The star of arguably the most famous car chase in movie history

When you think about famous car chases in movies, the classic footage of a dark green Mustang jumping up and down San Francisco’s hills in pursuit of a stoic, black Dodge Charger will most certainly roll in your memory. One of the two Mustangs used by the late Steve McQueen in that movie, ’Bullitt,’ has been found and it looks just as cool now as it did back in 1968.

Movie cars have always had a special aura surrounding them. Think about the DeLorean DMC-12 used in the ’Back To The Future’ trilogy. For all intents and purposes, John Z. DeLorean’s attempt at a supercar was laughable, although it did look the part. But, once it shone on the silver screen as a time-traveling machine, its place in history was forever assured. Same goes for the Dodge Monaco used by the Blues Brothers or Herbie, the cute Volkswagen Beetle that appeared in ’The Love Bug.’ Same goes for the Ford Mustang GT Fastback that was used by Steve McQueen’s character, Lt. Frank Bullitt, in the movie of the same name.

However, the Highland Green 2-door Fastback has become a cult classic also, in part, due to the mystique that shrouded it. There were, actually, two cars used during filming: one for all the action shots and one that was driven by McQueen during the more serene moments o the film. That car, chassis #8R02S125559, was thought to have been lost after McQueen failed to buy it in the late ’70s. Happily, now, both cars have been relocated, so the story does have a happy ending.

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Exterior

  • 1 of 2 orignal 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback used in Bullitt
  • original movie modifications remain
  • American Racing Equipment Torq Thrust rims
  • Some black exterior elements for screenplay
  • Highland Green paint job was scuffed to give it a more matte appearance
1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Exterior
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Many consider that 'Bullitt', the movie that sent this 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback into the embracing arms of history, is a movie that's only worth watching if you enjoy seeing footage of San Francisco in the late '60s or if you're a car guy, and you want to see two muscle cars going at it on the winding streets of the City by the Bay.

But, the truth is that ’Bullitt’ is a much more influential production. As a matter of fact, the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress referred 11 years ago to the film as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

It was co-produced by McQueen’s Solar Productions company, the leading character being heavily based on real-life San Francisco inspector Dave Toschi, one of the people instrumental in the investigation of the Zodiac Killer murders that took place shortly after ’Bullitt’ hit the theaters. But we’re not here to talk movie history or discuss cinematography in general. The car used by Lt. Bullitt in the movie is what interests me, and you so let’s go over its history briefly.

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Exterior
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This car, along with its identical sister, were bought by Warner Brothers in March of 1968 for use in the movie. They’d been built in January of that same year at the San Jose, California plant and received the GT equipment group, the extra cooling package as well as the now-legendary Highland Green exterior color. The two cars were then modified by Max Balchowsky who did all of the wizardries under the skin as well as removing the badges, painting the fuel cap black, removing the reverse lights and fitting the American Racing Equipment Torq Thrust mag wheels. The car that was unveiled next to the 2018 Ford Mustang Bullitt is chassis ’559, the car that wasn’t used and abused during filming and which remains under the same ownership since 1974.

Up front, the Bullitt Mustang has the emblematic black mesh grille with the chromed bar that elegantly frames it.

The two extra lights positioned inboard within the grille weren’t optioned on the Bullitt cars so the only lights beside the two outboard ones are the indicators placed in the lower apron. There’s more chrome at the front with the two, slim, vertical bumper over riders, the chromed windshield frame, wipers and the grille below the windshield. The hood has two U-shaped air inlets that sit on each side of the crease that runs down the middle.

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Exterior
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The front bumper slightly wraps around the corners of the car, coming in just above two indicators placed in front of the front wheel wells. The wheel wells themselves lack the subtle chromed bar seen on other ’68 Mustang Fastbacks although even the Bullitt cars have the polished bar along the rocker panels, the chromed window frames and the fake vertical air vent on the rear quarter panel, in between the two creases on the side of the car.

The Fastback version of the Mustang is distinguishable through its swooping rear with the less angled rear window. The B-pillar is adorned with back-facing louvered air vents. There are some red side indicators at the back too.

The rear of the Bullitt Mustang is quite simple.

There are the customary six-piece taillights, three on either side, wrapped within the confines of the upper trim element that follows the top edge of the rear fascia and the thick rear bumper that incorporates in the profile of the rear center panel.

You can see that the gas cap was chromed during a restoration process, but the chromed was peeled away to reveal the original black paint applied in 1968 by Balchowsky. Below the bumper, there are the two exhaust pipes exiting on either side of the number plate.

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Exterior
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The car as seen at the 2018 NAIAS is in rough - but highly original - state. The rear bumper is rusted, the body has a multitude of scuffs, tears and even signs of rust, but one can argue that the car should never be restored but, rather, preserved as a time capsule. Even the Torq Thrust D mag wheels are in poor shape, those up front barely suggesting they were once painted black. The car came from the factory with wide oval white sidewall nylon tires but later received Dunlop M-15 racing tires on the front and Firestone GP Indy Tires on the rear. Now, the car has Firestone rubber all around.

