Bul­litt vs Bul­litt’s

Still haulin’ ass on her 50th birth­day – get ready for a meet and greet with movie car roy­alty

Top Gear (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS: JACK RIX / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: MARK RICCIONI

So how does the new car com­pare to the ac­tual one used for film­ing the best car chase scene ever?

Ever no­ticed that in­vis­i­ble plasma sur­round­ing celebri­ties? The stuff that leaves us pie-eyed on fame and li­able to stare, point and gen­er­ally pan­der to what is just an­other hu­man be­ing with a fa­mil­iar face. Turns out it ap­plies to ob­jects, too. Sean Kier­nan, the car’s owner, has barely fin­ished slid­ing the tar­pau­lin off and already his voice has been se­lec­tively dis­missed by my brain. I start to cir­cle this prize piece of Hol­ly­wood mem­o­ra­bilia, stroking its frozen-in-time patina, re­mem­ber­ing to breathe only when I climb in and take a lung­ful of cracked leather, hunt­ing for the sto­ries I’ve heard so much about.

There! Glue residue on the tachome­ter – a piece of tape ap­plied by a ner­vous me­chanic dur­ing film­ing, re­mind­ing Mc­Queen not to rev the knack­ers off it. An­other mostly dis­in­te­grated sticker, bot­tom right of the wind­screen – a pass for the Warner Bros stu­dio lot – and those un­sightly square-sec­tion pipes, welded to the chas­sis as cam­era mounts. But this car – the ac­tual High­land Green 1968 Mus­tang GT 390 Fast­back driven from the world’s most fa­mous car chase – has a story that only starts once the last clap­per board snapped shut.

We’ve got two hours with the car and its owner, the new Bul­litt Mus­tang for com­pany, Good­wood cir­cuit to our­selves and strict in­struc­tions that un­der no cir­cum­stances am I al­lowed to drive the old one. Sod that. “Any chance of a go, Sean?” I of­fer, try­ing and fail­ing to mask my des­per­a­tion.

“Oh man, I hate say­ing no to any­one, es­pe­cially when it comes to this car,” says Sean, strongly hint­ing that the an­swer is def­i­nitely no. “The car means so much to me, but the big­gest thing is I still feel my fa­ther when I drive it, that’s why I won’t let any­one in it.” Since Mc­Queen parked his back­side there in late April 1968, Sean reck­ons he can count on two hands how many peo­ple have driven it. Two own­ers pre­vi­ous to

his dad, his mum, him, Jay Leno (one of his late fa­ther’s wishes) and Mc­Queen’s grand­daugh­ter Molly – who was on stage at the Detroit show in Jan­uary this year when the new Bul­litt made its de­but, and the world was made aware of the orig­i­nal’s ex­is­tence.

But what is now one of the world’s most cov­eted movie cars, worth “be­tween four and six [mil­lion]” ac­cord­ing to Sean, has never been wrapped in cot­ton wool at the back of a barn. Ever since his fa­ther re­sponded to an ad­vert in Road and Track mag­a­zine of­fer­ing the “Bul­let” Mus­tang for $6,000, it’s been trundling around in plain sight. “I was neg­a­tive seven when my dad bought it. That was ’74; I was born in ’81. He was the third owner, the se­cond owner had it for about three and a half years, the first owner had it for about a year.

“Frank, the se­cond owner, found out his wife had writ­ten the ad be­cause she wanted him to get a sta­tion wagon. My dad was the only one that called, the only one that showed up and he was gone in an hour.”

But it wasn’t un­til Sean was seven and start­ing to get “heavy into cars” that his dad let him into the family se­cret. “We moved to Ken­tucky from New Jersey in ’84. The car stayed with my grand­fa­ther in New Jersey un­til ’88 and that’s when Dad sat me down and said “Watch this chase scene.” We started talk­ing about get­ting it from New Jersey, and the day we picked it up is ex­actly how you see it now.”

