The Highland Green 1968 Mustang fastback that starred alongside Steve McQueen in Bullitt is, quite possibly, the most-recognized Ford Mustang on the planet, despite spending decades in the shadows. After returning to the spotlight in 2018, the car has made appearances at auto shows, museums, concours d’elegance events, and even on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Bullitt Mustang has been in the Kiernan family since 1974, but next January may well become the most expensive Mustang ever sold at auction when it crosses the stage during Mecum’s Kissimmee, Florida, sale.
In January 1968, Warner Brothers purchased a pair of S-code Highland Green Mustang fastbacks, with sequential vehicle identification numbers, for use in the filming of the movie. Chassis 8R02S125558 was modified for use as the stunt car, while its twin, chassis 8R02S125559, was selected as the hero car, used primarily for close-ups. Both received chassis reinforcements, heavy-duty front springs, Koni shocks and a thicker anti-roll bar, and their already-potent 390 V-8s gained machined heads, larger four-barrel carburetors and a hotter ignition for added performance.
Photo by Ronan Glon.
From there, the paths of the two cars diverged. Chassis 558 received a roll bar that doubled as a camera mount, and a small generator (needed to power cameras and lights) was installed in its trunk. Once production of the movie wrapped, only one of the cars – chassis 559 – remained in salable condition, while the badly damaged stunt car, chassis 558, was sold for scrap. Long considered lost to history, chassis 558 surfaced early last year, rescued from a Mexican junkyard in 2016.
Chassis 559 was purchased by Warner Brothers employee Robert Ross, who kept the car for nearly two years before advertising it for sale in Hemmings Motor News in 1970. Its next owner, fittingly, was New Jersey police detective Frank Marranca, who reportedly paid Ross $6,000 for the screen-used Mustang. Marranca kept the car until 1974, when it sold to Robert Kiernan for the same $6,000 the detective had paid for it in 1970.
Sean Kiernan behind the wheel of the Bullitt Mustang. Image courtesy Ford Motor Company.
In 1977, Steve McQueen contacted the Kiernans looking to reacquire the Bullitt Mustang, which was then in use as a daily driver. An equivalent Mustang was offered in exchange (plus, presumably, some unspecified amount of cash), but the New Jersey couple opted to keep the Bullitt Mustang instead. In 1979, Robert’s wife Robbie purchased “Bulitt” vanity plates for the couple’s anniversary, and nearly 40 years later, these remain on the car.
In 1989, the Kiernans – now with nine-year-old son Sean – relocated to Kentucky, and then six years later, to Tennessee. Numerous Mustang collectors (and print publications) contacted the family over the years, inquiring about the Bullitt Mustang, but the answer was always the same; the car wasn’t for sale, and they weren’t interested in having the car featured in a magazine. Circa 2001, Robert and Sean began a restoration of the car, but the project didn’t progress at the originally intended speed and was soon set aside.
Image courtesy Ford Motor Company.
Robert Kiernan died in 2014, passing the Mustang along to Sean. A year later, Sean let slip to his boss, Casey Wallace, that he was the owner of the car, prompting Wallace to enlist the help of friend and filmmaker Ken Horstmann to document the car’s history. One minor detail delayed the start of the video’s production: In 2015, the Bullitt Mustang was in pieces, the restoration begun in 2001 never completed.
Instead of hastily restoring the irreplaceable Mustang, Sean instead opted to reassemble the car, which remains largely original throughout (its rebuilt and repainted 390 V-8 a notable exception). This task was completed in 2016, and on July 4, Sean fired the 390 V-8 for the first time in 15-plus years. In 2017, the Mustang was reunited with a member of the McQueen family – Molly McQueen, Steve’s granddaughter – who met with Sean at a Ford design studio in Dearborn, Michigan.
Image courtesy Ford Motor Company.
Its reemergence came in January 2018, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. Three months later, thanks to its place on the National Historic Vehicle Register, it was displayed on the National Mall, part of an Historic Vehicle Association exhibit that included the first Chrysler minivan (a 1984 Plymouth Voyager LE) and the Ferrari-replica Modena Spyder that appeared in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In July 2018, the Bullitt Mustang appeared at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, where it was driven up the hill in pursuit of a black ’68 Dodge Charger said to be used in the filming of the movie.
The decision to sell a car that’s been a part of his family for 45 years could not have been an easy one for Sean, but it’s worth remembering that the Bullitt Mustang is no ordinary collector car. The demands of ownership include constant appearance requests, the liabilities of shipping (in some cases, internationally), and, ironically, the inability to simply enjoy the car for the occasional drive without interruption or serious financial risk. Though some will view this as cashing in on the car’s history, it’s almost surely about returning to a normal life, albeit one with a comfortable reserve in the bank.
Dana Mecum, with Sean Kiernan, announces the sale of the Bullitt Mustang at the upcoming 2020 Kissimmee auction. Photo courtesy Mecum Auctions.
Dana Mecum announced the Bullitt Mustang’s upcoming sale, alongside Sean Kiernan, at the firm’s Monterey auction. No pre-auction estimate has been announced, though it’s a safe bet that the sale will set a record for a Ford Mustang sold at auction.
Mecum’s Kissimmee Auction takes place January 2-12, 2020, at the Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida. For further details, visit Mecum.com.