'Bullitt' Mustang placed on historic list
WASHINGTON -- The Historic Vehicle Association this week announced that a 1968 Mustang Fastback, serial No. 8R02S125559 from the 1968 movie "Bullitt," was selected as the 21st automobile on the National Historic Vehicle Register.
Owned by Sean Kiernan of Nashville, Tennessee, the Mustang debuted with the new Ford Mustang Bullitt at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the car and the iconic movie.
Kiernan's No. 559 Mustang was the "hero car" used for many of actor Steve McQueen's close-up scenes in the filming. A second car (Serial No. 8R02S125558) was the "jump car" and was modified for many of the film's stunt scenes.
The heavily damaged No. 558 car was recently discovered in Mexico.
Kiernan said his parents bought the car from a New Jersey detective in 1974 and it became a family secret for 40 years.
"They found it in a classified ad from the October 1974 issue of Road & Track," he said. "The ad was slightly misspelled and read: '1968 Bullett Mustang driven by McQueen in the movie. Can be documented. Best offer.' "
According to the detective, Kiernan's father Robert was the only person who called.
"We're not exactly sure how much dad paid but it was around six grand. It was quite a bit of money back then for a used '68 Mustang Fastback. In fact, it was about twice to four times the going rate."
In 1977, the family got a call from McQueen. The actor had tracked down the prior owner, who gave him the Kiernans' phone number. McQueen wanted the car. McQueen followed up with a letter to Kiernan's father.
"But my dad told him 'No thanks, we are not interested in selling.' "
For decades, the Mustang has been the subject of numerous rumors, myths and dead-end searches. These stories evolved and took on a life of their own and the car became something of a holy grail in the car-collecting world.
"From our vantage point, it is among the most important automotive artifacts of the 20th century. It has the incredible combination of Hollywood royalty and decades of an honest family's ownership and the secret that engulfed its mystery, said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association.
The movie "Bullitt" was the first film produced for Warner Bros. by McQueen's Solar Productions. McQueen, known for his love of motorcycles and fast cars, was intent on bringing real action to the screen. The eleven-minute chase scene at the film's core is believed to have changed Hollywood filmmaking.
Today, the Bullitt Mustang No. 559 is pretty much the way it was when Robert and Robbie Kiernan, both 26, bought it in 1974. "Bullitt wasn't a second car -- it was their only car," their son said.
The Kiernans had been married for five years and lived in Madison, New Jersey, about 25 miles from New York City. Robert took the train every day to the World Trade Center where he worked in insurance. Robbie drove Bullitt to St. Vincent's parish where she taught third grade.
"I was born in 1981, about the last time the Bullitt moved under its own power," Sean Kiernan said. By the time it was parked, the family had put 46,000 miles on the car.
"Dad was always a car guy but by the 1980s another passion bit him. It was horses," he said. The family to a Kentucky farm outside of Cincinnati, where they had a number of horses.
After Steve McQueen passed, hunting for the Bullitt Mustang intensified. While the car was decidedly not for sale, it simply became a project his father didn't have time for. "Gradually, it became our family secret out of necessity. "Dad was now a busy executive with horse-racing business interests, but he took quiet pride knowing the
Bullitt was waiting in the garage."
By 1995, the family moved to a house on a smaller farm near Nashville. A few years later his father retired and started scaling back. "By the late 1990s my father and I started to talk about rebuilding Bullitt. We became further inspired when, in 2001, Ford launched its first anniversary Mustang Bullitt, which stirred up more talk of the whereabouts of our original car."
The father-son project finally started to gain momentum, but illness struck when Robert Kiernan was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. "For the next couple of years, we could talk about cars, but not accomplish much." In 2014, his father passed away. "It became a father-son project we were never able to finish together."
"Over the past two years, Kiernan has tried to return Bullitt to the condition it was when it was his parent's daily driver. The engine was rebuilt, aging carpets were replaced, and a new steering wheel added similar to the one used in the movie.
"The front bumper is new and so is the front valance. These were damaged when my grandfather backed into the car in the 1970s," he said.
The car has no soundproofing because it had been removed for the movie. The trunk had a huge cutout for a smoke machine. For the movie, all the badges were removed and the paint was scoured with Scotch-Brite pads to make it dull. After filming, it received a generous application of Bondo (to hide the damage) and a single-stage respray in its signature Highland Green color.
The seats, interior, trunk space and camera mounts remain unaltered and consistent with its prior movie life. When originally prepared for resale, the antenna was returned to the right front fender and the movie rearview mirror was replaced with a stock unit. A Hurst shifter was installed by the former owner, which the Kiernans never replaced.
Over the last 18 months, several experts were brought in to verify the car. Mustang expert Kevin Marti was the first, followed by McKeel Hagerty of Hagerty insurance, which insures the car. They then connected with the Historic Vehicle Association in Washington, D.C., for guidance on preserving the car and the related artifacts.
"No artificial patina has been added. All the new parts can be plainly identified. The car is honest and that's the way I wanted it. The workmanship is all mine, as it was mine to do alone as homage to my father and the family secret I had internalized," Kiernan said.