If you ask most gearheads what their favorite car movie is, you’re going to get a variety of answers.
Some, like me, a Mopar nut for life, would say the original Vanishing Point from 1971. Those who came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s would undoubtedly vote for American Graffiti for its sentimental recreation of their teen years. And I’d bet that most millennials would tell you that The Fast and the Furious is their jam. But ask these people for their top three car movies and you’ll likely find that a certain film from 1968 will figure in all their answers. Of course, I’m talking about the Steve McQueen classic, Bullitt.
The reason for this is simple, and it has nothing to do with McQueen’s coolness, Jacqueline Bisset’s ethereal beauty, or the backdrop of San Francisco during the height of its Haight Ashbury era. No, there is one clear basis for it, and it can be summed up in three words. THAT. CAR. CHASE.
Taking up ten minutes and fifty-three seconds of silver screen time, the pursuit through the streets of ‘Frisco redefined what a movie chase could be and made Bullitt an instant classic.
While countless articles have been written about its filming, the fact that McQueen did some of his own stunt driving, and the Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 that served as his steed in the film, relatively little has been penned about the other vehicle involved in the chase – the bad guys’ 1968 Dodge Charger R/T.
Well, that ends now because, in this iteration of Rob’s Movie Muscle, I’m gonna tell you all there is to know about that brutish black muscle car.
Are you with me? Cool, let’s do this!
Bullitt was a product of Steve McQueen’s production company, Solar Productions, and was distributed in the United States by Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. The film was directed by Peter Yates based on a screenplay that Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner adapted from Robert L. Fish’s novel Mute Witness.
In addition to McQueen and Bisset, the film co-starred Robert Vaughn, Don Gordon, Simon Oakland, and Bill Hickman. It also featured Robert Duvall, Vic Tayback, Joanna Cassidy, Suzanne Sommers, and Norman Fell in small roles.
For the half-dozen or so of you out there who have never seen the movie, the story revolves around a San Francisco Police detective, Frank Bullitt, who is tasked by a U.S. senator to protect a former mobster, Johnny Ross, for a weekend before he is due to testify against the Mafia in front of the Senate.
The protection detail goes awry when a pair of hitmen kill Ross in a seedy hotel where he is being guarded and wound Bullitt’s partner in the process. Bullitt takes it upon himself to conceal the hit from the Senator so that he has time to identify and apprehend the killers.
During the course of his investigation, Bullitt discovers that all is not how it seems with regard to Ross’ identity and intentions, and he then becomes the target of the hitmen.
The attempt on Bullitt’s life begins one hour and five minutes into the movie, and one sees the cop, in his iconic Mustang, being followed by a pair of shadowy figures in a black coupe. With some clever situational awareness and maneuvering, though, Bullitt turns the tables on the bad guys by surreptitiously positioning his Mustang behind them, and then the famous chase sequence is on.
From Bernal Heights, through the hilly streets of North Beach and Russian Hill, and ultimately culminating in Guadalupe Valley, Brisbane, Bullitt, and the hitman/driver match wits and driving skills, often defying potentially fatal accidents by mere inches. For true cinephiles like me, the fact that the chase took several weeks to film and was performed entirely with practical stunt work (nope, no CGI in those days) at speeds often exceeding 110 miles per hour makes the scene all the more glorious.
While we all know that Bullitt’s Mustang, mostly piloted by the film’s stunt coordinator Carey Loftin and stuntmen Loren Janes and Bud Elkins, ended up being the four-wheel star of the proceedings in the public’s mind, the hitmen’s car, certainly by today’s collector standards, is the true gem. And by gem, I mean one of the all-time classic Mopars of the Golden Era of muscle – a 1968 Dodge Charger.
McQueen and director Peter Yates had already decided upon the ’68 Mustang GT as the hero’s car when they turned their attention to what the hitmen should drive.
A number of cars were discussed, but the movie’s vehicle supervisor, Max Balchowsky, advocated strongly for the Charger so as to pit two different brands of muscle cars against each other. Bill Hickman, who would be doing all the stunt driving in the bad guys’ car and have an on-screen role as the hitman behind the wheel, agreed with the choice.
McQueen and Yates were on board with the selection, but apparently, Warner Brothers was not. This owing to an existing contract between the studio and Ford that existed at the time. After much wrangling, McQueen was able to convince Warner executives to see things his way, as he was the star of the film and his company was producing it.
