A Tale of Two Bullitts

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Smokey and the Bandit made the second generation Trans-Am an icon of the ’70s – but it was Steve McQueen’s attempts at getting airborne in a big block Highland Green ’68 Mustang fastback while chasing a pair of hitmen through the streets of SanFranciso that forever set the high water mark for on-screen car chase scenes.

Ten years ago, in tribute to that car and its driver, Ford built a limited run of Bullitt GTs upgraded with a hotter engine, tweaked suspension and body. It sold for for $3,695 over the $22,730 base price of a regular 2001 Mustang GT.

Though Ford wasn’t able to slide 390 FE big blocks into these latter-day Bullitt GTs, each car did receive several key enhancements to the standard 4.6 liter SOHC V-8 that powered ordinary GTs. These included:

* Twin 57mm throttle bodies

* Revised cast aluminum intake manifold

* High flow mufflers

* Revised alternator and pump pulley ratios designed to cut parasitic drag

Together these mods upped the advertised horsepower of the Bullitt’s engine from the stock 2001 GT’s 260 to “at least” 270-hp, in the rather interesting language of Ford Motor Co. officials. Official numbers were never revealed, but given the mid-high 5 second to 60 times (vs. the standard GT’s 6 second flat times) it is likely that the Bullitts were pumping out closer to 300 hp – or about what the race-only Cobra R (which had the last of the 351 Windsor V-8s) was making back in 1995.

Today – with the current GT producing 400 hp – the ’01 car’s “at least” 270 hp doesn’t sound too hot.

But in 2001, it was plenty hot enough to make things warm for competitors such as the Chevy Camaro – which offered 305-320 hp depending on whether you chose an SS or a Z28.

Maybe it wasn’t enough to beat a Camaro in a drag race, but that’s not all the Bullitt GT had to offer.

Chassis upgrades included 17-inch wheels unique to the Bullitt cars, plus revised Tokico struts and shocks, different rate stabilizer bars and subframe connectors to reduce body/chassis flex under heavy load. The car also sat about an inch closer to the pavement than regular GTs.

Bullitt’s brakes were upgraded too – for those times when a ’68 Charger is on your tail and a well-executed J-turn is in order. Thirteen-inch Brembo front rotors and special calipers red powder coated and visible through the slots in the 17-inch mags let the competition know what you were packing.

The exterior of the car featured several changes, too – including aggressive side scoops, quarter panel moldings and modified C-pillars, topped off by a brushed aluminum, race-style fuel filler door. This car probably should have been available in Highland Green only, but Ford offered buyers two other colors as well – True Blue and plain old Black.

McQueen’s ’68, of course, was brooding dark Highland Green. The evil Charger driven by the two hit men was, of course, appropriately black.

Interior upgrades to the Bullitt included special charcoal leather trim, brushed aluminum shift knob and machined pedal covers. White-lit gauges are sort of like the deal used on the ’95 Cobra R competition Mustang. Very business-oriented.

Each Bullitt GT was serialized with a unique plaque and “Bullitt” badging.

Today, these cars are very collectible – but also (and unlike Cobra Rs) very affordable. A quick scan of the value guides shows a low-average value of around $7,000. A few dollars more – less than $10k – should get you a cherry one. In another ten years, these cars will probably be selling for two or even three times these figures, if the past is any indication.

So… where is the real Bullitt Mustang? The one McQueen actually drove (and yes, he did do much of the stunt driving) in the movie?

According to records, two 1968 Mustang Fastbacks were built for the movie. Once the Mustangs were selected, veteran race driver and builder Max Balchowski was enlisted to modify the cars for the rigors of the high-speed pursuit scenes. Balchowski added stronger springs and Koni shocks and fabricated braces for the inner fenders. He also did some
minor tuning to the 390-cubic-inch engine for a little more top-end power.

After filming was completed, the primary car was in sad shape. Two weeks of stunt driving had taken its toll on the Mustang, so it was sent to the crusher due to liability concerns. The remaining car, the less-damaged backup, was sold to an employee of Warner Brothers’ editing department.

In the early 1970s, the car was advertised in a classified ad in The Los Angeles Times for $6,000 – big money at the time. A buyer was found and the car eventually made its way to the East Coast.

The Bullitt Mustang went up for sale again in 1974, this time in an ad in Road & Track. It is reported that Steve McQueen himself called the New Jersey number in the ad with a desire to purchase the car for his own collection. He was told the car had been sold, but was given the name and number of the buyer.

McQueen tried to persuade the new owner to resell it, but couldn’t pry it loose from its new owner – though the new owner did promise to contact him if he ever did decide to sell.

McQueen died of cancer in 1980.

Whenever contacted by prospective buyers or media, the owner has refused offers of purchase or publicity. The car has been in non-running condition for some time.

The car remained in New Jersey until the mid-1990s, when it was moved to a farm in the Ohio River Valley. Parked in a hay barn, the Mustang remained inoperable, still wearing New Jersey tags. A film company recently made an offer to the owner for its use in a motion picture. The owner declined.

Maybe one day, it will reappear. But for now, the only way to see it is to rent the movie.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. So why don’t the geniuses at Ford bring out a new Bullitt off the latest Mustang platform? You can’t even get a green one now. I saw just recently where they are considering “mass customization” type options for designing/ordering your own Mustang, but the Bullitt concepts and colors were not included. Recall when the “new” 2005 model came out, they even had a Bullitt add complete with Steve McQueen driving! So like everyone, I assumed they would offer one. Nope.

  2. I have my doubts on the long term collector value of the products of Ford’s insta-collectable marketing. Just few enough made so that each dealer could charge a premium over sticker when new, but too many to actually be rare, and then so many people saved them….

    • I had a chance, back in ’95, to buy a Cobra R (these had the last of the 351s; were sold “officially” only to racers) via a connection (good friend) within Ford. I wish I had! But at the time, I didn’t have the money. It always seems to work like that….

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