A letter came in the mail. Steve McQueen wanted his car back.
It wasn’t just any old car. The souped-up Dark Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback was arguably as memorable as the star who drove it in an iconic and much-imitated street-rattling and nearly 11-minute car-chase scene.
The year was 1968, and Steve McQueen was reaching the peak of his superstardom. Two years earlier, he’d notched his first (and only) Academy Award acting nomination for The Sand Pebbles. He followed that by producing and starring in Bullitt, a noir-ish crime thriller in which the King of Cool played a San Francisco police detective battling a mob boss.
Though Bullitt was a critical and commercial smash, today it is best remembered for the classic car chase between McQueen’s character in the Mustang and the mobster in a black Dodge Charger. (A green VW beetle also makes an appearance.) Cited by many as one of the best car chases ever, it helped secure the Academy Award for Best Film Editing. As Roger Ebert wrote in his 1968 review of the film, “[it] leaves your stomach somewhere in the cellar for about 11 minutes.”
Filming the car chase took three weeks. Two Mustangs were used: One was called the “hero” car, which McQueen drove throughout filming; another was used in jump and crash scenes. Though stunt drivers took over for some of the riskier maneuvers, McQueen did much of his own driving, creating a sort of cinema verité.
Car aficionados took note. “The Bullitt chase is coveted for the usual crashes and jumps, but it had something more,” fan Larry Webster recently wrote on the classic car site Hagerty.com. “Unlike most cinematic chases that feature cars performing impossible feats, the one from Bullitt was every bit as exciting, but the driving was obviously real. Those who know cars knew. It’s 10 minutes of film nirvana.”
After filming was complete, the Mustangs were disposed of—the banged-up jumper car supposedly trashed, the hero Mustang sold to a Los Angeles executive who in turn sold it to a policeman. The cop kept the hero Mustang for a few years before selling it by placing an ad in the back of Road & Track magazine in 1974. An insurance executive, Robert Kiernan, bought it for a then-steep $6,000, shipped it to his home to Madison, New Jersey, and his wife drove it on grocery-store runs around town.
McQueen was an avid motorcycle and car enthusiast, who had at one point considered becoming a professional race car driver. He competed in off-road motorcycle races and was inducted into the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1978. He collected classic bikes and cars, including Porsches, Ferraris, and a Jaguar. So it’s no surprise he wanted the Bullitt Mustang back.
In 1977, he tracked down the Kiernan family in New Jersey and gave them a call. “Dad had owned the car for three years at that point,” Sean Kiernan, the son of the man who’d bought the Mustang, told Vanity Fair. “And he got a phone call from Steve asking about the car, how it was, if he’d changed anything on it. And McQueen said, ‘I would really like to buy it if there’s not too much involved with it. I’ll replace it with a similar, like kind of car. As long it’s not a crazy amount of money.’ But dad declined. He said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
McQueen, who for a time was the highest-paid movie star in the world, likely was used to getting his own way. He followed his call with a type-written letter, which said nearly exactly what he’d said earlier. It wasn’t exactly an endearing sell.
“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. “Otherwise, we had better forget it.”
The Kiernan family forgot McQueen’s request, and kept their car, driving it another 30,000 miles before mechanical issues, and several moves, consigned the car to the family garage. Robert Kiernan died in 2014. But with the 50th anniversary of Bullitt approaching, son Sean decided to rebuild the Bullitt Mustang to its original condition.
In January, at the annual Detroit Auto Show, the refurbished original hero 1968 Dark Highland Green Mustang was unveiled alongside a 2019 update of the famous car. Nearby, in a glass case, on display were both the Road & Track ad and the letter McQueen had typed to Kiernan. The car will tour the country this year, making a stop on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in April.
Steve McQueen’s granddaughter Molly McQueen, who appeared at the unveiling, said her grandfather chose the Mustang for the movie because it was a performance car that the average person could afford on a detective’s salary, according to the website The Drive. And also, she said, because it’s “badass.”
The original Bullitt Mustang is now valued at nearly $4 million. If you want your own modern version, you’re in luck. The updated version goes on sale this summer. Naturally, it is available in the classic Dark Highland Green (it will come in other colors, too, but why?). The new Bullitt has an impressive 475-horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque, a top speed of 163 mph, and an exhaust sound to emulate that of its film predecessor. Ford has not yet released pricing information, but Car and Driver magazine estimate it will list upward of $45,000.
Related story from us: How scene stealer Steve McQueen tried to make sure all eyes would be on him in “The Magnificent Seven” and not Yul Brynner
All of which is enough to credibly re-create the famous Bullitt car chase around the streets of San Francisco. But seriously that is NOT something we recommend.