Blue Oval Icons: Four Generations Of Bullitt Mustangs

Truth be told, director Peter Yates’ crime thriller Bullitt could easily have been relegated to bargain-bin obscurity not long after its 1968 release. While Steve McQueen was arguably at the height of his fame when Bullitt hit theaters, the stoic, measured pacing and meandering storyline of the film made it more of an acquired taste than your typical summer action blockbuster.

But what really sets Bullitt apart from typical entries in the genre is the jaw-dropping ten-minute car chase that transpires about mid-way through the movie, a visceral bout between McQueen in a Mustang and a pair of hitmen in a sinister black ’68 Dodge Charger R/T. The chase follows the two muscle cars through the narrow confines of San Francisco proper, complete with a roaring soundtrack of big-block V8s at full song as the Mopar and Mustang take turns going airborne down the hilly streets before the pair reach the sprawling highways just outside the city.

In contrast to the flashy, polished look of most star cars, McQueen’s ’68 Mustang fastback in Bullitt is relatively understated, and the various dings, dents, and grime around the car serve as evidence of a life spent in the big city. The fact that the car plays such a prominent role in defining the movie, despite its muted aesthetic, only adds to the allure. Image: IMDB

McQueen – a seasoned wheelman in his own right – was said to have done many of the stunts in the scene, and there are a number shots in the smoke-filled choas that corroborate that claim. More than half a century later it remains the car scene by which all others are measured by: a high-water mark typified by the distinct absence of fast cuts, CGI, ridiculously sped up film, and all the other parlor tricks that are so often employed by filmmakers (both then and now) in an attempt to dupe the viewer into a thrilling sense of speed. Adding to the allure was detective Frank Bullitt’s street-hardened Mustang GT. With a brutal bark and a purposeful look, it was a blemished – yet undeniably badass – urban warrior.

Over the years the legend of the Bullitt chase grew, yet the automotive malaise of the ’70s and ’80s kept Ford from capitalizing on the cult following the film had amassed. But that changed in 2001, leading to three distinct generations of factory-built homages to the original machine over the next 18 years. Here we’ll take a closer look at the original movie car and see how Ford’s modern interpretation Mustang Bullitt has evolved over the past two decades.

The Movie Car

As an understated-yet-tough detective working the unforgiving streets of late-’60s San Francisco, a character like Frank Bullitt needed a car that properly matched his persona, so a Highland Green Mustang GT fastback was selected for the job.

Under the hood was a 325 horsepower, 390 cubic-inch big-block V8, which was mated to a close-ratio four-speed manual gearbox. The FE mill’s state of tune differs depending on who you talk to, but all agree that the pony car’s suspension was significantly upgraded to handle the numerous jumps it made throughout the city. That’s pretty standard fare for a vehicle being put through the ringer for filming, though. What really sets the original Bullitt Mustang apart from the typical hero car are the unique modifications applied to it by the production team to give it distinctive style.

Two identical 1968 Mustang GT fastbacks were used in the filming of the movie. After the film was completed, the cars went their separate ways – the hero vehicle driven by McQueen in the movie was sold by Warner Bros. to a private buyer, and the other, which performed many of the jumps during the chase scene, was sent to a salvage yard and resurfaced in Baja, California, in 2017. The whereabouts of the original hero car were unknown for decades until Sean Kiernan, owner of the hero vehicle, got in contact with Ford. Kiernan inherited the car in 2014 from his late father, Robert, who had purchased the vehicle in 1974. To fulfill his family’s lifelong dream, Sean and Ford representatives worked together to reveal the car alongside the all-new 2019 Mustang Bullitt at the 2018 North American International Auto Show. Images: Ford

Rather than outfitting the Mustang with garish doodads to give it a head-turning look, the Bullitt car was essentially de-contented from its original spec – the pony emblem in the grille was removed, as was the badging and other OE-equipped embellishments, and a set of five-spoke American Racing Torq Thrust wheels replaced the factory rollers.

Numerous bumps and bruises were added to the bodywork for good measure, and the end result was a grizzled machine that proudly wore the battle scars of city life without shouting its virtues from the hilltops – the vehicular personification of the Frank Bullitt character. This, along with the roaring big-block soundtrack that was aided in part by the removal of the factory sound deadening material, helped to turn this particular Mustang into a bonafide muscle car legend.

A New, Factory-Built Bullitt

Bullitt was released in the heyday of the muscle car – a brief window of time where horsepower was readily available and government regulations were only just beginning to have a measurable impact on car design. But just a few years after Bullitt’s theatrical release, the performance landscape had changed dramatically – power was down, curb weights were up, and car designs were festooned with makeshift “upgrades” in the name of government mandate compliance.

In many ways, it took automakers roughly two decades to fully recover from these paradigm shifts in the industry. But performance was back on the upswing by the end of the 1990s, as evidenced by models like the “New Edge” Mustang. Debuting in 1999, the revised SN-95 Mustang boasted sharper styling, a wider feature set, and – perhaps most importantly – more power. The stage was set for a muscle car revival, and Ford capitalized on it when they introduced the Mustang Bullitt for the 2001 model year.

The Bullitt package for the SN-95 Mustang is fairly subtle, with the Highland Green paintwork, five-spoke wheels, and uniquely tuned exhaust system standing out as the most obvious changes versus a standard GT. Images: Ford

As with the original car the performance tweaks were subtle, but added up to substantially improved machine. The Mustang Bullitt’s upgraded brake package came straight from the Mustang Cobra, while stiffer and lower springs were matched with Tokico dampers and subframe connectors for sharper handling. A Bullitt-specific exhaust system provided a unique soundtrack while a revised intake system helped to yield a few extra ponies, bringing the tally to 265 horsepower and 305 pound-feet of torque.

