Story and photos by Brad Bowling; photos by the author and Heather Bowling
Twenty-five thousand people were on their feet cheering when Sean Kiernan stopped being the owner of the only surviving 1968 Mustang fastback from Steve McQueen’s movie Bullitt. As the gavel met the sounding board on Jan. 10, 2020, Mecum Auctions’ Matt Moravec announced that lot F150 was “Sold for $3.4 million!” and the Tennessee family suddenly had a very comfortable nest egg.
That hammer clap in Kissimmee, Florida, also marked the end of a 30-year-long journey that Sean and I—through a weird chain of coincidences and pure luck—had been on together. He was just 10 years old in 1989 when his father Robert told him the Kiernans had an old Mustang sitting in a garage in New Jersey. It had been in a famous movie chase scene but had not been driven since 1980. Less than a week later, Robert called me at my Mustang magazine staff job in California to talk about the car. I told him that the two Mustangs used in Bullitt were legends that would be worth a lot of money if he wanted to sell it. He said he had no intention of selling his, which he had bought from the second owner in 1974, and he did not want anyone calling for interviews. He agreed to let me write about his car and provide documentation, as long as I promised not to divulge his name or contact information. I agreed and would eventually write more than a dozen features for magazines with Robert’s cooperation.
Robert and I talked a handful of times over the next 15 years or so, and I kept investigating the surviving car’s history, all the while maintaining the owner’s anonymity. Robert and I lost touch when he retired—he had only ever given me his work number—and then I heard through the grapevine that he had passed away in 2014. I could have tracked down his home phone and contacted his family there, but I respected the boundary we had established.
Leading up to the movie’s 50th anniversary in 2018, I started quizzing my sources in the Ford and Mustang communities to see if there were any rumors about Robert’s car being shared with the public. I won’t snitch on who told me what, but an old friend confirmed my suspicions, and I received an invitation to view the Bullitt Mustang and meet Sean in Ford Motor Co.’s (for real) top-secret Product Development Center (PDC) several feet below Detroit. It was in the PDC that I was allowed to view “559” (so named for the final digits in its VIN) for the first time, 28 years after I learned of its existence. Ford would be introducing its 2019 special-edition Bullitt Mustang tribute model at the North American International Auto Show a few days later, and absolutely no one in the industry knew that 559 would accompany it. There was not so much as a peep about it online. The collector car world had been looking for the Kiernans’ green fastback for 50 years, and unveiling it was going to be like tossing a porkchop into a pool of sharks. When I met Sean during that trip to Ford’s bunker, I could tell he had no idea how much enthusiasm was headed his way. I also knew he and his family could handle it.
For the next two years, the Kiernans toured the United States and several other countries with 559, participating in all manner of shows, exhibitions, parades, and SO MANY interviews. In nothing flat, Sean’s status changed from private citizen with a good job as a paint sales manager to globetrotting celebrity. Most people would not handle such an upgrade well, but Sean and family took it in stride, never turning away a fan of the car who asked to take a photo or get an autograph. When he answered a question, you could never tell that it was the 1,000th time it had been asked.
During the second year of touring, the reality of owning, protecting, insuring, and showing the world’s most desirable movie prop was taking its toll. It was a full-time job that required too much time away from home, and Sean’s wife Samantha was expecting the couple’s first child. After much consideration, the Kiernans signed a deal with Mecum Auctions to handle 559’s sale at the company’s 2020 season opener in Kissimmee, where it would be the centerpiece of the 11-day mega-event.
Two thousand square feet of display space was devoted to 559 from Jan. 2 until its sale on Friday, Jan. 10, complete with a huge video screen telling its story and a protective glass case. Sean spent his final days as owner of the fastback talking to thousands of Bullitt enthusiasts, many of whom were attending the auction from other countries. The buzz around the car was constant, and observers could be overheard telling each other their predictions for how much the iconic Mustang would bring when it crossed the block. Everyone seemed certain it would surpass the sales record for a Ford Mustang of $2.2 million that Mecum facilitated at Kissimmee 2019 for a 1967 Shelby Super Snake—a one-off vehicle created to test a new Goodyear tire.
At 1:30 on Friday, Sean fired up his Mustang’s 390ci V-8 inside the car’s display case. A phalanx of Mecum employees, armed guards, and hundreds of spectators accompanied the growling, rumbling Mustang to its special pre-stage area. Neither Sean nor his sister Kelly Cotton, who occupied the passenger seat during the last ride in their father’s car, exited the Mustang during its 45-minute wait.
Shortly after 2:30, Sean parked 559 in front of the capacity crowd. The mob on the floor was so thick that the car could barely be seen by the audience. It only took 7 minutes, 7 seconds before the three competing bidders were narrowed to just one. At $3.4 million (plus another 10 percent for the buyer’s premium), Steve McQueen’s old car has set a record for a Mustang price that will likely never be broken!
I would like to thank the Kiernan family, especially Robert and Sean, for trusting me to share their car with the public for the past three decades. It was the kind of story every young writer hopes to stumble across, and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. To read the complete, 10,000-word account of my history with the Bullitt Mustang, visit BradBowling.com.
*Editor's note: Brad Bowling is a former editor of Old Cars and author of multiple Mustang related books. He currently is the editor of Vintage Truck magazine.