The famous 1968 Ford Mustang GT hero car from the iconic film “Bullitt” is to go under the hammer at no reserve on Friday, Jan. 10, at Mecum Auctions’ 2020 Kissimmee sale in Kissimmee, Fla. Before the sale, we sat down for 11 questions with owner Sean Kiernan to find out why he’s made the tough decision to part with the “Bullitt Mustang” that’s been living in anonymity with his family since 1974, and to give us some deeper insight into what the iconic car has meant to him and his family.
But First, a Little Background
Of the millions of Ford Mustangs ever built, the most famous example must be the Highland Green ’68 GT fastback that appeared racing through the ramp-like streets of San Francisco on big screens throughout America. The Mustang GT was as cool as its pilot — none other than Steve McQueen, the “King of Cool” himself — and together, the duo made cinematic history. In “Bullitt,” the now-iconic 1968 movie starring McQueen and the Mustang GT, audiences felt as though they were in the Mustang’s black vinyl seats alongside McQueen as he played Lt. Frank Bullitt. The cinematography that put the audience alongside Lt. Bullitt as he chased a black Dodge Charger R/T from his Mustang GT forever changed the way chase scenes would be filmed. Cameras were placed in and around the involved cars for the "Bullitt" chase scene, pumping adrenaline through seated movie-goers as the Mustang bounced over San Francisco streets and squealed around black top corners. Even in today’s movies, that cinematography is still used to make audiences grip their armrests and gnash their teeth whenever good guys chase evil.
Fans of cars and films never forgot the Mustang GT or movie that started it all — nor did Steve McQueen himself. McQueen was one of the few people that knew where the surviving original “Bullitt Mustang” eventually landed, despite its owner’s desire to keep its whereabouts secret. (Two 1968 Mustang GTs were specially modified for filming “Bullitt” — this “hero” car and a second stunt car so beat up, it was deemed unrepairable after filming.) Robert Kiernan bought the “Bullitt Mustang” hero car from a New Jersey detective who had advertised it in Road & Track in 1974. McQueen, a collector of antiques, including old cars and trucks and motorcycles, considered the Highland Green Mustang GT a character as much as a car and he hoped to be reunited with it. He tracked the car from Warner Brothers, producers of the film, to Kiernan, who had bought it from that 1974 classified ad. Kiernan had always wanted a 1968 Mustang fastback and knew this one was special from day one, even though he and his wife used it as daily transportation over several years. Each time McQueen hounded Kiernan to buy the Mustang, Kiernan respectfully declined.
The Kiernan family loved the car for what it was, and while they appreciated its celebrity status, they didn’t try to become celebrities themselves from owning the car. They actually did their best to hide their treasure and rarely, if ever, told people that it was the “Bullitt Mustang” hero car.
The Kiernan family parked the Mustang GT after the clutch went out in 1980 and then moved it from storage space to storage space. Robert Kiernan and his son, Sean, who was born a year after the “Bullitt Mustang” was parked, were eventually inspired to get it back on the road when Ford Motor Co. offered Mustang Bullitt Editions in 2001 and 2008. However, it wasn’t until Ford’s 2019 Mustang Bullitt edition that the original car returned to the road. It was also at that occasion that Sean Kiernan finally revealed his family’s secret to the world. When the curtain lifted at the debut of the 2019 Mustang Bullitt during the 2018 North American International Auto Show, it was joined on stage by the car that inspired it all: The Kiernan family’s original “Bullitt Mustang.”
Unfortunately, Robert Kiernan wasn’t there to see the car driving again and its 2018 debut on stage. He had passed away several years earlier, in 2014, leaving Sean solo to show the car across the globe. In its travels since 2018, the “Bullitt Mustang” has wowed crowds and became the 21st addition to the Historic Vehicle Association’s National Historic Vehicle Register. Now that Kiernan has the “Bullitt Mustang” roadworthy and in the spotlight, he has decided to sell the iconic car. Here, he shares why he and his family are selling the essentially unrestored car they worked so hard to put back on the road, and what that means for his future.