With approval finally given, Hickman purchased two Chargers from Glendale Dodge in Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles (there are unverified rumors that a third Charger was purchased but not used in the film).
Although Yates called for the cars to be black to look sinister and symbolize the bad guys, Hickman settled for what the dealer had on the lot that met the specifications needed for filming. One car was a Yellow R/T, and the other a Medium Blue non-R/T, both with black interiors. Balchowsky had the cars painted black and then mechanically prepped the cars for filming.
“I hardly had to do anything to the Dodge’s engines,” recalled Balchowsky in 1987, “but what I was worried about was the strength of the front end.”
To mitigate any problems, Balchowsky strengthened the torsion bars and control arms and outfitted heavy-duty shocks to help the Charger survive the jumps required on San Francisco’s hilly streets.
“For the rearend, I got some special rear leaf springs with what you call a high spring rate — flat without any arch in it — and using that spring, the car would stay low,” Balchowsky asserted. “We did lose a lot of hubcaps on the Charger [as a result]”.
Of the two Chargers, the R/T was the one that was equipped for battle. It packed Mopar’s massive 375 horsepower, 440 cubic-inch Magnum V8 motor backed by a four-speed A-833 transmission and a beefy Dana 60 rear.
The non-R/T car was a bit more subdued in the mechanical department. This car is thought to have had a 383 cubic-inch V8 with a four-barrel carb good for 330 ponies and a TorqueFlite three-speed slushbox.
One would assume that the R/T would be the primary stunt car, owing to its huge output and better traction, but this was not the case. It was used primarily as the camera car — the go-to for close-up glamor shots and interior filming.
Likely because of its automatic transmission, which prevented Hickman from having to take a hand off the wheel to shift gears, combined with the fact that the 383 made for a much lighter and better-balanced car, the non-R/T car was the one that took all the bumps and bruises from the hardcore stunt work performed in the film.
Sharp-eyed viewers with an HD version of Bullitt can spot many differences between the cars that reveal which one was filmed in each shot.
For one thing, the camera and stunt cars wore different tires – the former fitted with wide Goodyear Custom Power Cushions, and the latter shod with standard, narrow F70-14s. Max Balchowski stated in an interview that Firestone lent the production some prototype radial tires, called F100s, to try out, but this is not established as fact.
The two Chargers also had different steering wheels, with the R/T camera car outfitted with a woodgrain wheel and the non-R/T stunt car making do with the standard one.
Most notably, in the scene at the car wash, an interior shot of the Charger reveals an automatic column shifter, while in most other interior sequences, you can catch a glimpse of the floor-mounted manual shifter. Another minute distinction is that the two cars had different exterior mirrors.
Interestingly, both cars were originally equipped with headrests, as evidenced by the escutcheons on the seat tops, yet in no shot of the film are headrests actually fitted. Likewise, both cars apparently had their front bumper guards removed, possibly because they interfered with camera mounts used to film the head-on chase shots.
The stunt car was ultimately destroyed while filming the climactic ending of the chase in which the Charger loses control and slams into a gas station, setting off a massive explosion. To achieve the shot, a rigging system was set up, allowing the Mustang to tow the Charger at 90 miles per hour. At a precise moment, the cable was cut, and the Charger was hurled into the station, where explosive charges were set off.
Only one take could be performed of the stunt, and in fact, the Charger actually missed hitting the building. Thankfully, multiple cameras at different angles were rolling, so the sequence was made convincing through deft editing.
The camera car survived the production and was returned to the dealer, who repainted it yellow and sold it. No one knew the whereabouts of the car until 2002 when Mopar fanatic Arnold Welch purchased a car in Arizona that he believed to be it and meticulously restored it to Bullitt spec.
Although definitive confirmation that this car was the camera car from the film has never been established, as Warner Brothers’ records have long since been lost, there were numerous indications that it was. These included yellow and black layers of paint discovered underneath the top coat and holes drilled for camera mounts found at various locations on the body.
Welch subsequently sold the car, and it was last known to be in the possession of a German dealership called Chrome Cars, which ran the car at the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed in England alongside the only known Mustang to have survived the shoot.
Here’s to hoping that it is indeed the real deal.