How Steve McQueen really created Bullitt’s famous car chase

Warner Bros. Pictures

There will be many people who have watched 10 minutes and 53 seconds of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt without knowing anything about the plot. You don’t need to, because the car chase is probably the best (only?) reason to watch the entire movie.

That could be a little unfair, but there’s no denying that the 1968 film’s iconic status is thanks to the San Francisco car chase. One YouTube video, posted eight years ago, has racked up 2.6 million views, while a shorter clip on the Movieclips channel has been watched 5.3 million times. We’re going to, ahem, bite the bullet, by naming it the best movie car chase of all time.

There’s nothing to suggest that the as yet un-named, new Frank Bullitt movie will include a chase sequence. According to Deadline, the new film, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Bradley Cooper, is not a remake. Instead, it’s a new idea centered on the San Francisco cop, who may or may not need to chase down a couple of hitmen in a Dodge Charger.

Josh Singer (First Man, The Post, Spotlight) is writing the screenplay for the film in development at Warner Bros., which is expected to take Bullitt in a different direction to the original. In that flick, Steve McQueen played the no-nonsense cop on a mission to discover who was responsible for killing a witness in his protection.

With the Bullitt reboot in pre-production, there’s plenty of time to speculate about the details of the movie. Will it be set in San Francisco? Will it include a car chase? Could we see another role for Ford? Would a Mustang Mach-E be a suitable replacement for a Highland Green Ford Mustang GT 390?

Bullitt Movie Steve McQueen
Warner Bros. Pictures

One thing’s for sure, the new movie will have a tough job delivering the gritty realism of the original. Director Peter Yates, who was selected by Steve McQueen following his work on the 1967 film Robbery, delivered a film with a high level of authenticity.

Car enthusiasts will remember the streets of San Francisco as the setting for the car chase, but the film is also notable for being shot almost entirely on location. Real doctors and nurses were used for scenes at San Francisco General Hospital, while the office of an actual architectural practice was used for scenes involving Frank Bullitt’s girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset).

With this level of attention to detail, is it any wonder that the car chase looked so authentic? The scenes involving the Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger looked real because it was real.

Well, up to a point.

Bullitt Movie Steve McQueen airborne
Warner Bros. Pictures

In a 2018 interview with Classic & Sports Car, Yates said: “[The film] came about because Phil D’Antoni, who was producing the film, had seen the chase in my movie Robbery. He knew of McQueen’s love of fast driving, but I was a bit concerned because I’d already done a chase and didn’t want to do another one. The fact that Robbery had been seen by so few people in America hardly entered my head.”

Without McQueen’s influence, there’s a strong chance that the film would have made it into production without its most famous scene. Yates claims that it wasn’t in the original script; Mute Witness, the book upon which the film is based, doesn’t feature a car chase. In interviews, McQueen insisted that it was his idea, with the 15-minute opening car chase in Robbery enough to convince writer Alan Trustman to change the script.

In a 1969 Motor Trend interview, McQueen said: “I always felt that a motor-racing sequence in the street could be very exciting because you have real objects to work with, like bouncing off a parked car. An audience digs sitting there watching somebody do something I’m sure almost all of them would like to do.” Legend has it that some moviegoers were sick during the famous chase sequence.

Bullitt Movie Steve McQueen
Warner Bros. Pictures

To perfect the car chase, McQueen drafted in four of his mates: stuntmen Max Balchowsky, Bud Ekins, Bill Hickman and Carey Loftin. Hickman is the bespectacled driver of the Dodge Charger, who also worked with D’Antoni on The French Connection and The Seven-Ups, two films known for their car chase scenes.

In a 1968 film promo, McQueen said: “From the beginning, we felt that we should start off working in close harmony at a racetrack so that Bill Hickman and myself would be used to working closely together at high speed.” The pair spent a couple of weeks at the old Cotati Speedway, 45 miles north of San Francisco, where they reached speeds “well over the ton [100 mph] mark.”

A promotional agreement between Ford and Warner Bros. dictated that Frank Bullitt would drive a Mustang, with the hitmen in a Galaxie. Unfortunately, the Galaxies were too slow for the jumps, so three Dodge Charger R/T 440s were sourced from a Chrysler dealer in Glendale.

Challenger Airborne in Bullitt film
Warner Bros. Pictures
Bullitt Movie Steve McQueen chase
Warner Bros. Pictures

Loren Janes, who starred as a double for Steve McQueen, said: “Many writers have said two, but there were three of each. We needed the extra cars in case one was damaged. The movie’s shooting schedule can’t be slowed for dents and things like that. Fortunately, we only had to use a second Mustang once when the first Mustang had to go in to be fixed up.”

This appears to have been debunked by Sean Kiernan, the former owner of the Mustang driven by McQueen in the movie. In an interview with Octane, he said: “Chassis #559 was ‘refreshed’ after filming and used for the promotional tour, and many thought it was a third identical car.”

McQueen Bullitt mustang film set
Warner Bros. Pictures

Chassis 558 was discovered in spring 2017 in a Mexico scrapyard, while 559, arguably the most famous Mustang in the worldsold for $3.74M in 2020.

