Car Movies – Bullitt

In an earlier post Bullitt was one of several movies on my “Car Movies” list.  It is there as not only one of the top car movies yet, but it is a model for what makes a movie appropriate for a “Car Movies” listing. 

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The most important characteristic of its car chase scenes is that they are believable.  The director, Peter Yates, was chosen because Steve McQueen had liked his previous work, “the Robbery”, and in particular, its realism.  It was the end of the sixties and the blind faith in the government of the post-WWII era had morphed into cynicism and suspicion.  McQueen wanted believable amounts of reality in his films.

 

San Francisco was unlike Los Angeles in that it bent over backward to accommodate the movie production.  To allow a car chase to be filmed where speeds would exceed 100 miles per hour on public roads was a first.  It was not a trivial task to set up, rehearse, and execute the chase scenes.  The editing of the chase delivers everything that it should and, as an audience, you are not distracted by the lapses in continuity. 

The stars are the cars.  The production used two 1968 Highland Green Mustang GT’s with 390 V8 engines, and three 1968 Dodge Charger RTs with 440 engines.  While the Mustangs went through several modifications the Charger was left basically stock.  With Bill Hickman driving they kept putting smaller tires on the Charger so McQueen’s Mustang could keep up.

 

Bill Hickman was the best stunt driver in the world at that time and also could act.  Not that he had what could be called a speaking role, but his double take when Bullitt’s Mustang appears in the Charger’s rear view mirror was perfect.  Hickman also had the look of a hit man, along with Paul Genge as the white haired, shotgun wielding assassin.  Paul was in reality not familiar with firearms and scared to death to be in the car during the filming of the chase scenes.  Word is they filled him with tranquilizers and shoved him back in the car.

 

Bill Hickman would later be in the movie “Seven Ups” and “French Connection”, and I remember him playing a uniformed guard in an episode of Outer Limits.  Hickman was a very cool driver, just as calm as he looked in the film. He could drive a car and place it where ever you needed it and duplicate the feat as often as you needed it done.

The Mustangs were stripped of the fog lights and trim in the middle of the grill, the rocker panel were painted body color, the white “C” stripes were removed from the sides, and MUSTANG lettering was removed from the rear.  McQueen added some dents and dings to make the car look believable.  Max Balchowsky prepared both the Mustangs and the Chargers.  He focused first on the suspension of the Mustang,   He reinforced the shock towers, adding cross members (what we would call strut tower braces today), upgrading the springs for higher rate versions.  You can see some shots of the Mustang with the stock springs when Bullitt is driving to his apartment at1153 Taylor Street

The stock shocks were replaced with Koni shocks and the subframe was braced considerably.  The A-arms were Magnafluxed and reinforced as well.  The engine’s top end also received some modifications.  The heads were milled for increased compression, headers were added along with a high performance ignition and the stock carburetor was re-worked.  The exhaust sound you hear in the movie is the real thing.  The sound was, for the most part, recorded during filming with only a few gaps that were filled in by taking the cars to the race track and recording the sounds there.  The interior was basically stock as was the shifter.  Steve had the steering wheel replaced with a Carrol Shelby model and had the wood rim covered in black leather. 

The Chargers had the torsion bars in the front end upgraded to a higher rate and the rear leaf springs were swapped out for police model springs that raised the spring rate without raising the ride height.  The engine was left basically stock.

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The third car in the chase scenes was the camera car.  It was a modified Corvette with basically no body and an area behind the driver where a camera and operator sat.  The driver was Pat Houstis and Bill Fraker operated the camera.  Pat designed and built the camera car.

