Steve McQueen drove it through one of the most iconic movie chase scenes of all time. Then, it vanished from the public eye — at least, until last week.
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of Bullitt’s theatrical release, the famous green 1968 Mustang GT fastback that McQueen piloted in the film roared onto center stage at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, leaving a buffet for the senses in its wake: the screams of the engine echoing off the walls, the smell of nostril-burning 1960s exhaust, the unmistakable look of well-loved patina.
In short, it may be showing its years, but it’s still just as glorious as we all remember.
There were two Mustangs used in the filming of Bullitt, in fact. One of them was the stunt car; abused and broken, it was sent directly to a salvage yard. That car resurfaced in Baja, California in early 2017.
The second was the hero car, the one used for the more low-key driving scenes. It left the set in much better condition and went out into the world to travel a winding road that would eventually connect two families in the most unlikely of ways.
Sean Kiernan of Hendersonville, Tennessee, is the Bullitt Mustang’s current owner. He inherited it from his father, who bought it from its second owner in 1974.
“The movie wrapped, and the car went to the shop,” Kiernan says. “They took it back to the factory, took the antenna from the right rear quarter and put it back on the right fender, replaced the rockers and put the chrome ones back on, replaced the mirror, and stripped her down and gave her a paint job and about 400 pounds of Bondo inside of it. They didn’t replace one piece in the car. It’s still all original.
“Right around that moment is when Bob Ross bought it. He was an editor on (the Warner Brothers) lot, and that’s where the sticker on the windshield comes from. He had it for a couple of months, and then the second owner – another Detective Frank, believe it or not, based out in New York – bought it from Bob Ross, who had it trained over in 1970 to Frank in Jersey. Frank had it for about three or four years.”
The time came when the real-life Detective Frank decided his family needed a more practical daily driver and the Mustang went up for sale again, this time to be purchased by Sean’s father, Robert Kiernan.
“My dad, at the time, was looking for a new daily driver and was obviously a Mustang Fan,” the younger Kiernan explains. “It was (from) a classified ad in Road and Track, and funnily enough, it was spelled wrong. It was not really the best selling ad. It was an or-best-offer ad.
“The second owner explained that my dad was the only guy that called and the only guy that showed up. My dad showed up and bought it.”
Just $6,000 later, the Kiernans were its proud owners. The car then became his mother’s daily driver from 1974 to 1980, during which time Kiernan says his family put 45,000 miles on it.
“My mom drove it every day to school,” he says. “She was a third-grade Catholic school teacher. It’s funny – she said, ‘the nuns could actually hear me pull up and knew that I showed up.’”
By the time Kiernan was born in 1981, however, the car was no longer running.
“The car had actually stopped running in early 1980,” he says, “right around when (Steve McQueen) passed away.” McQueen died on November 7 of that year.
“At that point, my father was starting to become a little bit more of an insurance executive. Then I was born, and the car wasn’t the most practical daily driver at that point. So, it got parked. It needed a little work on the clutch and stuff like that.
“We moved to Kentucky and then we moved to Tennessee, and the car always went with us.”
Kiernan and his father eventually got around to fixing it up together and turned it into a father-son project of passion. The car was in pieces with the job incomplete, though, when Robert passed away in 2014.
“My wife and I would sit on the steps in my garage right after my father passed and just stare at the car and not really know what to do,” Sean recalls. “I was avoiding the garage at all costs. I didn’t even want to go into it.
“I eventually got inspired to step into the garage and take a look at the car. When I finally took that moment, to put the car back together, it took 45 days. (It was) the most easy thing I’ve ever done, and therapeutic.
“Right after that, I contacted Ford. From there, the stars just aligned.”
The other side of the car’s story is that of the McQueen family, whose interaction with the Mustang has a more braided past.
After losing track of the car after filming ended on Bullitt, it turns out that McQueen himself attempted to purchase the car from the Kiernan family in 1977, but Robert wouldn’t sell.
“Steve had tracked down, through the second owner, my father’s information,” Kiernan says. “Steve reached out to my dad asking to buy the car back. (My parents) had had it for three years and put 30,000 miles on it. It was a part of the family at that point. Thanks, but no thanks.
“Everybody’s like, oh, I can’t believe he told Steve McQueen no. He would’ve told anybody no, no matter what.”
Fast forward to today, and the McQueen family intertwines with the car’s history once again: Steve’s granddaughter Molly – who is also pursuing a career in acting – played a role in reintroducing the Bullitt Mustang to the world.
“For me, sitting in it takes me back,” Molly says. “I can literally imagine (my grandfather) sitting in that seat and turning it on.
“It was an incredible experience. I keep talking about the smell. It has such a strong scent of history. Obviously, it means completely different things for both (me and Sean), but it’s the same smell.”
McQueen’s grandfather passed away before she was born, and seeing the Mustang in the flesh has given her an opportunity to connect with his memory in a way she never has before.
“I never met him, so that’s the most tangible connection I’ve ever had to him,” she says.
Perhaps the best news of all about the Bullitt Mustang’s re-emergence, though, is that Kiernan’s intention is keep it in its original state for as long as possible.
“It isn’t just a fastback, it isn’t just Bullitt,” he says. “It was mom and dad’s car. That’s why it will always stay exactly the way it is right now, because that’s what it means to me.”