David Newhardt, courtesy of Mecum Auctions
  • The hero car driven by Steve McQueen in the 1968 Warner Bros. film “Bullitt”
  • Featured in the majority of scenes from the legendary car chase through San Francisco
  • Sold to Warner Bros. employee Robert Ross following the film debut

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1968 Ford Mustang “Bullitt”
Years Produced:1968
Number Produced:6,016* (1968 Mustang 390 2+2s)
Original List Price:$3,250
SCM Valuation:$48,500
Chassis Number Location:Driver’s side inner-fender apron, passenger’s side top of dash
Engine Number Location:Back of engine block, passenger’s side
Alternatives:1968 Chevrolet Camaro SS 396, 1968 Pontiac Firebird 400 HO, 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 383
Investment Grade:A (this car)

This car, Lot F150, sold for $3,740,000, including buyer’s premium, at Mecum Auctions’ Kissimmee, FL, auction on January 10, 2020.

The sale set a record for Mustangs. Considering the car’s pedigree and history, was anyone really surprised?

American icon

The car that Steve McQueen drove through the streets of San Francisco as Frank Bullitt is one of the few vehicles that can accurately be described as an icon. The green fastback represents the excitement of the muscle-car era, Mustang mania and the turbulent 1960s, all in one loud, banged-up package. The 10-minute chase scene is a cornerstone of America’s car culture.

McQueen, an accomplished car and motorcycle racer in real life, was Hollywood’s top box-office action star in 1968. In “Bullitt,” he played a police detective in charge of protecting a mob trial witness.

The actor and his Solar Productions company wanted the story to be untainted by studio polishing and backlot filming. McQueen’s character was not a typical, clean-cut hero who followed the rules. San Francisco in the late 1960s had a gritty, grimy side he wanted to show. Frank Bullitt’s affordable daily driver was already banged up when it appeared on the screen, like a lot of cars that have to deal with big-city traffic. The chase scene used the latest camera technology and editing techniques — not soundstage trickery — to make audiences experience every jump. Everything about “Bullitt” felt real, which helped sell the story to the viewer.

McQueen never would have dreamed that his Mustang would become as big a star as he.

What’s the fuss?

A typical 1967–68 Mustang GT 390 in number 1 condition sells for far less than McQueen’s hero car. A recent comparison would be a ’67 4-speed car with mild cosmetic modifications that GAA Classic Cars sold on Nov. 7, 2019, for $64,200 (ACC# 6919687). Prices quickly rise if there is a racing pedigree, such as the $245,000 sale of the ’68 lightweight drag car “Daddy Warbucks” that went across the block at Mecum’s Kissimmee 2017 event. Even replicas of the McQueen car have broken into six-figure territory, such as the resto-modded Highland Green 1967 fastback Barrett-Jackson sold for $170,500 at its 2019 Palm Beach sale (ACC# 6901932).

For men and women of a certain generation, Steve McQueen was the “King of Cool.” In his films, the former Marine knew how to enter every room with body language that said, “I’m not here for trouble, but you don’t want to mess with me.” The characters he played were always strong but vulnerable, conflicted but levelheaded. On screen and in person, McQueen was the guy you wanted as your wingman in a bar, the driver of your race car, or your cellmate in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp.

After we lost the 50-year-old actor to cancer in 1980, the public briefly forgot about McQueen, his legacy, and the Mustang from that old movie. Fortunately, the video-rental market revived interest in his body of work, which eventually added a substantial premium to absolutely anything he had once owned or worn. For example, a pair of his Persol sunglasses sold for $70,200 in 2006. The Porsche 911S he drove in “Le Mans” went for $1.4m in 2011.

Educated guesses in advance of this car’s sale estimated it could bring anywhere from $2m to $10m.

On January 31, 2019, ACC’s own Jim Pickering posted his thoughts about the “McQueen factor” when it applies to a car sale. A 1949 Chevrolet 3100 pickup once owned by the actor sold last year for $95,200 (three times its comps) at Bonhams. His 1953 Hudson Hornet brought $165,000 (or five times its comparables) at RM Auctions’ Fort Lauderdale sale. At the time, who could have predicted the “Bullitt” Mustang would go for more than 50 times a “normal” 1967–68 390 fastback?

Layers of history

The “Bullitt” car was not locked away in a time capsule the day Steve McQueen stepped out of it in 1968. Its movie damage was repaired as inexpensively as possible by the studio before it was sold as a used car to Robert Ross.

Ross told me in a 1989 interview that he did not treat it like a valuable treasure; he drove it like most of us drove muscle cars in the 1960s, and it picked up a few fresh dents. Frank Marranca bought it in 1970 and enjoyed it for its McQueen halo (which he says absolutely no one else cared about at that time), as well as Max Balchowsky’s high-performance engine and chassis modifications.

After Robert Kiernan bought it in 1974, it spent six years as a daily driver, during which time it sustained body damage in an accident. The family’s Great Danes often rode in the car. It was parked in 1980 and would not move again under its own power until shortly before its 2018 reveal in Detroit.

What went across the block in Kissimmee is a car whose “life” is on full display — very little has been done to hide the blemishes it accrued in the hands of Steve McQueen, Robert Ross, Frank Marranca and the Kiernan family. The 48-year absence is as much a compelling part of its history as the 10 minutes it spent chasing a Charger through San Francisco.

No Mustang can top it

Some have called this car the “Mona Lisa” of the Mustang world and the holy grail of movie cars. It is true that this car had a stunt twin, but that Mustang (whose VIN ends in 558) was nothing more than a stripped wreck when it was found in a Mexican junkyard in 2016. Its on-set destruction, complete rebuild, and utter lack of connecting history means it will never be as valuable as McQueen’s hero car, 559.

Carroll Shelby’s 1967 GT500 Super Snake, the previous high-dollar Mustang record holder at $2.2m (ACC# 6896510) and the most obvious “Bullitt” Mustang comparison, is an amazing piece of American automotive history, of course, but only a small community of enthusiasts had even heard of it before it was restored and started showing up in magazines.

“Bullitt,” on the other hand, has been responsible for more car-culture converts than any single automobile on the planet. With that, it’s hard to call it anything other than well bought.

(Introductory description courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

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