Car collectors will tell you that pedigree matters – and it’s hard to find a more storied version of the Ford Mustang than the one sold over the weekend for a record $3.74 million at the Mecum Auctions event in Kissimmee, Florida.
The highland-green pony car was one of several used in the legendary Steve McQueen adventure, “Bullitt,” in which he played a police detective working in San Francisco. The movie features what many consider to be the single best automotive chase scene ever captured on film, a 10-minute thriller that takes McQueen screeching down the streets of San Francisco.
The car started out as a Mustang GT before getting a handful of updates, including extra horsepower, Bullitt’s trademark cueball shifter – and suspension upgrades to handle the weight of the cameras used to film some shots. Today, it is largely unrestored, with a number of dented body panels and rust, though the original 390 cubic-inch V-8 has been rebuilt.
But that didn’t do anything to dampen the bidding.
The car auctioned off in Florida was one of two originally purchased for the film, according to Hollywood historians. Actor Steve McQueen saw the movie as “a Western, with the car strapped on like a gun,” noted Danny Bilson, a Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. But like many great cars from that era, it wasn’t seen to be worth much once the cameras stopped rolling.
A police detective from New Jersey got it from the film company in 1970, selling it to Kiernan’s father Robert four years later. It has been sitting idle since Robert Kiernan died in 2014, leaving it to his son.
Then, for a while, nobody was even sure what happened to the car until Ford tracked it down in time for the debut of the latest-generation Bullitt Mustang line in late 2018.
When word came out that the surviving Bullitt Mustang would go across the auction block last August it was widely expected to become the most expensive pony car ever sold.
That said, owner Sean Kiernan demanded that the bidding start at a mere $3,500 – the same price that the car was sold for twice previously.
It didn’t stay there long. The bidding almost immediately jumped up to $1 million, leading the Mecum crowd to rise to their feet, shouting and snapping pics. Moments later, it was at $3 million and still climbing.
“Holy smokes,” Kiernan said from behind the old Mustang.
By the time the gavel fell, the winning bid was $3.74 million, making it the most expensive Mustang ever sold – though not the highest price paid at auction for a muscle car. That honor went to a 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cuda convertible, according to Hagerty Insurance records. Only two of them were ever produced with a 426 ci, 425-horsepower V-8 and 4-speed manual gearbox.
Meanwhile, Hagerty indicates that the most expensive car ever auctioned was a 1935 Duesenberg SSJ that commanded a winning bid of $22 million. And while it has not been entirely confirmed, a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO that won the Tour de France is claimed to be the most expensive automobile ever sold privately at a reported $70 million – though others cite a $44 million price tag paid for another Ferrari 250 GTO.
They all may have generated higher price tags, but few cars have the pedigree or mass appeal of the Bullitt sold over the weekend.