TARRING in the eponymous film, Frank Bullitt was a tough as nails cop and the Mustang GT he drove in the movie has become a Hollywood icon. Steve McQueen didn’t just play the role of the protagonist, but also co-produced the film and, as a dedicated petrolhead, he got involved in details of the hero’s car. He famously did some of the stunt driving in Bullitt’s inimitable, 10-minute long chase scene.
Like McQueen himself, the 1968 Fastback was effortlessly cool, the sort of car a no-nonsense detective would drive, but that car’s aesthetic was by design. McQueen and his mate, racer and Hollywood car builder Max Balchowsky, built a Mustang that was a little understated and yet had all of the performance where it counts.
McQueen and Balchowsky decided on a minimalist program for the appearance of the hero car. In addition to removing the full set of badges, they also got rid of the reverse lights. McQueen liked the grey Torq Thrust wheels and Balchowsky sorted the rest of the mechanical modifications to handle the extremes of filming the legendary scene.
Balchowsky fitted the GT’s 390 cubic inch V8 with light engine mods that included different cams and truck manifolds, followed by a custom two-inch exhaust topped off with Thrush glasspack mufflers. The suspension was wholly modified, starting with Koni shocks all around, Ford F-100 truck springs in the front, and between damage and performance improvements the rear suspension specification was in a state of flux during the production.
With this kind of specification, these Fords were built to survive the demanding chase scene – and to look good doing it, but nothing more. The end result is a hero’s car that’s understated much like the film’s minimalistic cool. Nowhere is it more obvious, but in that long chase scene. In it you’re treated to the authentic sound of the modified Mustang (and the henchmen’s Dodge Charger), plus there’s no Hollywood camera trickery, nor is there a musical score during the chase. That sequence has become so famous because it was created by a petrolhead with petrolheads in mind.
As they say, timing is everything, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the film and there isn’t a better moment for Ford to introduce its third, and perhaps most compelling, specialedition Mustang Bullitt. As much as a Bullitt is about effortless style, this one also has substance, just like the film’s hero.
Like the original, this latest Bullitt is devoid of all of the typical Mustang badging, save for the, ahem, bold Bullitt badge on the boot lid. Ford says it’s an homage to the ’68’s gas cap, but it’s too large to be subtle. The rest of the exterior is a perfect analogue to the original. Chrome trim surrounding the upper grille, a widened lower grille, chrome around the daylight opening, modern interpretations of the Torq Thrust wheel and the absence of a rear spoiler.
In another homage to the film’s chase, the Bullitt is available in the gorgeous Dark Highland Green metallic paint of the hero car and Shadow Black, the colour of the villains’ Dodge Charger.
But if you’re buying this car for its Hollywood connection, green is the only choice – not that you’ll have much of a say in the matter, as green is only colour coming to Australia.
The cabin is all familiar Mustang, but with Bullitt-specific details. To paraphrase Henry Ford, the interior is available in any colour, as long as it’s black, which is of course the same as in the film. A cue ball-style shift knob sits atop the shift lever just like McQueen’s car (the 700 Bullitts initially destined for Australia are all manual), the aluminium trim across the dash is unique to Bullitt, and the black leather upholstery is trimmed with dark-green stitching. There’s another brash Bullitt logo on the steering wheel’s airbag cover, but not quite as conspicuous as the one found on the boot.
JUST two of the original 1968 390 Fastbacks were purchased for the movie (VIN numbers 8R02S125558 and 8R02S125559), but where are they now?
The ’Stangs were thought to be lost. Not so. While serial number ’558 was used for all the destructive stunts and was reportedly found in Mexico, the other, Bullitt ’559, seemingly vanished.
It was known that Bullitt ’559, the car used for hero shots, was restored and later sold to a Warner Brothers employee soon after filming. It later changed hands once more before ending up in New Jersey, bought by Robert Kiernan after being the sole enquirer to a misspelt “Bullett” ad.
THE 5.0-LITRE ERUPTS WITH A FULL-BLOWN ROAR – YOU’LL HAVE TO HOPE YOUR NEIGHBOURS ARE PETROLHEADS
Surprisingly, the ’68 Fastback initially became a daily driver, covering 46,000 miles. Steve McQueen (unsuccessfully) tried to buy it in ’77. Due to registration issues, ’559 then sat unused in a barn for decades. Robert’s son, Sean, said “the car accidentally became a secret”.
It’s a secret no more – Ford displayed the car at the 2018 Detroit motor show and a documentary is being made on Bullitt ’559.
From a purely visual standpoint, of the three Bullitt editions to date, the design of this latest special edition most closely synthesises that all-business attitude of the original. It’s understated, it’s got a sense of style, and possesses the grunt and sound to back up its good looks. Getting the job done comes first and style is second.
Just as the film’s hero car received some mechanical upgrades, this Mustang is mechanically distinct from a standard Mustang GT. All is right with the world when Ford bumps power for power’s sake and gives this Bullitt an enthralling sound. Ford’s added a cold air intake, the intake manifold from the Shelby GT350, a larger throttle body, an active exhaust system, and recalibrated the powertrain control module to suit.
The net result is an increase of 6kW (torque remains unchanged) over the GT’s standard 5.0-litre, 32-valve V8. Officially, Ford says that the Bullitt’s terminal velocity is 262km/h, a 13km/h advantage compared to the GT.
