Uncovering the history of the long-lost movie car – plus Jay Leno drives it. Son of a gun Fifty years ago, this Mustang 390GT Fastback starred alongside Steve McQueen in Bullitt. Now it’s back. Words Massimo Delbò. Photography James Lipman.
Bullitt Mustang Revealed: the full story of the long-lost movie-car. Worlds exclusive! Drive-my’s Jay Leno gets to drive it.
Very little of what you are going to read about this 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback is logical. The life it has led, and the love its owners have had for it, make little sense. Its story brings to mind something by Hollywood scriptwriters. So let’s start there. In the late 1960s, Tinseltown was at the height of its powers, producers were making fortunes and spending evermore money to create the latest blockbuster, while stars were revered and their characters (in real life, that is) were rarely tempered by press managers.
In 1967, Steve McQueen was a highly successful 37-year-old actor, already famous for his stunt-driving scene during The Great Escape of 1963. He was an avid racer of both cars and motorcycles, and the owner of his own movie company, Solar Productions, which would release the cult racing film Le Mans in 1971.
Meanwhile, the English director Peter Yates had become known for his car chases, being the man behind the TV series The Saint and the 1967 film Robbery. The latter featured a 15-minute chase that so impressed writer Alan Trustman that Yates was his preferred candidate to direct a new movie for Solar, based on the 1963 novel Mute Witness. The movie, Bullitt, starred Steve McQueen, whose portrayal of the fictional detective Frank Bullitt was influenced by real-life SFPD homicide inspector Dave Toschi. And his co-star was a Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang. Bullitt was released on 17 October 1968, became a box office smash and won an Oscar for Best Film Editing. What makes the movie so special is the car chase, which starts 1hr 05min into the film and lasts almost 11 minutes. In it, McQueen’s Mustang is chased by hitmen driving a Dodge Charger R/T. It begins at Columbus and Chestnut, in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf area, heads to the Midtown area of Hyde and Laguna Streets, then on to Filbert and University Streets before finishing outside the city at the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in Brisbane.
Filming finished in June 1968 and, once its promotional duties were completed, the Bullitt Mustang seemed to disappear and became the world’s most hunted ‘movie car’ for the next 50 years. Fastforward to January 2018 and, at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, Ford unveiled the 2019 Ford Mustang GT ‘Bullitt’, together with a surprise: the genuine McQueen car, which had resurfaced after hiding long-term in a Tennessee barn. And now, here I am in Florida, meeting the Historic Vehicle Association president Mark Gessler, and Sean Kiernan, the young owner of this unrestored Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback, with 390ci V8 and four-speed manual transmission – the one originally driven by McQueen in the movie.
‘First of all, let me clarify that there were two identical Mustangs used for the movie,’ says Sean – they’d been ordered by film distributor Warner Brothers in a promotional agreement, to be collected at the Ford dealer in San Jose, California. Ford had originally lent two Galaxie sedans for the baddies too, but the cars were too heavy for the jumps so a pair of 440 Magnum V8-powered Dodge Chargers were sourced instead. ‘The two Mustangs’ chassis numbers were 558 and 559, which is unusual because, with mass-production models, even if you place the order together, you’ll rarely receive two cars with sequential numbers,’ continues Sean. ‘After delivery but still unregistered, both cars were sent to Max Balchowsky’s workshop to have their suspension modified for the movie, with 558 selected as the stunt car, the one making the hard jumps, and 559 – which is mine – prepared for the driving sessions. And it was driven by McQueen.’
Of course, Steve McQueen would have loved to carry out his own stunts, but insurance restrictions prevented him, so, as with the motorcycle jump in The Great Escape, Bud Ekins did it instead. You can work out who is driving at a particular point by looking at the rear-view mirror: when McQueen is driving, you can see his face reflected in it; otherwise it points away. ‘Chassis 558 was badly damaged during filming, so it was subsequently written-off, but we now know that it was discovered, heavily modified, in spring 2017 in a Mexico scrapyard,’ says Sean. ‘It has the right chassis number but there’s not much left of the original car. Chassis 559 was “refreshed” after filming and used for the promotional tour, and many thought it was a third identical car.’