11 Questions with Sean Kiernan
Old Cars: What is your earliest memory of the “Bullitt Mustang”?
Sean Kiernan: Around 1988 we went up to New Jersey where it had been sitting in my grandfather’s garage and we brought it down to our house in Kentucky. That is the earliest I remember actually seeing the car. Prior to that point, my dad had talked to me about it.
Old Cars: At what age did you first watch “Bullitt” and when did the car’s importance really sink in for you?
Sean Kiernan: I didn’t watch the whole movie, not until I was around 18-19 years old. At that point I was old enough to watch it and old enough to care. But just the chase scene, probably 15,000 times before that. Honestly, when I realized the importance of it was around 1993-’94. Things were starting to pop up about it and where it was. We moved to Florida for about a year, and while we were there we had parked it in a friend of mine’s barn for about six months and it actually got broke into. Somebody broke into the barn, took pictures and stole the air cleaner. That is probably the point that I realized more people than my father and myself care about the car. Then the internet was born and I figured out everybody cared about it.
Old Cars: How did this car affect your life and livelihood?
Sean Kiernan: I really split it up into two different ways — pre-January ’18 and post-January ’18. Before unveiling it, it was always a secret and the reason was a lot of people care about the car, and after my father passed away, I wanted to do things our way. We didn’t want to have it controlled by anybody else telling us what to do with it. Honestly, it was very secretive. We didn’t tell anybody about it and that’s how I lived my life. Nobody found out in my life. Post-January ’18, you know, it was interesting. I had no idea what was going to happen. Nothing had been lost this long that was this rare. For a couple months it was a learning curve because the car is unrestored. People that don’t know cars, their perception is that the car needs restoration.
So I started working on the car myself. I am the only one who touches it. Either people get it and they don’t want to violate it or they don’t get it and their hands are on it. They are touchy feely about it and want to put their hands on it, which is really bad if they just ate a greasy hamburger. The car has 50-year-old paint and if you touch it the wrong way, it leaves a mark forever. That is probably the biggest hurdle is the perception. Because I don’t put (‘Bullitt’) stickers or badging on the car, the way it looks, if people don’t know what it is, they think it’s [simply an old Mustang].
Preserving it versus restoring it, I have had a lot of fun with that. To me, and I have been in paint and body my whole life, to me, what can you do that is different that isn’t a 100-point restoration? That is preservation. I love talking to people about restoration rather than preservation — making sure it runs and stops and making it tell the story without touching it.
As far as the reception, the respect, the positivity, it was so much more than I could have dreamed, not just how much people love the car, but the story.
Old Cars: You restore cars — do you specialize in certain types of cars?
Sean Kiernan: No, I got into it in a production body shop. Then I got into drag racing pretty hard. I have always been around cars. I have quite a few cars, mostly my own stuff that I cut my teeth on. Nothing crazy. Paint and body will probably be a big part of my future, because there are so many variations of it. I just don’t want to be in a production shop setting.
Old Cars: Were there any surprises when you were refreshing the car to make it drivable?
Sean Kiernan: No, I mean when my dad passed away, I had already gone through the motor when I was in my drag racing phase. Then I basically got it home and bagged it. Surprises would be, definitely how the camber mounts and making sure they don’t pop out while driving it. At the same time, it has the original Torque Thrust D wheels and making sure they don’t crack. Getting the right tire through Firestone was a big pain. It had its own little quirks with the carburetor. It’s basically a Max Balchowsky special and that is really something I wanted to preserve. That is what gives it its romance. He was a race car builder. One of McQueen’s top guys. He was an amazing race car builder. That is something I went into head first and knowing the carburetor and the suspension would be Frankensteined (for the movie). And the whole passenger side of the car is full of Bondo. It’s cracking and that’s what it does after 50 years, and there’s nobody you can call up and say, ‘What can I do (to preserve the Bondo)?’ So, just learning curves and rolling with the punches, and the car has been amazing.
