In 1968, as his celebrity was cresting, Steve McQueen produced and starred in Bullitt. He had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor the year before for his dramatic role in The Sand Pebbles. But in the crime thriller, he played a tough San Francisco police detective, Frank Bullitt, who was battling a mob boss. The movie was moody and noir-ish, and a well-reviewed box-office hit.
But despite all of this—and co-stars Robert Vaughn, Robert Duvall,and Jacqueline Bisset—Bullitt is recalled today mainly for its car chase, a 10-minute masterpiece shot in and around San Francisco, and completed in a souped-up, Highland Green, 1968 Ford Mustang fastback (and a 1968 Dodge Charger). The scene helped the movie win the Oscar that year for film editing. Full-size replicas and best-selling toys were made of the car, and are still made today. So long is its shadow that Ford has even produced limited-edition versions of the Mustang as recently as 2009.
“I feel like with Bullitt, the car chase is synonymous with the movie,” said Molly McQueen, Steve McQueen’s 30-year-old granddaughter. “So, while there is a story that holds up, it kind of falls by the wayside because the movie is all about the car chase.”
Two different, specially prepared Mustangs were used in filming. One was the “hero car” driven by McQueen throughout the film. The other was used mainly for the hardcore sections of the chase and jump scenes. Both were thought to be lost to the crusher, but the jump car was discovered in the spring of 2017 in a junkyard in Mexico. Now, the car driven by McQueen has also been found, and it was just unveiled Sunday in Detroit, along with a new 2018 Bullitt-edition Mustang, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the movie.
After Bullitt wrapped, the hero car was sold to a studio executive in Los Angeles, who kept it briefly before selling it, coincidentally, to a police detective. The officer shipped the car to New York and kept it for about three and a half years before placing a for-sale ad in the back of Road & Track magazine in 1974. His $6,000 asking price was somewhat steep, but Robert Kiernan, a New Jersey insurance executive and Mustang fan, went out to look at it. He bought it for his wife to use as a daily driver.
The Kiernans used the car avidly for years, adding more than 30,000 miles to its odometer. But, as with many vehicular toys, mechanical and family issues eventually intervened. “The clutch went out in ’80 and I was born in ’81,” said Sean Kiernan, Robert’s son, who grew up with the McQueen Mustang in his family’s garage. “So it kind of went into storage.”
The Kiernans have kept the car a secret, mainly to ward off rumormongers and gawkers. But that didn’t stop Steve McQueen from finding them in 1977. “Dad had owned the car for three years at that point. And he got a phone call from Steve asking about the car, how it was, if he’d changed anything on it. And McQueen said, ‘I would really like to buy it if there’s not too much involved with it. I’ll replace it with a similar, like kind of car. As long it’s not a crazy amount of money,’” Kiernan said. “But dad declined. He said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
McQueen didn’t take no for an answer. “I think a week later, a letter to my dad arrived from McQueen and it had the Solar [McQueen’s production company] letterhead and stamp on it. And it said, basically, ‘I’d love to talk to you again about purchasing my car back, if not too much money is involved. Otherwise we’d better forget it.’ And dad never reached out, he did forget it. And that was kind of the end of that.”
This was a decent decision. The car is now valued at $3 million to $5 million.
Robert Kiernan died in 2014 without ever having driven the car again. As a means of honoring his legacy, Sean decided to use the film’s 50th anniversary this year as an incentive to get it roadworthy again. Fortunately for preservationists, he has maintained the car’s originality and patina, simply repairing the mechanical systems. The car will be inducted into the Historic Vehicle Association roster this year—kind of like the National Register of Historic Places, but for cars. It’s only the 21st car to be so honored.
Since it sat, unworking, for his entire life, having the opportunity to get behind the wheel now is a very strange experience for Kiernan. “I’d never seen my dad drive the car,” he said. “The only person that I’d seen drive the car was Steve McQueen, in the movie.”
Kiernan and his car shared the stage at the unveiling Sunday with Molly McQueen and the new 2018 Ford Mustang Bullitt edition, painted the same color, and featuring similar wheels and trim as the original, plus a souped-up engine. Molly McQueen—who followed in the family business and is a creator, producer, and star of the digital series Reasons I Don’t Have a Boyfriend—had the opportunity to drive the new car at speed in a promotional video, and though she wasn’t previously an automotive fanatic, she found herself compelled by the opportunity. “I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie,” she said. “So I felt like they awoke a sleeping beast in me.”
Kiernan had a more somber response to seeing the new BullittMustang united with the one his father owned for 40 years. “I feel it’s almost a dedication to dad,” he said. “It’s a dedication to the movie as well. But when I see my car, I see my dad.”