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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    Yes, the Mustang popping up in the Charger’s rear view mirror is definitely one of my favorite dramatic moments ever!

    I’m glad someone above actually enjoyed the whole movie. Upon seeing it again decades later, for me the only reason was the chase. Bradley Cooper is a nice-looking young man, but he ain’t no Steve McQueen. Still, like James Bond after Sean Connery, maybe they can make a few bucks off a new franchise – not, however from me.

    In that chase the two hitmen in the Charger would have gotten away when the Mustang skidded into the dirt road. I could never understand how it caught up with the Charger . As you may have figured out I was hoping the hitmen would have gotten away:-(

    A remake of any kind is not needed. I have never seen a remake/ reboot that has been as good or better than the original. Remember the remake of “Vanishing Point” with Viggo Mortensen? Different cars and a different plot altogether. I saw a great license plate frame on a 1966 Charger that stated ” Real Chargers only have 2 doors”. Can’t see a remake with a new mustang and a 4 door Charger. Another great chase scene is from “The Driver” with Ryan O’Neill. Steve McQueen turned down an offer to do this movie saying he had already done a car chase movie and wanted to do something else.

    Rewatch the scene and notice the array of interesting now “collector” cars in the background. .. at the time , merely someone’s daily driver. My family gets annoyed when we watch any older movie and I point out vehicles.
    Also have to add that in Ronin , there was a great E34 M5 drive towards the end.

    A friend of mine, that worked at a garage near the scene where the Dodge crashed, was able to buy it from the production company. He parted it out for the engine and trans. There are enough details, in how and what he did to make the deal, to write an interesting story by itself.

    I may have my movies crossed, but I seem to remember when the Charger & Mustang were sitting side by side just as the chase was to begin. Didn’t Steve McQueen pull a knob on the dash & uncork the cutouts on the headers? Then the chase was on.

    Couldn’t care less what they do with the rest of the film but for the chase sequence itself, I sorta hope they try to recreate it frame by frame. Anything else will surely disappoint the majority of us who would be watching the movie only for that scene. They cannot improve upon the greatest of all time.

    I like the chase scene. Its entertaining. There’s no denying that. But it is faaaaaaaaar from the best chase scene out there. I would argue that the best chase is pretty much the entire second half of the original ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’. The movie is awful, but the chase is nonstop and H.B. Haliki’s spin compressed 2″ from the big jump that buckled the car in half. Bullit does have the best soundtrack with the GT-40 overdubbed for the exhaust of the Mustang.

    I have an authentic ’68 “Bullitt” 390 Highland Green Mustang, and several years ago drove it on all of Route 66 to Los Angeles, up the coast through San Francisco to Seattle, and back to the East Coast. While in SFO, I was told by locals that “There is no ‘Bullitt’ Mustang in San Francisco, and if you come here to live and bring your car, you will be A GOD!” Hmmmmmm…… With the new movie on the horizon, I am thinking about it…..

    We got lots of pics of the Mustang at all of the car chase locations, and in front of Frank Bullitt’s apartment. Perhaps my favorite shot was of the TV dinners stacked up, waiting for him, in a tiny grocery store that is still across the street from his apartment!

    The shade of Steve McQueen smiled.

    Let’s leave well enough alone. I still think that the original Bullitt chase sequence is the best one EVER … hands down. There is no mistaking the realism … no computer generated effects … and who can top the sound of real old school Detroit muscle ? I’m willing to bet that if some of our younger gearhead guys were to watch it they would also be thrilled.

    Grew up in San Mateo and used to go to the Hyatt House pool in Burlingame where they filmed the hotel scenes. Very cool to see a movie where I knew all the locations.

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