DETROIT – Sean Kiernan is a paint salesman who lived on a horse farm outside Nashville with a dream. And somehow that dream came true — but it is also just beginning.
This is the story of how a rusty '68 Ford Mustang ended up being the biggest attraction at the 2018 Detroit auto show after a family kept the famous muscle car hidden for 40 years. Estimated to be worth at least $4 million now, the Highland Green car is famous for being driven by Steve McQueen in the classic film "Bullitt." It forever established a Hollywood standard for high-action car chase scenes. One Mustang used in the film went to a junk heap. The other Mustang seemed to disappear.
Now, Kiernan's 1968 Mustang GT Fastback is going on a world tour that will include a week being shown off under glass at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
"It's not often in life when you run into a Mona Lisa lost in a garage somewhere. That's what this is. It's a Mona Lisa car," said McKeel Hagerty, CEO of the world's largest insurer of classic cars and founder of the Historic Vehicle Association.
These days, TV news crews from throughout the U.S., France, Japan, China, Norway, Italy and Mexico have rushed to capture images of the iconic vehicle on display at the Cobo Center in the heart of the Motor City.
Crowds at the North American International Auto Show can see the global attraction through this weekend, and then it tours the U.S., and likely Europe and Asia over the next 12 months.
In April, the famous '68 Mustang Bullitt will be enclosed in a glass box and featured as part of Cars at the Capital, a Historic Vehicle Association exhibition that attracts some 500,000 visitors to the National Mall. The site, tucked between the U.S. Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art, will be lit up at night.
"This is the most significant unveiling of a lost car in most people's modern memory. This one has just truly always been out there in people's minds," Hagerty said. "And this was a mission for a man who loved his father. "
Keeping the secret
Sean Kiernan, 36, has always been a quiet man who focused on going to work, being a good husband and providing for his family. He rarely allowed his picture taken. Until now, the only images captured have been selfies snapped by Samantha Kiernan, 28, an eye-care technician who met her future husband while working at Sam's Sports Bar in Hendersonville, Tenn.
When they recently packed their bags for Detroit, no one knew they were part of a Ford Motor Co. celebration of the 50th anniversary of the film "Bullitt" and the public unveiling of the collector car, along with introduction of a new Mustang that pays homage to the original.
"My dad thought Sean was getting an award for selling the most paint for LKQ Corporation," said a smiling Samantha Kiernan, who grew up in Dearborn with a father, uncle and aunt who worked at Ford.
As store manager, Sean Kiernan had worked for the automotive paint company for a decade.
And their kids, did they know? "They thought Daddy was traveling because he was getting a promotion."
Sean's mother, Robbie, was part of the plan. She drove that Mustang back in the day to St. Vincent's Parish to teach third grade. Her husband, Robert, who had bought the car, took the train from their home in Madison, N.J., to work in New York City.
"The car didn't impress me much back then. I was just 8 and it was old and uncomfortable," said Sean's sister, Kelly Cotton, 47, a preschool teacher who lives in Union, Ky. "We carpooled and Mom would pick us up from Girl Scouts. You heard that car before you saw it. And there were holes in the floorboard on the passenger side where the camera mount was used for the movie. I could watch down at the road as we drove along."
Later, the car would end up retired to the garage, first at the family's home in New Jersey. Then later, when the family moved to a Kentucky farm outside Cincinnati.
"One day, I was in the bookstore and I noticed a book about Mustangs," Cotton said. "I wouldn't be my father's daughter if I didn't open a book about Mustangs, and there, at the bottom of a photo, it said no one knew where the '68 Mustang Bullitt is. I thought, 'Dear God.' And the book said it might be in Kentucky. And I thought, 'It is.' "
That Mustang, purchased through a classified ad in an October 1974 issue of Road & Track magazine for somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000, was left parked next to a 1975 Porsche in the family garage. The Mustang today has 65,000 miles on its odometer.
"Those two cars spent a lot of time next to each other," Sean Kiernan said. "Nobody paid much attention to the Mustang."
He kept the pony car covered with old bed comforters and blankets. If anyone asked, the family said it was a Camaro. They didn't intend to keep a secret, really. Sean and his father had hoped to refurbish the car together. But Parkinson's disease took the life of the former insurance executive. And Robbie Kiernan knew that after her husband died, Sean wanted to do something special.
