1968 Mustang Bullitt Story: From Movie Prop to the Most Expensive Mustang Ever Sold

If you take a close look at the pictures in the gallery, you’ll discover a fairly beat-up first-generation Mustang. It’s full of dents or rust and the once-metallic green paint has lost all its shine. Despite all that, it’s one of the most iconic movie cars of all time, and last year it sold for no less than $3.74 million.
1968 Ford Mustang  Bullitt 15 photos
Photo: Mecum Auctions
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Ford introduced the Mustang in March 1964, giving birth to an entirely new segment of sports cars. Right from the start, it was extremely successful because it was relatively cheap yet extremely classy, it sat four and was available with a wide range of options. Another reason for the car’s success was the Blue Oval’s complex advertising campaign that began more than a year before the ‘Stang was publicly unveiled.

Undoubtedly the most successful piece of advertising came in October 1968 when the movie Bullitt was released. Starring Steve McQueen, one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, the action-packed thriller kicked off with an epic car chase through the streets of San Francisco that you can watch below, thanks to YouTube user Kavallero.

For about seven minutes, with only growling V8s as background music, McQueen’s character detective Frank Bullitt in his green Mustang GT pursues a couple of hitmen that were driving a black 1968 440 Magnum-powered Dodge Charger. At the time, it was the most thrilling car chase movie scene ever filmed and to this day, it is recognized as a revolutionary sequence that set new Hollywood standards.

1968 Ford Mustang  Bullitt on Set
Photo: Ford Motor Co.
To make the scene possible, Warner Bros obtained two Highland Green GT 390 Fastbacks from Ford. Both had to be modified to withstand extensive punishment, a task that was handed down to Max Balchowsky.

A close friend of McQueen’s and a well-known race car builder, Balchowsky started by reinforcing both cars’ suspension systems, which now featured beefed-up springs and Koni adjustable shocks.

Next up was the big-block V8s that received modified heads, carbs, and electronic ignition systems. To amplify the sound they produced, the stock transverse mufflers were replaced with straight pipes.

1968 Ford Mustang  Bullitt 390 Engine
Photo: Mecum Auctions
Finally, several mounts were added to accommodate the Arriflex cameras that captured the iconic chase, but the transformation was far from over. For McQueen, the green Mustang was more than just a prop, he saw it as a defining character of the famous movie. With that in mind, he wanted it to look and feel unique, so he ordered the removal of several badges on both cars, had various chrome trims repainted black or Highland Green, and replaced the factory wheels with gray American Racing Torq Thrust wheels.

One of the Mustangs was used for the most hardcore parts of the chase scene which led to extensive damage. It was deemed too expensive to repair so it was reportedly scrapped. The one featured in this article saw a lot more action, but it survived in a roadworthy condition.

After its big-screen debut, it was sold to a Warner Bros. employee who used it as a daily driver for a couple of years. Then, it was purchased by a real police detective, New Jersey native Frank Marranca who owned it until 1974. That year, the iconic car switched owners again but remained in the state of New Jersey after Robert Kiernan acquired it from the detective for $6,000 ($33,384 today).

1968 Ford Mustang  Bullitt
Photo: Mecum Auctions
In the years that followed, the King of Cool desperately wanted to purchase his famed four-wheeled co-star, making numerous attempts to buy it from Kiernan. Legend has it that the actor even offered a Bullitt replica as well as a decent amount of money for the original car, but its owner respectfully declined.

Until 1980, when its clutch finally broke down, the Bullitt was driven daily by Mrs. Kiernan who taught at a nearby school. It then sat in a garage for several years waiting to be repaired, but the family never had the necessary funds to bring it back to working condition. However, the Kiernans didn’t give up on their prized Mustang and took it with them when they moved to Cincinnati in 1984. A decade later, it was stored in a friend’s garage in Kentucky as the family moved again, this time to Florida. The legendary fastback was reunited with the Kiernans a year later when they brought a farm in Nashville.

Left to gather dust in a garage once more, it finally received some much-needed attention by Robert and his son, Sean in 2001, when Ford inspired them to bring it back to life with the introduction of the fourth-generation Mustang GT Bullitt special edition. Unfortunately, soon after they began working on the car, Robert was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, so their project came to an abrupt end.

1968 Ford Mustang  Bullitt
Photo: Mecum Auctions
In 2008, the Blue Oval released another Bullitt special edition which lit a fire under the siblings once more, but with Robert’s disease worsening and his son now responsible for maintaining the farm, they never managed to resume work on their beloved Mustang.

Sadly, Robert passed away in 2014 and never got to see the car in working condition again. Sean managed to compete the project years later, a process that culminated with a public unveiling at the 2018 Detroit Auto Show, alongside Ford’s third Bullitt Mustang.

Retaining many of its original parts and movie set modifications, it was eventually sold by Sean at a Mecum auction last year. Its precarious yet mostly original condition combined with its legendary story made this amazing car the most expensive Mustang ever sold, as it fetched a whopping $3.74 million.

It turns out that the second car was never scrapped as it resurfaced in Mexico in 2017. However, it was in very poor condition, missing its engine, and seemed to have been repainted white at some point. It’s now undergoing a full restoration, but even if it’s successfully completed, the car will never be as authentic as its well-preserved, record-breaking sibling.

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About the author: Vlad Radu
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Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
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