2013 was a big year for Hollywood collectibles sold at auction. Back in September the famous statue from "The Maltese Falcon" sold for a hefty $4 million and change. That same month saw the white Lotus Esprit S1 "submarine car" from the Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me" sell for $862,000.
When the Delorean DMC-12 that was memorialized in "Back to the Future" came up for auction, it fetched a respectable $541,000. What's ironic is that Delorean Motors was, you might recall, struggling financially at the time that movie was made, and a brand new DMC-12 could be had in their showroom for just $30,000.
Of course, both of those auctions pale in comparison with 2 of the most famous cars to ever go on the auction block. The Aston Martin DB5 with ejector seat, tire shredding mag wheels and oil slick from "Goldfinger"? That one could have been yours if you had a checkbook enabling you to bid $4.6 million.
And then there was the Batmobile. Who wouldn't love to pick up a lady on a first date in the Batmobile? That fantasy could have been made real had you coughed up the final bid of $4.2 million.
Even a relatively pedestrian car like the 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible used in "Thelma and Louise" sold not long ago for the pittance of $65,000. Mind you, not the one that drove over the cliff. They used 4 different T-birds to shoot the film.
But there's one car made famous by a movie that has never come up for auction, and has been the subject of much rumor and speculation for decades. It didn't have the bells and whistles of the Aston Martin or Delorean, but it was used in what is probably the best chase scene ever filmed, with Steve McQueen behind the wheel:
For years and years, movie and car aficionados alike have wondered...whatever happened to that green 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback?
With the possible exception of those Bond cars, automobiles used in films don't become instantly collectible. It often takes a few years for the original film to become recognized as having lasting significance, and the car itself is deemed to be inextricably connected to that film. By the time that car buffs interested in purchasing the "Bullitt car" started making inquiries into its whereabouts, the trail had seemingly gone cold. Nobody connected with the film at Warner Bros quite knew.
Two identical Mustangs were supplied by Ford Motors to Warner Bros for the film. According to automotive writer Brad Bowling, who has spent years researching this car:
Two Highland Green fastbacks sporting GT packages, 390/4V motors and (according to Kevin Marti of Marti Auto Works) sequential vehicle identification numbers were shipped to the studio. Likewise, two new Dodge Chargers were purchased, reportedly with 440-cid motors, for the bad guys to drive. Hollywood car builder and racer Max Balchowsky modified all four cars with extra welding, bracing, suspension and engine work to handle the heavy abuse. The Mustangs’ shock towers were stiffened, and Balchowsky installed heavy-duty front springs, a thicker anti-roll bar and Koni shocks. A power increase came from milled heads and ignition and carb upgrades. Several pieces were removed from the Mustangs, including the driving lights, running pony grille emblem, Mustang lettering, and even the GT badges. Stock wheels were pulled in favor of sportier custom rims from American Racing.As anyone who remember the film can well imagine, both of these Mustangs took a heap of abuse during the production. But they alternated cars depending upon just how "abusive" the stunt driving was. By the time the film was in the can, the Mustang used for the most damaging jumps and bottoming outs was pretty much trashed. So much so, that it was sent to a junkyard by the studio and ultimately crushed into scrap metal. The second car, however, wasn't in that bad a shape. And it is that car that became, for Mustang aficionados, the automotive equivalent to the Holy Grail.
Once the whereabouts and fate of the Mustang GT became a source of mystery, the rumors began to take hold. One rumor had it that both cars were scrapped after the film was completed, due to the liability they posed for Warner. Another had it that the surviving Mustang was sold to a Warner employee, who used it for transportation and later resold it to some anonymous buyer who didn't know the backstory...and that it was simply driven until its eventual old age and a state of disrepair.
Other rumors include that is has shown up for sale in the classified sections of a few auto enthusiast magazines such as Motor Trend or Car & Driver over the years, but when contacted, the seller has been extremely publicity shy and adamantly refuses to divulge information regarding the purchaser. That rumor is further complicated by the fact that a number of Mustang/Bullitt enthusiasts reportedly purchased 1968 Mustang GT's, had them painted dark Highland Green and reportedly even enlisted the services of Max Balchowsky to modify them as closely as possible to the specs of the car used in the film. It is quite possible that some of those Mustangs were later offered for sale as The Bullitt Mustang to unsuspecting buyers.
