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'Bullitt' Mustang spent 40 years in garage — now it's going on tour

Phoebe Wall Howard, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Automotive News

On Jan. 14, as Kiernan prepared to drive his car out for the international media debut on the eve of auto show press week, he said he worried tears would stream down his cheeks. His mom watched on a livestream and texted her son minutes before the event began.

"We did this for Dad," Samantha Kiernan said, placing her hand gently on her husband's knee.

Sean said, "My dad, he was the best of everything. Not only was he one of the smartest people I've ever met in my life, but he made sure we were all taken care of. He was corporate during the day and a horse farmer at night. He was into cars and horses and down to earth and funny. This car is part of the family. That's what it means to me. That's why I could never sell it."

In the film, Steve McQueen played police detective Frank Bullitt.

Ford brought Molly McQueen to Detroit to help unveil the new Mustang, but said connecting with the old Mustang made her feel a closeness to her legendary grandfather.

"This is my most tangible connection to him," she told The Free Press.

The car has created a unique connection in ways no one could have anticipated.

"It sent shock waves through Detroit, and that reverberated around the planet," said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association based in Washington, D.C.

French readers flooded Internet news sites when they heard about the '68 Mustang Bullitt.

"Steve McQueen and his legendary car was, for many young Frenchmen of the '70s, the incarnation of male and virile codes. The stud man and his sexy car," said Eric Beziat, automotive journalist at Le Monde, the main daily newspaper in France, who just returned to Paris from Detroit. "And Mustang in France is a real commercial success."

Kiernan is fascinated by reporters now, especially the ones from Norway because Formula One is the family's sport of choice. "I knew the Finnish drivers and the reporter said, 'No one in the states knows Formula One!' We geeked out for a minute. It was awesome."

On a recent afternoon, Bill Schuette, the Michigan attorney general, emerged from Cobo's Hall A after visiting the Ford display by himself -- no entourage, all smiles. "I went to law school in San Francisco. I've been up and down every hill Steve McQueen raced through in the movie. I love that '68 version of the Mustang, the marks and scuffs and the beautiful story."

Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford, said, "As a family company, having both Molly and Sean on stage to share their stories and passion was incredibly special."

It's difficult to quantify the advertising value the '68 Mustang will bring to Ford, said Robert Davidman, partner at The Fearless Agency in New York. "How do you feel after you see this car? It's very hard to make somebody feel like they've stepped back into their childhood."

He added, "To get so many people talking about the Ford brand could cost tens of millions of dollars and the effect would be temporary at best. Doing that with such an iconic vehicle, however, also adds to the intangible emotional connection individuals have with the Ford brand."

Kiernan's boss learns the story

The man who made everything possible is Nick Zarcone, CEO of LKQ Corp. automotive paint in Chicago. He received a call in December 2017 from Mark Gessler.

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"He said, 'People have been looking for this car since '74 and one of your employees owns it,'" Nick Zarcone recalled. "And then he explained, 'Sean's not wanting the car to go unless he can be with it. It's part of the fabric of the family.'"

If Zarcone made the decision as the top executive, he didn't need permission from anyone else and the secret wouldn't get out. He had two days to decide and Ford needed to know the verdict.

So, the executive who oversees 43,000 employees worldwide for the $10 billion company called his paint store manager in LaVergne, Tenn.

"I understand you have a special car. We need to chat," Zarcone said he told Kiernan. "And he told me the family story. You couldn't dream of a story like this."

Kiernan's big boss flew to Detroit to see the car for himself. And, yes, he granted a leave of absence for what he considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "All I asked is that he do his best to represent LKQ."

For one year, Kiernan will travel the world with his car and work on a documentary film scheduled for release in late 2018. Then he plans to return to his father's 32-acre farm with his wife and their two girls.

And the car?

"My main goal is to have it go to The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. Samantha's father could curate the place, he loves it so much. And that's where we went when we first met. It's very special to us," Kiernan said. "As I walked by that car as a kid, that's how she'll last forever."

The Mustang was scoured dull for the film. The front bumper is new, from when Kiernan's grandpa backed into the car. Its engine was rebuilt, aging carpets replaced.

Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford, said the '68 Mustang Bullitt would be welcome to join Mustang serial No. 1 on display. "We're one of the pilgrimage points on the Mustang trail."

He said the Bullitt is one of maybe three Hollywood classics that would best fit at the Dearborn museum. The others? A James Bond 1964 Aston Martin DB5 from "Goldfinger" and the 1966 Batmobile built from a 1955 Lincoln Futura -- both of which sold at auction within the past nine years for more than $4 million.

"McQueen is the definition of cool," said Anderson, who had already visited the old Mustang at Cobo Center more than once. "A car that's 50 years old is the most talked about vehicle this year."

(c)2018 Detroit Free Press

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