One of the biggest challenges is fighting against elements. Not only UV and the chance of rain, but fingerprints. I took it to the Goodwood Festival of Speed and there were rocks everywhere and the biggest thing was watching the rocks. I made these guards with magnets to protect the paint on the quarter panels and so the rocks beat the paint on the guards instead of the quarter panels. I just MacGyver’d the guards. It has been fun. That part of it for me has been a blast. I am a car guy at heart and we do we what we gotta do to get it done.
Old Cars: Have you ever driven the car like Steve McQueen?
Sean Kiernan: Yeah, well, not to the point where the driveshaft went through the floor. I wouldn’t say I drove it like McQueen, but I drove it like my father used to. Which is probably to the same level as McQueen! Recently, my daughter rode with me in Somerset, Kentucky, and I figured at that point it was game on. I hammered on it pretty hard through the town square.
After the car sells, that is going to be the next thing. I am going to build another [“Bullitt Mustang”] to the same specs. I know everything about the car. I can build it again with my eyes closed. My dad would want a fastback that he could hammer on.
But I am not sure my mom wants that.
Old Cars: This last year or two has probably been a whirlwind of shows and interviews. What is next for you?
Sean Kiernan: Building a garage would be the number one thing. Just coming home and catching my bearings. I have been working hard, my dad and myself had been working hard on that car. Just getting back to basics. I just had a newborn and [want to] relax a little bit and still play with cars. My dad had a Porsche 911 — it’s probably one of the first cars I fell in love with. It went 20-30 miles after my dad bought it and it needs restoration. Honestly, it means as much to me as “Bullitt” does because it was around more. That will probably be one of the first restorations that I do.
Old Cars: Did you enjoy the “Bullitt Mustang” more before it went back in the limelight or since you unveiled it?
Sean Kiernan: Driving it post 2018, I am more nervous to get caught and somebody to figure out what it is. Before, I liked having it in the garage and do whatever I wanted. Basically, I could do anything I wanted to it and no one would know it. I miss that part a little bit — bringing it home and tearing it apart and going through it. It has been fun because I absolutely annihilated my bucket list with the car. Post 2018, it has been so much fun is because the car is doing so well. It’s been great. It hasn’t been mechanically throwing me anything crazy.
Old Cars: Why sell it now?
Sean Kiernan: Other than timing, you know, the big thing is, I am not this big eccentric collector that has this car. I only have a two-car garage and I can’t afford to drive it all over and show it. I do want it to stay out there. If it wasn’t getting sold, it would come home to my garage. I already dragged my wife into the country from the city and I don’t think I can keep traveling.
This car has a lot of love to give for a lot of reasons. It’s my father’s car and that means a lot to me. I think that the future of the car, that’s what it’s going to be — (showing it and maintaining it). I got to say, it’s a stepping stone in my dad’s legacy, but if he was alive, he would make the same decision. It started to control my life and it deserves a team of people looking after it.
Old Cars: What future do you hope to see for the car?
Sean Kiernan: It needs to be in a controlled environment of some sort. It needs to be enjoyed for what it is. I can’t imagine anybody buying it and driving it a lot or restoring it. I hope it does stay out and about. I hope it doesn’t get restored and it stays the same. I think I have done enough in the past couple of years that someone (can enjoy it as is and) will buy it for the romance of the car and the story and they will just continue that legend.
Old Cars:Will you use the proceeds to buy a modern “Bullitt” edition Mustang?
Sean Kiernan: I have got a new one. It’s a 2019, No. 2. I was such a big part of that (2019 Bullitt Mustang unveiling). I told my wife back in early 2017, I was already telling her that there was a new one in our future. I have driven it to Dallas. When life gets to be too much, it’s fun to take on night runs. Just go home, jump in the car with the windows down — it’s the perfect car for that.