SAN FRANCISCO — The greatest chase scene in movie history would’ve ended a lot sooner if Steve McQueen could’ve got his hands on a 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt. The Dodge Charger that eluded McQueen’s 1968 Mustang fastback for 12 minutes of brilliant filmmaking never would have stood a chance.
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the movie “Bullitt,” the car is everything a Mustang fan or movie lover could ask for: Fast, smooth, responsive and steeped in the same effortless cool McQueen brought to the movie and the chase scene he helped choreograph and drive.
The Dark Highland Green 2019 Bullitt I drove through the streets of San Francisco, surrounding hills and coastline didn’t scream for attention, but still drew admiring looks and questions. The 480-horsepower, 8-cylinder’s rumbling back-pressure burps turned heads, but don’t worry, electronic exhaust controls provide a stealth mode so you won’t wake the neighbors or alert the hit men you stake out.
That exhaust note, incidentally, was tuned from recordings of the same ’68 GT McQueen drove in the movie. Ford engineers listened to 1968 soundtrack masters the filmmakers recorded of the car racing around Willow Springs race track in California.
Filming the legendary chase scene
It took 10 days shooting 12 hours a day to nail the chase scene, a whopping one-sixth of “Bullitt’s” total shooting schedule, USC film school prof Danny Bilson said.
McQueen was an avid car fan, and director Peter Yates began his career as a race car driver and team manager.
“I don’t want a crash-fest. I want a realistic pursuit,” Yates said at the time.
McQueen later said he saw the film as a modern Western, in which his character strapped on the Mustang like a gun belt. He drove the car during parts of the chase. You can recognize most of those scenes because you can see McQueen’s famous blue eyes in the rearview mirror. The mirror was removed for scenes with stunt drivers.
A famous shot in which McQueen misses a turn and leans out to look back as he reverses furiously to continue chasing the hit men’s Charger was a mistake. McQueen really did miss the corner and kept going to avoid ruining the painstakingly arranged shoot. That’s the only moment in the whole chase where the final edit of the movie made it appear faster than what happened, Bilson said.
Other facts about the chase scene:
- In addition to McQueen’s Mustang and the villains’ Dodge Charger, there are eight other cars driven by stunt drivers.
- The Charger loses eight hubcaps during the chase.
- The portions within the city were shot in a 20- to 30-block section of the Pacific Heights neighborhood.
- The crew shot in brief segments as SFPD closed a couple of blocks at a time.
- The cars pass the same green Volkswagen Bug four times during the scene.
- The long shot that shows both cars going airborne as they come down a steep hill required eight cameras.
- No ramps were used for the jumps, just San Francisco’s natural geography.
- About 50 crew with walkie-talkies kept an eye out for oncoming traffic.
- Modifications to the cars were minor, mostly stiffer shocks, springs and Firestone tires.
- The script included a chase across the Golden Gate Bridge. Yates increased the amount of time on the hills when he couldn’t get permission for that.
No automaker plays the heritage card better than Ford, and the 2019 Bullitt is Exhibit A. Prices start at $46,595.
Details define the car:
- Unique metallic-flake dark green paint, a color not available on any other Ford. The Bullitt’s alternate color, black, is from Ford’s regular palette.
- Specifications for the cue-ball shift knob were so demanding that several suppliers turned down the job
- The cue ball is permanently attached to the shifter and doesn’t screw off, to discourage petty thieves.
- The shifter has a sintered copper core for weight and feel. The plastic shell is molded around the core and gets a laser-etched shift pattern.
- A Bullitt Mustang appears briefly in the instrument cluster when the engine starts, replacing other Mustangs’ pony logo.
- A serial number on the dash.
- Freer breathing, including an intake manifold from the exotic Shelby GT 350 Mustang boost power 20 hp to 480.
- Six-speed manual transmission with rev-matching.
- Chrome accent edges on 19-inch gloss black wheels.
- Honeycomb gloss-black grille.
- Gunsight-style logo and stylized Bullitt badge evolved from 2008, the last time Ford built a Bullitt.
- The rear valence, below the rear bumper, has a flat-black ceramic finish. “I’ve never gone to so much trouble to hide a beautiful piece of stainless steel,” Mustang chief engineer Carl Wildmann said.
- Top speed is 163 mph. The Bullitt’s unique speedometer goes to 180 mph.
- The leather seats were designed to look like retro 1968 seats, but have modern comfort and features like power adjustment, heating and ventilation.
Ford plans a limited run for the 2019 and 2020 model years. Output is restricted by how many of the Bullitt’s unique parts suppliers can make.
I drove a green Bullitt with the MagneRide adjustable damping, navigation, B&O audio, blind spot alert and more. It stickered at $50,390, excluding destination charges.
The tuned exhaust note delivers satisfying rumbles when you ease off the gas and roars when wide open. Acceleration is immediate, and the upgraded six-speed manual’s rev-matching makes it easy to shift and keep running hard.
The suspension is comfortable over bumps and keeps the car securely planted in quick maneuvers, while six-piston red-painted Brembo brakes provide plenty of stopping power. The steering is light and precise, with a good on-center feel.
I drove it hard and fast on country and coastal roads outside San Francisco, but took it easy on the city’s famously narrow and crowded streets.
The new Bullitt is more than a match for the movie’s 1968 fastback, but only a fool would try to fill McQueen’s driver’s seat.
2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt at a glance
Vehicle type: Rear-wheel-drive fastback
Base price: $46,595
Engine tested: 5-liter, 8-cylinder
Power: 480 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual with rev matching
Assembly site: Flat Rock, Michigan
Follow Detroit Free Press auto critic Mark Phelan on Twitter @mark_phelan.