In 1968, as his celebrity was cresting, Steve McQueen produced and starred in Bullitt. He had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor the year before for his dramatic role in The Sand Pebbles. But in the crime thriller, he played a tough San Francisco police detective, Frank Bullitt, who was battling a mob boss. The movie was moody and noir-ish, and a well-reviewed box-office hit.
But despite all of this—and co-stars Robert Vaughn, Robert Duvall, and Jacqueline Bisset—Bullitt is recalled today mainly for its car chase, a 10-minute masterpiece shot in and around San Francisco, and completed in a souped-up, Highland Green, 1968 Ford Mustang fastback (and a 1968 Dodge Charger). The scene helped the movie win the Oscar that year for film editing. Full-size replicas and best-selling toys were made of the car, and are still made today. So long is its shadow that Ford has even produced limited-edition versions of the Mustang as recently as 2009.
“I feel like with Bullitt, the car chase is synonymous with the movie,” said Molly McQueen, Steve McQueen’s 30-year-old granddaughter. “So, while there is a story that holds up, it kind of falls by the wayside because the movie is all about the car chase.”
Two different, specially prepared Mustangs were used in filming. One was the “hero car” driven by McQueen throughout the film. The other was used mainly for the hardcore sections of the chase and jump scenes. Both were thought to be lost to the crusher, but the jump car was discovered in the spring of 2017 in a junkyard in Mexico. Now, the car driven by McQueen has also been found, and it was just unveiled Sunday in Detroit, along with a new 2018 Bullitt-edition Mustang, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the movie.
After Bullitt wrapped, the hero car was sold to a studio executive in Los Angeles, who kept it briefly before selling it, coincidentally, to a police detective. The officer shipped the car to New York and kept it for about three and a half years before placing a for-sale ad in the back of Road & Track magazine in 1974. His $6,000 asking price was somewhat steep, but Robert Kiernan, a New Jersey insurance executive and Mustang fan, went out to look at it. He bought it for his wife to use as a daily driver.