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'Mona Lisa of Mustangs,' raced in 'Bullitt,' sets auction record

The reply from the seller, Sean Kiernan, a Kentucky horse farmer, was even more succinct: "Holy smokes!"

Jerry Garrett | NYT 

Ford Mustang GT: Born to race

The 1968 GT driven by Steve McQueen in the legendary chase scene in the movie “Bullitt” sold on Friday for $3.74 million.

“It’s a record auction price for any Mustang ever sold,” said Dana Mecum, the principal of the auction house, Mecum Auctions, that sold the car. “It is the Mona Lisa of Mustangs.” The price was about 25 percent higher than even his pre-sale estimate, Mr. Mecum said, which he had considered somewhat optimistic.

The reply from the seller, Sean Kiernan, a Kentucky horse farmer, was even more succinct: “Holy smokes!”

His family bought the car in 1974 for $3,500 in response to a classified ad in Road & Track magazine. “This has been in my family for 45 years. It’s only been sold twice before — for $3,500 each time it’s sold. That’s what my dad bought it for, so that’s what we started the auction off at. And it went from there.”

At the auction event, in Kissimmee, Fla., Mr. Kiernan was offering the all original, rusty, banged-up Highland Green fastback for sale with no reserve. If that seemed like a gamble, the concerns were soon dispelled. Bidding quickly climbed to $2.5 million, then slowly after that to its final “hammer” price of $3.4 million. Sales commissions and other fees brought the final total to $3.74 million — the official sale price, Mr. Mecum said.

Three telephone bidders slugged it out for the right to own arguably the most iconic Mustang of all time. The winner’s identity was not disclosed — typical of such auctions. Mr. Mecum said he had no idea what the new owner intended to do with the car. Mr. Kiernan said he was unconcerned with what happens next to his family’s beloved grocery-getter.

“I feel really good,” he added. “It topped every expectation I had for it. That will be a number that will be in the record books for a long time.”

McQueen himself, along with three professional stuntmen, had piloted the car in the 10-minute chase sequence through the hilly streets of San Francisco. McQueen crunched the left front fender when he plowed, unscripted, into a parked car during filming. The fender still bears the scars.

Mr. Kiernan’s father, Bob, happily bought the car with all its dings and dents after the movie wrapped. “He just wanted a ’68 fastback,” Mr. Kiernan said.

It still featured a spate of performance modifications that McQueen had commissioned, to help its 390-cubic-inch V8 keep up with a more powerful 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 440 that it dueled with in the chase. McQueen, who died of cancer in 1980, tried to buy back the car in 1977, when he tracked down Mr. Kiernan’s father. Despite a pleading personal letter from McQueen, the family retained it and used it as an around-town errand-runner until its clutch gave out a few years later. It had mostly been in storage, and out of public view, since then.

Its recent “discovery” had set off a groundswell of interest in the collecting car world. Ford Motor Company had proudly put the car on display the past year or so, alongside modern “Bullitt Mustang” homage models it had produced, that were inspired by the original.

First Published: Tue, January 14 2020. 00:58 IST