Ford Mustang Bullitt
Does the new Mustang deserve the Bullitt name?
Steve McQueen didn’t have many friends in Hollywood.
According to the actor’s biographer, Marc Eliot, he’d burned just about every bridge with every director and co-star with whom he’d ever worked. McQueen seems to have been a huge mobile bag of insecurities, reportedly worrying about the number of lines spoken by other actors on a movie, or even the height of his horse, compared to Yul Brynner’s, on the set of The Magnificent Seven.
According to Robert Vaughan, one of the few actors who chose to work with McQueen more than once, that’s probably down to the fact that Steve realised that he was on screen mostly because he looked good. “Steve was very hip to the fact that his stardom was based largely on the look he had” Vaughan said in an on-stage interview not long ago.
A fact which seems odd when you watch Bullitt. Made in 1958, precisely 50 years ago this year, Bullitt is an oddly slow-moving film, with a very still, almost mute performance from McQueen. So much of the plot seems driven by what’s going on behind the actor’s eyes, so it’s strange to think that the actual answer to that is: “Not very much, really.” Bullitt is a strange movie to modern eyes. It’s almost cinema verité in the way it follows the almost plodding, labyrinthine plot of mob informants, politics, and police procedure. It’s prototype mumblecore for much of its running time.
Starting at precisely one hour and five minutes into the film, the chase — which sees McQueen’s almost-hilariously-named Detective Frank Bullitt being chased by, and then chasing a couple of glowering hitmen (one of whom is played, silently, by actual stunt drive Bill Hickman) — effectively invented the modern Hollywood car chase, screaming, screeching, rumbling, and leaping around San Francisco, making an airborne most of the city’s towering hills. While McQueen gets the credit for the sequence, it was really the work of director Peter Yates, stunt co-ordinator Cary Loftin, and stunt drivers Hickman, Bud Eakins, and Loren James. It is astonishingly kinetic, features at least one real crash (watch where the Dodge Charger used by the bad guys slams into a parked car being used as a camera location — the film actually bleaches out for a split second as the camera is destroyed) and numerous now-legendary continuity errors (how many hubcaps can one car have? How many green VW Beetles were there in San Francisco in 1968? Can you really get from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in under 11 minutes? [Answer: No you can’t]).
It also features a Ford Mustang.
It’s a second-generation Mustang, a GT390 painted in a very distinctive dark Highland Green and featured a 6.3-litre, 325hp V8 engine. Of course, that’s not the engine you hear on the film’s soundtrack. The engine note laid over the footage actually came from a Le Mans GT40 racing car, which used a gearbox with no dog rings and straight-cut gears. That’s why, incongruously, you can hear the driver of the Mustang double-de-clutching on the upshift…
Never mind the noise, though; feel the legend. The Mustang was forever more enshrined in history as the Hero’s Car, the car driven by the taciturn, tortured, impossibly rugged leading man, who had just 24hrs left to crack the case, and has City Hall all over his back. Fifty years on, the legend still applies.
Which is why Ford has created a car that directly references, and is a tribute to, a medium-budget police thriller, released fifty years ago, starring a drug-addled, wife-beating, philandering movie star who only had another dozen years of life left in him before cancer robbed him from the screen. You’d wonder if anyone still cares, in this day and age, about such things, but apparently, they do — the Ford Mustang Bullit is a sell-out success. Literally so; every one of the 350 so far allocated to the UK has been snapped up.
Which seems odd, in a way. After all, you don’t get an awful lot more for your money than you get with a standard 5.0 GT V8 Mustang. There’s a modified grille, with no sprinting Mustang badge. There are some Bullitt logos scattered around the place, including a plaque on the dashboard. There is green backlighting for the (rather attractive) digital instruments, and of course the famed Highland Green paintwork for the exterior. There is also, apparently, an extra 10hp for the mighty naturally aspirated V8, bringing its total to 460hp. Well, a claimed 460hp. Ask some Ford people on the down-low and they’ll admit that’s a homologation number, taken as a worst case scenario, running on iffy fuel. Put proper 95-octane unleaded and you’re probably looking at a nod-and-a-wink rating of closer to 475hp, at sea level.
Is that enough? Worth the extra circa-£6,000 over the cost of a regular Mustang GT?
Let’s see. It certainly looks the part. The Mustang’s already-dramatic shape responds well to the Highland Green paint, toning things down a little without losing the dramatic effect of its muscle-bound bulges and curves. The plain, unadorned grille looks great, and should arguably be available as an option for the standard model, and the 19-inch dark-finish alloys look properly menacing too. Just like its 1968 onscreen co-star, the Mustang looks good and knows it.
Inside, the story is the same as per the regular car. There are some nice touches, including those very good looking digital instruments (we especially love the up-and-over bar-style rev counter) and wonderfully squishy Recaro bucket seats, that cuddle you with just the right amount of tightness. The rest is a bit of a disappointment in a £48,000 car — lots of cheap plastics, some switches and screens lifted from Mondeo, and a lineup of toggle switches under the main SYNC3 infotainment screen that look and feel as if they’ll snap off as soon as you try to use them. Oh, and the back seats are close to useless. which is a touch criminal in a car this big.
