-the-scenes efforts of many, but the Bullitt Mustang had finally been given back to the world. Sean Kiernan’s story had been told and his late father honored.
Talk to any of the players, and there’s still a sense of wonder that it actually all came together. Marti sums it up: “I look at this whole thing as links in a chain,” he says. “Each link is connected to the next one, and each of these links had to be forged and come together properly in order for all of this to come about.” Adds Berardi, “Sean was a true gentleman. He never asked for a penny. He just wanted to be a part of this. Wallace and Horstmann didn’t ask for a penny for their film, either.”
Kiernan’s employer has given him a leave of absence for 2018 to take the Bullitt Mustang on tour across the country to auto shows, museums, and special events. Kiernan, Wallace, and Horstmann remain close. And the two filmmaking partners continue to put together financing to make their movie.
You can bet that when they finally call “action,” the real Bullitt Mustang will have a starring role.