The cars used in the movie were sent to Max Balchowsky’s workshop to be toughened up for filming. Modifications included heavy duty springs and dampers plus strengthened pick-up points. Although the Charger looked stock, McQueen insisted on making changes to the Mustang, which extended to the removal of some trim, a coat of black paint for the grille, and a set of American Racing Torq-Thrust wheels. McQueen also drafted in his friend Tony Nancy to retrim a Shelby GT500 (Secura) steering wheel in leather.

Filming took place over two weeks using up to 30 square blocks of San Francisco, 50 people armed with walkie-talkies, and eight stuntmen in other cars. McQueen said, “When we were going by [the stuntmen] at well over 100 mph, we knew what they were gonna do and they knew what we were gonna do.”

The result is nearly 11 minutes of near perfection. In the same way that Mark Kermode says you can forgive an actor’s terrible attempt at an accent, if you’ve bought into Bullitt‘s cast and dialogue, you’re able to gloss over the glaring continuity errors. The Charger’s eight flying hubcaps, the 16-speed Mustang, and the multiple sightings of the green VW Beetle and white Pontiac Lemans—both used as “control cars”in the downhill road scenes—can be overlooked because the action is so tense.

From the moment Bill Hickman buckles up, and Lalo Schifrin’s brooding score gives way to the sound of engines, tyre smoke and fender benders, you’re gripped by the realism of Mustang versus Charger and McQueen versus Hickman.

Peter Yates told Classic & Sports Car: “I accompanied [McQueen] in the Mustang on one of the hill-jumping sequences to keep an eye on him. After one of the jumps, I had to tell him to slow down because we were running out of film.

“‘That’s nothing,’ Steve replied. ‘We’re out of brakes.’

“McQueen managed to slow the Mustang by slotting down through the gears and turning the car onto a street that inclined upwards. When the car came to a stop, we roared with nervous laughter.”

Contrary to popular belief, McQueen didn’t do all of the driving. In the same way that McQueen had to leave the famous motorcycle jump in The Great Escape to his friend Bud Ekins, insurance restrictions prevented the King of Cool from doing the most dangerous scenes.

Talking about driving down Chestnut Street, Ekins said: “It was like looking down a ski jump. At 60 mph, it felt as if I was driving off the end of the world.”

Ekins also stars as the motorcycle rider who is forced to take evasive action prior to the chase sequence’s explosive conclusion.

As an aside, the driver of the Mustang when the Charger is sent careering into the petrol station is Carey Loftin, who starred as the truck driver in the 1971 thriller Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length film. We’ve almost gone full circle.

To paraphrase a line from a song by Lee Majors: Ekins and Loftin were the unknown stuntmen who made McQueen such a star, two unsung heroes of the best car chase scene in Hollywood history.

Steve McQueen wanted to make sure that he got the glory for the chase. Notice how he sticks his head out of the window when reversing, having overshot a corner in pursuit of the Charger. It’s a mistake that made the final cut, with Yates saying: “Steve wanted audiences to know exactly who was driving the car.”

Five decades on, it’s Bradley Cooper’s turn to play the role of Frank Bullitt, and although the inclusion of a car chase isn’t guaranteed, we suspect the new film will have fewer flying hubcaps and a greater reliance on CGI. In the meantime, car enthusiasts will continue to marvel at what McQueen achieved with more than a little help from his friends.

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    Gritty realism? Hmmm. Might be more that CGI didn’t exist in 1968 than an attempt at realism. But credit where credit is due, at least they didn’t use claymation, which would have been as close to CGI as it came in those days. Okay, okay – it’s now time for me to admit that I’m still a huge fan of the movie. And, I know this is a “car” forum, but really, you can write ‘the car chase is probably the best (only?) reason to watch’ and mention Jacqueline Bisset in the same article?

    Saw the movie, and the chase, when I was 13. Gotta admit that aside from Ms. Bisset, I did not fully appreciate how good the entire movie was until I re-watched it in the 1980s. Solid, well-paced good
    guy/bad guy potboiler, complete with anti-hero. Well, maybe two or three anti-heros.

    No, it was an S code 390. A good friend of mine has a Highland Green ’68 GT with the J code 302, which was a one year phenomenon from Ford. It looks just like the Bullitt car and was actually featured in a video about the movie car, but it is 88 c.i. and a whole lot of engine block short of the actual animal.

    I don’t believe anyone on this anymore. My neighbor in Evergreen Park, Ill showed a ’68 Shelby Cobra in my alley. Mike had a really nice garage/shop. He removed the Shelby Cobra engine. It was sitting on the floor in the corner. I sat in the passenger seat. A brass plaque on the dash, where a glove box would normally be. This car didn’t have a glove box. “This car designed & built for the movie “Bullitt” starring Steve McQueen, by Warner Brothers”. Or something close to that. Mike put a new V-8 in it. Mike told me Steve McQueen crashed into a ditch, and smashed the outside air louvers, on the rear sides of the car. He had new ones (blue), already fastened to the car. Mike said he was about to paint it 2 qts purple, to 1 qt blue. So I’m wondering… What’s the real truth? Seems like most guys want to say something, because it gives THEM “knowledge credits”. “I know for a fact!” “I seen it… I was THERE!”. After a while, you lose interest. Everyone wants credit, cause THEY were right. THEY KNOW the story. I don’t believe anybody anymore. People are full of crap. I think it’s time to scroll right by everything now. People are so full of lies & deception.

