Bullitt: The Grandfather of Car Chase Movies
“Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting,” was a remark that Steve McQueen once made. As you can probably tell from that statement he wasn’t into the glitz and glamour of Hollywood like other actors. He loved the racetrack, and that’s where he spent much of his time when not filming. McQueen was known as cool, but not for the sake of being cool or chasing the latest fad. People who knew him described him as authentic and he enjoyed doing his own thing. They latched onto the fact that he didn’t care what anyone else thought. He was active in the fields he was interested in—and he liked motorcycles and cars.
When he died in 1980, he owned well over 100 motorcycles and 38 cars housed in an airplane hangar. To give you a taste of his preferences, here’s a small sample of his cars: a few '60s Ferraris, 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback with the big-block 390 ci option, 1956 Jaguar XKSS (that is now owned by a guy who’s also a bit into cars, Jay Leno), 1970 Porsche 911S, Shelby Cobra with a 289 ci and 1972 Mercedes300SEL 6.3L.
Flash back to 1967, when preparing to film the 1968 movie “Bullitt,” he had gained tremendous clout in the movie industry from his memorable roles in action and war movies like “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape” and “The Cincinnati Kid.” Chad McQueen, Steve’s only son, said that he chose the 1968 Mustang Fastback to be the car that his character drove. He could have picked any car for the movie that his character could have realistically afforded, and he chose this Mustang because he really liked it.
Two 1968 Fastback Mustangs were purchased for the movie and were equipped with S-code 390 ci V8s, 3.00 gears, power disc brakes and the now-famous Highland Green paint color. The car was prepared for the movie by Max Balchowsky who upgraded the cars with a Borg-Warner four-speed, milled heads, Holly four-barrel carb, reinforced shock mounts, multiple additional suspension and frame stiffening, beefy anti-sway bars, Koni shocks and heavy-duty coil springs and freer-flowing exhaust. Balchowsky also removed the fog lights, the pony grille badge, Mustang lettering and GT badges. A set of custom Torque Thrust American Racing wheels were bolted to all four corners of the car to complete the understated custom look of the vehicle.
The action movie is best known for its groundbreaking 10-minute car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco. The chase was one of the longest in film history at the time and paired the hero 1968 Mustang against a sinister black Dodge Charger.
Once released, the movie was a huge success. That single chase scene immortalized the Bullitt Mustang as one of the most iconic movie cars of all time. It made such a positive impact on the viewing public that a multitude of copycats came out afterwards and an entire genre of films was born: the car chase movie. This led to a number of seventies car flicks like “Vanishing Point,” “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Gone in 60 Seconds” (The 1974 version) and “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Bullitt’s chase scene is the grandfather of the modern car chase that we all expect from current action movies. So next time you see an awesome car chase in a movie, you can thank the unflappable Steve McQueen and the understated cool of the “Bullitt” Mustang.