The Mustang Bullitt also received a host of aesthetic tweaks inspired by the movie car, including Torq Thrust-style five-spoke wheels, unique trim accents, and the availability of Dark Highland Green paint. Nearly 5,600 examples of the 2001 Mustang Bullitt were sold, and its success paved the way for future iterations.

A More Muscular Machine

Ford introduced the S-197 generation Mustang to the world in 2005, and its throwback design made it an even more apt candidate for the Bullitt treatment than its SN-95-based predecessor had been.

Ford capitalized on this natural pairing on the 40th anniversary of the movie, debuting the 2008 Mustang Bullitt at the Los Angeles Auto Show. As with its predecessor, the package focused largely on handling and visual upgrades, ditching the stock GT suspension for more aggressively tuned components while a 3.73:1 gear ratio was installed in the rear axle for more aggressive acceleration.

The '60s-inspired style and fastback-esque silhouette of the S-197 Mustang made it a prime candidate for a Bullitt makeover, and Ford did not disappoint when they revealed the limited edition package for the 2008 model year. Images: Ford

Unique five-spoke, Torq Thrust-style wheels were part of the deal as well, now boasting an 18-inch diameter, and BF Goodrich supplied the high performance rubber. There were a few extra ponies along for the ride, too. Reworked engine management software, a new open air intake, a revised ignition system, and a uniquely tuned high-flow exhaust system resulted in 315 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque for the special edition model.

Along with the requisite Highland Green paintwork and unique wheels, the new iteration of the Bullitt scored a number of subtle aesthetic tweaks aimed at mimicking the style of the original car, including a blank front grille, spoiler-less rear decklid, and bodywork largely free from badging.

The 2008 Mustang Bullitt scored a machine-turned dash treatment, unique shift knob, steering wheel badging and a few other subtle hints that helped it stand out from typical Mustang GTs. Under the hood, a unique strut brace provided additional structural reinforcement. Images: Ford

The S-197 iteration proved to be even more popular than its predecessor, with Ford moving more than 5,800 examples of the model that year.

Latest And Greatest

The factory-produced Mustang Bullitt made its third appearance in the Ford model lineup in 2019 and it is, without question, the best iteration of this special edition model to date.

Like its predecessors, the most distinguishing traits of the 2019 Mustang Bullitt are the five-spoke wheels, de-badged and wingless bodywork, and the Dark Highland Green paint. The hunkered down stance and sporty profile of the S550 Mustang GT lend the latest Bullitt an additional dose of athleticism above and beyond previous iterations of the package. Images: Bradley Iger

The latest entry is based on a Mustang GT with Performance Pack 1 options group, which includes unique suspension tuning and additional structural bracing, a Torsen differential, and six-piston Brembo brakes up front. As you’d expect from a Bullitt edition Mustang, unique five-spoke wheels are also on-hand – this time in a 19-inch diameter – as well as Dark Highland Green paint. And in sticking with the theme of the original, the latest Bullitt Mustang is devoid of stripes, wings, badges, and any other accoutrements that might distract from the coupe’s overall look.

Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires give the Mustang Bullitt a level of sure-footedness that the original fastback could only dream of. The faux gas cap on the trunk lid is the only external badging to be found on the car. Images: Bradley Iger

Inside the Bullitt theme continues with a cue ball-style shift knob, Bullitt badging on the steering wheel, and a serialized plaque on the passenger side of the dash. Buyers who opt for the optional Recaro seats also score Highland Green stitching.

As with the previous generation Bullitts, there’s more power and sound on hand as well. Under the hood is a mildly hopped up version of Ford’s 5.0-liter Coyote motor, here making 480 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque – an increase of 20hp versus the standard Mustang GT due to the use of the GT350’s intake manifold as well as a new 87mm throttle body. Out back there’s a uniquely tuned exhaust as well, an active setup that’s designed to mimic the original fastback while providing a banshee wail when you’re mashing the throttle or a subdued growl when you’re not.

The 2019 Mustang Bullitt starts at $47,590. Our tester rang up $52,885 (with destination) due to optional features like the Bullitt Electronics Package, Recaro sport seats, and Magne-Ride adaptive suspension system. We dug the premium audio and navigation included in the electronics package, and the adaptive dampers are a must-have. Recaros, however, are a bit of compromise in terms of features and overall comfort, making them better suited on a Shelby model that's tuned for serious track duty. Images: Bradley Iger

From behind the wheel, the Bullitt edition is not profoundly different from the 2018 Mustang GT we drove last year, but the array of subtle tweaks do indeed add up to a driving experience that feels like more than just a garden-variety Mustang with cool looking paint. And while the extra horsepower is nice, it’s the feel of the cue ball shifter in hand and the bark of the exhaust that really sell the fantasy – especially since automatically rev-matched downshifting is a standard feature for 2019. The heel-toe purists among us can disable it if they so desire, of course.

Although modern interpretations of McQueen’s Mustang will never have the cachet of the original big-block fastback used in the film, it’s an inarguable truth that the latest entry is faster, much more nimble, and far easier to live with on a day to day basis than that ’68 ever was.

All factory-built Bullitt Mustangs have featured a serialized plaque on the passenger side of the dash which denotes that particular car’s place in the production run. Image: Bradley Iger

Will the capability and cool factor of the 2019 model resonate with enough enthusiasts to warrant a fourth factory-built iteration of the pony car icon at some point in the future? Only time will tell.

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
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