To say the last year has been hectic would be an understatement. Kiernan made 10 stops worldwide from Goodwood to San Francisco to show the V-8 coupe, all the while running a horse farm in Nashville, maintaining his job at LKQ auto parts, and preparing for a new baby with his wife, Sam.
The bigger surprise to the sale, which will be held and televised live on NBCSN, is the fact that Bullitt will be sold by Mecum at all. Where more-prestigious auction houses like RM Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and Gooding & Co. could have reasonably expected to receive Kiernan’s business, Mecum — known for selling high volumes of four- and five-figure cars rather than the pedigreed seven-figure lots the Bullitt will likely emulate — won the bid. It’s quite the coup in the highly competitive auction industry, where houses vie to earn the most famous cars and top-price sales.
The move has led to some speculation about why Kiernan would not trust his prized possession to one of the more premier names, even despite the RM Sotheby’s bungle last summer. But while Mecum isn’t typically a headline maker, it attracts a down-home audience more likely to appreciate the roughed-up Mustang, which retains marks from movie camera mounts and repairmen’s Bondo quick fixes, more than the pristine blue bloods like the Ferrari 250 Spiders that frequent Gooding sales.
“Auction companies are for-profit businesses — they are in the business of matching the right cars to the right buyers,” says Hagerty’s Jonathan Klinger. “There is still a very active portion of car culture that think of Steve McQueen as the ultimate car guy, and that is the older side of the demographic, which is likely to be at a Mecum sale.”
Mecum has made the Bullitt its star car, running it with Kiernan himself on a multi-location promotional tour that started concurrent with the car’s 50th anniversary and building a special website just to promote it. The company is also successful in its own right: During the January sales for 2018, Mecum sold 2,208 vehicles for overall sales totals of nearly $97 million. That by far beats the same stats, respectively, of the auctions held by Bonhams, Gooding, and RM Sotheby’s in Scottsdale, Ariz., a week later.
“We are very confident that there will be numerous people interested in the car, and given that is the case, we will be letting the auction format do what auctions were designed to do, which is show what the public is willing to pay for it,” says Sam Murtaugh, Mecum’s vice president of marketing. “We are very confident.”
Kiernan says he considered the “romance” of the car when considering the Mecum proposition: “Dana Mecum was the guy my dad would sit down with at the end of the day and have a beer with — the guy bleeds red, white, and blue. I knew he would be the one to best tell the story of the car.” But he is no naif. He also attended virtually every major car auction of the past two years and “took notes” about how they were conducted. He evaluated how many people would be in the room during the sale, who would be in the room, and even what time of day the car would hit the auction block. All are factors that can influence how well a car sells — or doesn’t sell at all.
“I wanted to see how the auction houses ran the rooms, whether it was the debacle with the German Porsche or something else,” Kiernan said. “I needed to be able to see this out my way, at the end.” (Kiernan was alluding to the Type 64 car RM Sotheby’s infamously listed for $20 million but which failed to sell after the auctioneer apparently mispronounced the starting bid. It was the biggest bungle in memorable auction history.)
Kiernan also negotiated ample freedom to run the sale how he wants. Along with his sister, Kelly, he will drive the car up on the auction block himself; he set the no-reserve terms; and he got auctioneer Matt Moravec to agree to start bidding at what will be an unusually low price. (Robert Kiernan purchased the car for $3,500; its two previous owners, Robert Ross and Frank Marranca, each paid $3,500 for it as well.)
Murtaugh, on avoiding any errors on a potentially record-shattering sale: “It’s a true no-reserve auction. Whatever the bidding does the bidding does. And of course we are making sure that our IT team makes sure the numbers on the screen match what is coming out of the auctioneer’s mouth.”