In the eyes of petrolheads and film buffs alike, the pursuit scene from Bullitt remains the car chase on which all other vehicle action scenes are judged. Steve McQueen claimed to have performed the driving stunts himself, but what’s the real story?
We have all delighted in the valiant and heart-pounding vehicular action projected onto cinema screens over the last 50 years, from James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 screeching around the Alps to flying Italian Job Minis and the late John Frankenheimer’s rampant chaos in Ronin. However, one chase stands head and shoulders above the rest when all bets are laid down on the road - Peter Yate’s masterpiece of petrol-filled mayhem, Bullitt.
Despite some charming continuity errors including hubcaps of vast numbers soaring from each car, cameras occasionally visible in the back seats and the overall impression that two American muscle cars can navigate corners at speed, the scene was praised for its realism and even earned Frank Keller an Oscar for best editing.
Steve McQueen portrayed the movie’s main character, a greying investigator with the San Franciso Police Department by the name of Frank Bullitt, determined to hunt down the underworld kingpin responsible for killing the witness in his protection. A confessed ‘gear-head’, it was only natural that a car chase would be included - with the script calling for an automotive ’action scene’ from day one. It’s unlikely that the stunt performers realised the impact they would have on global cinema, yet it took the world by storm. You can watch part one of the car chase below.
Ford was the official car sponsor, with the protagonist driving an oh-so-cool 1968 Ford Mustang painted Highland Green Metallic. Due to the heavy abuse required filming the cinematic undertakings, the two Mustangs used featured beefed-up suspension and Koni adjustable shocks - alongside straight through exhausts. 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. While the Mustangs were heavily modified, the opposing two Dodge Chargers were largely stock except for the wheels - allowing the five hubcaps to roll off down the street.
Filmed in May 1968, folklore claimed that the chase flowed seamlessly from location to location and that you could actually drive the chase route. In reality, this sadly isn’t the case, with locations disjointed. However, that’s not the only myth to stem from Bullitt’s 10-minute magnum opus.
There has long been speculation as to the amount of stunt driving McQueen performed. Some sources say he undertook the whole thing, with the stunt driver unable to control the mighty Mustang successfully, but some claim otherwise. However, after a bit of digging the truth comes to light.
According to the late Bud Ekins, one of McQueen’s long-time friends, the king of cool had originally intended to do the stunt driving himself but couldn’t keep up with the handler driving the Dodge Charger. On one particular take, McQueen lost control and spun out, nearly taking a cameraman with him. This is when Ekins, also McQueen’s stunt double, was told to take his place.
Although he never did the more difficult car control segments for the film, McQueen drove for a significant portion of the time. Something you certainly wouldn’t get past health and safety nowadays.
And of the two Mustangs? Sadly, one was damaged so badly after taking on San Francisco that it was deemed irreparable and scrapped by Ford. The other is out there somewhere - being sold to a Warner Brothers employee after filming wrapped up. Changing hands several times since then, it’s apparently stored in the deep south by someone refusing to part with it - despite holding front end damage and rusting camera mounts welded to the bodywork. Even Steve McQueen couldn’t get it back before his untimely death.
While CCFS can’t offer you the Mustang used in Bullitt, we do have some very similar. Looking to exercise the villain in you? We have Dodge Chargers, too…