Fri | Oct 19, 2018

'Bullitt' Mustang: Spent 40 years in a garage, now it's going on tour

Published:Sunday | February 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM

DETROIT, Michigan:

Sean Kiernan is a paint salesman with a dream who lived on a horse farm outside Nashville. And somehow that dream came true - but it is also just beginning.

This is the story of how a rusty '68 Ford Mustang ended up being the biggest attraction at the 2018 Detroit auto show after a family kept the famous muscle car hidden for 40 years.

Estimated to be worth at least $4 million now, the Highland Green car is famous for being driven by Steve McQueen in the classic film Bullitt. It forever established a Hollywood standard for high-action car-chase scenes. One Mustang used in the film went to a junk heap. The other Mustang seemed to disappear.

Now, Kiernan's 1968 Mustang GT Fastback is going on a world tour that will include a week being shown off under glass at the National Mall in Washington, and, perhaps, eventual display at The Henry Ford, among other classic artefacts of Americana.

"It's not often in life when you run into a Mona Lisa lost in a garage somewhere. That's what this is. It's a Mona Lisa car," said McKeel Hagerty, CEO of the world's largest insurer of classic cars and founder of the Historic Vehicle Association.

These days, TV news crews from throughout the United States, France, Japan, China, Norway, Italy, and Mexico have rushed to capture images of the iconic vehicle on display at the Cobo Center in the heart of the Motor City.

Crowds at the North American International Auto Show can see the global attraction until January 28, and then it tours the US and likely Europe and Asia over the next 12 months.

In April, the famous '68 Mustang Bullitt will be enclosed in a glass box and featured as part of Cars at the Capital, a Historic Vehicle Association exhibition that attracts some 500,000 visitors to the National Mall. The site, tucked between the US Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art, will be lit up at night.

"This is the most significant unveiling of a lost car in most people's modern memory. This one has just truly always been out there in people's minds," Hagerty said. "And this was a mission for a man who loved his father."

 

KEEPING THE SECRET

 

Sean Kiernan, 36, has always been a quiet man who focused on going to work, being a good husband, and providing for his family. He rarely allowed his picture taken. Until now, the only images captured have been selfies snapped by Samantha Kiernan, 28, an eye-care technician who met her husband while working at Sam's Sports Bar in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

When they recently packed their bags for Detroit, no one knew they were part of a Ford Motor Co celebration of the 50th anniversary of the film Bullitt and the public unveiling of the collector car, along with introduction of a new Mustang that pays homage to the original.

"My dad thought Sean was getting an award for selling the most paint for LKQ Corporation," said a smiling Samantha Kiernan, who grew up in Dearborn with a father, an uncle and an aunt who worked at Ford.

As store manager, Sean Kiernan had worked for the automotive paint company for a decade.

And their kids, did they know? "They thought Daddy was travelling because he was getting a promotion."

 

FAMILY CAR

 

Sean's mother, Robbie, was part of the plan. She drove that Mustang back in the day to St Vincent's Parish to teach third grade. Her husband, Robert, who had bought the car, took the train from their home in Madison, New Jersey, to work in New York City.

"The car didn't impress me much back then. I was just eight and it was old and uncomfortable," said Sean's sister, Kelly Cotton, 47, a preschool teacher who lives in Union, Kentucky. "We carpooled, and Mom would pick us up from Girl Scouts. You heard that car before you saw it. And there were holes in the floorboard on the passenger side where the camera mount was used for the movie. I could watch down at the road as we drove along."

Later, the car would end up retired to the garage, first at the family's home in New Jersey. Then later, when the family moved to a Kentucky farm outside Cincinnati.

"One day, I was in the bookstore and I noticed a book about Mustangs," Cotton said. "I wouldn't be my father's daughter if I didn't open a book about Mustangs, and there, at the bottom of a photo, it said no one knew where the '68 Mustang Bullitt is. I thought, 'Dear God.' And the book said it might be in Kentucky. And I thought, 'It is."

That Mustang, purchased through a classified ad in an October 1974 issue of Road & Track magazine for somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000, was left parked next to a 1975 Porsche in the family garage. The Mustang today has 65,000 miles on the odometer.