KISSIMMEE, Fla. – There’s likely only one word that best describes the feeling of walking behind the original Mustang Bullitt movie car as it was being driven slowly up onto the auction stage before landing a $3.4-million record sale: Surreal.
As it would be for any true Mustanger, following that most-famous Ford Mustang – perhaps the most recognized car in the world – to the auction block was almost like having an out-of-body experience. The attendees who jammed Silver Spurs Arena at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida, all rose to their feet, chanting “Bull-itt!, Bull-itt!, Bull-itt! in unison as a sea of arms and smartphones stretched up above the crowd when the original Bullitt rumbled into view.
As the flashing house lights danced off the dull green patina of the Bullitt’s fastback and the rumble and smell of that carefully reconstructed 390 big-block wafted in and out of the senses, the realization hit that automotive history was yet again being made with this much-celebrated pony car. It was at about a quarter-til-three on that Friday afternoon on January 10, 2020, when owner Sean Kiernan reached center stage and got out from behind the wheel of his Bullitt movie car and stepped up to the auction podium. When he took the microphone after the car’s official introduction, he exclaimed, “Holy Smokes!” as he looked out at the thousands of fans on hand to witness the moment.
Kiernan said he wanted to start the bidding at $3,500, as that’s what his father had first paid for the car – and hundreds of hands went up before the next bid hit $500,000. The auctioneer jumped on top of the podium wall to able to differentiate between raised hands and raised phones. Once the bids hit a million and beyond, the action centered on a serious bidder in the room and another on the phone – and in only about 11 minutes or so, it was all over.
With the phone bidder firmly at $3.4 million, the auctioneer pointed his hammer handle at the phone bank and bellowed, “SOLD! – for 3.4 million dollars, then striking the hammer down saying, “To you, Frank!” (referring to Frank Mecum, who was said to be on the phone with the winning bidder). The buzz in the crowd was almost deafening as Kiernan jumped back into the Bullitt and fired it up to exit the stage.
The security team had surrounded the car and corralled a group of “insiders” who accompanied the Bullitt on its trip across the block with a long loop of yellow rope – and they tugged on the rope to get all walking again as the Bullitt slowly headed down the ramp and out to the exit. Everyone was chatting, “Who was that winning bidder?” Others were saying, “We’ll, the Bullitt movie Mustang’s story is finally over!”
We’re not sure about the former, but they were wrong about the latter.
The Bullitt story is far from over. In fact, more about the Bullitt will soon be told than was ever revealed before. But we knew that from Day One – and Day One was NOT when the Bullitt was revealed along with Ford’s all-new 2019 Mustang Bullitt at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January of 2018. Back then, we told you the real Bullitt story, direct from the one journalist who was there from the beginning – our friend Brad Bowling. You can skip everything else you may have read up until this point and then go back and read the one, true account of how the Bullitt movie car had “disappeared” and then “reappeared” – and it’s all still in our Enthusiasts Newsroom on FordPerformance.com HERE.
But our own Bullitt story dates back to May of 2016, when we took a phone call in our Ford Racing office from someone who claimed to have “exciting Mustang news.” The one and only true account of how the Bullitt movie car and Ford came together for a co-reveal remains the one told by fellow auto journalist Rich Ceppos in a Car and Driver feature published in March of 2018. Nobody else in the Mustang world had that story, and it alone tells it the way things really happened. You can read that HERE.
Scant few people have had ongoing access to the remarkable saga of the original Bullitt movie Mustang, as well as its journey through the enthusiast community these past few years. Unless, that is, you happen to be one of the “Bullittheads” that make up the “HoonDog Performance Group” managed the mohawk-adorned Canadian Mustang maniac Paul Rocha. Rocha’s club full of Bullitt fanatics have done it all – modded and raced Bullitt Mustangs, driven them on-track and cross-country, showed them at the Steve McQueen car show – even saved a red Bullitt Ford prototype from the crusher. As you might expect, they have a unique relationship with Bullitt people both inside and outside of Ford, as well as Sean Kiernan himself.
The club had invited us to witness the Bullitt auction in Florida in a special way by taking part in a pre-event dinner at the host hotel packed with most of the major payers in the Bullitt saga, as well as Bullitt owners and club members. We were honored to attend and share our own personal Bullitt experience, and to hear Kiernan and the rest share theirs. If the Mustang Bullitt is what makes you tick, then what was said at that dinner was priceless -- and explains the reason why people join clubs and actually pay to attend these kinds of club events.
At the dinner, Bullittheads got their first glimpse at the fruits of the uncanny relationship between Kiernan and filmmaker Ken Horstmann of Spyplane Films, as first told in Ceppos’ Car and Driver expose. Yes, that’s why so much more of the Bullitt story is yet to come. The duo showed some clips from an upcoming Bullitt documentary series dubbed “Little Pieces – The True Story of the World’s Most Iconic Car.”
