Blue Oval Icons: The Mustang Bullitt

An extended high-speed chase through the streets of San Francisco like Bullitt’s would be nearly impossible to replicate today, as its far safer and more cost effective for film crews to use editing techniques and CG to create a sense of excitement and speed rather than going through the labor and expense of choreographing chases, shutting down major sections of the city, and acquiring the permits and insurance required to shoot such a scene.

In 1968 the action-thriller Bullitt was released in theaters. Directed by Peter Yates, the film starred Steve McQueen as Frank Bullitt, a lieutenant in the San Francisco police department, who had been tasked with babysitting his brother in law Johnny Ross — a Chicago mobster-turned-informant — who was about to testify at a US Senate subcommittee hearing. That was something the mob wasn’t particularly thrilled about. You know how that goes…

While Bullitt is a pretty solid crime flick overall, it’s the 10-minute car chase in the middle of the movie that it is most fondly remembered for. It’s a face off between a pair of mob hitmen in a black-on-black ’68 Dodge Charger R/T and Bullitt, who is piloting a 390 FE-powered, Highland Green 1968 Mustang fastback. When Bullitt started tailing the bad guys rather than vice-versa is when all hell breaks loose. The pursuit that ensued became one of the yardsticks by which all other movie car chases have been judged.

Looking to recapture some of that vintage muscle car magic in the then-modern era, Ford decided to offer a Bullitt Mustang of its own in 2001, taking cues from the original car’s brutal powertrain and tough, understated look with a contemporary spin. The package would prove to be popular enough for Ford to revisit it again less than a decade later with the fifth-generation pony car, and recent rumors hint that there could be a sixth-generation Bullitt on the horizon as well.

New Edge Bullitt

By the close of the 20th century domestic performance was on the upswing, and factory cars were finally starting to offer the kind of capability that had made their 1960s namesakes automotive icons decades prior. After debuting a concept version at the 2000 Los Angeles Auto Show to great acclaim, Ford’s brass green-lit the Bullitt package for production the following year.

Though the 2001 Mustang Bullitt package wasn't a dramatic departure from the standard GT, Ford maximized the impact of the model with a great sounding exhaust, sharp looking wheels, and a hunkered down stance.

Based off the GT, the 2001 Mustang Bullitt package featured an aesthetic treatment atop the familiar New Edge styling. Along with the unique 17-inch five-spoke, forged-aluminum, Torq Thrust-style wheels, brushed aluminum fuel door, rear deck spoiler delete and optional Highland Green paint.

2001 Bullitt Production

Nearly 5,600 examples of the fourth-generation Mustang Bullitt would be built in its sole year of production. Among those cars, 3,041 were painted Dark Highland Green, another 1819 in Black, and the remaining 722 cars in True Blue. Each car was outfitted with a factory serialized identification label to verify each as a 2001 Bullitt, adding to the model’s collectability.

The new Bullitt Mustang also saw some mechanical changes that improved car’s performance and sound. On the handling front, the suspension was lowered 0.75 inches versus a stock GT to give the car a more sinister look and drop its center of gravity.

Its 4.6-liter V8 scored a new cold air induction system, along with a new aluminum intake manifold and a twin 57mm bore throttle body. New high-flow mufflers help the engine to exhale easier and allowed its song to be heard with far more clarity than the stock GT exhaust too, giving the modern Bullitt Mustang a soundtrack that recalled the manic bark of McQueen’s fastback. Output stood at 265 horsepower and 305 lb-ft of torque.

Testing by Motor Trend revealed a sprint to 60 MPH in 5.6 seconds and a quarter mile e.t. of 14 seconds flat, figures that compared favorably with the original big-block car’s performance.

S197 Bullitt

The first production Bullitt Mustang proved such a success that Ford decided to revisit the package to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the movie in 2008. With the S197’s retro styling the Mustang’s design was ripe for the Bullitt treatment and Ford opted to take the package a few steps further this time around.