After the promotional tour was over and having covered around 1000 miles, 559 was sold in 1969 to Warner Brothers’ writer Robert Ross. A year later it was advertised in the LA Times at $6000, when the normal market value would have been more like $3000, and it was bought by Detective Frank Marranca from New Jersey – coincidentally, in Bullitt, McQueen played an Italo-American policeman whose first name is Frank. Marranca bought the car unseen and it was transported to him by train from California. He kept it until 1974, then advertised it in Road & Track, with 19,000 miles on the clock and described as the Bullitt movie car, again with a $6000 tag.
Robert Kiernan was living an hour away, a typical car guy of the 1970s. He’d already owned an Alfa Romeo Spider, followed by an MGB GT, and was looking for a fat-body muscle car to park on his driveway. He tore out the R&T ad and off he went.
Kiernan’s son Sean picks up the tale. ‘My father was an insurance executive and loved cars. He went to look at the Mustang, the exact model he was looking for, and, while he was sceptical about the Bullitt story, the car was in good condition and he bought it. From 1974 to 1980 the Mustang was the family daily driver, the only car they had. It was used by dad and by mum, a third grade teacher, to drive to school. In 1980, after 36,000 miles and with a broken clutch spring and some rust, they parked the Mustang in the garage. It wasn’t practical as a daily driver any more but they didn’t want to part with it. And I arrived in 1981.’
By that point the Kiernans were certain about the Bullitt connection because, in 1977, Steve McQueen had shown up, wanting to buy back his old movie steed. ‘Much later in life, when my father and my mother told me about the car, they showed me a letter from McQueen,’ says Sean.
‘He’d reached them through the second owner, initially by phone and then by the letter, which is still with the car. The truth is that they already considered the Mustang as part of the family and they would never have been open to selling it.’ When the Kiernans moved from New Jersey to Kentucky in 1984, the car was left behind in Sean’s grandparents’ garage, and in 1989 Mustang Monthly magazine published an article about a car claiming to be the original from the movie. ‘My father wrote a letter to the editor with some documents, proving that the car they published was a fake and asking not to be named. The editor published the information, nicknamed him “John” and promised not to disclose his identity. Finally, this year I was able to thank him.’
The magazine story had a side effect, in that it made Sean aware of the family secret. ‘I was about eight years old when the article appeared and dad, mum and I sat around the table and they told me. I was asked to keep it secret. Shortly after, dad’s friend drove it south on an open trailer, totally unnoticed, and we spent a day cleaning the garage where it would be parked, beside a green 1975 Porsche 911. When the Mustang arrived it looked exactly as it does today, except for the front bumper and valance. Those two parts were driven into by grandpa while the car was in his garage, and, when the car was to be shown in Detroit, we all agreed to have them replaced with new parts.’
In 1994 the family moved to Florida, and the Mustang was relocated. ‘When we moved, we parked the car in the garage of a friend, because it would have been too risky to leave it alone in an empty house. In March 1995 somebody broke into the garage, took some pictures and stole the air filter cover and tried to sell them to the same guy who, in 1989, had written the article. Dad was alerted, and lawyers were involved, but keeping the car safe became a sort of family business. We moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and the Mustang was at the new house well before everything else. When we discussed the future of it, we knew that we didn’t want to restore it. But when dad retired in 2001, and Ford launched the first commemorative version of the Bullitt Mustang, we started to dismantle some parts to refresh them. Soon after, dad developed Parkinson’s and I started my own family, so the project never developed.’
Which is when Samantha Kurin entered the scene. She is from Detroit and many of her family members have long worked at Ford, mostly to do with the Mustang. Samantha was driving her own 2009 Mustang when she met Sean, though she remained unaware of the family secret until Sean proposed to her. ‘It was almost scary when his parents called me for a meeting,’ she says. ‘They were very serious when they said they had to talk to me, and I had no idea what to expect. It was 2011, and I was admitted to the family secret and I couldn’t believe it. I had to swear that I wouldn’t talk about it to anyone, and that was the hardest part, to keep such a secret from my family for so long, but I kept my word.’
With the car still in pieces, Bob Kiernan passed away in 2014, aged 66. ‘I was left with the car and the secret,’ says Sean. ‘In November 2015 we got married and, the week after, my boss – I work in a shop that specialises in Ford Mustang restoration – talked to me about his idea of writing a screenplay for a movie about two kids finding the car. He had no idea I owned the car, and when I told him – the very first person outside my family – he freaked out. In January 2016, I brought him to see the car and his reaction was what prompted me to put it back together. There was not much to do, but for a new exhaust, brakes, replacing the carpet and cleaning up the interior, but I saved every single bolt and the whole suspension kit is still there.’