And then there have been the reports over the decades that some mysterious owner "back East" purchased the car and chose to remain anonymous, and that it was "mothballed" in some barn in Ohio. Or Kentucky. One rumor even claimed that it had been located and inspected, noting that while there was rust under the frame in the connecting parts, the body was largely rust free, though there appeared to be front end damage suggesting a minor collision, and that the clutch pedal was fully depressed, indicating a broken transmission linkage. It appeared as though it hadn't been operated in many, many years.
In 1990, writer Brad Bowling made a discovery that seems to strip away some of the rumors and mythology surrounding the car. He was able to ascertain from Warner that the second car had, indeed, been sold to one of their employees at the studio who worked in the editing department. That employee, Robert M. Ross, purchased the Mustang after production of the film was completed, and actually used it for personal transportation. Bowling had managed to extract from Warner Bros the original invoice for the two Mustangs from Ford, which listed their sequential VIN numbers. Following up on various leads, he found the current owner, who was a former police detective living in New Jersey.
When he contacted the original owner, Mr Ross, and proved to him that he had located the vehicle and its current owner, Ross reluctantly agreed to furnish some details regarding the car's history that had not before been made public. Ross sold the car after only a year to a policeman from New Jersey. It was shipped to him via rail, but his name remained a mystery. He apparently kept it for only a few years. In 2009, however, Bowling received an email from the second owner which read "you've found me. I owned the Bullitt Mustang from 1970 to 1974. Call [this number] if you want more details.” Bowling contacted the man, met and interviewed him, and finally got the full story.
You can read Bowling's interview with detective Frank Marranca here, http://www.bradbowling.com/... ,but here are some details.
The second owner was, indeed, a former detective in New Jersey. He purchased the car from Ross in 1970 for all of $6,000, and paid a little over $300 to have it shipped to him by freight train.
The car came to him with ample documentation proving it was the bona fide Mustang used in the film. It was obviously used, but in very good condition, and even included work invoices from where Warner Bros had taken it to a body shop after filming for minor repairs.
He drove the car frequently, and even made no secret to people about its claim to fame. Nobody, he said, seemed to be all that impressed at the time. He described its handling thusly:
It was quite a car to drive, it really was. When I drove the car, it was very tight. When taking corners – like ramps on the parkway – the car didn’t lean. It just sat there. I never tried to smoke the tires or burn rubber, but it was a very strong-running car. When you rode in that car, you knew there was something fast under you.Marranca sold the car via an ad in Motor Trend magazine, getting exactly what he had paid for it...$6000. It had only 19,000 miles on it.
I had police cars that didn’t have that much power. I had a ’74 Plymouth 440. It was probably the fastest police car I had. If I remember right, it had 160 or 180 on the speedometer. That Plymouth was a monster on the highway. It would just gobble the highway up, but nothing ran like that Mustang that I ever drove.
3 years after he sold the Bullitt Mustang, Marranca received a phone call from Steve McQueen, who was an avid car enthusiast and collector. He had been trying to track the car down for some time in order to add it to his collection. Marranca gave McQueen the contact information for the person who had bought it from him, but when McQueen called the 3rd owner up he was told the car was not for sales. The only thing the new owner agreed to do was to let McQueen be the first to know should he change his mind and decide to part with it. McQueen died of cancer just a few months later.
The third owner, and the man who still owns it, was only 24 years old when he bought it, and is now a very successful businessman. He claims to have no intention of ever selling it, but claims the car is in excellent condition and has for many years been stored in a relative's garage (not a barn) on the East Coast. He had put, as of 1990, another 20,000 miles on it over 16 years.
The current owner's name is still unknown, in terms of the general public, and he has refused several requests, including those from Chad McQueen, son of the actor, to make it available on certain occasions for public viewing. In his caution to guard the vehicle from anyone snooping into its location, he has moved it to different locations over the years. For a time it was, in fact, being stored in a barn on a horse farm:
While there, a worker on the property told a Mustang enthusiast about a hidden green fastback that had a history. From the description, the Mustanger suspected it was the Bullitt car and snuck onto the grounds to take some pictures without permission. Joe told me he had dealt with the employee who allowed this to happen, then moved the car to the garage in his Tennessee home, where it was sitting next to his Porsche as we talked.So, what does he plan to do with the probably the most famous Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback? He plans on letting his 16 year old son "fix it up" and drive it as soon as he gets his license.
One can only hope we don't read a news story down the road about a teen in Tennessee who has an accident while driving drunk, and pleads affluenza.