We did forget to mention one thing, though. The final item of Bullitt accessories. The cue-ball shifter for the six-speed manual gearbox. Appropriately, there’s no auto option for the Bullitt, so you have to use this meaty, hefty, gearshift. Which is just great. That ivory white shifter feels terrific in your hands, and the solid clunk as you slot a gear home is one of the most mechanically satisfying things in car-dom.
As is the V8’s bark and woofle. The Mustang’s engine is a flat-plane crank engine, so it produces less of a wub-wub-wub noise at tickover than a traditional American V8, but the sonic fireworks commence as soon as you thumb the starter button. This is a loud engine, one that’s unabashed about its nature, happily gargling with uncut dead dinosaur while all about are adding batteries. Not very zeitgeist-y, perhaps, but it just sounds wonderful. At a motorway canter, it’s quiet and undemonstrative, drowned out by the noise from those 275-section rear tyres.
As soon as you add some throttle, though, it starts to make noises again, going gargalalalagfararraggagglle-pause-gearshift-gargrgrgagagagalallefaffrfel as you overtake bland, faceless hatchbacks and SUVs. Aurally and visually there is no questioning the Bullitt’s silver screen glamour, and that starts to rub off on you, too. You start staring at the horizon with eyes of gimlet, propping an elbow on the windowsill as you adjust your shades. A passing, real, police car, its lights and sirens clearing a path, has you momentarily thinking: “I should probably back them up…” Before you remember you’re not a cop, you’re not Steve McQueen, you’re an overweight, mid-forties motoring writer with the keys to a faux-cop-car and delusions of action movie grandeur.
There’s nothing delusional, nor faux, about the way the Bullitt drives, however. It is enormous, colossal, gigantic, wonderful, fun. Now, that statement requires a little tempering. The Mustang is, in any form, a big, wide, quite hefty car and with that big V8 engine stuffed between the front wheels, is actually quite nose-heavy. So you can pitch the Mustang around in the manner of, say, a Porsche Cayman, nor a new Toyota Supra. No, you’ve got to manhandle it a bit. Take firm hold of the well-weighted, reasonably chatty steering, get your braking and gear changing (double-de-clutching, natch) done while the wheels are still pointed straight ahead, and then, asking politely as you do so, guide that heavy, bluff nose towards some kind of an apex. The Mustang doesn’t exactly understeer, but it takes a little longer to find its way into a corner and locate a mathematical centre than you might expect. Once you’ve done that, though, it’s time to let the bassline of the V8 loose again, feel those big rear tyres dig in, occasionally giving way to a little gentle, easily controllable oversteer, and bludgeon your way down the next straight bit before repeating the process.
Ford decided not to bring us to San Francisco to test drive the Mustang Bullitt (awwww, etc…) but instead to the south coast of France, where the roads that wind into the mountains behind Nice are just as vertiginous as those of San Fran, but far narrower and rather less forgiving in the sense that there’s not an assistant director around every junction, waiting with a bag of Beverly Hills cash to smooth things out with the locals.
Amazingly, the Mustang Bullitt doesn’t feel like a total American hippo on these roads. Oh sure, it’s a touch broad across the hips for some of the narrower village streets, but this is a damn Yankee that’s damn happy when the road gets challenging. Perhaps not too challenging — the Mustang, as always, feels like a car that’s happiest working at around 70-80 per cent of its capacity. It will go quicker, but it will become more ragged and less controllable as you do so, and you’re already riding a wave of V8 torque (529Nm of it) and noise, so why bother?
Rather like McQueen himself, the Mustang just knows that it doesn’t have to try harder. The south of France is an interesting place to test a new car, as you’re always apt to have your attention distracted by some local playboy or playgirl taking their newest Italian atomic doorstop out for some exercise, but the Mustang doesn’t suffer in the comparison. In fact, I’d argue that this blue-collar cop coupe looks cooler, sounds better, and is inherently more fun to drive than any of the Ferraris or Lamborghinis we saw wandering about, their perma-tanned owners wincing at the sight of a speed bump. It’s cool, it’s fast, and when people see you driving it, they give you a thumbs up, rather than the middle finger.
Is that the McQueen factor? Is it OK to like a car that’s so indelibly connected to an actor who was so stubbornly unpleasant and disreputable in his private life? Wouldn’t this all be a lot easier if Paul Newman (professional, likeable, charitable, married, happily, to Joanne Woodward for 50 years?) had starred in Bullitt instead? Probably, yes, but then McQueen’s dangerous, devilish reputation — however poorly it sits in the #metoo era — is all part of the magic and mystery here.
In fact, the Mustang Bullitt is almost the perfect Hollywood car. It’s a smoke-and-mirrors job, a special edition that consists solely of cosmetic additions and different paint, and one that’s trading on faded glories of a supposedly golden past. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
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