While working on the car, Sean noticed the modifications made for its role in the movie. ‘Beside the hole on the rear left inner wheelarch to pump smoke when the tyres were spinning, there are camera mounts all around. It’s the one that McQueen drove for about 95% of the chase scene and the movie.’
Sean decided to make the car public, and contacted Ford. ‘The managers were sceptical, so it took a while for them to visit and see the car. That happened in November 2016, and soon after I was in a meeting in Dearborn with all their PR and marketing staff. As I was telling the story, I couldn’t stop thinking of dad.’ Yet the Bullitt Mustang has significance beyond Ford. The Historic Vehicle Association (HVA), headed by Mark Gessler, is the American branch of the Fédération International des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA). A few years ago, HVA began cataloguing America’s most significant cars for the Congress Library, treating them as works of art, and the organisation is now supporting Sean.
‘I was alerted by McKeel Hagerty [the Pebble Beach judge and well-known classic car insurance company CEO] about the car, when his company was approached for insurance coverage,’ says Mark. ‘The discovery of this Mustang was a dream come true, because it’s the holy grail of American muscle cars. One of the most difficult aspects was to get Ford’s attention; nobody really believed Sean and we had to ask for Edsel Ford’s personal support.
‘When they visited the car they checked every single piece of it and all the paperwork. Then, as a result, Ford decided to speed up the development and launch of the new model to have it ready for early 2018 – the 50th anniversary of the movie release.’ This idea was what really persuaded Sean to reveal the car in public at the Detroit auto show.
‘On a personal note, this is great for HVA too, because for the first time we are not only talking to car guys, but to everybody, because we are telling the history of a normal family with their family car. I still remember the surprised expression of Molly McQueen, granddaughter of Steve, when she saw the car for real, and how, despite all the camouflage we used to hide the shape of it while preparing the Ford stand at Detroit, one of the crew immediately knew what it was.
‘The moment it was revealed, on 14 January, was amazing, because it took a while for everybody to understand what was on stage. This was not merely a replica but the real Bullitt car and we immediately became the hot story of the show. Coincidentally, we later learned that “the real Frank Bullitt”, Detective Toschi, had passed away, aged 86, only eight days before. Now, with Sean’s help, we are showing the car around the USA.’
In the meantime, Sean is thinking about what he would like to do with the Mustang and, so far, a museum seems to be the most likely option. It is with this in mind that we turn to the car itself, a film star 50 years on. And that V8 burble when it’s idling… As soon as I hear it, I can’t help but recall the movie scenes. It is with a certain emotion that I take in the dents and scratches left by the years, but inside it is like entering a time capsule. The carpet is new, but the rest is where the King of Cool spent his working days.
I double-check and notice that the tape mark placed on the revcounter by the production crew to indicate the rev limit is still there, untouched. Sean drives.
‘I have a modern Mustang and have driven many older ones yet, for me, with this car, it is always as if I have stolen dad’s car for a ride. The first time I started it was 4 July 2016, after having the car at Ford and fitting a new set of “old looking” Firestone tyres on it. This car really does its job, it is rock solid, and you can feel it because the suspension is stiffer than normal. It sits higher than usual too, changing the feeling behind the steering wheel because of the higher center of gravity and because the car is about 150lb heavier than a standard one. It brakes well, but I never run it to a speed where the brakes will be put under strain. The gearlever was changed by the second owner and we simply kept it as is, as we did with the steering wheel, because nobody knows where the original ones ended up. The “BULITT” numberplate is a real one, a present from mum for dad, and she bought it in 1979.’
We cruise along while I try to reflect my face in the same rear-view mirror as McQueen did, impressed by the noise echoing inside the cockpit, and I notice that the ceiling insulation panel is missing. ‘I have it,’ says Sean, ‘but I haven’t attached it yet, because it sounds too good… and now I don’t have to hide the car any more, I want to enjoy it a little!’
And we both smile as we think of his mother arriving at school in her Mustang: the Queen of Cool.