Every movie car chase owes “Bullitt.” Two Ford Mustangs were used in the 1968 Steve McQueen film, with its frenzied chase through San Francisco. One is lost. The other Mustang is on display now at LeMay - America’s Car Museum in Tacoma.

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TACOMA — Fifty years ago, a detective thriller starring Steve McQueen and a muscled-up Ford Mustang was a Christmas week release.

“The most exciting fifteen minutes ever Shown on the screen,” promised the Dec. 20, 1968, ad in The Seattle Times for “Bullitt.” The movie lived up to the hype.

Nothing says “happy holidays!” like a car chase sometimes reaching 110 mph through the San Francisco streets and then onto the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway.

Those 15 minutes — actually more like 10 or 11 minutes, depending on who did the measuring — were called by highly regarded critic Emanuel Levy “one of the most exciting car chases in film history, a sequence that revolutionized Hollywood’s standards.”

Two Mustang GT fastbacks were used in the movie.

They have become legendary, even more so because for more than four decades after “Bullitt” was released they appeared to have gone missing.

Now, one of them is on display at Tacoma’s LeMay – America’s Car Museum, a mammoth 165,000-square-foot building holding some 400 vehicles.

“It really is awesome”

The chase scene in “Bullitt” employed no digital tricks, no speeded-up film to make it look more exciting, no fake shots of a 100-mph speedometer. This was all shot in real time, with handheld cameras inside the cars, says a June 2005 Motor Trend story. There is no dialogue during the chase, just engines revving, tires squealing and thumps when the cars bottom out on hilly streets. Every film car chase after that owes “Bullitt.”

Even just sitting there in a corner of the museum, cordoned off, silent, the car pulsates raw power with its 390-cubic-inch rumbling engine, heavy-duty four-speed manual transmission, reinforced shock mounts and Firestone GP Indy Tires all around.

“It really is awesome,” says Walter Pena, 32, of Westminster, Colorado, visiting the museum. “I’m a big motor head. I didn’t grow up in that era when the movie was done. I was super amazed when I saw it. For all the stuff that it did, it looks really good.”

Although McQueen did race cars, in the movie he was behind the wheel “for about 10 percent of what you see on the screen,” the late Loren Janes, the actor’s longtime stunt double, told The Wall Street Journal. McQueen “drove in scenes that required close-ups — but not in the ones that could kill him.”

On the outside, the Mustang looks just like it did in the movie, with the original factory green color made weathered by having steel wool run over it.  This was supposed to be a tough-looking car for tough-guy detective Frank Bullitt. On the front driver’s side, you can see a streak of orange. It’s the factory primer coming through after all these years.

The Mustang will be on display at the museum until April 25.

Renee Crist, the curator of collections for America’s Car Museum in Tacoma describes the Mustang on display, one of two used in the 1968 Steve McQueen cop film, “Bullitt.” (Erik Lacitis / The Seattle Times)

Steve McQueen calls

Of the two Mustangs used in the filming, this one is in the best original shape. Its owner, Sean Kiernan, of Nashville, decided to display it publicly on the 50th anniversary of the film. It’s also the “Bullitt” Mustang that has been inducted into the Historic Vehicle Association’s National Historic Vehicle Register.

The other Mustang ended up corroding in the backyard of a house in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

It was Kiernan’s dad, Bob Kiernan, a car enthusiast who died in 2014, who bought the Mustang in 1974 after seeing an ad in Road & Track magazine. Asking price was $6,000 (about $30,000 in today’s dollars); actual price paid, perhaps $2,000 lower.

It was to replace the family car, and for years the senior Kiernan used it as a daily driver. Then the car developed clutch problems and ended up sitting in the garage. In “Bullitt” lore, it had disappeared. No, it was just parked.

Stories have placed the current value of the car at $3 million to $5 million.

In a phone interview this week, heading back to Nashville after personally trailering the Mustang to Tacoma, Kiernan says, “It’s worth whatever somebody wants to pay for it.”

In any case, he says, “I’m not planning to sell it,” just like his dad wouldn’t sell it when in 1977, McQueen tracked him down.

McQueen first called, was turned down, then sent a letter.

“Again, I would like to appeal to you to get back my ’68 Mustang,” McQueen wrote. “ … I would be happy to try and find you another Mustang similar to the one you have, if there is not too much monies involved in it. Otherwise, we had better forget it.”

The dad never answered the letter.

McQueen would die three years later, in 1980, at age 50, of pleural mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer associated with asbestos exposure.

Walter Pena, 32, of Westminster, Colorado, a visitor to America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, describes the Mustang on display, one of two used in the 1968 Steve McQueen cop film, “Bullitt.” (Erik Lacitis / The Seattle Times)

“The real deal”

Kiernan has a full-time job as a manager in an aftermarket auto-parts company. The Mustang does not generate money.

“I haven’t made one dollar this year,” he says. Yes, Kiernan says, he gets reimbursed for transportation costs, but that’s it.

“I’m doing this for the greater good,” he says.

And that greater good is the intense emotions that the Mustang brings out, whether in older or younger gear heads.

“It’s the muscle-car era,” says Kiernan. “You look at the car and it’s about the sweat and tears in it. When you get in it, it takes all your attention. You can’t text and drive it. It takes every ounce of everything you’re doing.”

The appeal of the Mustang is universal.

In Germany, there is a website devoted to nothing but the car, not surprisingly called “The Bullitt Page.”

On Facebook, “BullittMovie” has 155,538 followers.

At the museum, one of the volunteers, Al Provost, 72, of Gig Harbor, bought a 1968 Mustang and a 1968 Magnum Dodge Charger (the car driven by the bad guys McQueen was chasing) and turned them into replicas of the movie cars.

The retired firefighter has spent $30,000 to $35,000 on the vehicles. To get the details right, “I’ve spent a lot of hours in front of the big-screen TV,” he says, watching “Bullitt.”

Why?

“Almost every single action movie you see now has a car-chase component, and that was largely Steve McQueen’s idea.”

For more analysis, all you have to  do is watch the visitors at the museum as they take in the “Bullitt” Mustang.

“This is the real deal,” says Gene Miller, who owns a trucking company in Monroe.

Yes, it is.

CORRECTION: The caption on photo number six incorrectly identified the tachometer as the speedometer.