We hitch a ride in possibly the most famous car in the world – the very car that Steve McQueen drove in the 1968 movie Bullitt – as its owner explains where it's been all these years
‘Is this the Steve McQueen car?’ Yes it is.
‘Is this the car they found in a barn?’ Well, sort of.
‘Are you going to paint it?’ No, never.
‘How much is it worth?’ [No answer – but we reckon at least $5m].
Mustang owner Sean Kiernan is at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, being bombarded by questions. Not a few, not occasionally, but hundreds, constantly. In the two hours I spent with him we talked Mustangs, supercars, 911s, Bullitt, family loyalties, paint and more, in between a bombardment of questions. All the time, questions. It’s exhausting but amazing.
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All around the Bullitt Mustang – because yes, this is the absolutely genuine, original Steve McQueen film car – in the First Glance paddock there are never-seen-before supercars and one-offs, and on the way down to the startline we pass legendary race cars, eight of Singer’s ‘reimagined’ 911s, Group B rally cars and more.
And yet the Mustang, battered, faded and dosed liberally with surface rust, is the star. People run to see it. Phones are pointed at it, everyone wants to come and talk. Is it the most famous car in the world? It’s a tight contest between this, the Bond DB5 and the Back to the Future Delorean. Is it the star of the Festival of Speed? It does seem that way. Aston Martin works race star Darren Turner comments ‘coolest car on the hill today’, which sums it up.
A brief history: the Mustang is one of two cars used for filming Bullitt, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. This was the hero car, fitted with three camera mounting tubes under each sill/rocker panel and with holes for camera mounts in the rear. Another car was used for the jumps during the famous, legendary, car chase through the streets of San Francisco. That car ended up in such a state that it was taken for scrap (but was later rescued, as you can read here.
After filming, this car was sold to a Warner Brothers employee. It then sold to a policeman, who later advertised it in the back of Road & Track magazine. This is when Sean’s father spotted it, and he moved fast, buying it for a then-high $6000…
‘My father pulled his copy of Road & Track out the mailbox, saw the classified ad, phoned the guy, went and bought the car and it was on our drive by the time I got back from school,’ laughs Sean (pictured below). ‘He was the first guy and only guy to see it.’
We’ve told the story before right here of what happened to the car over the following years, though Sean sums it up succinctly enough:
‘Mom and dad put about 40,000 miles on it in the ‘70s, then it was parked. McQueen tried to buy it in ’77. In the ’80s it was mostly sat not doing anything, then the ‘90s got really weird, people started coming after it. Only a few people on the planet knew we had it but we got broken into twice. One person stole the air filter, one person grabbed pictures of it, tried to sell them. At that point we went deeper underground with it, moved it to my garage, covered it up.
‘When Ford came out with the first Bullitt edition Mustang in ‘01, we took it apart, started fiddling with it. The aim was to preserve the history but to make sure the fuel lines and everything were ok. My dad was amazing at taking things apart, not so good at putting them back together. Sadly he passed away in 2014 and I eventually got inspired, telling my boss about it and putting the car back together.’
Today, an emotional, rather overwhelmed Sean is driving the Mustang up the famous Goodwood hillclimb, and I’m the passenger, incredibly. We look over the car in the paddock, as Sean fields more questions.
The famous Highland Green paint is completely flat, and there’s surface rust across much of the panelwork. The dents on the roof are down to Sean’s grandfather dropping a tyre on it many years ago, and at some point he also backed into it (twice!), destroying the front bumper, which is why the car now sports an incongruously shiny replacement.
The doors open and closely easily, no slamming required, and it’s immediately striking how roomy the interior is, sat in the low-back black vinyl seats that you’ll recognise from the film footage of McQueen in the car.
The interior is brilliantly scruffy, save for new-ish black carpet. The stickers on the windows are yellowed and peeling, and there’s little left of the plastic chrome on the instrument dials. The glovebox lid is covered in surface rust, the headlining is missing, and there’s a pair of cheap 1970s speakers sat behind the rear seat. All this is pure gold – but what’s really special is the smell.
How to describe it? It’s a warm, musty small, tinged with stale fuel and the memory of hot oil. Sean says it’s the smell of his childhood, remembered from the days of the car being delivered from storage in New Jersey to the family home in Kentucky when Sean was just seven or eight years old.
‘The smell in it back then is still in it,’ he says. ‘I spent so many hours, days, in it, just sitting behind the wheel. I’ve got a ’75 911, which dad bought in 1988, and it’s spent its whole time sitting next to this car – it smells just like it. That car means as much to me as that one.’
