How they filmed the best car chase in history

Steve McQueen’s 1968 Bullitt is a neo-noir action thriller with a gritty realism that was bold for the time… but nobody remembers that. What everyone remembers is the car chase, a scene so epic it has become not only the most famous of its kind in cinema but also spawned an entire genre of Ford Mustang.

The movie centres around McQueen’s no-nonsense San Francisco police detective, Frank Bullitt and his pursuit of Chicago mobsters in his city. The epic 10-minute car chase arrives at the midpoint of the movie when Bullitt, in his Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback, pursues a pair of hitmen in a black Dodge Charger.

There are several reasons that make the Bullitt car chase so memorable – its length, the genuine speeds the cars were travelling at and the fact McQueen did a lot of his own stunt driving. There’s also the soundtrack, with the movie’s score cutting out as the chase begins and the rest of the sequence filled entirely with the sound of the two V8 engines and squealing tyres. 

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This is far from the outrageous stunts performed with special effects in modern movies like the Fast and Furious franchise or James Bond films.

What makes the scene so special is that it’s beloved by both movie critics and car aficionados alike, something that can’t be said for many automotive scenes. 

Respected American film critic, Emanuel Levy, once wrote: “Bullitt contains one of the most exciting car chases in film history, a sequence that revolutionised Hollywood’s standards.”

In 2003 Time magazine rated its top 15 movie car chases and called Bullitt’s “the one, the first, the granddaddy, the chase on the top of almost every list similar to this one.”

Why is the Bullitt Mustang so famous?



Sean Kiernan's (behind the wheel) father own the car right up until his death in 2014.


© CarsGuide.com.au
Sean Kiernan’s (behind the wheel) father own the car right up until his death in 2014.

The green ‘Stang has taken on a life of its own, spawning countless copies and tribute models over the decades.

It’s hard to say precisely why it’s become so famous, but the combination of being associated with McQueen – Hollywood’s so-called ‘King of Cool’ – the specular chase and the iconic design of the ’68 Fastback all play a role.

The decision to black out the grille, switch the wheels, remove much of the chrome and the Ford badges makes for a simple but stylish appearance that people have clearly embraced.

The other obvious element is the film itself, with the chase far more memorable than the rest of the story. It was McQueen’s goal to make a gritty, realistic crime thriller – so he insisted it was shot entirely on location in San Francisco.

But his passion for cars and racing meant he insisted on such a remarkable chase sequence that it overshadowed the rest of the movie.

How did they film the famous Bullitt car chase scenes?



It was the inevitable chase in 'Bullitt' that really sealed the deal, making the 68 Mustang GT Fastback a cult hero. (image: watchcharge.com)


© CarsGuide.com.au
It was the inevitable chase in ‘Bullitt’ that really sealed the deal, making the 68 Mustang GT Fastback a cult hero. (image: watchcharge.com)

Once again McQueen’s pursuit of authenticity for Bullitt meant the chase was filmed entirely with stunt driving and no special effects. The two cars actually drove through the real streets of San Francisco and at genuine speed. 

Initially director Peter Yates wanted to limit speeds to approximately 130km/h, but it’s rumoured that the cars ended up hitting 170km/h at certain stages. The only piece of sped up footage is when McQueen overshoots a corner in the Mustang and is forced to reverse quickly; which wasn’t planned, but McQueen wanted to keep his mistake in the movie for more realism.

McQueen was no stranger to speed and raced throughout his life, most famously finishing second in the 1970 Sebring 12-hour sports car race driving a Porsche 908/02 prototype with American star, Peter Revson.

While McQueen did some of his own driving, he also relied on his trusted stunt driver Bud Ekins (the same man who jumped the motorcycle in The Great Escape) as well as stunt coordinator Carey Loftin and stunt driver Loren Janes; another McQueen associate.

The Dodge was driven by Bill Hickman, who was a veteran stunt driver but he also played the minor role of one of the two hitmen McQueen’s character is trying to find, largely because he had no speaking lines in the movie, so it was easier to give him the role.

Filming took place over a three week period and involved scenes in the famous Fishermen’s Wharf district, and San Francisco’s iconic hills, before finally ending on the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway, near the suburb of Brisbane just south of the city. 

Who owns the original Bullitt Mustang?



It's the 50th anniversary of the film, Bullitt and Steve McQueen's Mustang has come out to celebrate. (image credit: Road and Track)


© CarsGuide.com.au
It’s the 50th anniversary of the film, Bullitt and Steve McQueen’s Mustang has come out to celebrate. (image credit: Road and Track)

There were two ‘68 Mustang GT Fastbacks used to film the movie, both specially prepared for the demands of chase scenes with racing-style shock absorbers. Other changes included American Racing Torq Thrust alloy wheels, a blacked out grille and no reversing lights.

After filming one car was reportedly scrapped, while the other was bought by a man named Robert Keirnan in 1974. Keirnan used the Bullitt movie car as his daily driver, even taking his son Sean to school in it.

However, as the film’s fame grew the Keirnan family was made aware of the cinematic significance of the car and stopped driving it. When Robert Kerinan passed away in 2014, Sean had the car authenticated by Ford and it was used by the blue oval for publicity of its 2018 Bullitt Edition.

Is the Bullitt Mustang for sale? How much is the Bullitt Mustang worth?

The car was last publicly sold in January 2020, when it went for US$3.7 million at an auction in Florida. At the time it was believed to be the most expensive Mustang ever sold, surpassing the US$1.8m for a 1967 Shelby GT500 Super Snake – a car made famous by the film Gone in 60 Seconds.

How many Bullitt Mustangs are there?



The old with the new.


© CarsGuide.com.au
The old with the new.

While there were only two Mustangs used in the filming, the success of the movie made for an obvious special edition for Ford, especially when it launched its retro-inspired sixth-generation Fastback.

The 2018 Bullitt Mustang Edition was sold in limited numbers around the world, including Australia with only 700 examples arriving down under.

Ford USA also sold a Bullitt-inspired Mustang of the fifth generation pony car, but that car wasn’t offered in Australia.