The incredible story of the Bullitt Mustang
It took 50 years for the world to see the Bullitt Mustang once again. And its story is so great, not even Hollywood would have dreamed it better.
When Bullitt came out in 1968, Steve McQueen was already one of the biggest stars in the world. The movie then produced another – the Mustang GT Fastback. From that movie on, the Ford pony-car became a symbol of cool, just like the man driving it.
The Peter Yates’ flick is not even that great, despite the Oscar for Editing and some good reviews at the time, but it does feature one of the greatest, most epic car chases ever seen on the big screen. It lasts for 10 minutes and features Detective Frank Bullitt chasing two hit-men in a Dodge Charger R/T in and around San Francisco.
If you are a petrolhead, you will have seen this movie. I have the Blu-Ray. Sometimes I throw it on the player just to watch the chase scene with the volume turned up to eleven. Then I watch it again. Then I start looking at the classifieds for second-hand ‘Stangs.
But what about the actual movie car? Well, find a nice coffee shop and ask for a very cold beer, because you are in for a treat of a story.
Two cars were used in the movie, one for the jumps over the San Francisco streets and the other for the driving sequences, which took up about 95% of the actual driving. Understandably, the first car was so badly damaged it was written off; the second one was reconditioned and taken on the film’s promotional tour.
Amazingly, last year, somebody found a badly rotten Mustang in a junkyard in Mexico. After some data-base searching, it was found to be the written-off car. It had no running gear and was painted white, not Highland Green, meaning the write-off was not as efficient as it should have been. It probably lived a few more lives after the production crew had sent it to the crusher. It is now a non-rolling sculpture.
Even more amazingly, when Ford showed the world the new special edition Bullitt Mustang for 2018 at the Detroit Show this year, that car entered the stage with the other original movie car. The second car. And it was running!
After the whole Bullitt fanfare was finished, the second car was sold to Los Angeles resident and Warner Bros writer Robert Ross with 1000 miles on the clock. He kept it for a year and advertised it in the LA Times for $6,000 when half of that would have been the normal asking price for such a car. New Jersey detective Frank Marranca bought it sight unseen and had the car delivered to him by train.
He, in turn, drove it around for four years before putting up an ad on the back of Road & Track magazine in 1974 for the same $6,000. Insurance executive Robert Kiernan, who lived an hour away from Marranca, tore the page up and drove to the detective’s house. He was sceptical about the whole Bullitt story, but he liked the car and took it home with him. It was a present to his wife.
Mrs Kiernan loved the ‘Stang and used it as her daily driver for 36,000 miles. Needless to say, she automatically became the Queen of Cool. On December 1977, the ‘phone rang and, on the other end of the line, Steve McQueen offered the Kiernans a deal for the car – he wanted to add it to his collection. It was a confirmation they thought they would never have. However, they politely declined McQueen’s offer.
Not used to be said no to, he then insisted a week later with a letter, saying something like: “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.” The Kiernans forgot it.
In 1980, the clutch was gone and with new-born baby Sean taking all of his parents’ free time from 1981, the Mustang was forced into retirement, never to be driven again.
Sean was let in on the secret when he was eight years old. The Ford he had seen in the garage ever since he was born was, in fact, a piece of automotive history. Even when the family moved to Kentucky, then to Florida and, finally, to Tennessee, no one outside the Kiernans knew they owned the Bullitt car. In 2001, Robert Kiernan retired and Ford launched the first commemorative Bullitt Mustang, which prompted father and son to undertake a restoration. Soon after, Robert developed Parkinsons and Sean became a father himself. The project was abandoned.
And then the story becomes too good even for Hollywood standards. The passion for the Mustang prompted Sean to become a mechanic. He works in a Mustang-specialised restoration workshop. One day he met a woman called Samantha Kurin, whose family worked at Ford their whole lives, mainly involved with various Mustang developments over the years. Samantha also drove a Mustang as her daily car.
In 2011, after she and Sean got engaged, Samantha was ‘summoned’ to a Kiernan family meeting, let in on the secret and sworn to secrecy. She couldn’t believe it – her dream car belonged to her future husband. But she kept her word and never told a soul. They got married in 2015, one year after Sean’s dad passed away.
Coming back from the honeymoon, Sean was speaking with his boss about the Mustang business when he told him he had this idea for a screenplay where two kids would find the long lost Bullitt Mustang. Sean couldn’t keep it from his boss for much longer and, in January 2016, invited him to the Kiernans house. Now imagine this man, who had made, bought, sold, repaired and restored Mustangs all his life to see the most significant one ever built right there in front of his eyes. Sean says his reaction is what made him want to make the car public.
He wrote to Ford telling the whole story, but they didn’t believe him and only in November did they send a team of experts to see the car. They couldn’t quite understand how someone could have had the car for so long with no one knowing about it. However, when everything was checked out, Sean became marketing and PR gold to Ford, so they invited him to show the car for the first time at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit alongside the new Bullitt special edition. And, of course, they offered him a new car. It was the least they could do.
When the Steve McQueen-driven Mustang rolled on to the stage at the Detroit Show, it took a while for visitors to realise this was not a replica introducing the new car, this was the car, the real Bullitt car, never restored, as driven in the movie by the King of Cool. Even Molly McQueen, Steve’s granddaughter, attending at the invitation of Ford, was overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of it.
Sean’s car is now on a promotional tour around the USA and some places in Europe. With the help of HVA – Historic Vehicles Association, the US branch of the Fédération International des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA), this car will be inducted into the catalogue of the Library of Congress as one of America’s most important cars, one that should be preserved for future generations. Sean says he cannot drive it without thinking of his father and that he still doesn’t see the car as his own. This will always be his dad’s car. That is why Sean will not sell it, despite experts predicting a possible auction estimate as high as US$5 million.
You know those people who say that everything has a price? Well, they never loved a car as much as Sean loves his father’s Mustang. Now, how about that for a real life, feel good story? I bet that calls for another cold one.
By Guilherme Marques