OK, rewind. By this point Sean’s dad had already put up a fight to keep hold of it. Al­though its where­abouts was a se­cret to the wider pub­lic, one man knew ex­actly where it was and wanted it bad. The let­ter Steve Mc­Queen wrote to Robert Kier­nan in ’77 read:

“Again, I would like to ap­peal to you to get back my ’68 Mus­tang. I would like very much to keep it in the family in its orig­i­nal con­di­tion as it was used in the film, rather than have it re­stored; which is sim­ply per­sonal with me. I would be happy to try and find you an­other Mus­tang sim­i­lar to the one you have, if there is not too much monies in­volved in it. Oth­er­wise, we had bet­ter for­get it.”

Sounds a tad abrupt, doesn’t it? But this was the fi­nal ap­peal of a des­per­ate man. “At this point him and dad had talked on the phone about five times, so I think this was his last roll of the dice.”

In­ter­est­ing that Mc­Queen wanted it pre­served, not re­stored, as that’s pre­cisely what the Kier­nans had in mind. The ques­tion is how far to go. “I do paint and body for a liv­ing so do you re­store it to the day it came out the fac­tory, or leave it orig­i­nal be­cause of the his­tory of the car? That’s why I just de­cided to pre­serve it. I think it looks best like this as it’s raw and real.”

“His dad bought the ‘Bul­let’ Mus­tang for $6,000

Not ev­ery­thing is orig­i­nal of course, like the new front bumper, the tyres, the brake and fuel lines, the car­pets and a re­built ex­haust. But the bits that count, the chas­sis, the en­gine, the sus­pen­sion, the body are all present and cor­rect. “My main goal was to make sure she started, she stopped and she didn’t catch on fire,” says Sean.

But it was very nearly never put back to­gether at all. Sean and his fa­ther had pulled it apart, but when his fa­ther died a few years ago, Sean couldn’t find the strength for the project… un­til the cra­zi­est co­in­ci­dence of his life. “I was rid­ing with my boss, not a car guy at all, and he started asking what cars I had. I told him I had a green ’68 390 GT fast­back. “That sounds like Bul­litt” he said. Then he goes: “It’s funny, a friend of mine and I wrote a script about two kids find­ing Mc­Queen’s long-lost Mus­tang in a barn”.

“He keeps talk­ing and ba­si­cally he’s telling me ev­ery­thing about me. I never told any­body about that car my whole life. So I said, that guy you’re talk­ing about, that’s me. And then I started ac­tu­ally cry­ing. When his friend who wrote the script came to see the car, that was the mo­ment that in­spired me to put it back to­gether.”

Oh, about the movie. “We’re work­ing on the fund­ing now,” Sean says. “Molly [Mc­Queen] has at­tached herself to it. She’s go­ing to be an ac­tress in the movie. Dude, it’s an amaz­ing script.”

In 2016, with the re­build com­plete and Bul­litt’s 50th an­niver­sary on the hori­zon, Sean got in touch with Ford to make them aware of the car. And it was that one emo­tion­ally charged meet­ing – “half­way through it we’re all cry­ing, I’m los­ing my shit” – that in­spired Ford to build the new Bul­litt Mus­tang trib­ute.

But it’s a trib­ute, and just that. The way the ’68 car idles with a deep chug­ging throb, then a lit­tle rasp as you go up through the gears, its jacked-up stance, the im­per­fec­tions that per­fect it… all are ir­repli­ca­ble. I hop in the pas­sen­ger side for a lap and it rides beau­ti­fully, but Sean’s in no hurry. We just kick back, dan­gle our arms out the win­dow, shades on. Sean breaks the si­lence: “My par­ents had a Great Dane that used to lie across the back seat, I think its ten­nis ball is still in the glove box.”

This is a car that’s been used, cher­ished and pre­served by a family for 44 years be­fore shar­ing it with the world. And I get as much a kick out of that as feel­ing close to the King of Cool him­self. I turn to Sean and ask how many times he’s seen the film. “The movie? I’d say 10 times, but the chase scene prob­a­bly 15,000 times. When he loses it in the cor­ner and it goes up in dust, the car just sit­ting there idling, and he burps it, and then he catches se­cond as he leaves. That’s the car. That’s the but­ter­fly mo­ment for me.”

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