A Few Years Ago, the Missing “Bullitt” Mustang Reappeared. Where Had It Been All That Time?

Imagine this scene and take a trip back in time: You’re at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2018, hanging around the Ford area, when you hear someone over a microphone say this: “Ladies and gentlemen, meet the original 1968 Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in the legendary Hollywood film Bullitt.”

There isn’t a car enthusiast or collector, movie buff or Steve McQueen fan that doesn’t know what that car looks like.

Photo Credit: Mecum Auctions

The original 1968 Highland Green Mustang Fastback had been virtually unseen by everyone and out of the public eye for nearly 50 years, ever since it had starred in the classic cop movie Bullitt, starring McQueen as Detective Lieutenant Frank Bullitt.

At the Detroit show, the ’68 Bullitt Mustang was posed center stage, alongside a new-edition Bullitt Mustang that Ford was rolling out later that year.

How did it get there, from the streets of San Francisco in 1968 in a Warner Brothers movie, all the way to the 2018 Detroit Auto Show? And where had it been for 50 years?

Here are the answers to that question, as well as a handful of cool facts about the Bullitt Mustang.

Warner Brothers owned the Bullitt Mustang first. (They actually owned two of them!)

Warner Brothers bought two brand-new “Highland Green” 2-door 1968 Mustang Fastbacks for the movie. In fact, their serial numbers were sequential. (By the way, the price of a new Mustang Fastback in 1968 was about $2,600.)

  • The “jumper” Mustang, #558, was used for the chase’s destructive stunts, such as all the jumps.
  • The other car, Mustang #559, was the “hero car” that Bullitt (Steve McQueen) cruised around town in.

For the chase, a Hollywood stunt-car builder and racer modified two Highland Green Mustang GT Fastbacks, as well as a pair of black Dodge Chargers (the bad guys). For the movie, the exterior Ford and Mustang logos (“badging”) were taken off. The vehicles were modified with a heavy-duty 4-speed manual transmission, a heavy-duty clutch, reinforced shock mounts, new shocks, heavy-duty coil springs and frame reinforcements.

If you’ve seen the movie, then you know how much abuse the Mustang took in the famous car chase through the streets of San Francisco, so it only makes sense that there were two Mustangs involved. Just as McQueen had a stunt double for some action scenes, the hero Mustang had a car stunt-double for the heavy-duty action.

TM & © Warner Bros. (1968): ‘Bullitt’ San Francisco chase scene

About the chase scene, McQueen at the time said, “The things we did in the streets I don’t think will be done like this for a long, long time.”

Only one Mustang survived.

The jumper car took such a beating during filming that it was constantly needing repairs during filming. After filming, car #558 was designated for the scrap heap. Amazingly, a scrap-car junkyard owner in Mexico discovered it was in his possession in 2017 (that’s been verified). It was missing a lot of pieces and parts, but there was enough to certify it as one of the two movie-star Mustangs.

The Bullitt that took a beating.

However, the hero Mustang, the surviving Bullitt car (#559), was repaired and somewhat repainted by Warner Brothers after filming and readied for sale.

The first private owner: a studio employee.

Warner Brothers sold the car to one of their employees, a man named Robert Ross. It’s not clear how he wound up with the right to buy it. He drove it as his everyday car for work, and evidently there’s still an old Warner Brothers parking pass on the window.

He owned it only a short time and then sold it at the end of 1970.

I know what you’re thinking: “He sold the Bullitt car?

Yes, he did, but the car hadn’t yet taken on the classic or cult status it was to attain over time.

The second private owner: a real detective

With about 9,000 miles on it, Robert Ross sold the Bullitt Mustang to a New Jersey-based detective named Frank Marranca. He drove it around proudly for a number of years, letting everyone know what it was. (Imagine how he felt, being a detective and owning the Bullitt Mustang.)

The story goes that Marranca’s wife asked him to buy her a new Chevy Vega, and she needed a place to park it. So, the detective chose to sell the Mustang.

