Is this the car find of the decade? One of only two 1968 Ford Mustangs used in Bullitt, presumed lost, has reappeared
An advert on page 121 of the October 1974 issue of Road & Track magazine featured a listing that read: ‘1968 Bullitt Mustang driven by McQueen in the movie… Can be documented. Best offer.’ The purchaser handed over $6000, the film star car becoming a regular on the streets around Madison, New Jersey.
It then passed through a series of owners, including a Warner Brothers producer and a police officer, until Steve McQueen himself tried to buy it back.
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Shortly before his untimely death, the King of Cool made one final effort to purchase his desired Mustang in 1977. He sent a typed letter to the Mustang’s owner – Bob Kiernan – in New Jersey. Topped with the logo for his movie company, Solar Productions, and dated December 14, the letter was only four sentences long.
‘Again, I would like to appeal to you to get back my ’68 Mustang. I would like very much to keep it in the family in its original condition as it was used in the film, rather than have it restored; which is simply personal with me.
I would be happy to try and find you another Mustang similar to the one you have, if there is not too much monies involved in it. Otherwise, we had better forget it.’
Having purchased the Bullitt Mustang, immortalised in Peter Yate’s 1968 car chase epic, the owner knew what he had – one of only two Mustangs used in filming, and the one driven by McQueen – and decided not to sell.
The trail then went cold, the famous pony car disappearing from the car scene and believed lost to corrosion and time. Becoming something of a myth, urban legend stated that the car was locked in a heavily fortified warehouse in the deep south of America. Steve McQueen died, aged 50, in 1980.
As it turns out, the Bullitt Mustang was used by Kiernan’s wife to commute to her teaching job at a nearby school. Besides alarming her at the amount of fuel it could devour, the clutch collapsed and, with 65,000 miles on the clock, it was towed into a garage in 1980 for a four year hiatus.
The family moved to Cincinnati in 1984 and took the Ford with them, with another relocation to Florida ten years later. However, the car remained with a friend in Kentucky. A final move to a farm in Nashville gave the legendary Mustang its final resting place; until now.
Robert Kiernan passed away in 2014, never having driven the car again. It is with the 50th anniversary of the film's release that his son, Sean, has decided to get it roadworthy again, preserving the car’s originality and patina.
The aftermarket steering wheel and gearknob seen on celluloid in 1968 were stolen in transit between owners, but the interior is otherwise the same as it would have been when McQueen drove it, and the mechanical system and bodywork remain largely untouched.
The Mustang will also be inducted into the Historic Vehicle Association roster for this year, only the 21st vehicle ever to be honoured.
The unearthing of the film icon coincides with Ford’s unveiling of a special Bullitt edition 2018 Mustang, saluting the movie car with subtle chrome and Highland Green paintwork alongside a tuned V8 and homage interior trim.
Sat on stage with Ford’s new incarnation, Steve McQueen’s granddaughter – Molly McQueen – met the vehicle that propelled her grandfather into the history books. She also took to the track for a speed run in the new machine, including an introductory film where she races a Dodge Charger to grab the final parking space in a multi-story car park – but we prefer this video of Molly McQueen and Sean Kiernan starting the car in the Ford workshops.
‘You know, it was never our intention to keep this car a secret from everybody,’ Sean said. 'It just kind of happened with life. I’m just completely buzzing to join with Ford and the new Bullitt and show this car to the world on one of the biggest stages there is.’
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How much is the Bullitt Mustang worth?
McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty Insurance explains: ‘Valuing a vehicle that is among the most cherished movie cars of all time is difficult, if not impossible. It’s ultimately worth what someone will pay for it. Steve McQueen is such an icon in the car world, though, that we expect a lot of interest in owning it, which will increase its price, if in fact the owner sells it.
'We saw the same thing happen with other iconic TV and movie cars like the original Batmobile, which sold for $4.6M in 2013, and the James Bond Aston Martin DB5, which sold for $4.1M in 2010. It would not be surprising if the Bullitt – were it to come to auction – would be in a similar range.'