For most movie aficionados and gear heads alike, the iconic car chase from Steve McQueen’s 1968 movie Bullitt remains the yard stick in which all future car chases are measured. True, we were enthralled by similar bold and edge-of-your seat pursuits since the day Hollywood caught up with the magical appeal of automobiles. From James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 to flying Miuras with an Italian Job to finish, and the intense chaos of the late John Frankenheimer’s 1998 movie, Ronin, nothing stands out more than anything else than the one chase that leaves everything biting the dust. It is Peter Yate’s critically acclaimed 1968 box office smash, ‘Bullitt’.
Cinema legend has it that the self-confessed actor and motor head, Steve McQueen performed all the driving stunts within that 10-minute car chase. It is not hard to imagine, and it’s even highly plausible knowing the motoring finesse of the iconic actor. However, there are also that beg to defer otherwise. Indeed, McQueen is in a class of his own and this is in no way to dishonor his legacy. But for the sake of accuracy, what is the real story?
The celebrated car chase even garnered praise and thumbs up recognition from the film academy for its realism and outstanding editing by Frank Keller, which even won him an Oscar for Best Editing. Despite the numerous intentional ‘bloopers’ such as vast numbers of hubcaps flying into the air, and cameras being occasionally visible at the back seats, the editing was divine, projecting to the audience the overall impression that two American muscle cars can gracefully navigate corners even at top speed.
Playing the role of a veteran investigator with the San Franciso Police Department named Frank Bullitt, McQueen’s movie alter ego was hot on the trail of the underworld kingpin responsible for killing the witness under his protection. Produced by McQueen’s Solar Production Company and a self-confessed gear head himself, it was expected since day one that the movie’s script will incorporate elements of a car chase. What McQueen and Director Peter Yates did not realize then was the impact that their movie would have not only on the local scene but also on global cinema. You can watch Bullitt’s 10-minute car burn out chase at the end of this article.
Seeing the marketing potential of Bullitt, Ford joined in by being the movie’s official car sponsor – and the car of choice to match the prowess of the protagonist was a 1968 Highland Green Metallic Ford Mustang. Two heavily customized cars were provided by Ford which featured a beefed-up suspension and Koni adjustable shocks alongside straight through exhausts to match the movie’s most demanding takes. All badges were removed and stock wheels replaced with 15-inch American Racing Torq-Thrust D mags. The steering wheel was replaced with a Shelby leather-rimmed piece. The two opposing Dodge Chargers seen in the film were largely stock with some minor alterations with the wheels that will allow the five hubcaps to roll off down the street during the chase.
Contrary to the illusionary effects of the car chase which makes you feel that it was a flawlessly straight 10-minute pursuit, the chase route and the order of locations itself were rather disjointed. Not only that, there were some speculation as to the amount of stunt driving McQueen performed. According to long-time friend Bud Ekins, McQueen initially thought of undertaking the entire stunt driving in the film himself. However, the king of cool couldn’t keep up with the handler driving the Dodge Charger. On one particular scene, McQueen spun out and lost control of the Mustang, nearly endangering the cameraman with him. Ekins, who also happens to be McQueen’s stunt double, was told to take his place. Indeed, McQueen may not be behind the wheel during the more difficult car control segments of the movie, he did nevertheless drove for the larger part of the movie.
So the other nagging question probably is: What happened to the two Mustangs used in the film? Unfortunately, one was damaged so badly that Ford considered irreparable and was eventually scrapped. The other one was luckier. After filming wrapped up, a Warner Bros employee took upon himself to buy the car. Changing hands several times since then, it’s apparently stored in the deep south by someone who does not want to be known, and much more to depart from his most prized possession. Even Steve McQueen could have only wished to have his ’68 Mustang back before his untimely death.