As It Happens

Steve McQueen's 1968 Mustang from Bullitt up for auction after 45 years with Nashville family

To Sean Kiernan, the Ford Mustang GT Fastback Steve McQueen drove in the 1968 film Bullitt will always be his dad's car.

Sean Kiernan inherited the car from his father, who bought it from a Road & Track magazine classified ad

The Ford Mustang GT Fastback from the 1968 movie Bullitt is it up for auction, and it's expected to go for several million dollars. (Mecum Auctions )
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To car collectors and film buffs, it's the vehicle Steve McQueen raced through the streets of San Francisco in the 1968 action movie Bullitt.

But to former Nashville paint salesman Sean Kiernan, the 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback will always be his dad's car.

It's been in his family for 45 years. And now, five years after his father's death, he's putting it on the auction block. 

"At the end of the day, it really has to do with closure, you know, looking towards the future and the legacy of my father," Kiernan told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

"Dad will always be attached to the car, and that's what means the most to me."

Steve McQueen wanted it back 

The rusty highland green Mustang is the original "hero" vehicle from the movie, meaning it was the one driven by McQueen himself, not a stunt double. 

"If you're a car guy, you know exactly where you were the first time you saw Bullitt  ... whether it's going to the movie theater or the first time watching it with your father, you know, or the family just sitting around," Kiernan said. 

"This car is obviously an iconic car."

For decades after Bullitt hit theatres, car aficionados believed the Mustang was lost. But in reality, it was with the Kiernan family.

Robert Kiernan Jr., an avid car collector, bought it for a few thousand dollars from a Road & Track magazine classified ad in 1974.

"He bought it because it was a '68 Fastback — that's what he was searching for — but kept it because it was Bullitt," Kiernan said. 

At first, Kiernan Jr. was skeptical that it really was the car from the movie, his son said. And he remained skeptical until McQueen himself got in touch looking to get it back. 

"I would be happy to try to find you another Mustang similar to the one you have if there is not too much monies involved in it," McQueen wrote in a 1977 letter. "Otherwise, we had better forget it."

But Kiernan's father declined the offer. 

Steve McQueen wrote this letter to Sean Kiernan's family in 1977. (Submitted by Sean Kiernan)
 

So what did he do with it, rather than return it to McQueen? 

"They do what we all do, what's supposed to be done with cars — we drive them," Kiernan said. "My mom and dad ... drove this car for six years during the '70s and yeah, I mean they absolutely loved it."

The car remained in the family for decades as they moved around the country, eventually settling on a farm in Nashville where Kiernan still resides. 

Old photos of Sean Kiernan's parents having adventures in their 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback. (Submitted by Sean Kiernan)

Kiernan's father died in 2014. Four years later, on Jan. 28, 2018, he finally unveiled the car to the public at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

After that, Kiernan travelled the world with the Mustang as it went on display across the U.S., France, Japan, China, Norway, Italy and Mexico.

And now he's teamed up with Mecum Auctions to sell it in January 2020.

It's expected to fetch millions — despite the fact that hasn't been painted in 50 years and is still covered in dings and scratches from the film. 

Learning to let go

Kiernan has only done the bare minimum of restoration work on the Mustang — enough to keep it from falling apart.

"The outside of the car it tells such a story and the history of the car, and I didn't want to erase any history. That was something my father and I believed from the beginning," Kiernan said. 

"That's the part that I love, I think, the most about it. It's raw."

He's hoping it will beat the current record for a classic muscle car  — a 1971 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda that fetched $3.5 million US at auction in 2014.

"I would love for Bullitt to kind of rewrite history as far as that goes," he said. "Yeah, that would be amazing."

Sean Kiernan stands next to his Ford Mustang GT Fastback, right, which Steve McQueen drove through the streets of San Francisco in the 1968 movie Bullitt. (Submitted by Sean Kiernan)

Despite the pretty penny he's likely to earn, Kiernan admits it was still a very difficult decision to let go of his dad's old car.

But, ultimately, he decided to move forward with the sale because, with a baby on the way, he wants to be able to spend less time at work, and more time home on the family farm.

"The biggest challenge, I guess, for me it was just, you know, becoming OK with it and being at peace no matter what happens," he said.

"The future owner, just as far as telling the next chapter, I hope that it does for him what it's done for our family, and for the romance of the story. You know, I hope it never gets restored."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Sean Kiernan produced by Richard Raycraft.

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