Ford’s not-all-that unexpected reveal of the 2019 Bullitt edition Mustang GT was accompanied on stage by a genuine surprise: the long-missing, 1968 Mustang used in the filming of the original movie. That’s a little bit like the Loch Ness monster showing up at an Olympic swim meet.
Road & Track played a small part in the history of this special car—it was last sold via a classified in the October 1974 issue of the magazine. Perhaps as a belated commission, we were granted special access weeks before the auto show reveal. It was all very hush hush: We met the car and its owner in the same Dearborn basement where Ford clandestinely developed the GT. “Can I just beg you not to fuck this up?” asked one anxious insider.
We walked around the car, huffed its exhaust fumes, watched a hundred or so more times. Mostly, though, we asked questions. Let’s get right to them.
So, this is it? The Bullitt?
Yes. The Bullitt Mustang. It rolled off a California assembly line in January 1968 wearing a fresh coat of Highland green paint. Warner Bros. took delivery. It is the car Steve McQueen (and his stunt man) drove in one of the best chase scenes of all time.
Where the heck was it all this time, and who has it now?
That’s a rather short story. Warner Bros. had the car repaired after filming and sold it to an executive at the studio, who passed it to a detective on the east coast. The detective unloaded it, via Road & Track classifieds, onto Robert Kiernan, an insurance executive, who owned it to his death in 2014. His son, Sean Kiernan, reassembled the car and is now bringing it out of hiding.
Beyond provenance, what makes the Bullitt Mustang special?
The car rolled off a production assembly line a Mustang GT with a stock 390 cubic-inch V8 but didn’t stay that way long. Max Balchowsky—known for freakishly fast home-built race cars—installed chassis braces, heavy duty springs and dampers, and modified the engine. Los Angeles panel beater Lee Brown pulled the badges, ran steel wool on the factory-fresh paint, and even put dents in the door to make the car fit with McQueen’s character, hard-bitten detective Frank Bullitt.
The list of tweaks gets longer the closer you look: Little scraps of black gaffer tape (used for all sorts of odd jobs on movie sets), a crude hole punched in the trunk through which, Kiernan and others speculate, a smoke machine embellished McQueen’s reverse burnout. Square tubes—camera mounts—protrude from the underbody. “To put that camera mount on they had to weld right over a fuel line,” notes Kiernan, who, of course, wound up having to replace all those lines. “That was a two day-er, just to get through the camera mount.”
The coolest bit may be the remnants of adhesive on the right side of the tachometer. This, we’re told, is where Balchowsky taped a note indicating the engine’s new redline. “Little pieces,” it read.
How do we know it’s legitimate?
The movie modifications certainly build the car’s case, but the strongest evidence comes from less exotic details.
“There are all kinds of fingerprints involved in the production of a vehicle,” explains Kevin Marti. Marti’s kind of a big deal in the collector Ford world—the official licensee to the automaker’s vehicle-specific production data from 1967 to 2012. On top of that, he’s a mechanical engineer with a nearly infectious enthusiasm for minutia. He evaluated Kiernan’s claim in 2016.
First, he looked at the VIN on the dash. The number not only matches Marti’s records, but the plate that wears it has oxidized in a way that’s hard to fake. Another tell: The date codes on body stampings correspond correctly to the car’s assembly date (they should be not too much earlier and no later).
In addition to the body of circumstantial evidence, Kiernan has written testimony from an unimpeachable source: Steve McQueen. In a signed 1977 letter addressed to Kiernan’s father, McQueen appeals to buy back his Mustang. Sean, with a nonchalance that must be practiced by now, produced the letter from a simple folder and set it on the hood. This is the real deal.
But wait, didn’t I already read about a Bullitt Mustang being discovered in Mexico?
You did. See, there were two identical Mustangs on set during the making of the movie. They have consecutive VINs and were likely modified in the same fashion. One was used primarily for jumps—heaving and crashing over those San Francisco hills—and the concluding slide into a ravine. The second partook in the other action sequences, including banging doors with the Charger.