    A few years ago, prior to COVID, this movie was released to theaters in the U.S. for a few weeks. I did not see it in original release, but the effect on the big screen was vastly enhanced from watching my DVD on my television. I took my sons to see it with me, and we literally felt our stomachs go up and down on those hills. It was way better than at home.
    The location shooting in San Francisco, back when the town was exciting to visit, and clean, makes this film great still today. -RDM

    With all due respect to Bullitt, the French Connection, the Italian Job, and all the other movies with outstanding car chases, no discussion of the best movie car chases is complete without mentioning H.B. Halicki’s original Gone In 60 Seconds. If you want realism, Halicki shot most of the 40 minute chase scene on public roads that were still open to the public.

    I agree about “Gone in 60 Seconds” as the original Eleanor was a survivor even with some of the unplanned moments that went sideways and almost ended the chase/movie prematurely. It never gets the love it should even though it was one of the best indies of it’s time. Just like the car movie “Used Cars” never get the accolades it deserved but is still a great watch.

    When you watch Ronin, you just know that Frankenheimer had to be the Director. He had several Formula 1 drivers behind the wheels during the action in Paris and Nice.

    The Blues Brothers has the two greatest chase scenes ever filmed, one of them is through a mall for Christ’s sake, not Bullitt or any other movie has ever come close.
    And as a bonus John Wayne’s son Ethan Wayne is a stuntman in it, credited as John E Wayne (Ethan is really his middle name).

    Just a small error to correct, the Charger RT’s would have been 440’s, not 400’s. Still, I am a huge fan of the movie and I believe that that era of Chargers and fastback Mustangs have their high valuation in the market to thank in a large part to their place in this iconic film.

    I was a 17 year old in high school when Bullitt came out. My car was in the shop so I asked my Dad if I could use his car (a 66K engine code Mustang GT) and he let me take it for the night without asking what movie I was going to see. Needless to say, I was a couple of hours past my curfew because I wanted to allow for some time for his car to ‘cool down’ before going home.
    I hope that they don’t ruin the remake by utilizing current special effects but, that’s probably not a realistic expectation if recent remakes are any indication.

    Going to be interesting to see what they use if they remake the chase, a Mustang and a Charger would be nice. Will they go over the top with a top of the line performance Mustang and a Hellcat, or will they keep it a little more realistic?

    Two (relatively) recent movies with multiple incredible chase scenes, Ronin, and Baby Driver, are right up there with “OMG-thats-not-CGI!” car chases. Bullitt set the bar high, but I would argue that both of these films (especially since each film has two edge-of-the-seat chases) clear the bar.

    If you really want to dig into the production of the movie, check out the book titled Bullitt: The Cars and People Behind Steve McQueen by CarTeck Books.

    I hope and pray they do a chase scene and anyone that suggests they use a Mach-e should be drawn and quartered. Blasphemy! This should be a Mustang GT or Shelby against a Charger. Period.

    Agree, an E Mustang would be like Maverick flying an electric Cessna in the remake. You need noise and screeching tires.

    Agree completely! Have owned numerous Mustangs over the years and could not believe Ford would disgrace the name and legend with an EV car!!! Very disappointed!!!

    Yes on using a Mustang, NO on using an E Mustang.

    Had to laugh out loud when McQueen said they were out of brakes. Lost the brakes a few times on my patrol car and it gets a bit uneasy.l

    I noted the last time I watched many of the chase scenes were of the same corner using different camera angles. Still a great chase and I did enjoy the whole movie.

    I have no excitement for a new “Bullitt” movie. Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with anything these days it seems. Also who needs a reboot/remake? Do something new. Spielberg was once capable of that.

    You men/women keep forgetting that Spielberg is NOT remaking the movie “Bullitt”!! All that Spielberg is gonna do, is make a NEW movie and the main character is Frank Bullitt. It’s probably gonna be about a totally new assignment for Bullitt.

    In the mid 1970s, I was working at a motion picture equipment rental company in San Francisco. We rented some camera gear to a Korean production company who were, unbeknown to us, making a low-budget knock-off of “Bullitt”. A few days later the two German Arriflex cameras came back to us in many, many pieces in two paper shopping bags. They had apparently hired somewhat less than experienced drivers to do a McQueen-style jump over two cameras sitting on the street; one pointing uphill, one pointed down. The picture car landed squarely on top of the pair of Arri cameras, squashing them into bits and then careened on down the hill, slamming into several privately owned parked cars whose owners had no idea what was coming for them. Much cash flowed and the production beat a hasty retreat out of town.

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