For more than 40 years, the whereabouts of a certain Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT driven by Steve McQueen in the classic film Bullitt were unknown, the car believed to have been lost or destroyed after it was sold by the studio following completion of the movie.
This was the “hero” car used in the filming, the one used for closeups and driving scenes, while a nearly identical Mustang was the stunt car shown in the action sequences, and was pretty much wrecked as a result.
The missing Bullitt hero Mustang is a celebrated piece of Hollywood history, and everyone from Mustang fanatics to film buffs had begun questing for it, spurred on by the growing fascination with anything connected with McQueen.
So, it was a real shocker when Ford unveiled the actual Bullitt Mustang in its original musty condition during a press preview before the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2018. Ford had been contacted by the Mustang’s owner just in time to display it with the new 2019 Mustang Bullitt model that it was promoting, and just as the movie was marking its 50th anniversary.
Then came the strange back story of the car being stored all those years in a family’s garage, eventually becoming something of their family secret.
What finally came out was that the famed movie car had been in the possession of the family since 1974, when Robert Kiernan bought it as simply a used car. He knew of its movie provenance, but in those days, that was no big deal.
The car was driven for years by his wife, Robbie, as her daily transportation and to commute to her job as a schoolteacher. After that, he put the car up on blocks in the family garage, where it remained as the decades passed. It became something of a family secret as its lost-car notoriety grew.
Kiernan is deceased, and his son Sean became the one who revealed it to the world, and to the Ford display at the auto show. The Mustang was shown throughout 2018 and much of 2019, still in the rough but intact condition in which it came out of the Kiernans’ garage, and still with the original paint, interior and mechanical parts from when McQueen drove it around San Francisco in Bullitt.
The second shocker came in August, when Dana Mecum announced to the media during Monterey Car Week that the Bullitt Mustang would be auctioned with no reserve during Mecum’s signature January sale in Kissimmee, Florida.
After a big, mysterious buildup just before Mecum’s Monterey auction, the car was driven out from behind some curtains, surprising the assembled media people. It was kept on display during the multiday sale.
Sean Kiernan has become something of a celebrity as he traveled with the car on Ford promotional tours, and now to Mecum events, explaining how and why the family jewel was going to be auctioned. And of how his father had kept the famous Mustang under wraps for so long.
“He told us that the car was special, but not how special,” Kiernan said. “I had been walking past it for 45 years.”
Selling the Mustang was an emotional decision, he said, after his father’s death several years ago and because of the long family connection with the car.
During an interview at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, Kiernan said it was like selling a member of the family.
“Like selling a sister,” he said. “She was my Dad’s baby. It was a very hard decision.”
Part of the reason for selling is because of the car’s probable value, which could be immense. McQueen items are hot, such as the 1970 Porsche 911S that he drove in the opening sequences of the movie Le Mans, and that sold at auction for $1.375 million in 2011.
Selling the Mustang at no reserve was a calculated decision, Kiernan said, not only because it’s nearly certain to be a hotly contested item but because he wants to get the emotional sale over and done with.
“I’m not doing this twice,” he said, noting that if there was a minimum-price reserve and the car did not sell, he would be faced with doing the auction thing all over again.
Another reason for selling is that along with the Bullitt Mustang, his dad had stored another car, a 1975 Porsche 911 that he had driven only 100 miles and that Sean would like to restore and get back on the road.
And in that way, he gets to use some of the proceeds of the Mustang sale to bring another piece of his dad’s automotive heritage back to life.
Kiernan said he hopes whoever buys the car keeps it in its current unrestored condition.
“Every nick and dent tells a story,” he said.