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Goodwood Festival of Speed hosts Bullitt chase reunion

Published in blog.hemmings.com

The Bullitt Charger leads the Bullitt Mustang up the hill at Goodwood. Still images from Goodwood live stream video.

In the five decades since its release, the seven-minute car chase featured in the Hollywood blockbuster Bullitt has become the standard against which all other such scenes are judged. This year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed played host to a remarkable (and oddly unannounced) Bullitt reunion, with a Dodge Charger used in the production of the film leading the original Bullitt Mustang up the hill, the two cars appearing together for the first time in a half-century.

It was big news when the Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang fastback that starred as the hero car in the film reemerged from long-term storage in late 2017, its owner positively identified after decades of mystery surrounding the “lost” car. The car wasn’t truly rediscovered, as it had never really been lost: Instead, its long-term owners, the Kiernan family, opted to keep the car out of sight and under the radar for a variety of reasons, including the car’s escalating value and their own reluctance to sell it.

The Mustang’s trail is amply documented. Following the end of Bullitt production, it sold to Warner Brothers employee Robert Ross, who advertised it for sale in Hemmings Motor News just two years later, in 1970. The car’s next owner was New Jersey police detective Frank Marranca, who owned the car until 1974, when it sold to Bob Kiernan, who paid Marranca $6,000 for the Mustang, said to be the exact same amount the detective had paid for it in 1970.

In 1977, Steve McQueen sent a letter to the Kiernans, seeking to acquire the Mustang for his own collection, to ensure its preservation. In exchange, McQueen offered to provide a similar Mustang, but his offer was rebuffed. A dozen years later, the Kiernans relocated from New Jersey to Kentucky, and afterward, to Tennessee, with the car remaining a part of the family. Circa 2001, Bob and Sean began a restoration of the Mustang, which never progressed beyond the engine bay. In 2014, Bob Kiernan died unexpectedly, and ownership transferred to his son, Sean.

In January 2018, Sean’s Mustang was added to the National Historic Vehicle Register, and it later appeared at the 2018 North American International Auto Show to promote the launch of the 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt. After making an appearance at the 2018 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, the 1968 Bullitt Mustang was scheduled to run up the hill at the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed, again as a promotional effort to market the launch of the 2019 Mustang Bullitt in Europe.

Enter the 1968 Dodge Charger R/T used for close-ups and as a camera car in the filming of Bullitt. As with the Mustang, two Chargers were procured for the movie’s production, including a yellow R/T and a blue base model. (The second Bullitt Mustang, known as the stunt car, surfaced in a Mexican junkyard in early 2017 and is currently being restored.) Both Chargers were painted black prior to filming, with the “blue” car destroyed in the chase’s gas station explosion scene. The “yellow” car, used as a camera car and for the occasional close-up, was stripped of equipment mounts, refinished in yellow and returned to the original dealer, where it sold as just another used car.

While the VINs of the two Mustangs used in Bullitt were documented, the VINs of the Chargers were lost when Warner Brothers purged their historical archives. For decades, the fate of the Bullitt Charger remained a mystery, but in 2008, Mopar enthusiast Arnold Welch came forward with a claim that the car – which he’d owned since 2002 – had been found.

In the absence of conclusive, VIN-based proof, much of the evidence was circumstantial, but convincing. His Charger was an R/T model, delivered with the 440 V-8 and a four-speed transmission, just like the movie car. His Charger had left the factory painted pale yellow, and was then painted black, followed by a fresh coat of pale yellow, and much later, gold. The Charger’s VIN indicates a build date of January 15, 1968, three months before Bullitt filming began, yet the car wasn’t sold to its first owner of record until October 1968.

None of this data proves the car’s provenance, but other modifications just might. Holes were drilled into the floor sheetmetal (and later repaired) in the same locations where camera equipment was mounted for filming. Per Ponysite.de, the bracket bolts for the generator support, found on the front passenger floor, align perfectly, as do camera light bracket mounting holes near the trunk.

It’s worth noting that Welch knew nothing of the car’s alleged history when he purchased the car in 2002. Initially, he planned a full restoration, and it was during this process that the paint and modifications became evident. Extensive research followed before he was comfortable enough with the car’s history to make the Bullitt claim.

In early 2013, with the restoration completed, the Charger was offered for sale in a variety of outlets – including Hemmings – for $1 million. It isn’t clear if this price was achieved, though Katy, Texas, used car dealership Carlyle Motors claims to have delivered the Charger from its inventory. Today, the Bullitt Charger is owned by German specialty dealership ChromeCars, who brought the Dodge from Laasdorf, Germany, to Goodwood to appear alongside its former co-star.

ChromeCars also owns a faithful reproduction of the ’68 Mustang fastback seen in Bullitt, and was kind enough to provide us with the chase-themed gallery below. For those in the market, both the Charger and the Mustang are available for purchase; for additional details, visit ChromeCars.de.