Special effects?  No computer generated graphics anywhere here.  When Bill Hickman’s Charger understeered into a camera as he went around a corner you see it all up until he smashed the camera.  McQueen followed and understeered so badly he had to back up and take the corner again.  Showing clearly that the Mustang didn’t have posi-traction.  There are two notable special effects none the less.  One is the breaking of the Mustang windshield by the shotgun blast from the Charger.  That was accomplish by some chain balls that strike the windshield at precisely the perfect time.  The other effect of the Mustang bumping the Charger off the road and into the gasoline pumps.  This was done by creating a tow rig where the Mustang was hooked to the Charger until it was released at just the right moment.  Almost the right moment anyway.  The Charger missed the gas station, but brilliant editing and pyrotechnic work ensured that it looked as it should.  The movie’s film editor received a well deserved Oscar for his work.

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The nine minute, forty-two second chase sequence continues to galvanize viewers and allows teenage boys (of all ages and both sexes) to see their fantasy of racing through city streets on the big screen.

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27 Responses to Car Movies – Bullitt

  1. Noel says:

    It’s still one of the best car chase scenes in movie history. Maybe THE best.

    It was real, no computer effects (they didn’t exist in 1968-69) and it was shot so you could almost feel the cars go airborne over the cross streets. It was wild and over the top–not the carefully choreographed chases we see today where at least half the stuff defies the laws of physics, is shot with a green screen or otherwise faked.

    Every time I go to San Francisco I think of that chase. I’ve driven on most of the streets they used and doing that at up to 100 mph must have been outrageous. And a real rush!

    A close contender is the train chase under the New York El in The French Connection, but nothing really beats the chase in Bullitt.

  2. jimsgarage says:

    Post Script – Bill Hickman was a good friend of James Dean and was driving the Ford station wagon that was sometimes used to tow the race car. Bill was the first on the scene of the acident that killed James Dean.

    A rare personal quote from Bill on his friendship with Dean: “In those final days, racing was what he cared about most. I had been teaching him things like how to put a car in a four-wheel drift, but he had plenty of skill of his own. If he had lived he might have become a champion driver. We had a running joke, I’d call him Little Bastard and he’d call me Big Bastard. I never stop thinking of those memories.”

    In another interview with James Dean expert Warren Beath, Hickman is quoted as saying “We were about two or three minutes behind him. I pulled him out of the car, and he was in my arms when he died, his head fell over. I heard the air coming out of his lungs the last time. Didn’t sleep for five or six nights after that, just the sound of the air coming out of his lungs.”

    • Darrel says:

      This is true about James Dean, Bill was my Uncle. He told me many stories about the movie and others, We saw this movie together at the local downtown theater. He also doubled for George C. Scott in Patton and did stunts in it. He did Capricorn one to with James Brolin. Can you imagine I would sit in the passenger seat when he would drive around town but I never felt scared.

  3. dave says:

    All I am saying is BEST CAR CHASE EVER!!!

  4. william b hickman says:

    My dad would have loved this. Stuntmen were “behind the scenes” and often overlooked, but without the chase in Bullitt, would anybody still be talking about the movie today? That was as real as it gets, not the sped up, dubed over, c.g., stuff we see now.
    By the way, there were four different people who drove the Mustang during filming, there was only one who drove the Charger!

    • Mark Walbridge says:

      Your Dad so so good in Bullit! So good that I have spent a lot of time tracking down who that icy cool hitman driver was in the movie. I have viewed that chase scene so many times! I am now almost 57 yrs. old and retired now for 18 years as a West Coast NASCAR driver. I would have loved to have met your dad. I wish you all the very best!

    • Fran Alongi says:

      Just saw Bullitt again recently and wondered about Bill Hickman. Couldn’t find any personal info on him (married, children, siblings, etc.) Didn’t know he had a son. So sorry to hear that he died of cancer. Can you share any more info on your dad. I’ve become a real fan.

  5. jimsgarage says:

    Thanks William for those appropriate comments. I was wondering what it must have been like for you during the “driver education” days with a father that had the skills and abilities that he did.

