David Kunz about the movie BULLITT

photo courtesy Warner Brothers


©By David Kunz (published in Mustang & Fords Nov. 99)

Published on this website only with permission from David Kunz!

Nearly all car enthusiasts remember the first time they saw the action drama Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen. Whether seen in a movie theater or on the small domestic screen, the images of a Mustang fastback roaring through the streets of San Francisco in hot pursuit of a black Dodge Charger remain in our minds (and stomachs!) for hours after the final credits roll.

Bullitt was released by Warner Brothers/Seven Arts in the fall of 1968, and it set a standard for realism that was a highwater mark in filmmaking for years. The chase scene was not sped up to give the false impression of speed. And there were no speedometer shots to "prove" that it was a highspeed pursuit. Instead, director Peter Yates and cinematographer William Fraker used their considerable combined experience, along with the latest technology of the era, to put the realism of the chase right in our faces.

The objective was to make Bullitt as real as possible. Real doctors and nurses were used, for example, in the hospital scenes, which were filmed in a real hospital. None of it was done on a Southern California back lot. Frank Bullitt's hot pursuit of bad guy - character Johnny Ross at the San Francisco International Airport was filmed amidst the scream of jet engines and wild- eyed passengers on departing aircraft, with real Pan American Boeing 707s out on the runs and tarmacs. Bullitt took the cinema where it had never been before.

Through the years, there have been numerous rumors, legends, and erroneous articles written about Bullitt. One article claimed the surviving Mustang allegedly belonged to a police detective on the East Coast who didn't want its location known. Certainly we would all like to believe that one. Not enough of the rumors and stories have been true, unfortunately. So we're going to tell you, based on current information from reliable sources connected to Bullitt, what we know to be true. The most common question asked by enthusiasts is "Why a Mustang?" In spite of what we may like to think (for instance, that it was Steve McQueen's choice to use a Mustang), it is fact that Ford Motor Company has had a longstanding relationship with Hollywood. Nearly all of the "focus" cars in Bullitt were Fords. The Sunshine Cab driven by actor Robert Duvall was a '67 Ford Custom. Actor Robert Vaughn's limousine was a black Lincoln Continental. Indeed, most of the police cars in Bullitt were in fact Fords of the era. We see two, both unmarked, or "undercover" cars, with lead charcters in them. There are some Dodges, but none driven by anyone acting in the film. Is it any wonder they put the bad guys in a Dodge?

The car in the police garage is not a Warner Brother car, but an actual S.F.P.D. patrol unit. There are many of them in that garage shot, including a few Harley-Davidson police motorcycles.

Additional note, added in 2002:

  I recently attended a showing of Bullitt at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood, where several people involved in the production answered questions afterward. I asked Robert Relyea, executive producer and friend of Steve McQueen, how they got permission to block off and film in so much of the city. He said that Mayor Joseph Alioto asked if Solar Productions could finance a public swimming pool at Hunter's Point Park. According to Relyea, he said "Mr. Mayor, you've got yourself a pool," to which Alioto replied, "Then you've got yourself a city." With this carte blanch for the Bullitt production team, asking to shoot it the S.F.P.D. garage -- and even having a patrol car give McQueen a ride -- were not a big deal.
From the early '60s to the late '70s, Chrysler products dominated the U.S. pursuit vehicle market with their mighty 440 Police Interceptors, notably in the form of the Dodge Monaco which lived on through the 1978 model year. In The Blues Brothers, 1980, dozens of '74 Monacos were wrecked in the two chase scenes. These were available because of the large number of state and municipal agencies that utilized Monacos and then retired them at auctions when duty was over.
What I have inferred over the years, based on research and observations, is that "focus" police cars in Warner Brothers films, including Bullitt, were Fords. Note the '67 dark blue Custom (the plain-vanilla sibling to the Galaxie 500) that we see outside Chalmers' home and at the SFO terminal toward the end of the movie. Also, when Bullitt asks the garage supervisor if there are any cars available -- after the Mustang's demise in the ditch -- he's told there are none left, as we see Captain Baker and his aide zoom by in yet another Ford Custom. Though they were "last year's" models, they and the yellow Ford Custom taxi driven by actor Robert Duvall were probably from the same Warner Brothers / Ford fleet that brought us the Mustang Fastback (as well as Robert Vaughn's Lincoln Continental).

The Dodge Chargers (two of them) were purchased by the production company from a Los Angeles dealer. Dealer inventory stickers are visible on the rearview mirror during a Bullitt promotional trailer that originally ap-peared in theaters after the movie. In the Bullitt trailer, McQueen and stunt driver Bill Hickman are seen thrashing the cars around a racetrack. There has been much rumor and speculation over the years as to why the Mustang had no emblems. There may be some truth in "because McQueen wanted it that way" or "not to give Ford any free advertising" or "because the car looked better that way. But one important fact has been overlooked in most of these rumors - Warner Brothers needed to make the two Mustangs appear as identical as possible.

