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Ford chases a retro spirit with 50th anniversary Mustang Bullitt

Ford has a special-edition model due out this summer -- the all-new Mustang Bullitt, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the movie "Bullitt" and the car from its iconic 10-minute San Francisco chase scene with Steve McQueen (as San Francisco Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt) as the no-holds-barred driver. While the 2019 model is cool, the story behind the original movie car and how it resurfaced is just as interesting.

The 2019 Bullitt's upgraded 5.0-liter V8 engine delivers 475 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque, pushing the car to a top speed of 163 mph -- an 8 mph increase versus the latest Mustang GT. It is equipped with a manual transmission, and the gear shifter features a white cue ball shift knob as a nod to the original. The vehicle packages all Mustang GT Premium and Performance Package content into a muscle car that maintains the original Bullitt's understated persona.

An active valve performance exhaust system is standard with new Black NitroPlate exhaust tips, and retuned to give the car a signature deep sound, as well as new Open Air Induction System and Shelby GT350 intake manifold with 87-mm throttle bodies and powertrain control module calibration for optimal performance.

Other standard equipment includes a heated leather steering wheel and a 12-in. all-digital LCD instrument cluster, identical in function to the cluster introduced on the 2018 Mustang, but with a unique Bullitt welcome screen that starts in green with an image of the car rather than the pony.

"This new Bullitt is, as Steve McQueen was, effortlessly cool," said Darrell Behmer, Mustang chief designer. "As a designer, it's my favorite Mustang -- devoid of stripes, spoilers, and badges. It doesn't need to scream about anything -- it's just cool."

Exterior paint choices are limited to Shadow Black and the classic Dark Highland Green (as worn in the movie). Other features that pay tribute to the car McQueen drove are subtle chrome accents around the grille and front windows, classic torque thrust 19-in. aluminum wheels, red painted Brembo brakes, and a unique black front grille. Inside and out, the vehicle uses minimal badging; only the circular faux gas cap Bullitt logo on the rear center is visible on the exterior.

The leather-trimmed interior features unique green accent stitching on the dashboard, door panels, center console, and seats.

Aside from the two exterior paint choices, Mustang Bullitt buyers are limited to three factory-installed options:

  • Bullitt Electronics Package includes navigation, driver memory seats and mirrors, upgraded sound system, and Blind Spot Information System with Cross-Traffic Alert that can alert customers of vehicles detected in difficult-to-see places;
  • MagneRide semi-active suspension system that optimizes driving performance; and
  • RECARO black leather-trimmed seats.

"When making a Bullitt, there are certain things it absolutely must have," said Carl Widmann, Mustang chief engineer. "It has to have the right attitude, it has to be unique in some way from a Mustang GT, and more than anything, it has to be bad ass."

That reputation was born after a Mustang GT fastback played a prominent role in the 1968 movie, and most notably in a chase scene that set new standards in filmmaking. The film's super-long sequence followed McQueen chasing down two hitmen in his Mustang through the streets of San Francisco.

The other chase scene: Finding the original

Two identical 1968 Mustang GT fastbacks were used in the filming of the classic Warner Bros. movie "Bullitt" that debuted in theaters on Oct. 17, 1968. After filming, the cars went their separate ways: the hero vehicle, driven by McQueen in the movie, was sold by Warner Bros. to a private buyer, and the other -- used in many of the jumps during the famous chase scene -- was sent to a salvage yard. That jumper vehicle resurfaced in Baja, CA, in early 2017, but the main chase car was lost to history -- at least for a while.

Sean Kiernan, owner of the main-chase vehicle, inherited the car in 2014 from his late father, Robert, who had purchased the vehicle in 1974. To fulfill his family's lifelong dream, Sean contacted Ford, and the two parties worked together to reveal his movie-star car alongside the all-new 2019 Mustang Bullitt at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month.

Kiernan told his story to the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA), which shared the transcript in a release online. The documentation process and final presentation was underwritten in part by Ford Motor Company, Hagerty, Shell, Pennzoil, LKQ Corporation, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and The NB Center for American Automotive Heritage.