As Horstmann describes it, Little Pieces is a four-part documentary series all about the making of Steve McQueen's iconic, 1968 film Bullitt and much more. It includes first-hand accounts from the set; the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and its impact on the movie; a midnight death-match in Chinatown that McQueen feared would shut the production down; and the true story of the owner of the surviving Mustang fastback said to be the holy grail of cars. It also includes insight from the filmmakers, Jay Leno, Molly McQueen, Magnus Walker, the Ford Mustang team, film critics on the influence of the film, and people from the hobby.
Horstmann told us that once filming from the auction and a few more main characters is completed this spring, the final version is expected to hit streaming services this summer. To say that this is a must-see for Mustang fans is, well . . . do I actually have to say it?
For our part, we are happy to explain to some Mustang fans why the Bullitt auction makes sense for the Kiernans even after Sean had once said he’d never sell such a big part of his father’s – and family’s – legacy. The fact is, most experts agree the Bullitt will never again reach this level of notoriety, given that as we grow older, fewer and fewer people have seen the movie, know who Steve McQueen was and understand the significance of both. Mention cool drivers and car-chase films today, and kids will say the late Paul Walker of the Fast and Furious movie franchise. (Sorry, but Walker was no McQueen, and Bullitt was 100% real driving unaided by computers.)
The way an emotional Kiernan had himself explained the sale should suffice:
“To say this is emotional is an understatement” Sean admitted. “I didn’t need to sell her, but I needed her to get the best care available. She needed a place where she will be preserved, safe, and where she’ll continue to bring happiness to every car guy and girl for as long as possible. I’ve done my part, and now it’s time for the next chapter.”
“I hope that everyone I’ve met over the past few years since I rolled my family secret out of the garage understands. I just want to say thank you to all who’ve been part of this journey with my family. The amount of respect and positivity that surrounds my Bullitt family is more than I could have ever dreamed. I wish my dad could have seen this.”
We think Sean’s dad would have approved of the Bullitt topping the previous record sale for a Mustang at auction, which was $2.2 million for a 1967 Shelby GT500 Super Snake sold in 2019, according to Hagerty, the classic-car insurance company. (The Buyer’s Premium and fees on the Bullitt pushed the final no-reserve auction transaction tally to $3.74 million.) Since the dual Bullitt reveal with Ford, Kiernan’s travels with the movie car Bullitt cover the scope of the Ford enthusiast community (with his favorite being taking the car to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England), and could best be described by the Johnny Cash’s song, “I’ve Been Everywhere (Man!)” But it was precisely those travel demands and those of ownership – such as transport liabilities, the expense of, and time involved in, never-ending appearance requests, and as Shelby Cobra owners can attest – the inability to simply take the car out for a spin without fear of serious financial risk – that played a role in the decision to sell it.
But those weren’t the only reasons. The Bullitt certainly forever changed the life and family of this well-grounded and friendly 38-year-old paint salesman from Hendersonville, Tennessee. But it was Kiernan’s family life, in the form of a health scare that his wife, Samantha, had endured, that convinced him it was time to let the Bullitt go and spend time with Sam and daughters Katelyn, Brooklyn and Summer — amazingly all born in the years that Ford launched new Bullitt versions of the Mustang: 2001, 2008 and 2019 (and no, we’re not making that up).
Sean had said that Sam’s difficult pregnancy with Summer, after three years of trying to have a third child and finally succeeding through invitro fertilization, made him rethink his life priorities.
"Sam had endometriosis extremely bad and had to have emergency surgery,” he said. “We at first wanted to continue to tell our family story with the car, but now I want to play in the dirt during the day and play with cars at night -- both with my girls. I’m just planning on taking care of my property and cutting hay. That's what I love to do."
Knowing Sean and Sam, it’s likely the right decision. Samantha rolled little Summer in a stroller to see daddy Sean at the Bullitt dinner the night before the auction in Kissimmee and showed off custom tee that the newborn was wearing: It featured a photo of grinning Bullitthead Paul Rocha sitting in the original Bullitt with the caption: “Why You Always Need to Lock Your Car.”
For us, getting that first phone call to see if Ford could be involved with the Bullitt movie car, plus eventually walking behind that iconic car on auction day, and now being able to appear in a documentary about what is likely the ultimate collector Mustang are the main things I’ll remember most from the Bullitt Mustang saga. There will likely be more after the “Little Pieces” Bullitt documentary is released by Spyplane Films later this year.
And what will Sean Kiernan remember most? It was difficult for him to say at first.
"It was like an 11-minute rock concert," Kiernan told a reporter, “and I kinda’ lost my place. I wasn't paying attention to the bidding -- I was just staring at people. But I think it was when the auctioneer asked, 'Who will give me $3,500?' Everybody in the room raised their hand! So I guess it was that everybody had a chance to bid on the car -- that's what I'll remember."
The memories are already so plentiful and fresh -- and yet the Bullitt saga continues after more than a half-century. If that’s not the “King of Cool” for the Mustang faithful, then I don’t know what is.
FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY NATASHA DEMELIS, JOHN CLOR, & HEMMINGS.COM
BULLITT and all related characters and elements© &TMWarner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (s18)