The Mustang used by Steve McQueen on the classic movie ‘Bullitt’ is ready for a close-up. McQueen and his car came to personify the 70s idea of cool male virility.
DETROIT — Sean Kiernan is a paint salesman who lived on a horse farm outside Nashville, Tennessee, with a dream. And somehow that dream came true — but it is also just beginning.
This is the story of how a rusty 1968 Ford Mustang ended up being the biggest attraction at the 2018 Detroit auto show after a family kept the famous muscle car hidden for 40 years. Estimated to be worth at least $4 million now, the Highland green car is famous for being driven by Steve McQueen in the classic film “Bullitt.” It forever established a Hollywood standard for high-action car-chase scenes. One Mustang used in the film went to a junk heap. The other Mustang seemed to disappear.
Now, Kiernan’s 1968 Mustang GT Fastback is going on a world tour that will include a week being shown off under glass at the National Mall in Washington and perhaps eventual display at The Henry Ford museum complex, among other classic artifacts of Americana.
“It’s not often in life when you run into a Mona Lisa lost in a garage somewhere. That’s what this is. It’s a Mona Lisa car,” said McKeel Hagerty, CEO of the world’s largest insurer of classic cars and founder of the Historic Vehicle Association.
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These days, TV news crews from throughout the U.S., France, Japan, China, Norway, Italy and Mexico have rushed to capture images of the iconic vehicle on display at the Cobo Center in the heart of the Motor City.
Crowds at the North American International Auto Show can see the global attraction until Jan. 28, and then it tours the U.S., and likely Europe and Asia, during the next 12 months.
In April, the famous ’68 Mustang Bullitt will be enclosed in a glass box and featured as part of Cars at the Capital, a Historic Vehicle Association exhibition that attracts some 500,000 visitors to the National Mall. The site, tucked between the U.S. Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art, will be lit at night.
“This is the most significant unveiling of a lost car in most people’s modern memory. This one has just truly always been out there in people’s minds,” Hagerty said. “And this was a mission for a man who loved his father.”
Keeping the secret
Sean Kiernan, 36, has always been a quiet man who focused on going to work, being a good husband and providing for his family. He rarely allowed his picture to be taken. Until now, the only images captured have been selfies snapped by his wife, Samantha Kiernan, 28.
When they recently packed their bags for Detroit, no one knew they were part of a Ford celebration of the 50th anniversary of the film “Bullitt” and the public unveiling of the collector car, along with introduction of a new Mustang that pays homage to the original.
“My dad thought Sean was getting an award for selling the most paint for LKQ Corp.,” said Samantha Kiernan, who grew up in Dearborn with a father, uncle and aunt who worked at Ford.
As store manager, Sean Kiernan had worked for the automotive-paint company for a decade.
Sean’s mother, Robbie, was part of the plan. She drove that Mustang back in the day to St. Vincent’s Parish to teach third grade. Her husband, Robert, who had bought the car, took the train from their home in Madison, New Jersey, to work in New York City.
“The car didn’t impress me much back then. I was just 8 and it was old and uncomfortable,” said Sean’s sister, Kelly Cotton, 47, a preschool teacher who lives in Union, Kentucky. Later, the car would end up retired to the garage, first at the family’s home in New Jersey, and then, at the farm, when the family moved to Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati.
By 1995, the family moved to a house on a smaller farm near Nashville. A few years later Kiernan’s father retired and started scaling back. “By the late 1990s my father and I started to talk about rebuilding (the) Bullitt,” Sean said.
The Mustang, purchased through a classified ad in an October 1974 issue of Road & Track magazine for between $3,000 and $6,000, was left parked next to a 1975 Porsche in the family garage. The Mustang today has 65,000 miles on the odometer.
“Those two cars spent a lot of time next to each other,” Sean Kiernan said. “Nobody paid much attention to the Mustang.”
He kept the pony car covered with old bed comforters and blankets. If anyone asked, the family said it was a Camaro. The family didn’t intend to keep a secret, really. Sean and his father had hoped to refurbish the car together, but a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease interrupted their plans and the former insurance executive died in 2014. “It became a father-son project we were never able to finish together,” Sean said.
Robbie Kiernan knew that after her husband died, Sean wanted to do something special. He approached Ford with the idea for a unique unveiling. And then Sean contacted classic-car experts, who helped document the origin of the vehicle and create a paper trail.