Kiernan's story goes like this:

For 44 years, our family has owned the "Bullitt" movie Mustang -- serial number '559 (officially #8R02S125559). There were two "Bullitt" movie cars. The '558 car was the heavily damaged "jump car," which was recently discovered in Mexico. Our '559 "hero car" was the vehicle that McQueen drove in many of the movie scenes.

For decades, our car has been the subject of numerous rumors, myths, and dead-end searches. These stories evolved and took on a life of their own, and the car became something of a holy grail in the old-car world -- waiting to be rediscovered.

The car is pretty much the way my parents bought it back in 1974. They found it in a classified ad from the October 1974 issue of "Road & Track." The ad was slightly misspelled and read: "1968 Bullett Mustang driven by McQueen in the movie. Can be documented. Best offer."

According to the New Jersey detective who was selling the car, my father, Robert Kiernan, was the only person who ever called. We're not exactly sure how much dad paid, but it was around six grand. It was quite a bit of money back then for a used '68 Mustang Fastback. In fact, it was about twice to four times the going rate.

My mom (Robbie Kiernan) and dad were both just 26 years old. They had been married for five years, and my sister Kelly was four years old. They lived in Madison, NJ, about 25 miles from New York City.

Bullitt wasn't a second car -- it was their only car. Dad took the train every day to the World Trade Center where he worked in insurance. Mom drove Bullitt to St. Vincent's parish where she taught third grade. The car was never modified -- it has a straight exhaust and shook the pavement. God only knows what those kids must have thought. Mom must have been pretty cool.

On weekends, it was the family car and was driven to Maine and upstate New York numerous times. It must have been deafening. There was no sound-proofing, because it had been removed for the movie. The trunk had a huge cut-out for a smoke machine. When it rained, I have no idea how the luggage stayed dry. We recently discovered the rear seatbelts hidden with gaffer's tape. I guess my sister Kelly was never buckled in. Dad installed a pair of speakers in the back that are still there. With no air-conditioning, windows rolled down, and the blaring AM radio, those Bullitt road trips in the 1970s must have been thrilling.

In 1977 my dad got a call from Steve McQueen. Steve had tracked down the prior owner, who gave him our phone number. McQueen wanted the car. He was a guy who was not used to hearing the word "no." But my dad told him no. McQueen followed up with a letter reiterating his interest, saying he wanted the car back and offered a trade or something as long as it wasn't "too much monies." Dad never answered that letter. Bullitt was part of our family.

By the time it was parked, our family had put 46,000 miles on the car.

I was born in 1981 -- about the last time the Bullitt moved under its own power. Dad was an executive and had a company car. Mom was driving something more practical, a Plymouth Horizon, and I had a seat belt.

Dad was always a car guy, but by the 1980s another passion bit him. It was horses. Fast cars were moved to the sideline in favor of thoroughbreds. By the time we moved to our Kentucky farm outside of Cincinnati, we had a number of horses. Ultimately, the farm became a full-time job for all of us.

I grew up loving horses and cars alike. We always had something cool to drive. Eventually, I learned the story about our Bullitt Mustang. It was a car I would come to know well. While I'd never heard its cylinders fire, I pretended to drive it thousands of miles. I would hop in the seat, grab the steering wheel, and run through the gears. I honestly have no idea how that Hurst shifter ever survived my daily abuse.

After Steve McQueen passed, hunting for the Bullitt Mustang intensified. While the car was decidedly not for sale, it simply became a project dad didn't have time for. Gradually, it became our family secret out of necessity. Dad was now a busy executive with horse-racing business interests, but he took quiet pride knowing the Bullitt was waiting in the garage.

By 1995, we moved to a house on a smaller farm near Nashville. A few years later, dad retired and started scaling back.

I took a job in automotive refinishing. By the late 1990s, my father and I started to talk about rebuilding Bullitt. We became further inspired when, in 2001, Ford launched its first anniversary Mustang Bullitt, which stirred up more talk of the whereabouts of our original car.

Dad started disassembly of the car in our modest two-car garage. Unfortunately, we still had a farm that took most of our time.