Making room for the 1974 Chevy Vega

He sold the Bullitt Mustang?” Again—as hard as this may be to believe—it was still just a special Mustang at the time.

For sale: “1968 ‘Bullett’ MUSTANG”

In 1974, Marranca placed an ad in the “Marketplace” section of the October issue of Road and Track magazine, announcing for sale the “1968 Bullett MUSTANG” (misspelled). The ad said, “Best offer.”

The ad generated one call, from a man in New Jersey looking to buy a Mustang for his family.

The third private owner: Robert Kiernan.

Robert Kiernan was looking to by a Mustang Fastback and saw the ad. It seems he was the only one to respond to it. “Dad was the only guy that called, and that was it,” recalls Sean Kiernan, Robert’s son. “He showed up, bought it and took off.” The Mustang had around 19,000 miles on it and it cost Kiernan $3,500.

Sean Kiernan says his dad didn’t buy the car because it was famous. “He liked the movie and loved the car, but the fact that it was from Bullitt probably wasn’t the reason he bought it. He wanted a ’68 Fastback. He wanted a big block.”

The Mustang became the family’s everyday car and for taking vacations. Mrs. Kiernan used it daily to drive to the school where she taught and to run errands.

It was so much a part of their life, they passed on a chance to sell it to a very interested potential buyer.

McQueen tries to buy “his” Mustang.

Steve McQueen got in touch with Kiernan, tracking him down after talking to Frank Marranca in New Jersey. McQueen initially called Kiernan to talk about obtaining the car. Kiernan said no.

In December of 1977, McQueen wrote a letter to Robert Kiernan, requesting again to get the Mustang back. The letter, signed by McQueen, started off, “Again I would like to appeal to you to get back my 1968 Mustang, adding he “would very much like to keep it in the familyin its unrestored condition. McQueen offered to replace Kiernan’s car with a similar ’68 Mustang in exchange for the original ’68 Bullitt Mustang. He didn’t offer to buy the car back from KiernanMcQueen factually never owned the car.

Kiernan did not reply to the letter and did not sell the car to McQueen nor anyone else. “Bullitt was part of our family,” Sean Kiernan said about their attachment to the car.

19802018. The Bullitt Mustang is out of sight.

As the car got older, it got harder to keep it up to required registration standards. Sean Kiernan says, “New Jersey didn’t want it on the road.” Around 1980, the clutch went out, and that pretty much took the car out of circulation for the next 40 years. Robert and Sean talked about restoring it, but they just didn’t get around to it.

Robert Kiernan passed away in 2014, and not long thereafter, Sean decided it was time to get the car running again. As 2018 approached, the 50th anniversary of the release of Bullitt, he decided to contact Ford about reintroducing the “missing” Bullitt Mustang to the world.

After its debut at the 2018 Detroit Auto Show, the Bullitt Mustang and Sean Kiernan went on tour. In April 2018, it was displayed in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall near the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. He even let Jay Leno drive it on Leno’s television show.

Bullitt on display at the National Mall 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Sometime afterward, Sean Kiernan decided it was time to sell the Mustang.

The current owner: It’s a mystery.

Two years after it reappeared, Kiernan put it up for sale at the January 2020 Mecum Auctions Collector Car Auction in Kissimmee, Florida. The starting bid was $3,500—the price Robert Kiernan paid for it in 1974. It sold that day for a winning bid of $3.4 million the highest price ever paid for a Mustang.

The current owner remains unknown.

We can only hope the Bullitt Mustang doesn’t go missing for another 50 years.

Resources: cnn.com/2020/01/10/cars/bullitt-mustang-auction; roadandtrack.com/original-bullitt-ford-mustang; performance.ford.com/auto-writer-tracked-down-mcqueens-bullitt; historicvehicle.org/national-historic-vehicle-bullitt-559; thedrive.com/news/mustang-from-bullitt-sold; topspeed.com/cars/1968bullitt; historicvehicle.org/steve-mcqueens-68-bullitt-mustang-displayed-national-mall-d-c/
Featured image credit: Car and Driver