Carlos Osorio / The Associated Press files
The new 2019 Mustang Bullitt (right) is seen next to the original at the North American International Auto Show on Jan. 14 in Detroit.
DETROIT — Sean Kiernan paid tribute to the memory of his father the best way he could. He finally restored his dad’s 1968 Mustang.
“I couldn’t go into the garage for two years after he died,” the Nashville resident said of the car that had been nearly completely disassembled at the time.
Kiernan’s dad, Robert, died in 2014 and left specific instructions for Sean to contact Ford in 2017 in preparation for a special 50th anniversary.
Robert’s Mustang, bought in 1974 for US$6,000, was no ordinary Mustang.
This, after all, was one of two Mustangs driven in the 1968 film Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen.
Fifty years later, the car came out of hiding and, along with McQueen’s granddaughter Molly, is onstage at the Ford stand at the North American International Auto Show helping introduce the 2019 Bullitt, the third generation of the skunkworks Mustang.
“It was never our intention to keep this car a secret for so long,” Sean said. “It just sort of happened.”
Bullitt has garnered acclaim as having one of the movie industry’s best chase scenes — the driving was all real, with no computer-generated trickery — but the film seemed to slowly gain its audience. As evidence? Robert Kiernan found an ad for the original Bullitt Mustang in the back of Road & Track magazine six years after the movie hit the screen. The ad generated one phone call. Today, a seller would be collecting bids like crazy.
“Funny enough, it was spelled wrong. It wasn’t the best-selling ad, and was an or-best-offer ad,” Sean said.
“My dad was the only guy who called, only guy who showed up, bought it and drove away.”
Sean said the car served as his mom and dad’s daily driver from 1974 to 1980, when it broke down about a year before Sean was born. Bought when the family lived in New Jersey, it followed the Kiernans to Kentucky and then to Tennessee. Work on the restoration was put off and put off.
“You know, everybody’s got the car in their garage they’re eventually going to get to. Ours just happened to be Bullitt.”
Sean said restoration work on the Mustang was careful to retain everything his dad bought in 1974, from the camera mounts for filming to “about 400 pounds of Bondo” on the right side, a repair done after the movie and which stems from the chase, when Frank Bullitt attempted, eventually successfully, to force the baddies in the black Charger off the road.
“My wife and I would just sit on the steps of the garage right after my father passed and just stare at the car and not really know what do to,” Sean said. “To stare at that car and know when you build it you’d have this,” he said, motioning towards the car, “was one of the most scary things I’ve gone through.
“To finally commit and then to see it done 45 days later, that was unbelievable. It was very therapeutic.”
When the 1968 Bullitt roared onto the stage in Detroit, it seemed the only thing missing was a Charger, upside down and in flames, off to the side.
Molly, who was born seven years after Steve McQueen died of cancer in 1980, said she got involved with the 2019 Bullitt in December of 2017. She said her first chance to sit in the 1968 Bullitt gave her an instant connection to the grandfather she never knew.
“To me, it was a shock that it even existed,” she said. “Just sitting in there, it takes you back, and I can literally imagine him sitting in that seat.
“I never met him, so that’s the most tangible connection I’ve ever had to him. It was really, truly a gift.”
For the unveiling, Molly starred in a brief film clip of two cars — her in a 2019 Bullitt and two guys in a Dodge Challenger — racing for the last available parkade space. Like her grandfather, she did her own driving, after just a day of training with Ford. Certainly not by fluke, the guys in the Challenger bear striking resemblances to the bad guys in the movie.
Like the original, the 2019 Bullitt is available in Dark Highland Green, although Shadow Black is also available. It comes only with a manual transmission, and features a white cueball shift knob, also just like the original.
A 12-inch LCD instrument cluster and unique green accent stitching differentiate the car’s interior from ordinary Mustangs.
Subtle chrome accents around the grille and windows, what Ford calls “classic torque-thrust” 19-inch wheels, red Brembo brake calipers and a blacked-out grille serve as understated tributes to the original.
For performance, the Bullitt combines all Mustang GT Performance and Premium content in one car. The only options are a Bullitt electronics package, with nav, driver memory seats and mirrors, upgraded sound system and blind-spot and cross-traffic alert systems. MagneRide, a system that instantly varies shock-absorber response using magnetic fields and special shock fluid, and Recaro black leather-trimmed seats are the other two options.
Not optional is the 5.0-litre V-8 engine, upgraded to 475 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque, which ups the top speed to 262 km/h, a 13-km/h bump from standard Mustang GT models.
The first Bullitt homage was introduced in 2001, while the second came out in 2008. The 2019 model will go on sale in the summer of 2018.
The new Bullitt will not, fortunately, come with “about 400 pounds of Bondo,” however.
Sean Kiernan (from left), Molly McQueen and Free Press automotive journalist Kelly Taylor with the original 1968 Mustang from the movie Bullitt, starring McQueen’s grandfather Steve.
Inside the new, cool and powerful 2019 Mustang Bullitt.
Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press
Robert Kiernan bought the 1968 Mustang Bullitt for US$6,000 off a classified ad in a magazine in 1974. He was the only person to inquire about the car.
Steve McQueen in the 1968 film Bullitt.