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Exterior Dimensions

Wheelbase 108 inches
Length 183.6 inches
Width 70.9 inches
Height 51.6 inches

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Interior

  • Factory black vinyl luxury bucket seats
  • Oringinal options Include AM radio, interior décor group, and deluxe seat belts
  • Shelby-type steering wheel
  • Most sound-deadening material removed
  • Hurst shifter
  • Holes for movie equipment remain
1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Interior
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The Bullitt Mustangs came with a number of interior upgrades including an AM radio and the interior décor group package. This package includes the woodgrain center panel on the dashboard and the glove box, the trims on the door panels, an overhead console with map lights and extra buttons on the sides of the seats.

The original steering wheel that came with this package was exchanged for a Shelby Mustang wheel with the rim wrapped in black leather rather than the wood you usually see.

Behind the three-spoke dished steering wheels are the tachometer and odometer placed on either side of the steering column and surrounded by a yellow frame. Three more gauges sit above while the AM radio is placed in a recessed position in the lower part of the center stack. The original shifter was replaced by the second owner of the car, one Frank Marranca of New Jersey, with a Hurst shifter. The car as it stands today’s also has the two aftermarket speakers installed by Robert Kiernan, the father of the car’s current owner, who bought it from Marranca in 1974 through a misspelled ad in the October issue of Road & Track.

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Interior
- image 810675
What's interesting is that most of the sound deadening inside has been removed during filming which made for a pretty interesting driving experience with the loud straight exhaust shaking the pavement underneath.

The Kiernans used the car as a daily driver after they purchased it in 1974. Their son, Sean, says that his parents didn’t have another car - the Bullitt Mustang was their only car.

He recounts the incredible story of his mom using the car to get to her job back in the ’70s and ’80s. What was her job? Well, she was a third-grade teacher at a parish. The car was also driven by the family to New York and Maine and, by the time it was parked, it had racked up 46,000 miles.

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Drivetrain

  • 6.4-liter V-8
  • 320 horsepower
  • 427 pound-feet of torque
  • Engine was modified with race equipemt before filming
  • Borg-Warner T-10 heavy-duty transmission
  • Helwig stabilizers front and rear
  • Koni shocks
  • Heavy-duty coil springs
  • Reinforced shock mounts and new cross beam support bar
  • Straight-pipe Exhaust
1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Drivetrain
- image 810673

The Ford Mustang received the meaty 6.4-liter V-8 engine in 1967 and, for 1968, it was part of the S-code package. From the factory, it put out 320 (sometimes over 330) horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 427 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm.

With a curb weight of about 2,800 pounds, the Mustang GT Fastback with the 390 engine in it had a top speed of 105 mph and covered the quarter mile in under 14 seconds.

All that sounds respectable for the standards that were up 50 years ago but, apparently, the Charger proved faster thanks to its 50 extra horsepower. True, it was awful when you had to take a turn, but it went quicker in a straight line. That’s why the two Mustangs used in the movie had their engines rebuilt with milled cylinder heads, modified the ignition, and carburetors as well as more potent camshafts.

What is more, the original 4-speed manual was disposed of and a Borg-Warner T-10 heavy-duty transmission with a heavy-duty Borg-Warner clutch was put in its place. It also had a 4:10 Positraction rear end with heavy-duty universal joints. Balchowsky, who prepared the cars, was careful to add as much structural rigidity as possible. That’s why the cars have reinforced shock mounts and a cross beam support bar as well as reinforced frame members.

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Exterior
- image 810432

The suspension was also attended to with Koni shocks over heavy-duty coil springs coming in handy on the hilly San Francisco. Helwig stabilizers were put at both ends, and behind the front Torq Thrust D wheels, there were disc brakes.

It's not clear how much faster the Bullitt Mustangs became but it's clear that they had at least 30 horsepower on a stock version and could go faster and corner better.

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Specifications

Engine: 6.4-liter, naturally-aspirated, V-8
Output (stock): 320-335 horsepower at 4,800 RPM
Torque 427 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm
Performance (stock): Top speed of 105 mph and a quarter mile time of 13.9 seconds
Transmission (on Bullitt cars): 4-speed heavy-duty Borg-Warner gearbox with Borg-Warner clutch
Suspension (on Bullitt cars): Heavy-duty coil springs with Koni shocks, and Helwig stabilizer bars
Weight: Under 2,800 pounds
Brakes: disc brakes up front with drums at the rear

Final Thoughts

1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Exterior
- image 810427

The 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback in its Bullitt attire is a legendary motor car. That’s why chassis ’559 was included by the Historic Vehicle Association in the National Historic Vehicle Register, in partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Historic American Engineering Record. It’s the 21st vehicle to be part of this register that only looks for ultra-significant vehicles.

You may not like the movie because of its lackluster plot and may have also gotten bored of seeing the car chase - although that’s almost a heresy - but you can’t deny that the car is a legend in its own right and that it’s one of the coolest Mustangs ever built, up there with the Shelbys, the Hurst and the Mach 1. However, there are only two Bullitt cars which makes this example that much more valuable with some saying that it’s worth as much as $4,000,000, although Sean Kiernan has got no plans to part ways with the car and that’s, I think, a great thing for what was considered to be the long-lost Bullitt Mustang. Let’s wait and see what will happen with the beater ’558 that was discovered last year in California.

Further reading

OG 1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt Shows Up Alongside 2019 Mustang Bullitt; Gets Inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register Exterior
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Read our full review on the 2018 Ford Mustang Bullitt

2008 Ford Mustang Bullitt
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Read our full review on the 2008 Ford Mustang Bullitt

Michael Fira
Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert -
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read full bio
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