There are few cars more iconic than the 1968 Mustang GT that Steve McQueen drove in "Bullitt."
But that car disappeared shortly after filming for the 1968 movie was completed and, despite the late actor's attempts to locate and purchase it for his private collection, hasn't been seen since.
Now a pair of car restorers claim to have found the car — in a scrapyard in Baja California — and brought it back to life.
And the country's most respected Ford authenticator says it's the real deal.
Paramount-based body shop owner Ralph Garcia Jr., who has made a career building replicas of the "Eleanor" Mustang featured in the Nicolas Cage movie "Gone in 60 Seconds," said he was contacted by an associate in Mexico. He had found a clean '68 Mustang fastback that he thought would be a good candidate for "Eleanor"-ization.
The associate, Hugo Sanchez, delivered the car to a shop Garcia owns in Mexicali, Mexico. It was scheduled for restoration when Sanchez called Garcia and told him that he had run the vehicle identification numbers on the car and discovered it was no ordinary Mustang.
"I was going to turn it into another 'Eleanor' car, but my partner Googled the VIN," Garcia said. "That's how he found out it was the 'Bullitt' car. He said, 'You can't touch it!' "
The pair later enlisted the expert opinion of Ford evaluator Kevin Marti, who gave the car his official seal of approval.
Though initially skeptical — "I see car fraud on a daily basis" — Marti asked Garcia for detailed photos of the car, then traveled to Mexicali to inspect it in person.
"Then I was sure," he said, after checking VIN stamps and specific aspects of the car that would likely be unknown to anyone attempting to pass off a regular Mustang as the "Bullitt" car.
Marti said there were two identical cars used in the filming of "Bullitt," a "hero" car that was used for the casual driving scenes, and a "jumper" car that was used for the dramatic chases, some of which involve airborne launches.
"This is the jumper," Marti said, based on documents obtained from the filming and alterations to the car's suspension system.
The "hero" car is also extant, Marti added, but a nondisclosure agreement prevented him from saying anything except that it is in the hands of a private party, somewhere in the southeastern U.S. (Published reports have speculated it's in Kentucky.)
In the Warner Bros. film, directed by Peter Yates, McQueen's police Lt. Frank Bullitt chases and is chased by bad guys across San Francisco. Forget your "Fast and Furious" and your "Gone in 60 Seconds," the "Bullitt" car scenes are believed by many movie historians to be the best ever filmed.
Car historian and former Petersen Automotive Museum consultant Ken Gross, who called the car "the Holy Grail of the Mustang car crowd," said the car could be worth $1 million at auction — if it is not proved inauthentic.
"This is certainly on the list of top 10 list of most desirable missing cars," Gross said, right up there with the Porsche that actor James Dean was driving when he died.
Gross and Mustang builder Jason Engel, of the Oklahoma shop Classic Recreations, said the Marti seal of approval is key.
"If Kevin says this is it, I'll back him," Engel said. "He's fanatical when it comes to the little details of these Mustangs."
Garcia said the car's not for sale, even though he's had offers from private parties.
For now, Garcia said, the car is headed for a full restoration, and in the future could show up at a Barrett-Jackson or Mecum auction event.
"It's been a blessing for me and my partner," Garcia said. "We have a lot of plans for it."
Unfortunately, Marti said, the value of the car has already been diminished by restoration work Garcia and Sanchez performed prior to his inspection, as it would have been worth more to true car aficionados in its raw, unrestored state.
"When I first spoke to [Garcia], I advised him to not do anything before the car was evaluated, but that advice was not taken," Marti said. "That will detract from the value."
One car expert warned that the value is also dropping fast as McQueen-era fans age out of the car collecting hobby.
"I know younger car collectors who've never even seen 'Bullitt,'" said ClassicCars.com evaluator Andy Reid. "These guys better sell this car soon."
4:00 p.m. March 7 This article was updated with additional details concerning the authentication of the car.