Updated: Apr 2, 2022
There were a few movies in 1968 that prominently featured cars. "The Love Bug" was a Walt Disney comedy about a Volkswagen Beetle race car that had a mind of its own. "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" was a G-rated Dick Van Dyke movie with a Roald Dahl screenplay based on an Ian Fleming novel about a broken-down Grand Prix car from the early 1900s that, given some TLC, is able to fly.
And then there was "BULLITT", an M-rated movie (the precursor to GP, later PG) where the car (a 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback 2+2 in Highland Green with the 335 horsepower, 390 cubic inch Thunderbird Special V8 and a four-speed manual transmission, stock except for having its badges removed, a set of American Racing mag wheels and a white cue-ball shifter added) also flew, but only because Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen, this Steve McQueen) was at the wheel, chasing a couple of very bad guys all over San Francisco.
It's a 52-year-old film. I can no longer assume you've seen "BULLITT", so here's the basic plot:
McQueen plays Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco Police Lieutenant who wears dark turtlenecks under a sportcoat instead of a suit and tie and skips the four-door unmarked car from the SFPD motor pool in favor of his own ride, the aforementioned '68 Mustang. He's been assigned by a politically ambitious district attorney (played by Robert Vaughn) to guard a witness in a mob trial in the least secure hotel imaginable. When Frank is relieved from the first watch, the witness unlatches the door and bad guys with shotguns blow him and the cop guarding him away.
Except the witness lives and Frank is all that stands between them and finishing the job, so they need to take him out. Which leads to the ten minutes that made"BULLITT" famous---a zero-dialogue chase between him and the hitmen (in a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T):
Whether or not you agree that's the best chase scene ever (1998's "Ronin" with Robert DeNiro is also a contender), it's beyond good. No CGI, no "we'll fix it in post" stuff (as witnessed by the constant re-appearance of that green VW Beetle---which is really four different camera angles of the same moment of the chase edited out of sequence---the bad edit at 4:08 where the Charger hits the parked car and then disappears and the parked car isn't damaged, and the fact that the Charger loses SIX hubcaps in the course of the chase).
It helps that the hitman driving the Charger was in fact legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman, and that Steve McQueen himself was a good enough driver to be able to show him at the wheel often enough in the chase scene to be convincing (McQueen actually did about ten percent of the driving).
Which means that when you see that Mustang, you think of McQueen, and to some extent (he did 45 movies in a career cut short by cancer at the age of 50), when you see McQueen, you think of "BULLITT" and that Mustang.
Two identical '68 Mustang GTs were used in filming, and miraculously, both survived. One, the stunt car, had it rougher both on camera and in the decades after (it was discovered as a junked hull in Mexico), and is being restored, though original parts of that exact car are long-gone.
The "hero" car, the one that was used for the scenes that didn't involve suspension-destroying jumps and body damage, is no creampuff, either, but it's intact. It was sold twice between 1968 and 1974---both times for $3,500---and then disappeared from sight.
The car's owner, Robert Kiernan, kept it under wraps for more than 40 years. He passed away and his son, Sean, thought it was time to share it with the world, first at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where it was on display as part of the launch of the current-generation Mustang BULLITT.
But that was just the opening shot. In January of this year, Kiernan put the "BULLITT" hero car up for auction at the Mecum Kissimmee, Florida event:
Three-point-four million dollars ($3,740,000 including buyer fees). The most expensive Mustang ever sold---for six months, anyway, until a Shelby GT350R prototype driven by the late Ken Miles brought in $3,500,000 ($3,800,000 with fees) last month at Mecum's Indianapolis auction.
On a retail level, Ford has found "BULLITT" to be a profitable association twice before. The first time was 2001, when they took a Mustang GT, nudged the horsepower from 260 to 265, painted it dark green, gave it a cue-ball shifter and some wheels that looked kinda like the movie car's. I drove one at the time. It was okay. That generation of Mustang looked nothing like a '68---the proportions were wrong, and the performance was not noticeably better than a regular Mustang GT.
The 2005 re-design of the Mustang changed everything---and made the 2008-2009 Ford Mustang BULLITT a lot more convincing, especially given that 315 horsepower was now on tap.
The current one---available only for 2019 and 2020? McQueen would approve, according to what his granddaughter, Molly McQueen told the crowd in this video when the car was unveiled at the 2018 Detroit show:
The current-gen Mustang is easily the meanest-looking since '68, so the Dark Highland Green (you can also get it in black) and the black wheels make it look positively sinister.
The only misstep is the huge "BULLITT" logo on what would have been the gas cap back in the day. It's repeated on the steering wheel, and (my opinion) is out of place in a car that is a tribute to a car that had been stripped of all its badges. Anyone who doesn't know what this car is without the logo won't understand even with it.
This one also packs, for the first time, more horsepower than McQueen had to play with---the 5.0-liter V8 is good for 480 horsepower---20 more than a non-BULLITT Mustang GT. Thank the throttle bodies and intake manifold from the 526-horsepower Mustang Shelby GT 350 for that jump. The EPA fuel economy average is fairly sobering---14 miles per gallon city, 23 highway. Your mileage may vary, and if you drive it like you really, deep down want to drive it, your mileage will be worse.
Other performance-enhancing standard equipment includes Brembo brakes, an active valve performance exhaust system with quad-tipped dual exhaust, a limited-slip rear axle and variable exhaust settings---Quiet (normal), Normal (really loud), Sport (was that an earthquake?) and Track (bring earplugs).
The base price of the 2020 Ford Mustang BULLITT is $46,705. The window sticker is at the end of this review so you can see the full list, but in addition to the performance pieces mentioned above, the standard equipment includes a 12-inch LCD digital instrument cluster, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather-trimmed seats, a rear-view camera and reverse sensing system and an eight-inch SYNC3 infotainment system, as well as a dash plaque showing your car's number in this limited run of cars.
Our test vehicle also had extra-cost options, including the BULLITT Electronics Package (blind spot information system with cross-traffic alert, an upgraded 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system with subwoofer, and navigation) for $2,100, and the Magne-Ride damping system for $1,695.
With those options, a $1,000 gas guzzler tax and $1,095 destination and delivery charges, the as-tested price of the 2020 Ford Mustang BULLITT is $52,595.
For the level of performance and features, it's a relative bargain. And on top of that, it's a limited edition---maybe 5,000 will be made for the entire two-year run (it's being replaced by a revival of the Mustang Mach 1 for 2021). Just don't expect to get $3.4 million for yours 52 years from now.
(Full disclosure: That theater is not showing "BULLITT". Fun with Photoshop.)