After filming, the jump car was deemed too badly damaged to be put back on the road and was, for decades, presumed destroyed. It in fact wound up in Mexico, where it surfaced last year. The other Mustang was, with the help of some Bondo, returned to road-going condition and sold. That’s what you’re looking at today.
“It is nice both survived,” notes Marti, who also authenticated the Mexican car. But he adds that life in Baja, straddled by saltwater, took its toll on nearly all the original sheet metal on that car. “Sean’s car is 98 percent complete. The other car is 98 percent missing.” (Those in Kiernan’s inner circle admit they were less than happy to see another Bullitt surface. “I almost had a heart attack,” says one.)
I still don’t get how we didn’t know about this car until now. Wouldn’t someone—the studio, Ford, a major collector—have chased it down?
This is really the most interesting part. It says a lot about the owners—most of all Robert Kiernan. It also has to do with how car culture has shifted.
The key thing to keep in mind is that in the late 1960s and early ’70s, nobody could have fathomed a Mustang becoming collectible. They were cheap, ubiquitous. Cool, sure, but hardly special. That’s why McQueen, a method actor bent on giving Bullitt a realistic vibe, wanted one: It made a believable ride for a detective. (Recall that McQueen’s architect love interest, played by , has ritzier wheels, a Porsche 356 Cabriolet).
For the studio, it was a movie prop, one it wanted off the balance sheet when production concluded on the (far over-budget) movie. Owners initially saw it in a similar light. The R&T ad, in a matter-of-fact manner, identifies the car as being featured in Bullitt (misspelled “Bullet” in the listing). For that, Robert Kiernan paid $6000. “It was our family car. It was just transportation,” his son says. The Mustang served as a loud, quick daily driver—Kiernan’s mother, a third-grade teacher, commuted to school in it.
But by the late Seventies, attitudes were starting to change. Mustang clubs were forming. Baby Boomers, now pouring into the workforce and starting families, pined for their misspent youths. Even McQueen was not immune. “I would like to appeal to you to get back my ’68 Mustang,” he wrote in his 1977 letter to Kiernan. McQueen died of cancer in 1980, forever frozen in relative youth. The Mustang, suffering mechanical issues, was parked that same year and remained in storage even as muscle car values shot up. “The car is already sitting in our garage and … everything happened around it,” Kiernan says.
In early 1990—around the peak of a collector car bubble—a Mustang magazine published an article on a car claiming to be the Bullitt. Robert Kiernan reached out to the writer (Brad Bowling, author of many Mustang books) with the real story, but maintained anonymity.
The elder Kiernan retired in 2001, around the same time Ford released the first Bullitt-edition Mustang. “That sparked us.” Sean recalls. Father and son (who worked in a body shop before going into sales) started going through the car, with the intention of bringing it back to respectable condition. But, he adds, “life happened. Quite a few different times. I had my first daughter, my dad got diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he progressively got worse.”
The Kiernans could have cashed in at any point. But Sean says his family—his father in particular—never saw the Mustang as a golden ticket. It was simply their car. “Money was never part of any discussion. To know my dad, you would know that, I guess.”
It’s not about the money … but how much money are we talking?
A lot. No one can say precisely, of course, given the rather scant transaction history. But the Bullitt Mustang’s uniqueness—there literally is only one other in the world—its connection to an iconic celebrity, and the decades of pent-up desire, could very well be worth seven figures to a collector. Marti compares it with the Green Hornet, the one-of-a-kind 1968 Shelby Mustang prototype that fetched a $1.8 million bid, below reserve, at auction. “I won’t be surprised if the kind of offer Sean gets will be the highest ever offer for a Mustang,” Marti says.
Kiernan readily admits the car’s value could “change lives.” It’s worth keeping in mind that million-dollar cars are typically owned by millionaires. We did not ask Kiernan his personal worth, but he’s quite clearly not that. He’s a working, married guy with kids. “There’s money,” he says, “and there’s stupid money.”
Which isn’t to say the car’s for sale. “The goal will always be to have it in my family,” Kiernan says. “That's the goal. It always has been. It always will be.”