It wouldn’t do much good to recount the script of the 1968 film Bullitt. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a fearless and flawless police officer, Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), up against a corrupt politician (Walter Chalmers played by Robert Vaughn) and members of the underworld fighting a gangster who wants to run off with the Chicago mob’s money. The plot is a little over the top, like a lot of films from the late 1960s, but the story isn’t completely uninteresting. What made the film a cult-classic, however, is the car chase involving Bullitt and two hit men in the very steep streets of San Francisco.
It goes without saying that at least two cars are necessary to have a chase, and in Bullitt, the producers held nothing back. Two superb rides were enlisted for the chase: Lieutenant Bullitt drove a green 1968 Ford Mustang GT, while the hit men drove a black 1968 Dodge Charger. Ironically, then as now, San Francisco was a city with a large Asian population and thus was more open to Japanese and European automobile manufacturers. Moreover, the often narrow and congested streets added to the European flavour. Having two big, incredibly powerful American cars flying through these streets at breakneck speeds is absolutely nuts, and makes it all the more suspenseful.
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The chase between the Charger and the Mustang begins with the two hit men following Bullitt. After a few blocks, they lose sight of their man, but Bullitt has no intention of running away. In a great dramatic scene, the hit men see Bullitt’s green Mustang in their rearview mirror; now Bullitt is chasing them. For nine minutes and 42 seconds, the Mustang and the Charger deliver an epic duel in sometimes heavy traffic. The chase ends when the Charger crashes into a gas station, killing both of the occupants. That’s it for the basics. The reality of a film shoot is often less heroic… and sometimes crazy.
Bullitt’s Mustang GT is powered by a 390 cubic inch V8 paired with a four-speed manual transmission. The hit men have a Charger 440 Magnum with a four-speed manual transmission as well. Testosterone anyone? For the purposes of the film, the producers bought two Mustangs and two Chargers. To improve the Mustang’s handling, the shocks and supports were reinforced, as were their cross members. The tires and rims were more imposing than what was found on the factory-standard version. As for the engine, the mechanics concentrated on new cylinder heads. The Chargers underwent basically the same changes as the Mustang, except the engine was left as it was.
The car chase scene was shot at the end of April 1968 in three different spots in San Francisco. The original script had the Mustang and the Charger taking the amazing Golden Gate Bridge, but city authorities categorically refused. In fact, only a few streets were made available to the film crew and the San Francisco Police provided only two officers to stop traffic, which gave the producers very little leeway. To remedy the situation, several cameras filmed the same scene, which explains why both cars are seen overtaking the same green Volkswagen Beetle numerous times! And how the Charger loses no less than six hubcaps! What’s more, officials didn’t want the cars to go over 35 mph (56 km/hr)… In actuality, they often went over 100 mph (160 km/hr)!
A big deal was made about the fact that Steve McQueen did all his own stunts in the Mustang, but this is not at all true. During rehearsals, McQueen kept messing up his skids, so he was replaced by a stuntman. But he drove the car for most of the scenes that didn’t call for very reckless changes of direction. The almost humourless driver of the Charger was none other than the stuntman himself, Bill Hickman, who had the right physique for the job, especially since it was a silent role.
To add to the realism, the producers decided to keep the filming errors. For example, a camera that was installed on a car parked alongside the sidewalk was wrecked when the Charger missed a skid. In many scenes, cinematographic equipment is noticeable in the automobiles. The chase ends when the Charger collides with a gas station that explodes. In fact, the car never touches the service station due to a trajectory error. But since the explosives go off anyway, the illusion is nearly perfect.
All those mistakes, the soundtrack, the actors, the overall story and, most of all, the Mustang and the Charger make Bullitt a cult classic. Since the Charger was already the subject of an article, (http://www.guideautoweb.com/articles/3733/) we happily made do with the Mustang. That’s how, several years ago now, we met Marcel Boza of Tring-Jonction, a small community near St-Georges-de-Beauce, Quebec. Marcel, a mechanic and fine car enthusiast, has a beautiful replica of the 1968 Mustang GT used in the film.
Marcel Boza’s Mustang GT has a 390 cubic inch engine that produced, before a few slight modifications, a respectable 325-horsepower. Now it has 410 horsepower! Also, when the mechanic bought this car, it didn’t look anything like it does today. Although it looked good, it wasn’t, and the front undercarriage had to be completely redone. At that point, the new owner decided to completely restore the vehicle and replace the meagre 302 cubic inches that had found temporary refuge under the hood with a 390, like it had originally. And while he was at it, he gave in to his friend’s suggestions to make this Mustang a replica of the car from Bullitt. So the decision was made and, aside from the side air intakes and the chrome bar at the bottom of the doors, the resemblance between the Mustang from the film and Marcel Boza’s Mustang is uncanny.
Asked about the 1968 Mustang GT’s capabilities on the road, its owner brought us back to the hard reality of muscle cars: the vehicle handling is ordinary (more so than the handling of the Boss 302 that belongs to one of his friends) and the fuel consumption is catastrophic... In fact, Marcel Boza has never calculated it. It would hurt too much! But 30 litres per hundred kilometres, or 8 miles to the gallon, is a realistic estimation. But with this car, fuel consumption is more auditory than anything else. In other words, if the engine didn’t make such a beautiful sound when being pushed to the limit, the driver would definitely not be so tempted to push the accelerator! And take it from me, even if you were watching the film Bullitt in a 1,000-watt home cinema, the sound wouldn’t even come close a real 390 and the powerful gallop of all those horses. Thanks, Marcel!