Found: the real Bullitt Mustang that Steve McQueen tried (and failed) to buy

McQueen’s Bullitt Mustang: Found at Last
Steve McQueen made one last effort to buy his favorite Mustang in 1977. He sent a letter, typed on a single piece of heavy off-white vellum, to the car’s owner in New Jersey. The logo for his movie company, Solar Productions, was embossed in the upper left corner and opposite that resided the date, December 14, 1977. The letter is just four sentences.
“Again,” it begins, “I would like to appeal to you to get back my ’68 Mustang.” McQueen offered no specifics as to why this particular Ford was important to him, except to say that he wanted to keep it unrestored and that it was “simply personal with me.”
McQueen’s star may have dimmed by 1977, but he remained an icon, a rare actor loved by both genders. McQueen was also one of us, an aficionado and a racer, someone who understood the instinctual joy of automobiles and motorcycles and indulged in both. And with that ’68 Mustang, McQueen gave us a gift, one of the greatest car chases ever filmed, a duel with a Dodge Charger up, down, and around San Francisco. The Bullitt chase is coveted for the usual crashes and jumps, but it had something more: Unlike most cinematic chases that feature cars performing impossible feats, the one from Bullitt was every bit as exciting, but the driving was obviously real. Those who know cars knew. It’s 10 minutes of film nirvana. McQueen wanted the Bullitt Mustang back.

The rich and famous are often allergic to the word “no,” and so was McQueen. His impatience over being rebuked in his quest emerged in the last sentence: “I would be happy to try to find you another Mustang similar to the one you have,” he wrote, “if there is not too much monies involved in it. Otherwise, we had better forget it.”
The owner was just fine with forgetting it, and then the Bullitt Mustang made an exit, stage left, from recorded history.
On a gray and cold December afternoon, 38 years after McQueen wrote that letter, Casey Wallace and Sean Kiernan finished their sales calls and got into a blue Chevy Avalanche for the two-hour drive back to Nashville. The two worked as automotive paint salesmen for LKQ, Kiernan as a local manager and his boss, Wallace, as the regional manager.
The pair shared a working relationship, but they didn’t have much in common; Kiernan is into cars, Wallace, sports. But Wallace, 44, is a natural salesman, very talkative and good at getting others to do the same, so during the course of killing time, he asked his car-loving employee what cars he owned. Sean Kiernan, 36, recited the few old cars sitting around his house.
“What color is the Mustang?” interrupted Wallace, when a ratty ’68 GT390 was mentioned. “Green,” said Kiernan.
That sounds like the Bullitt Mustang,” Wallace remarked casually.
At this point in 2015, few people knew under which out-of-the-way rock the McQueen Mustang might have slipped. For years, speculation abounded about the two Highland Green 1968 Mustang fastbacks purchased for the movie. Both had the GT package and a 390-cubic-inch V-8. They were aesthetically modified by removing the badges and backup lights and bolting on gray Torq Thrust wheels. One Mustang had a roll cage and performed the majority of the most brutal stunts. It was in sad shape when the shoot finally wrapped and was, reportedly, sent to the crusher. The other car, also in the celebrated chase sequence—the less abused “hero” car—had last surfaced in a 1990 article in Mustang Illustrated.
The article ran in response to a previous piece that claimed someone had found the surviving Bullitt car, the one McQueen had tried to buy back. The car’s owner saw that first article, knew it was bunk, and called Mustang Illustrated editor Brad Bowling to set the record straight. Bowling detailed the bona fides of the real thing, included a redacted copy of McQueen’s letter (the owner wished to remain anonymous), and wrote that it lived “somewhere on the East Coast.” Once again the Bullitt car slipped into obscurity, except for the occasional internet rumor.
Hearing Wallace mention the Bullitt Mustang, Kiernan’s stomach dropped. “I thought I screwed up,” he remembered. He hadn’t; Wallace just had Bullitt on the brain. He and a longtime movie-business friend, Ken Horstmann, had written a screenplay about two young guys buying a barn-find car with plans to earn a fortune in the flip. But the car’s owner, it turns out, had sold the car twice, setting up the tension of the movie’s arc. The two kids then embark on a madcap chase to get the car, which—as you will see if this Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Smokey and the Bandit meets The Goonies ever gets made—is the Bullitt Mustang.
Wallace mentioned that he and Horstmann, a director at Turner Studios before starting his own production company, had found a replica Bullitt Mustang and were making plans to use it in a sizzle reel to drum up financing. Then Wallace detailed the rumors about the real one, the 1990 magazine article, and the general belief that the car had been in Kentucky but was now thought to be in Tennessee.

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