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Home The Market Auctions Rear view: No.4 – Bullitt, Shelby Mustangs sold for auction records

Rear view: No.4 – Bullitt, Shelby Mustangs sold for auction records

The iconic Steve McQueen movie car was topped by the first Shelby GT350R race car

Year in Review

Ford Mustangs, already beloved by hordes of car collectors in the US and around the world, reached an extreme level in 2020, hitting startlingly high record-setting auction sales for two very special examples.

First up was one of the most iconic movie cars of all time, the actual 1968 Mustang GT driven by Steve McQueen in the 1968 action film Bullitt. This “hero” car – the one used in closeups and regular driving scenes as opposed to the “jump car” used for stunts – was sold at Mecum’s Kissimmee auction for $3.74 million (including auction fee), which was far and away the most ever paid for a Mustang at auction.

That record was short-lived, however.  In Indianapolis just six months later, Mecum struck again with the sale of the first 1965 Shelby GT350R competition model built, which was also the first entered in a sanctioned racing event and driven to victory by the legendary Ken Miles, whose dramatic driving skill earned the car the nickname of the “Flying Mustang.” The Shelby nosed out the Bullitt when it sold for $3.85 million (including auction fee).

The Mustang is driven out of its glass enclosure prior to the Mecum bidding | Jim McCay

The story of the Bullitt Mustang would make a good film script in itself.  The whereabouts of the two Highland Green Mustangs used in the movie had been a mystery for decades, with most fans believing they were lost forever, perhaps destroyed.  Then in 2017, the battered jump car was discovered in Baja, Mexico, where it had been abandoned in rotten condition.  Last word, that car is undergoing restoration.

Just a couple months later, Ford Motor Co. revealed that the Bullitt hero car had been brought out of the shadows, still intact and in mostly original condition as it was after being featured in the film.

Ford took the opportunity to unveil the as-found Bullitt Mustang at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, right next to the new 50th anniversary 2019 Mustang Bullitt special-edition that was making its debut.  Quite a coup for the Dearborn automaker.

The Mustang had been brought to Ford by Sean Kiernan, whose father, Robert Kiernan, had purchased the Mustang as a second-hand movie car.  The car was used for several years by his mother, a third-grade teacher, until it was put away for safekeeping, according to the son.

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Sean Kiernan speaks about his family’s ownership of the Bullitt Mustang | Rebecca Nguyen

The missing Bullitt Mustang is a celebrated piece of Hollywood history, and everyone from Mustang fanatics to film buffs were questing for it, spurred on by the growing fascination with anything connected with McQueen.

During more than 40 years of storage in the family garage, Robert Kiernan kept the identity of the car under wraps. It became something of a family secret, the son said. After his father died, the family debated what to do with the famous, and apparently valuable, movie Mustang.  

“He told us that the car was special, but not how special,” Sean Kiernan said after the car was revealed.  “I had been walking past it for 45 years.”

After the Detroit auto show reveal, Kiernan found himself on a celebrity ride with the Mustang, traveling to concours and shows, and using it to help raise money for Parkinson’s disease research. 

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Steve McQueen drove the Mustang during filming of ‘Bullitt’

The Bullitt Mustang was announced by the Historic Vehicle Association as the 21st automobile inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register and listed in perpetuity in the archives of the Library of Congress.   It was displayed in a glass case on the Capitol Mall in Washington, DC.

In August 2019, Dana Mecum brought the Mustang out from behind a curtain before a gaggle of journalists during his company’s Monterey Car Week auction, when he announced that the car would be auctioned during the January sale in Kissimmee, Florida. 

The car was in appropriately patinaed condition, the paint and interior original, with some wear, scratches and dents acquired both in the movie-making and over the years with the Kiernan family.

The auction was held without a reserve because, Kiernan said, he wanted the car to sell in Kissimmee so he wouldn’t have to go through it all over if it failed to meet a reserve price and was not sold.  Besides, he was confident that the famed Bullitt Mustang would achieve a towering result, which it most certainly did.

The GT350R was the first to hit the track and score a win for Shelby Mustang | Mecum

The first race-ready Shelby Mustang GT350R is a stirring piece of motorsport legend.  Mecum described it in the catalog for the Indianapolis auction as “the first Shelby R-Model competition car built and the first Shelby Mustang to win a race, easily qualifying it as the most historically significant Shelby Mustang in the world.”

“5R002 is an automobile so historically significant that accurately and completely summarizing its eminence can be difficult because of the many reasons for which it is important,” the catalog added.

Known as the “Flying Mustang” because of a famous photo shot with Miles behind the wheel and all four tires well off the ground, the Shelby was introduced by the champion driver at Green Valley Raceway in California on Feb. 14, 1965.  Its resounding success helped establish Mustang as a performance car and not just a pretty runabout.

The famous photo of the ‘Flying Mustang’ with Ken Miles at the wheel | Courtesy of Mecum

The sale of the Shelby, like the Bullitt Mustang, also has something of a movie connection. While its value as an important racing landmark was already doubtless, its sale most-likely was boosted by the recent popular recognition of Ken Miles, portrayed as a main character in the movie Ford v Ferrari

While Mustangs fanatics celebrated the remarkable auction results for these two legendary cars, they must be seen as outliers, the sales of which are unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. 

Year in Review Series

Looking back at the most influential automotive stories and events of 2020.

Bob Golfen
Bob Golfen is a longtime automotive writer and editor, focusing on new vehicles, collector cars, car culture and the automotive lifestyle. He is the former automotive writer and editor for The Arizona Republic and SPEED.com, the website for the SPEED motorsports channel. He has written free-lance articles for a number of publications, including Autoweek, The New York Times and Barrett-Jackson auction catalogs. A collector car enthusiast with a wide range of knowledge about the old cars that we all love and desire, Bob enjoys tinkering with archaic machinery. His current obsession is a 1962 Porsche 356 Super coupe.

7 COMMENTS

  1. That reference to the Feb 14, 1965 race at Green valley raceway was in texas, not California. How do I know: I was in the same race and on the track at the same time. The race included A, B, C, D production (as the SCCA reckoned classes at that time). I was driving my D prod Austin Healey. The 427 Cobra was driven by Bob Bondurant the. I didn’t realize then what fast company I was keeping. I can add more details about this historic event if you’d like. By the way, I still own the Healey.

  2. Wow! You’re a legond also! Wounder what they thought when you told the true story.By the way,where in Texas did that race take place?

    • The racetrack, known as Green Valley raceway, was northeast of Ft. Worth, Texas. It was basically a dragstrip built on an old dairy farm. The race course consisted of the dragstrip, return road with a few turns and a big sweeping turn that ran through the staging lanes and then back onto the drag strip, which really let the racers wind the cars out. I attended that race and was standing right where the Shelby got off the ground. I was 13 at the time and bought the race poster for $1.00, which my wife had framed for me. I still have it if anyone is interested in seeing it.

  3. I have always loved Mustangs and Ford’s starting in 1963 when I was 11. My father bought a new Galaxy then. We were sitting at a traffic light and a 63 Ford 300 with a 427 pulled up next to us and was shaking the ground. I was amazed how that car looked and sounded. That was the day I fell in love with Ford’s. My first car was a 68 Cougar with many Mercury’s, Mustangs, Tbirds, Explorers and even a 65 Lincoln stretch limo to follow. I always had to sell one to get another one but loved them all. I now have an Explorer and a 91 Mustang GT. Wish I could have kept all of them. My son will get the 91some day. I’ll never trade it.

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