He knew all along that it was the Bullitt car. ‘Dad showed me the chase scene, probably around ‘88, so I was seven years old. Only the chase scene, not the whole movie – it’s kinda dark for a seven-year-old. I was so into Mustangs but I couldn’t say anything about this car.
‘The fun thing now is that people trust me with secrets,’ he adds. But revealing that secret was the most stressful thing he’d ever done.
‘You build a car, you take it to a show, a lot of people look at it. But I’d never built a car that the whole world was going to see. If you can imagine the stress – I didn’t know how to do it.
Then to have that sitting there knowing that my father had taken it apart, and knowing that I’d have to put it back together on my own, take the most personal thing to me and show it the whole world. Psychologically that messes with you.’
Sean rebuilt the engine, honing the bores, reprofiling the camshaft, and made sure that the fuel system was safe. The thought of a fuel leak causing a fire is too horrible to contemplate.
The attention means that when the marshals say it’s time to head out of the paddock, the Mustang fires immediately. The big block V8 roars into life, and the body rocks on its suspension as Sean blips the throttle. There’s no question that Sean is driving – the only other person who’s driven the car is Jay Leno.
Queuing at Goodwood is inevitable but the Mustang idles cleanly for a while, until Sean shuts it down, wary of the heat build-up in the engine bay. He’s worried about fuel vaporisation and of the manual gearbox playing up – twice now it’s locked itself into second gear. The four-on-the-floor Hurst shifter looks the part but Sean shows a series of burn marks on his forearm, caused as he delved under the car to free the linkage – ‘these are from Detroit and this one’s from Goodwood’.
We slowly rumble on down to the startline. For the first run we’re with Ford GT works driver Harry Tincknell in a new Bullitt edition Mustang. Then we’ll head straight into a second run with the Dodge Charger from Bullitt. Amazing!
Everywhere we go people run over, hands all over the car, Sean tolerant but conscious of greasy fingerprints on the paint. Eventually we make it to the startline, still receiving waves and thumbs-up from everyone we pass. Never have I seen so much attention focussed on one car as today. Incredible.
Sean guns it from the startline, though careful not to wheelspin. This is not a car that can be broken by unsympathetic driving. He’s only been up the hill once before and he’s rightly cautious at the first corner, which catches so many out. Behind us there’s a screech of tyres as Harry showboats the new Bullitt Mustang and then he comes alongside us, thumbs up, grinning almost as widely as Sean and I, before wheelspinning off into the distance. It sounds immense.
Meanwhile we take it a bit easier in the real Bullitt Mustang. Sean has gone quiet as he takes it all in: the adoration for his late father’s car, the waves and cheers as we rumble past. We barely make it into third gear before the dreaded Molecomb corner, scene of so many accidents, but the Mustang cruises round.
It feels tight. It doesn’t roll or lurch around the tight bend, and it squats back nicely as Sean accelerates, the V8 sounding crisp and raucous. Occasionally there’s a Sean-frown-inducing clonk from the back end but it doesn’t sound serious.
We accelerate through the narrowest section of the hillclimb, past the flint wall and through the woods to the always-understated finish line, the marshals giving a thumbs up, of course. And then we’re into the assembly area at the top of the hill, which is packed with the very latest supercars – and suddenly every camera phone is turned towards the scruffy green Mustang. Supercars? Meh.
We park alongside a Koenigsegg as car-mad Sean tells of meeting Christian von Koenigsegg, one his his heroes – though the man he really wants to meet now is Adrian Newey.
And you know what? We trundle down the hill, straight back to the startline (unheard of at Goodwood!) and meet up with one of the two original Bullitt 1968 Dodge Chargers, now in the charge of German specialists ChromeCars. This time we start side-by-side, the Charger rather more exuberantly, as befits the ‘bad guys’.
There’s a moment when we’re alongside each other, the two German guys from ChromeCars looking across at us, grinning wildly as we pass Goodwood House. And then they back off, and I look through the rear window to see the Charger menacingly close behind. It’s a little surreal.
There are more cheers as we continue to roar up the hill, Sean pushing a bit harder this time though still respectful of what is one of, say, the top-three most famous cars in the world (alongside the Bond DB5 and the Back to the Future Delorean we reckon).
‘This is so surreal,’ he says, as we pull back into the holding area at the top of the hill. 'This car has changed my life.’