As soon as the fifth-generation car hit the streets in 2005, rumors began to circulate about a Bullitt model. The S197's retro styling worked especially well with the package, and with the GT's performance capability hitting its stride in 2008, the 2008 Bullitt proved to be an even more faithful callback to the original 390-powered Fastback than the New Edge iteration.

Engineers again looked to improve the coupe’s handling capability while maintaining reasonable ride compliance. The stock struts and dampers from the Mustang GT were swapped out for more aggressively tuned components, while a unique strut-tower brace designed specifically for the Bullitt brought additional torsional and lateral stiffness to the chassis for improved cornering. The strut brace also displayed a unique serial number for each Bullitt car.

The rear axle got a 3.73:1 gear ratio for more urgent acceleration, while braking was enhanced with specifically developed pads for the Mustang Bullitt. Like the previous generation car, the Bullitt also rode on unique five-spoke wheels, this time 18 inches in diameter, which were wrapped in BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDWS high-performance rubber.

Along with exterior styling and mechanical upgrades, the 2008 Bullitt features a number of subtle touches that helped these cars stand out from garden-variety S197 Mustangs, like the serialized strut-tower brace in the engine bay, an aluminum shift knob, and low-key Bullitt badging inside and out.

You can easily take Bullitt from the track to the street and back onto the track with confidence. — Paul Randle, Ford

Under the hood, the Mustang Bullitt’s 4.6-liter powerplant now generated 315 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque due to an open-element cold air intake – the first of its kind on a fuel-injected factory Mustang – along with a new adaptive spark ignition system, a free-flowing exhaust system, and new engine calibration software that provided snappier throttle response and bumped the engine’s redline to 6,500 rpm.

“The 2008 Mustang Bullitt delivers balanced performance,” Paul Randle, Ford’s chief engineer, said of the project at the time of the car’s unveiling. “Comfort is not compromised for performance. Performance is on demand. You can easily take Bullitt from the track to the street and back onto the track with confidence.”

“We wanted to get the exhaust note as close to the original movie car as possible, so we based it on a digitally mastered DVD,” Bullitt designer Paul Randle said. “We wanted something that would rumble your heart, literally buzz you — and the Bullitt team delivered.”

The 2008 Mustang Bullitt, like the movie car, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. — Doug Gaffka, Ford

And, of course, the new Bullitt car featured the debadged, no-nonsense look of the original, along with a modern interpretation of that iconic Dark Highland Green paint hue.

“The 2008 Mustang Bullitt, like the movie car, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Doug Gaffka, the car’s chief designer, said. “Mustang is — and always has been — such an icon that it’s recognizable without the badges. But Bullitt’s clean exterior doesn’t give away the Ford Racing-inspired power and performance lurking under its skin.”

The 2008 model would sell in even greater numbers than the 2001 Mustang Bullitt had, with 4,377 Dark Highland Green models rolling out of dealer showrooms, along with 1,431 examples in Black, bringing the production total for this one-year model to 5,808.

S550 Bullitt?

With the repeated success of the Mustang Bullitt in the fourth- and fifth-generation cars, it stands to reason that Ford might want to revisit this package with the sixth-generation Mustang, especially when you consider the fact that 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the original movie.

While there’s no official word yet from Ford about a Bullitt package for the 2018 Mustang, these images pulled from a behind-the-scenes video at Ford’s design center seem to offer some pretty compelling evidence that Ford is strongly considering it at the least. Twenty eighteen also marks the 50th anniversary of the movie’s release, so the timing definitely makes sense.

Adding fuel to the fire is a behind-the-scenes promotional Ford video released earlier this year featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson while he was shooting a commercial at Ford’s Dearborn facility. During one of the shots in the video a board can be seen which seems to show various pictures of a Dark Highland Green sixth-generation Mustang wearing five-spoke wheels and minimal badging.

Recent sightings of what appears to be a next-gen Bullitt stoked the rumors that a new version was forthcoming, and the car finally broke cover at the North American International Auto Show. Packing a 475-horsepower 5.0-liter V8, independent rear suspension, and Brembo brakes, it’s clear that the new Mustang Bullitt is undoubtedly the most capable Bullitt yet.

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.
Read My Articles

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