Ford’s not-all-that unexpected reveal of the 2019 Bullitt edition Mustang GT was accompanied on stage by a genuine surprise: the long-missing, 1968 Mustang used in the filming of the original movie. That’s a little bit like the Loch Ness monster showing up at an Olympic swim meet.
Road & Track played a small part in the history of this special car—it was last sold via a classified in the October 1974 issue of the magazine. Perhaps as a belated commission, we were granted special access weeks before the auto show reveal. It was all very hush hush: We met the car and its owner in the same Dearborn basement where Ford clandestinely developed the GT. “Can I just beg you not to fuck this up?” asked one anxious insider.
We walked around the car, huffed its exhaust fumes, watched The Chase a hundred or so more times. Mostly, though, we asked questions. Let’s get right to them.
So, this is it? The Bullitt?
Yes. The Bullitt Mustang. It rolled off a California assembly line in January 1968 wearing a fresh coat of Highland green paint. Warner Bros. took delivery. It is the car Steve McQueen (and his stunt man) drove in one of the best chase scenes of all time.
Where the heck was it all this time, and who has it now?
That’s a rather short story. Warner Bros. had the car repaired after filming and sold it to an executive at the studio, who passed it to a detective on the east coast. The detective unloaded it, via Road & Track classifieds, onto Robert Kiernan, an insurance executive, who owned it to his death in 2014. His son, Sean Kiernan, reassembled the car and is now bringing it out of hiding.
Beyond provenance, what makes the Bullitt Mustang special?
The car rolled off a production assembly line a Mustang GT with a stock 390 cubic-inch V8 but didn’t stay that way long. Max Balchowsky—known for freakishly fast home-built race cars—installed chassis braces, heavy duty springs and dampers, and modified the engine. Los Angeles panel beater Lee Brown pulled the badges, ran steel wool on the factory-fresh paint, and even put dents in the door to make the car fit with McQueen’s character, hard-bitten detective Frank Bullitt. The list of tweaks gets longer the closer you look: Little scraps of black gaffer tape (used for all sorts of odd jobs on movie sets), a crude hole punched in the trunk through which, Kiernan and others speculate, a smoke machine embellished McQueen’s reverse burnout. Square tubes—camera mounts—protrude from the underbody. “To put that camera mount on they had to weld right over a fuel line,” notes Kiernan, who, of course, wound up having to replace all those lines. “That was a two day-er, just to get through the camera mount.”
The coolest bit may be the remnants of adhesive on the right side of the tachometer. This, we’re told, is where Balchowsky taped a note indicating the engine’s new redline. “Little pieces,” it read.
How do we know it’s legitimate?
The movie modifications certainly build the car’s case, but the strongest evidence comes from less exotic details.
“There are all kinds of fingerprints involved in the production of a vehicle,” explains Kevin Marti. Marti’s kind of a big deal in the collector Ford world—the official licensee to the automaker’s vehicle-specific production data from 1967 to 2012. On top of that, he’s a mechanical engineer with a nearly infectious enthusiasm for minutia. He evaluated Kiernan’s claim in 2016.
First, he looked at the VIN on the dash. The number not only matches Marti’s records, but the plate that wears it has oxidized in a way that’s hard to fake. Another tell: The date codes on body stampings correspond correctly to the car’s assembly date (they should be not too much earlier and no later).
In addition to the body of circumstantial evidence, Kiernan has written testimony from an unimpeachable source: Steve McQueen. In a signed 1977 letter addressed to Kiernan’s father, McQueen appeals to buy back his Mustang. Sean, with a nonchalance that must be practiced by now, produced the letter from a simple folder and set it on the hood. This is the real deal.
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