The iconic Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang fastback that co-starred with Steve McQueen in the car-chase movie classic “Bullitt” sold for $3.74 million at Mecum Auctions’ Kissimmee, FL, auction in January. This sale was the culmination of an extensive, sometimes heart-rending story that is like something from the golden age of Hollywood. This sale was not about cars, car collecting, or connoisseurship, but about love, steadfastness, personal loss and passion.

This isn’t the “Le Mans” Porsche

Back in 2011, I commented on the sale of Steve McQueen’s 1970 Porsche 911S that had appeared in his 1971 epic movie “Le Mans” (November 2011, “Collecting Thoughts,” p. 56). At the beginning of the film, that Porsche had a walk-on part with three minutes and 40 seconds of screen time. After filming ended, unlike the “Bullitt” Mustang, which never went through McQueen’s ownership, the Porsche became McQueen’s personal transportation. Then, like the “Bullitt” Mustang, the 911 was sold and spent its subsequent life in other hands. However, unlike the “Bullitt” car, which remains virtually untouched to this day, the Porsche was repainted, retrimmed and generally treated like the daily driver it was during its functional life. It sold at auction for $1.375 million. What explains the “Bullitt” car’s greater value? Value, of course, means many things in addition to money: cultural, historical, technological, emotional, and so forth. Some of those values translate into money more easily than others. For example, the cultural value of a 1968 Mustang is at best modest. Clearly, a first-gen 1964½-model-year Mustang is culturally much more valuable. It represents the first-ever “Pony car,” which so influenced American social archetypes of the middle 1960s. Whether that greater cultural value translates into more monetary value depends on many more factors. The money relationship is indirect because such cold-blooded, intellectual value factors won’t ring cash-register bells.

A Mustang with emotional punch

Personal emotional value has a direct relationship to money value. To exact big money, we need to tap into the buyer’s very psyche, “where the wolves howl from the extinct caves of the bloodstream,” as an anonymous poet once wrote. Surely we can see the difference between these two scenes: Steve McQueen leaning his elbows on the roof of his Porsche while he gazes with the look of eagles across a misty landscape as a soundtrack of howling 12-cylinder racing engines plays in the background. And a Steve McQueen coolly slouched inside his Mustang while he tosses it through the streets of San Francisco, rubber smoke pouring out of the rear-wheel openings, and sparks showering off the undercarriage in pursuit of a sinister black Dodge Charger crewed by emotionless — and therefore, all the more malevolent — hit men. One scene appeals to our sense of existential tension, the other to the rampaging id surfing an adrenaline high. The “Bullitt” Mustang is all about emotional connection to an ideal: the heroic man of action, taciturn — driven and deadly. The fact that it is all cinematic fakery is of no importance. Sports psychologists say that the brain cannot distinguish between visualization and reality. That is why visualization is such an important performance tool. Well, nor can our brains distinguish between one of the greatest cinematic chase scenes ever filmed and our own mundane experience. It may only be images flashed on a screen, but the wolves howl in our blood. Unlike that “Le Mans” Porsche, the “Bullitt” Mustang is not a prop for McQueen. The “Bullitt” Mustang is a central actor who steals the chase scene from McQueen, the star. If McQueen is the “King of Cool,” what then is the “Bullitt” Mustang that so upstages him by becoming his persona during the chase, a cyborg, that inseparable combination of man and machine? In the case of the Porsche, property once owned by Steve McQueen was on offer; with the “Bullitt” Mustang, an actual steel, rubber and glass Steve McQueen avatar was on the block.

Dripping with cool authenticity

Let’s assess the role condition played in this sale. There are two ways to think about condition: first, authenticity, the degree to which an automobile conforms to its “as-made” state. In the case of the “Bullitt” Mustang, that condition would be the car’s configuration as modified and prepared for filming. The non-factory performance and durability enhancements are integral to the car. Indeed, the camera fittings and other structural accommodations to enable filming are the dispositive physical evidence that authenticates the “Bullitt” car. The second aspect of condition is the degree to which the artifact remains in its native, unrestored state. Remarkably, thanks to its 45-year ownership, the “Bullitt” Mustang has never been worked on beyond what was necessary to keep it operational. In the world of automobile collecting, there are those who revere crusty, old, patinated surfaces and cracked, worn and soiled upholstery. And there are those who can’t imagine their car in anything but factory- pristine condition. Now, with respect to a car that has been owned by a famous or celebrated person, the calculus of desirability yields the same outcome for both types of collectors. Because if you wish to sit where the celebrity sat, touch what the celebrity touched, truly “absorb the celebrity’s residual DNA” from the object, then only unrestored condition will do.

The power of special objects

This requirement for original surfaces is not about the car, car collecting or connoisseurship. It’s about emotion, about coming as close to the celebrity as we can. It is about mana. Mana is a Melanesian concept that attributes power to certain people, locations and objects. Modern social researchers divide collecting into three categories: didactic, where a fact or theorem is being illustrated as in a museum display; nostalgic, where the thing collected becomes important because of the collector’s memories; and fetishistic, where the collector becomes important because of the object and its emotional power. This latter phenomenon is mana. It is the driving motive behind owning celebrity-touched artifacts. In this case, where the artifact was once Steve McQueen’s avatar, only “untouched stuff” will enable the metaphysical connection. Repainting and retrimming will only succeed in wiping away the essential physical and spiritual connection to McQueen. This was one of the problems with the “Le Mans” Porsche 911. It had been completely refinished, and any direct physical connection to McQueen was purely notional and wholly dependent on ownership documentation. Let’s return to our opening paragraph about the “Bullitt” car’s backstory. While the backstory probably didn’t contribute to the ultimate price, its poignancy and emotional value certainly raised awareness of the car over the past few years. More importantly, for the long run, the backstory provides a compelling tale that deepens, richens and humanizes the “Bullitt” narrative.

A beloved member of a family

Robert Kiernan bought the “Bullitt” car for $3,500 out of a newspaper ad. The car served as the family driver for many years before being sequestered in the bosom of the family for almost a half century. Robert Kiernan died in 2014, and custodianship fell to his son, Sean, who also esteemed and cared for the car — perhaps as much for being a talisman of his father as of McQueen. We can only speculate about such private matters. I was at the annual HVA conference in Allentown, PA, when Sean Kiernan presented his father’s car to the assembled academics and researchers. His emotional involvement was palpable and poignant. This object had become something very special to the whole Kiernan family: Robert’s widow, Sean and his wife, Sean’s sister, and eventually, I would submit, to the newborn Kiernan daughter, who will hear about it in future years as the defining family legend. Artifacts collect stories on their travel through time. The “Bullitt” Mustang is no exception. It offers a notorious and celebrated — but ultimately shallow — story on one hand. It also tells a more subtle and infinitely more touching story about one family’s relationship with a car on the other. That private, 45-year chronicle is for me by far the more compelling. Granted, it could not have existed without the overt “Bullitt” movie connection, but the “Bullitt” identity was based on pretense. In the end, as the metaphorical movie credits rolled after the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer, this intense, personal, painful, extended relationship that so governed a family’s life for a half century was brought to a Hollywood ending in Kissimmee. We can only hope the money will be transformative for the Kiernan family. Well sold, and deservedly so. ♦

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