Bullitt - Rebirth of the Icon

As a kid growing up this was one of my favorite car scenes. The chase that caught everyones attention.

It was late in October of 1966 Steve McQueen had Hollywood wrapped around his finger. His company, Solar Productions, inked a six-film deal with Warner Bros., and McQueen was now in the driver’s seat, hired to produce and star in his own films. He and director Peter Yates were intent on bringing real, almost documentary-like action to the screen, and they succeeded with Solar’s first film, Bullitt.

A visceral cops-and-mobsters flick set in San Francisco that was shot and released in 1968, Bullitt famously featured a Highland Green ’68 Mustang in a car-chase scene that forever changed Hollywood filmmaking. Before Bullitt, the chase formula was horrific fake chase scenes.

In Bullitt, the chase was authentic, meticulously choreographed in advance by McQueen and stuntman Bill Hickman (he appears in the film as the Charger driver). Real speeds, real streets, and real crashes. It was a classic cat-and-mouse chase, the cars jumping the hilly streets of San Francisco, sliding through turns, smashing a few parked cars, and losing hubcaps as the scene built to the fiery finale. In a short companion documentary released with the film, McQueen said, “The things we did in the streets with automobiles I don’t think will be done for a long, long time.” He was right.

That realism, Yates and McQueen knew, impacted the storytelling, increasing the connection between the audience and artists. So the pair also shot almost exclusively on location. The film’s $42.3 million box-office take, the fifth-highest gross of 1968, plus the critical acclaim—Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called the chase scene “brilliant”—gave McQueen a solid cinematic hit, even if it wasn’t the highest-grossing car flick released that year (Disney’s somewhat lighter The Love Bug made over $51 million).

The Bullitt Mustang became the natural avatar for the movie’s significance. And preserving the history of the Bullitt Mustang and other important cars for future generations is one reason the Historic Vehicle Association was founded in 2009. We wanted to ensure that the stories behind special automobiles, and their impact on our culture, were celebrated in a way similar to what the National Register for Historic Places does for important structures and sites. We exhaustively documented the Bullitt car for inclusion on the National Historic Vehicle Register, and its thick dossier will live, in perpetuity, within the Library of Congress.

McQueen insisted on doing as much of the driving as possible—and was certainly capable—but in one of the few concessions made to the studio, he counted on Loren Janes, Hickman, and McQueen’s motorcycling friend Bud Ekins to perform the most dangerous stunts. Ekins, you might remember, worked as a McQueen stunt double on the 1963 movie The Great Escape. The film featured a 60-foot motorcycle jump, performed by Ekins, that solidified McQueen’s persona as a bad-ass on wheels. Janes worked on almost every McQueen film, before and after Bullitt.

The Bullitt chase scene took four weeks to film, an extraordinarily lavish and grueling schedule for a nine-minute, 42-second segment. But the scene was the film’s core, 582 seconds of savage footage with blaring exhaust notes and not a word of dialogue. In addition to box office and critical success, Bullittreceived an Academy Award for film editing, a National Society of Film Critics Award for cinematography, and the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best motion picture screenplay. In 2007, the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, further honored Bullitt by including it in that year’s list of 25 films from every era of filmmaking to be added to the National Film Registry.

Enter 2109 and Ford Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Bullitt with a New Mustang!

Ford is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bullitt with a subtle, muscular Mustang. I think Steve McQueen would really get into driving this one...

Fifty years ago, Steve McQueen had all the Ford branding ripped off the Mustang he’d be driving in Bullitt. That treatment has, over the decades, become a powerful brand. Irony, that. But no matter: The Bullitt Mustang is great, and after a decade furlough, it’s back.

You already know the look: dark green paint, black mag wheels, blacked-out exhaust tips, and minimal badging. Not quite minimal enough, to our tastes—the cross-hair emblem on the rear fascia is bigger than it needs to be. The 2019 Bullitt is still, hands down, the best-looking version of the latest Mustang. Minor interior tweaks include instrument panel graphics, specific dash stitching, and a unique pattern for the standard seats (Recaros are optional).

Mechanical changes make the Bullitt the meanest Mustang shy of a GT350. The 5.0-liter V8 gets a larger throttle body and special intake for at least a 15-hp bump over the 460-hp GT. “We know we're over 475 hp and are still going through the final tuning to try to push that,” says chief engineer Carl Widdman. A six-speed manual is the only transmission. Ford’s 10-speed automatic may have facilitated quicker acceleration, but Steve wouldn’t have cared, and neither should you. Active exhaust is standard. Widdman promises this Bullitt—the first since 2008, before Ford introduced the Coyote 5.0-liter V-8—will have a distinct growl. Top speed has been raised from 155 to 163 mph.

The Bullitt essentially carries over suspension and brake upgrades from the GT’s Performance Pack—Brembo brakes with larger rotors, Michelin PS4 summer tires. Magnetorheological dampers will be optional. The Bullitt will not be offered with the track-oriented Performance Pack 2 (Michelin Sport Cup tires, stiffer suspension aero modifications). “Different kind of car,” Widdman says.

It’s also, Widdman’s careful to point out, a different kind of car than the original. The retro vibes come through more powerfully than ever in the marketing, thanks to the fiftieth anniversary and the rediscovery of the movie car. Ford even brought in Steve McQueen’s 30-year-old granddaughter, Molly, to introduce the thing. But for the Mustang development team, “Bullitt” is merely a byword for a “cool, refined, understated setup.”

Sounds about right to us. All due respect to the Transformers Camaros, movie cars always seem to try too hard. This Bullitt should be effortlessly cool, like the original car and McQueen himself.

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