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Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt” Mustang Lives Once Again

After a long slumber the “hero car” one of two Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt” Mustangs modified by famed road racer Max Balchowsky for the king of cool, Steve McQueen to drive in the 1968 classic hit movie “Bullitt” is alive and well again.

After the movie, Warner Brothers the creator of the film had the ’68 Mustang GT powered by a 390 c.i. V-8 and a 4-speed transmission patched up for road use. The right door and quarter panel damaged in the filming was quickly repaired, and the car was used by one of the film maker’s executives for commuting to work.

In 1971 Warner Brothers sold the car to Frank Marranca a detective in New Jersey with documentation from Ford that the Mustang was one of the two cars used in the film; the other one the stunt car was used in the jump scenes. Later in October of 1974 Marranca placed a classified ad in “Road & Track” and sold the “Bullitt” car to Robert Kiernan of Madison, New Jersey, for $6000.

After Kiernan got a company car, his wife, a teacher used the “Bullitt” car for traveling to work and for ferrying around the couple’s children. Later in 1977 McQueen tracked his old car down and sent him two letters, one of which has survived and tried to buy the car from Kiernan who turned him down.

At about the 60,000-mile mark, the clutch went out, and despite best intentions, the car began a long slumber and moved around the country with the family. About 17 years ago, Kiernan, now retired and living on a horse farm in Tennessee and his son Sean began working on the car to rebuild the engine and replace the clutch. Unfortunately, the project was not finished as he became ill with Parkinson’s disease and died in 2014.

Sean Kiernan continued on with his father’s mission to return the car to running condition and share the car once again with the public. He and his father had talked before he died about having Ford involved with the car’s reappearance. First, he had the car examined by Kevin Marti, a noted Mustang authority and he confirmed that it was in fact the real thing with the original VIN number and plate.

Kiernan then contacted Ford which also vetted the car and a plan was put in place by the automaker and Kiernan to reintroduce the original “Bullitt” to the public at the 2018 Detroit Auto Show held this past week along with the third special edition 2019 “Bullitt” Mustang.

The new car was introduced by Steve McQueen’s granddaughter, Molly McQueen, and following that Sean Kiernan was finally able to fulfill his father’s long-time wish and drove the unrestored “Bullitt” movie car out on to Ford’s stage where it was the center of everyone’s attention.

All photos are courtesy of the Ford Motor Company.

19 responses to “Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt” Mustang Lives Once Again

  1. Wow! Well, McQueen’s granddaughter didn’t cry, but I certainly got a little misty. What a piece of history, and a piece of my past. This Bullitt Mustang is one of the ingredients in the recipe that made me the car nut I am today.

    • i’m right with ya, john. when she fired up the 390 i got a wee bit choked up and i too was strongly influenced by this film and mr. mcqueen.

      • Thank God. I thought I was the only one that welled-up a bit when the car was unveiled. Guess we all have a little motor oil in our blood …

  2. I just returned from NAIAS 2018 and must say the Bullitt Mustang parked next to its 2019 version was quite a site. I’m old enough to remember when the movie was in theaters and how the chase scene lit up the audience like nothing before and now here I am standing in front of that very car driven by my car guy hero Steve McQueen. Most of the people knew what they were witnessing and I saw quite a few fathers telling their young children the significance of the display. It was quite touching! The car is basically a used Mustang purchased for private use by the Kiernan family years ago and its condition reflects that. Some mentioned a needed restoration while others thought it should be left as is. I’ll leave that decision up to you. As for me, tonight I’m watching Bullitt on DVD and remembering Steve. Oh by the way, the local ABC affiliate in Detroit (WXYZ) aired the charity preview last night and included a video to honor the memory of that chase. They recreated a modern chase scene between the pre-production Bullitt and a new black Dodge Charger in a downtown parking garage. At SPEED! That gave me chills!

      • I’m writing this from the hotel across the street from Cobo Center where NAIAS 2018 is being held. I was videotaping cars on Wednesday night, January 24th. Sean Kiernan was there at the display talking to visitors. He said that Steve McQueen more or less acted as if he was entitled to the car. As Sean said, “It might have helped if he (McQueen) offered us a little money for it.” I kinda got the impression that they never sold it, because McQueen only offered to replace the car with another car. And he never really tried to woo them. That’s probably why it stayed with the Kiernans even though Sean says they never would have sold it.

  3. Great story! The rocker moldings were painted Moss Green for the movie. . Heard stories on McQueen’s Mustang over the years about being stored in a barn in Tennessee . Glad it is back in circulation.

  4. I’m glad theyre going to leave the exterior of the car unrestored.
    The usual practice is to restore everything in sight and thus destroy all that character and patina that took decades to achieve.

  5. I first worked on smaller Y-block Fords with a 292 and a 312, but they were all real beaters and after a bit of frustration I went the FE-block route with a 390 to drop in my ’59 Ford (yes, a 4-door). When I had the facilities available I opted to make it a much stronger engine, though it was pretty strong compared to the original 292. So, like the Bullitt Stang, I got the engine down to a full performance rebuild. Much stronger then, but it still had the somewhat notorious rear seal leakage. Pretty reliable and fun engine, a bit anchor like in the front of a Mustang though. Mine was traded for a real Hi-Po 406 and a 4-speed, but put into a ’57 Ford 2-door. Probably close to the power to weight ration of Steve’s machine. Though ostensibly a Chevy man, I liked working on the FE engines which were pretty straightforward and reliable performers. I do hope this ‘icon’ finds a good home and continues to thrill future generations.

    • Wow! Rarely see a ‘59 Ford, always one of my favorites. My Aunt Ethel had a sedan, Coral and White. Will never forget it. Just beautiful. Glad you’ve got one, that others can see.

  6. Good to see this one has survived. The stunt car used for jumps was so badly damaged by the end of the shoot that it was totaled and crushed, so this is the only remaining car from the movie.

      • Holy cow, I had missed the articles about that. Looking at a couple of them now, it’s lucky that someone ran the VIN on the Baja Bullitt, since it was originally being bought to modify into a Shelby GT500 from “Gone in Sixty Seconds”. It’s in bad condition, but at least now it’s identified and can hopefully be restored.

  7. Great to know that at least one of the two cars involved in the movie industry’s greatest, most memeorable car chase of 10:38 still exists!! Too bad the Charger 440 didn’t survive.

  8. I recall seeing this car advertised in R&T, and would have bought it if I’d had enough money. A tired ’65 notchback was what I could afford then… but at least it was green.

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