  6. Roy says:

    Are any of the mustangs used in the movie still around(thought there was three or four), if so what collection and or what museam, like to see one

  7. jimsgarage says:

    The best information I have obtained on the Mustangs used in the movie Bullitt is that there were two. They were both beefed up considerably but one was beated up so bad from all the jumps that it had to be crushed. The other one was first sold by the studio to someone in the editing department. That one was sold in the early 70’s via an ad in the LA Times. The buyer was on the east coast. In 1977 it popped up in a classified ad in Road & Track. Steve McQueen called the NJ number and found the car had all ready been sold. He got the number of the new owner, but they would not sell. It was then moved to storage in Ohio Valley. It was actually seen there and the VIN numbers were confirmed. Later it was moved to Tenn. It is said that it has about 60,000 miles on it and some damage, but certainly restorable to “movie condition”. Who knows when it will ever been seen in public.

    FYI the vin numbers of the original cars (according to Ford) were: 8R02S125558 & 8R02S125559

  8. Does anyone know if any of the Dodge Chargers survived, and if so where are they and who owns them?

  9. jimsgarage says:

    That’s a very good question Ronald. There has been so much focus on the Mustang that I haven’t heard any information on the Charger. I’ll see what I can dig up – but if anyone out there has the story feel free to let us know.

    Jim

  10. Pingback: Movie Quotes » Car Movies - Bullitt Jim’s Garage

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  12. captianron01 says:

    I loved the movie and the cars what happened to the Corvette camera car. It had to be faster than either the Mustang or the Charger but you don’t hear much about it .

  13. Peter Majkut says:

    Yesterday, Friday Dec 19th ,2008 I heard that one of the 68 Charger movie cars was found. It was the one that was used along with the Corvette for some camera shots . It apparently has the holes in it for the camera mounts. After watching Steve McQueens “Comittment To Reality” I did notice a 68 Charger missing it’s trunk lid and a camera mounted in the back. Thus the possible validity of the story I heard.
    So a question remains, if it truely was found, where is it now?

  14. JR says:

    I wondered about the two chargers used if any survived. The info I found was, one of the chargers was destroyed in the gas station explosion, the other I heard is being restored. It was orignally yellow, then sprayed black, then sprayed back to its yellow color again when the scene was done and sold on a lot. I read it from a guy who found the article in mopar collectors guide. Who knows if thats the truth or not.

  15. arnold welch says:

    I have the Bullitt Charger its being restored to its movie looks in Tucson, AZ. It will be showed at mopar car shows next year – 2010.

  16. Pingback: The Missing Bullitt Charger « Jim’s Garage

  17. Randy says:

    The chase was actually sped up, when they are jumping the hills you can see a man walking down the hill on the upper left, he is walking unusually fast and funny.

  18. jesse says:

    Hey Great web tribute site to Bullitt. I just brought Bullitt on i tunes. I got the car chase sceen theme on my i phone then cant help it sometimes id listen to metellica ac dc, areosmith, or heavy metal ozzy and then watch the car chase sceen on my head phones.

    Bill Hickman deserves to be in the Hall of fame. I am working on a stuntdriving web page. When I’m done I will add Bill Hickman. As soon as its finished I’ll Post the link.

    Anyone heard of stuntdriver Spanky Spangler? He’s another cool cat whos branded me as the worlds greatest daredevil fan and wants everyone to know it. I am from Corpus Christi, TX. I’m 32 and got intrested in the film around 1993 when I was in sixth grade. My dad first showed me the car chase scene when they showed it on TBS.

    Thanks for creating this web page. I do know Bill was friends with the legendary James Dean, too. Bill Hickman was in the Seven Ups, the French Connection, had a roll in the Man from Uncle as well. He had an AWSOME Personality in the Seven Ups

    Jesse Hale 3rd
    Corpus Christi Tx South Tx Thanks again

  19. Pingback: "The Making of Bullitt" - SVTPerformance

  20. Zach says:

    FYI the Bullitt Mustangs were NOT GTs, they were standard fastbacks. Look at the rear valance panel – no notches for the dual exhaust. GTs had notched valance panels. The cars were equipped with “390 GT” engines, which undoubtedly has confused many people.

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