He approached Ford Motor Co. with the idea for a unique unveiling. And then Sean reached out to classic car experts, who helped document the origin of the vehicle and create a paper trail.
"When Sean first contacted me about a year ago, he had already started mapping out how he wanted to reveal the car," Hagerty said. "He was new to this world of unique, very rare special cars. This car was in original condition. We needed to get this absolutely validated that this is the car, so no one can take the car from you. The car world does strange things. People claim they have a different car or maybe there were three 'Bullitt' movie cars and not two."
Hagerty, based in Traverse City, Mich., helped Kiernan document everything through historical automotive records and processes to protect the father of two who simply wanted to hold onto his dad's beloved car.
At issue, too, were potential conflicts; Warner Bros. owns the rights to the film, McQueen's estate manages his interests, Ford builds new cars and created a limited-edition 2019 Mustang Bullitt.
"We wanted to make sure interests were aligned," Hagerty said. "We have over 900 employees and we're dedicated to preservation. This car was not brought out just to go to auction. This is true love for the car."
Ford Motor Co. trucked the '68 Mustang to Detroit in a trailer "by itself, looking very lonely," Kiernan said. "I met Bill Ford and CEO Jim Hackett. They were awesome."
The company has paid for incidentals associated with the trip, including a hotel room in Dearborn, meals and a tuxedo for the auto show's formal charity ball.
'We did this for Dad'
On Jan. 14, as Kiernan prepared to drive his car out for the international media debut on the eve of auto show press week, he said he worried tears would stream down his cheeks. His mom watched on a livestream and texted her son minutes before the event began.
"We did this for Dad," Samantha Kiernan said, placing her hand gently on her husband's knee.
Sean said, "My dad, he was the best of everything. Not only was he one of the smartest people I've ever met in my life, but he made sure we were all taken care of. This car is part of the family. That's what it means to me. That's why I could never sell it."
Ford brought Molly McQueen to Detroit to help unveil the new Mustang, but said connecting with the old Mustang made her feel a closeness to her legendary grandfather.
"This is my most tangible connection to him," she told the Free Press.
The car has created a unique connection in ways no one could have anticipated.
"It sent shock waves through Detroit, and that reverberated around the planet," said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association based in Washington, D.C.
French readers flooded internet news sites when they heard about the '68 Mustang Bullitt.
"Steve McQueen and his legendary car was, for many young Frenchmen of the '70s, the incarnation of male and virile codes. The stud man and his sexy car," said Eric Béziat, automotive journalist at Le Monde, the main daily newspaper in France, who just returned to Paris from Detroit. "And Mustang in France is a real commercial success."
On a recent afternoon, Bill Schuette, the Michigan attorney general, emerged from Cobo's Hall A after visiting the Ford display by himself — no entourage, all smiles. "I went to law school in San Francisco. I've been up and down every hill Steve McQueen raced through in the movie. I love that '68 version of the Mustang, the marks and scuffs and the beautiful story."
Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford, said, "As a family company, having both Molly and Sean on stage to share their stories and passion was incredibly special."
The man who made everything possible is Nick Zarcone, CEO of LKQ Corp. automotive paint in Chicago. He received a call in December 2017 from Mark Gessler.
"He said, 'People have been looking for this car since '74 and one of your employees owns it,' " Nick Zarcone recalled. "And then he explained, 'Sean's not wanting the car to go unless he can be with it. It's part of the fabric of the family.' "
If Zarcone made the decision as the top executive, he didn't need permission from anyone else and the secret wouldn't get out. He had two days to decide and Ford needed to know the verdict.
So, the executive who oversees 43,000 employees worldwide for the $10 billion company called his paint store manager in LaVergne, Tenn.
"I understand you have a special car. We need to chat," Zarcone said he told Kiernan. "And he told me the family story. You couldn't dream of a story like this."
Kiernan's big boss flew to Detroit to see the car for himself. And, yes, he granted a leave of absence for what he considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "All I asked is that he do his best to represent LKQ."
For one year, Kiernan will travel the world with his car and work on a documentary film scheduled for release in late 2018. Then he plans to return to his father's 32-acre farm with his wife and their two girls.
And the car?
"My main goal is to have it go to the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. Samantha's father could curate the place, he loves it so much. And that's where we went when we first met. It's very special to us," Kiernan said.