When our father-son project finally started to gain momentum, illness struck -- my father was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. For the next couple of years, we could talk about cars but not accomplish much. In 2014, he passed away. It became a father-son project we were never able to finish together.

Over the past two years, I've worked alone in that same garage to return Bullitt to the condition it was when it was my parent's daily driver. The engine was rebuilt, aging carpets were replaced, and a new steering wheel added similar to the one used in the movie. Aside from that, it is pretty much the way it was, with the evidence of our family road miles and the gentle patina that comes from years of storage.

The paint has never been changed. Some wish it was shinier. It never was. In the movie, all the badges were removed, and the paint was scoured with Scotch-Brite pads to make it dull. After the movie, it received a generous application of Bondo (to hide the damage) and a single-stage respray in its signature Highland Green color.

The seats, interior, trunk space, and camera mounts remain unaltered and consistent with its prior movie life. When originally prepared for resale, the antenna was returned to the right front fender, and the movie rear-view mirror was replaced with a stock unit. The Hurst shifter had been installed by the former owner, and we never replaced it.

The front bumper is new, and so is the front valance. These were damaged when my grandfather backed into the car in the 1970s. No artificial "patina" has been added -- all the new parts can be plainly identified. The car is honest, and that's the way I wanted it.

The workmanship is all mine, as it was mine to do alone as homage to my father and the family secret I had internalized.

Over the last 18 months, several experts were brought in to see the car. Mustang expert Kevin Marti was the first, and he verified our Mustang as the '559 "Bullitt" movie car. McKeel Hagerty was contacted, as Hagerty insures the car.

We were then connected with the Historic Vehicle Association in Washington, D.C. for guidance on preserving the car and the related artifacts. They photographed, scanned, and documented the car for the National Historic Vehicle Register, in partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Historic American Engineering Record.

We can all be grateful that these documents will be archived in the Library of Congress so that future generations of Americans can see the car, just as it is today. Our family is honored that it is the twenty-first vehicle to be recorded under the program and the subject of an HVA documentary that they will release later in 2018. I know my dad would be proud.

We contacted Ford early on, as that had been my father's wish. Together with the HVA, we decided the best time to reveal the car would be to commemorate both the 50th anniversary of the year the car was produced and the 50th anniversary of the "Bullitt" movie.

I am grateful to my wife Samantha and my good friends Steve Forister, Steven Whitaker, Casey Wallace, and Ken Horstman, because without their encouragement and support the car would not be here today. I'm also grateful to LKQ Corporation (where I've been employed for 10 years) for flexibility in 2018 to tour with the car.

Sean Kiernan's mom, Robbie, is shown with the "Bullitt" Mustang in this undated photo.



I thank my dad, Robert Kiernan, for the years we shared together, my sister Kelly, and my mom, Robbie Kiernan. She must be the coolest third-grade teacher in history, because she drove the "Bullitt" Mustang -- our family car and a true national treasure.

Notes on the two movie originals
Both the '558 and '559 cars shared identical build specifications and boasted V-8 390-cubic-in. engines cranking 325 hp. Upon purchase, the cars were prepared by Max Balchowsky for use in the "Bullitt" movie.

Modifications included: Borg-Warner T-10 heavy-duty four-speed manual transmission, heavy-duty Borg-Warner clutch, 390 ci engine built by Balchowsky, milled heads, carburetor and distributor modification, 4:10 Positraction rear end, heavy-duty universal joints, 5-ton motor mounts, reinforced shock mounts, cross-beam support bar, Helwig stabilizers front and rear, Koni shocks, heavy-duty coil springs, frame reinforcements, American Racing mag wheels, Dunlop 5:00 M-15 racing tires on the front, 5:75x10:40 15 Firestone GP Indy Tires on the rear, custom exhaust, and a Shelby-type steering wheel.

All exterior Ford and Mustang badging was removed. The Highland Green paint was scuffed to create a dull appearance. Certain features were painted black, such as the rear gas cap. The reverse lights were removed.

There are lots of places online to watch the famous "Bullitt" chase scene. IGN provides one option here.

Sources: Ford Motor Co., Historic Vehicle Association

Published January 2018

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