The Truth Behind The Bullitt Car Chase

The car chase in the 1968 movie ‘Bullitt’ took three weeks to film and lasted nine minutes and 42 seconds on screen. Forty-two years on, it still stands as the iconic movie chase of all time; others have tried to better it but as yet, nobody has.

Two 1968 390 CID (Cubic Inches Displacement) V8 Ford Mustangs were provided for Warner Brothers use. Ford also lent two Ford Galaxies to be chased. However, these cars were too heavy to be jumped over the hill crests in San Fancisco – their suspension kept breaking. So, two 1968 440 CID Dodge Chargers were bought outright from Glendale Dodge in California for the movie.

The now-legendary cars couldn’t be used unmodified. The Dodge Chargers were fast enough as standard but needed suspension upgrades to cope with the demands of stunt work. The Mustangs needed more work. Veteran car racer Max Balchowsky modified the Fords’ engines, brakes and suspensions; all four cars were each fitted with a full roll cage.

Steve McQueen was a highly accomplished driver and wanted to do all his own stunt driving. However, the production depended on McQueen’s remaining alive and undamaged. So stunt co-ordinator Carey Loftin hired famed stuntman Bud Ekins to perform the more dangerous stunts in the Mustangs. Ekins was the man who was actually aboard the fence-jumping motorcycle in ‘The Great Escape’. The black Chargers were driven by Bill Hickman, who played one of the hitmen in ‘Bullitt’.

What makes the Bullitt car chase so memorable? Many would say its reality. Director Peter Yates was looking for speeds of around 75 to 80 mph. In the event the cars, including those with cameras running inside, reached over 110 mph at times. The car-mounted cameras were fixed solidly to the cars’ roll cages, adding to the ‘feel’ the footage creates for its viewers.

The street scenes were real, the tyre smoke was real and so was much of the San Francisco traffic. But not all of the soundtrack was genuine. The full-blast V8 engine sounds came from a GT40, Ford’s four-times Le Mans winning racing car.

Both the Dodge Chargers were scrapped after filming, as was one of the stunt Mustangs. A Warner Brothers employee bought the surviving Mustang. This car reappeared in New Jersey some years later and Steve McQueen tried to buy it but the owner decided it wasn’t for sale. It was last seen in a barn in the Ohio River Valley.

In this age of computer-generated imagery, the Bullitt car chase stands head and shoulders above rivals, even those predating it. The only way to see pixels in this chase is to watch it from a digital source. Perhaps there will be a worthy contender one day but it really should be filmed in an equally real way…with no digital help.


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