Why? Because if you examine Bullitt closely, you will see that the Mustang varies throughout the film quite a bit. One initially seemed to have the GT Equipment Group and one did not, although factory papers tell us meanwhile* both were delivered in GT dress. This would have meant that the emblems, grilles, gas caps, exhaust tips, and other important details would have been different on both cars. This being the case, some cosmetic modifications were necessary to achieve continuity throughout the film. Both Mustangs were void of their emblems. If you look closely, one had a rear GT valance and one did not. Neither had a Mustang grille. Both had wire-mesh grilles that would never be found on a Ford parts shelf.
Additional note: Later research by K. Martin showed that both cars were ordered from Ford with identical options, which makes the GT equipment appearance even more mysterious. (Wolfgang)

Veteran auto racer/car builder Max Balchowski modified the two Mustangs and Chargers for filming. While the Dodge Charger remained in virtually stock condition, the Mustangs, due to their marginal unibody underpinnings, had to be structurally reinforced to survive the huge jumps and other hard use during the chase scene. Although we can see boxed-steel framing underneath the Mustangs, this framing was actually installed to support camera and lighting equipment for the interior shots.

Most of the modifications to the Mustangs involved strengthening the front end so the shock towers wouldn't fail when the car made those hard downhill landings. Balchowski experimented with various springs (including truck springs) and shocks until he found a combination that would keep the Mustang from bottoming out too much. He also fabricated a shocktower brace that would reinforce the engine bay. Balchowski also had to do some tuning to the Mustang's 390ci High Performance engine to help it keep up with the Dodge's 440ci Magnum. Apparently, according to reliable sources, the stock Dodge would run away and hide from the Mustang. Balchowski used a few tried and proven racing tweaks on the carb and ignition, closing the performance gap between the two cars involved in the chase. Believe it or not, the chase scene took two weeks to shoot. Balchowski was on hand to keep the cars running and to do any last-minute modifications that were needed. In one hard downhill landing, the Mustang's oil pan was torn open and its contents spewed in a cloud of smoke (watch carefully during the chase and you can see this happen). Balchowski knew how tight the shooting schedule was, so he welded the pan while it was still bolted to the engine.

As to the actual driving, there is often debate about that, too. Many of us have been led to believe over the years that Steve McQueen did all of his own stunt driving. However, there's more to it than that. McQueen did some of the stunt driving, but most of the toughest sequences were handled by professional stunt drivers.

Bud Ekins, a veteran motorcycle racer, who did the fence jumps in The Great Escape, did the downhill jumps in Bullitt. He is also the unfortunate soul, who lays down a motorcycle later on in the chase when the Charger crosses the center line and runs him off the road. Another veteran stunt driver, the late Carey Loftin, did some of the other tricky parts. One quick way to tell who is driving the Mustang is to check the rearview mirror on the inside shots. When McQueen appears in the mirror, that's a good indication. However, when the mirror is turned slightly away, and all you can see is part of the camera support, it is likely a stunt driver.

There is no question as to who is driving the Charger. The actor behind the wheel with the hornrimmed glasses isn't an actor at all, but a man named Bill Hickman. Hickman was at the top of the stunt driving profession at the time and could aim that big Dodge exactly where the director wanted him to. Hickman had small speaking parts in two later films that he also did the stunt driving for - The French Connection and The Seven Ups. At one point in the Bullitt chase, Hickman actually lost control of the Charger and smashed into a camera position. After the collision, the Charger's left front fender is damaged from the impact. Untold wheel covers from the Charger were also lost in the filming.

Everyone always asks where the Bullitt Mustangs are now. No one had any idea that these innocent Highland Green fastbacks would be the Loch Ness Monsters of the automotive world. There are more urban legends surrounding their fate than the Lindburgh baby. The simple answer is not so simple. It depends on who you talk with. At one time, it was believed that one of the Mustangs was damaged at the end of the chase and was scrapped, while the other one was allegedly sold.
Over the years, articles on the Bullitt saga have typically concluded, through sketchy second- or third-hand information, that a secretary or messenger at Warner Brothers purchased the less-damaged backup car believed to be the GT. Yet McQueen himself tried to find this car a few years later and was unsuccessful. One would think that with the success of Bullitt, an employee driving the star car to work everyday would surely have been noticed. But no one today can remember who that mysterious person was. This is certainly interesting to us.

A few enthusiasts with '68 Mustang fastbacks have thrown on Highland Green paint and American Racing Torq-Thrusts to create their own rolling tributes to the coolest police lieu-tenant of the '60s. Max Balchowski has even helped out a few of those Bullitt buffs with advice on proper modifications. A few have probably changed hands as "the real car" to unsuspecting buyers, though we haven't seen any in our travels.

But according to Robert Relyea, executive producer of Bullitt and a number of other McQueen films, all four cars - two Mustangs and two Chargers - were scrapped after the filming was complete. The reason for this was simple - liability. Obviously, one of the Chargers was destroyed in the crash and explosion that followed the chase. The remaining three cars were too great a liability risk for Warner Brothers and Solar Productions (McQueen's company). The cars were written off to budget, rather than take the financial risk. In short, it is likely none of the cars exists today.*

Despite what we do know about the Bullitt Mustangs, there is always the possibility that someone pulled one or both of them from the wrecking yard and put at least one of them back together. In a 1973 issue of Road & Track magazine, there is a classified advertisement for a "documented" Mustang from Bullitt with a New Jersey telephone number. The thing is, if one of the cars actually survived, where is it now? Why didn't McQueen buy it? Maybe the present owner is saving it for the Mustang museum. Yeah - that's it.

*Additonal note: After intensive investigations with Jim Smart, Dave found the surviving car more than a decade ago in a Kentucky barn. It has been moved since then, but the owner still resists to allow any publicity or photos. 
But you can get more information on this car.  Just follow this link .

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