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50 years ago today Bullitt arrived in cinemas, starring and produced by a 38-year-old Steve McQueen. Ben Griffin looks at the history of the Ford Mustang GT 390 immortalised by the San Francisco-based movie and the most famous man ever to drive it.

The 50-year period since Bullitt and its legendary car chase debuted in the cinema has given us the hindsight to see this was when Steve McQueen’s career was reaching its peak. In fact, just six years later he was the highest paid actor in the world.

Not only did he star in the lead role as Frank Bullitt, a hard-edged San Francisco detective, he was also a producer. His vision was to make a movie that made a car the star and, as it turns out, he only needed 10 minutes and 53 seconds of chase scene bliss to achieve that. The fact you have to wait one hour and three minutes to reach it, having endured the slowest of slow-burners, only makes the climax more satisfying.

Standing the test of time highlights just how brilliant the car chase scene was and still is. Special effects, though of poor quality at the time, could have been used. But a focus on realism was chosen instead, with McQueen and the stunt team reaching speeds of 110mph in the famously hilly city. No wonder local residents called the police during filming.

1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 in Highland Green

Sadly, McQueen only lived to 50, just 12 years after Bullitt debutedAn incurable cancer caused by asbestos exposure, which the ex-marine attributed to working on motorcycles covered in the stuff (common practice back then), lead to a failed attempt to remove the tumour in Mexico.

At the time of death, he was said to be clutching a bible he had been given by evangelist, Billy Graham, highlighting the star’s search for a more spiritual life in his later years.

McQueen’s on-screen presence, piercing blue eyes and roles in a number of well-received box office hits have ensured his legacy burns brightly. More than just the bloke in the iconic Jaguar XKSS poster with the black rimmed and blue-lensed Persol 714 sunglasses, he has become a style icon and a reminder of a time when men were men and smoking was cool.

The car in the film should need as little an introduction as the most famous bloke ever to drive it. The 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback 2+2 – painted in Highland Green – used to chase down the escaping criminals in a Dodge Charger 440 R/T was one of the first to feature a ‘big block’ V8 (6.4 litres to be precise), four years after the first ‘Stang reached production.

Despite being a financial success, generating over US$40,000,000 from a budget of US$5,000,000, and critically well-received, the ‘hero car’ – one of two examples used for filming, the other being the stunt car – ended up being bought for relatively little by a Warner Bros film executive, who stipulated that he must be kept anonymous. His (or maybe her) time with the car was brief.

Rather amusingly, the second owner was actually a detective, presumably inspired by McQueen’s portrayal of Frank Bullitt. Then it was sold to New Jersey insurance executive and Mustang fan, Robert Kiernan, who reportedly paid US$6,000, although he insisted to his family that he actually only spent US$4,000.

Considering the hero car is estimated to be worth somewhere between three and five million pounds, it has done anything but sit in a humidity-controlled container. Robert Kiernan’s wife racked up 30,000 miles using it for errands before it was left broken in a barn in 1980, where it stayed until recently. Even in its freshly restored state, it rarely travels on the back of a truck to keep the mileage down and the value up.

A combination of some expensive repairs needed (including a new clutch) and his son Sean about to be born meant Robert Kiernan never did get a chance to drive the car again before passing away in 2014. Sean, however, has been driving to various motoring events around the world, including the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

In case you were thinking about buying the world’s most famous Ford Mustang (Elenor from Gone in 60 Seconds is a close second), don’t bother. The birthday of Bullitt has only reinforced two world-famous icons and the value of the car is likely to grow. But then Sean says it means more to him than just money, he is reminded of his dad whenever he looks at the car.

It was actually sentimentality that kept the car in the family for decades. McQueen actually tried to buy the car, which still features the camera mounts for filming, on two occasions in 1977. The first was a phone call, to which Kiernan politely said “thanks but no thanks”, and then a letter, which Robert Kiernan never replied to.

Two Bullitt Mustangs that tried to cash in on the movie before the 2019 model, first in 2001 and then again in 2007. But it is the latest and most powerful edition that does the car justice. Painted in the same Highland Green, with more power from the 5.0-litre V8 (453bhp), rev-matching on the downshift and the removal of the Mustang badge in the front grille to provide a more pared look, it is £47,545 of desirable American muscle.

That makes the new Mustang Bullitt appear rather pricey (£5,300 more than the standard Mustang GT), but then it is being built for a limited time and just 350 examples have so far been brought to the UK. All have sold and it appears second-hand cars are cropping up in the classifieds with a hefty premium. Whether or not these chancers actually sell a car remains to be seen.

At the very least, the latest Mustang Bullitt should hold its value. But if another 50 years of hindsight shows us anything, it will probably be that you buy this car now for more than financial gain. For you see there is unlikely to be many, if any cars after the Mustang that let you cruise around with a thunderous V8 at your disposal.

It is, after all, the antithesis of efficiency – despite being somewhat decent on fuel at motorway speeds – and emissions regulation will only force Ford to make it a hybrid, which would upset purists as much as the introduction of the 2.3-litre V6 variant. Or maybe ditch it altogether.

At that point, you will wish you had pulled the trigger on the Bullitt or even the standard Mustang. Because as dying breeds go, the latest Mustang is a pleasingly capable and characterful last hurrah. Not to mention one of the only V8s you can buy with a manual gearbox.

As the reign of the combustion engine seemingly draws to a close, choked by increasingly strict emissions regulations, the silver lining is that its send-off is something Steve McQueen would have probably been happy to own.

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt – Key Specs

  • Engine: 5.0-litre V8
  • Power output: 453bhp (459PS)
  • Torque: 390lb/ft (529Nm)
  • Top speed: 163mph
  • 0-62mph (100kmh): 4.6 seconds
  • Fuel economy: 12.4 mpg (combined)
  • CO2 emissions: 277g/km (WLTP)
  • Price: £47,545

About The Author

Editor-in-Chief

Ben Griffin is a motoring journalist and founder of the website and YouTube channel, A Tribe Called Cars. He is also a contributor at DriveTribe.

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