We recently tested the updated Mustang GT, which in manual guise hit 0-100km/h in 5.21sec and 400m in 13.2sec by our measure. As much as we’d have enjoyed attempting to best those numbers with the Bullitt, a drag strip wasn’t available, but we’re confident that it will be a tick or two quicker than the standard GT.
The power increase is modest, but it’s the full spectrum soundtrack that’s the biggest difference. The intake changes fill in the mid range frequencies and the exhaust takes care of the bass notes. Specifically for Bullitt, Mustang engineers programmed a subtle surprise – the 5.0 will now give you a few pops and burbles on deceleration, which are perfectly suited to the Bullitt’s attitude. Not as boisterous as a Jaguar F-Type, for example, but there’s just enough noise to turn a few heads.
The chassis is essentially identical to the GT, with struts and coil springs up front, a multi-link rear, MagneRide adaptive dampers (normally optional in Oz, they’re standard on Oz Bullitts), and anti-roll bars, all unchanged. The differences are purely aesthetic, with the addition of Torq Thrust-style wheels and the same Brembo six-piston front calipers, but finished in red for some visual spice. Wheels measure 19.0 x 9.0-inch front, and 19.0 x 9.5-inch at the rear, wrapped in the same 255mm (f) and 275mm (r) Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres.
There’s only one place on earth at which Ford would have us drive the Bullitt – San Francisco. And while the city has changed since 1968, the celebrated roads of Northern California haven’t. They’re still beautiful ribbons of black tarmac that wind up and down series of mountains and there’s no better place to test the Bullitt’s mechanical upgrades. Our drive took us from San Francisco, across the mountains above Silicon Valley, out to the Pacific coast, and back through town for some quality wheel time with the green beast.
Approaching the Bullitt, the visual details immediately cause you to think that it’s something special. This is no normal Mustang. Indeed, the wheel design is a nod to the film car, but it’s the lack of badging, the understated chrome trim, and the wide, black front grille openings that give this Bullitt real attitude in the metal.
Sliding behind the wheel is all familiar Mustang, you face that tall, wide, black and aluminum dashboard, and the all-black interior means business. You can almost overlook the green stitching on the seats, but it’s the kind of detail you’ll point out to your mates because they’ll think it’s cool.
The high-backed, optional-in-Oz Recaro seats dominate the visual space of the interior, but are sublime in the way they satisfy your need for support during those times when you’re provoking some cornering loads and also your desire for long distance comfort. They’re an odd mix of fore-aft power adjustment and manual seatback angle articulation.
The standard start/stop button fires the big V8, but each time you grab that cue ball shifter, it reminds you that you’re driving something cool. The 5.0-litre erupts with a full-blown roar and you’ll have to hope your neighbours are petrolheads, too, because the exhaust will rattle windows.
THE THIRD-GEN MUSTANG BULLITT’S HANDLING, POWER, AND SOUND JUSTIFY ITS MCQUEEN LEVELS OF COOL
Clutch pedal effort is modest and you can tell exactly where engagement is happening. The shifter’s throws could be shorter, but the gates are defined well enough that you can avoid missing shifts. However, it’s the cue ball that makes all the difference here – there’s no cooler shift knob than this.
Mustangs aren’t know for their razor sharp handling, but the combination of the chassis and the tyre result in a little bit of pony-car magic. The steering is lively enough that it communicates clearly so that you feel, with relative precision, exactly what each front tyre is doing. Turn in response is quick and chassis feel is clear, but modest, very much what we expect from a pony car.
The Michelin tyres are responsible for much of that magic, particularly when they’re at or even exceeding the limits of their traction. Using the Sport Plus drive mode allows for a little yaw and some wheelspin, and the combination of the suspension settings and the Pilot Sport 4S tyres make the Bullitt exceptionally controllable, either on limit or when you’ve push those limits a little too far. The tyres’ breakaway characteristics are impeccable and controlling both oversteer and wheelspin is elementary, perhaps even a little intuitive.
When the time comes to slow this Bullitt, the six-piston Brembos are near flawless, giving you all the stopping power you need, and with a pedal that delivers good feel and excellent modulation. This Bullitt is the kind of car that gives you the confidence to attack corners. Hurtling into a turn, you set up on the brakes, throwing off speed, turn in to initiate a little rear rotation, transition off the brake, add some throttle, and power out, perhaps with a little rear axle wag. The Michelins have a hearty level of grip and they also reward you with confidence on either side of their limits.
It doesn’t often happen today, but this Bullitt is the complete package. It has an attitude and presence that no other car could possess, with a unique design and mechanical specification to make it a true special edition. In addition to its handsome design, this Bullitt’s handling, power, and sound serve to justify its McQueen levels of cool.
Whether you imagine yourself chasing villains or simply enjoying a drive through the countryside, when you’re behind the wheel, you know in the back of your mind that this Bullitt could be a movie star, just like the original. Driving a Bullitt can’t transform you into Steve McQueen, but perhaps a little bit of that legendary cool does rub off.
An anecdotal fact perhaps, but nonetheless interesting for us, is that this Bullitt is the first special-edition Mustang to be manufactured in right-hand drive. Most importantly, Bullitts destined for Australia are already in transit, so it won’t be long now before that McQueen attitude hits our shores.