Hagerty, who is based in Traverse City, helped Kiernan document everything through historical automotive records and processes to protect the father of two who simply wanted to hold on to his dad’s beloved car.
At issue were potential conflicts; Warner Bros. owns the rights to the film, McQueen’s estate manages his interests, Ford builds new cars and created a limited-edition 2019 Mustang Bullitt.
“We wanted to make sure interests were aligned,” Hagerty said. “We have over 900 employees and we’re dedicated to preservation. This car was not brought out just to go to auction. This is true love for the car.”
Ford trucked the 1968 Mustang to Detroit in a trailer “by itself, looking very lonely,” Kiernan said. “I met Bill Ford and CEO Jim Hackett. They were awesome.”
The company has paid for incidentals associated with the trip, including a hotel room in Dearborn, meals and a tuxedo for the auto show’s formal charity ball.
“We did this for Dad”
On Jan. 14, as Kiernan prepared to drive his car out for the international media debut on the eve of auto-show press week, he said he worried he would cry. His mom watched on a livestream and texted her son minutes before the event began.
“We did this for Dad,” Samantha Kiernan said, placing her hand gently on her husband’s knee.
Sean said, “My dad, he was the best of everything. Not only was he one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life, but he made sure we were all taken care of. He was corporate during the day and a horse farmer at night. He was into cars and horses and down to earth and funny. This car is part of the family. That’s what it means to me. That’s why I could never sell it.”
In the film, Steve McQueen played police detective Frank Bullitt.
Ford brought Molly McQueen to Detroit to help unveil the new Mustang, but said connecting with the old Mustang made her feel a closeness to her legendary grandfather. “This is my most tangible connection to him,” she said.
The car has created a unique connection in ways no one could have anticipated.
“It sent shock waves through Detroit, and that reverberated around the planet,” said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association based in Washington, D.C.
French readers flooded internet news sites when they heard about the 1968 Mustang Bullitt.
“Steve McQueen and his legendary car was, for many young Frenchmen of the ’70s, the incarnation of male and virile codes. The stud man and his sexy car,” said Eric Béziat, automotive journalist at Le Monde, the main daily newspaper in France, who just returned to Paris from Detroit. “And Mustang in France is a real commercial success.”
On a recent afternoon, Bill Schuette, the Michigan attorney general, emerged from Cobo’s Hall A after visiting the Ford display by himself, all smiles. “I went to law school in San Francisco. I’ve been up and down every hill Steve McQueen raced through in the movie. I love that ’68 version of the Mustang, the marks and scuffs and the beautiful story.”
Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford, said, “As a family company, having both Molly and Sean on stage to share their stories and passion was incredibly special.”
It’s difficult to quantify the advertising value the 1968 Mustang will bring to Ford, said Robert Davidman, partner at The Fearless Agency in New York. “How do you feel after you see this car? It’s very hard to make somebody feel like they’ve stepped back into their childhood.”
He added, “To get so many people talking about the Ford brand could cost tens of millions of dollars and the effect would be temporary at best. Doing that with such an iconic vehicle, however, also adds to the intangible emotional connection individuals have with the Ford brand.”
For one year, Kiernan will travel the world with his car and work on a documentary scheduled for release in late 2018. Then he plans to return to his father’s 32-acre farm with his wife and their two girls.
And the car?
“My main goal is to have it go to The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. Samantha’s father could curate the place, he loves it so much. And that’s where we went when we first met. It’s very special to us,” Kiernan said.
The Mustang was scoured dull for the film. The front bumper is new, from when Kiernan’s grandpa backed into the car. Its engine was rebuilt, aging carpets replaced.
Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford, said the ’68 Mustang Bullitt would be welcome to join Mustang serial No. 1 on display. “We’re one of the pilgrimage points on the Mustang trail.”
He said the Bullitt is one of maybe three Hollywood classics that would best fit at the Dearborn museum. The others? A James Bond 1964 Aston Martin DB5 from “Goldfinger” and the 1966 Batmobile built from a 1955 Lincoln Futura — both of which sold at auction within the past nine years for more than $4 million.
“McQueen is the definition of cool,” said Anderson, who had already visited the old Mustang at Cobo Center more than once. “A car that’s 50 years old is the most talked-about vehicle this year.”