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50 Years of Bullitt: Remembering Film's Most Iconic Car Chase

We all know it. Steve McQueen tearing around the unmistakable streets of San Francisco in a roaring Mustang, leaping into the air down those steep inclines with tyres screeching around every corner. The classic film Bullitt celebrates its 50th anniversary in October 2018, so that’s half a century that cinema’s most iconic car chase has set pulses racing. 

How was Bullitt filmed? 

Apart from the cult status of legendary actor McQueen, one of the main reasons Bullitt and its car chase has remained so famous is because of the innovative way it was filmed. The movie filmed extensively out on location, rather than in a studio, and this full-blown realism brings the car chase to life. There were cameras in the cockpit right beside title character Frank Bullitt, giving viewers a real sense that they’re there in the thick of the action. Instead of music accompanying the scene, we get throaty engines, squealing tyres and frantic gear shifts for bonus realism. 

Adding to this is the use of pioneering camera angles to capture more elements of the chase than ever. Dash cam footage gives you the driver’s view of the road ahead, while camera mounts underneath the car provide a sense of the speeds being reached. It took three weeks to film the chase, and the result? Nine minutes and 42 seconds of high-octane pursuit. In many regards, Bullitt revolutionised the Hollywood standard for this kind of sequence. 

The ‘Stangs

There were two 1968 Mustangs used in the chase. Both cars were heavily modified for the film, including their V8 engines, brakes and suspension, to help them cope with the testing demands of the stunt work. The exteriors were also pared down for a stealthier appearance. One car that was driven by stuntmen was destroyed during filming and later found in a Mexican junk yard, while the other was mainly piloted by McQueen. 

The one the actor drove was sold through a classified ad in a car magazine in October 1974, before spending 44 years with the same family. It was used by a mother for the daily commute to her job as a teacher, before being kept in storage for a number of years. It has been restored to a degree, but it still bears the bumps and scrapes it picked up during filming, as well as the camera mounts that mark it out as a Hollywood star. The car returned to the streets of San Francisco 50 years after filming the iconic car chase, although it had a more relaxed experience than the last time it was in the Bay. 

Did you know? 

  • It’s claimed that the San Francisco Police Department was told that cars wouldn’t exceed speeds of 35mph during filming. The director actually called for maximum speeds of 80mph, but the cars in the film and those doing the filming clocked over 110mph at times. 
  • Despite his starring role, Steve McQueen only performed around 10% of the driving. Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin and stuntmen Bud Ekins and Loren James did the rest. 
  • As well as the two Mustangs, two Dodge Chargers were also used during filming. Their 375hp V8 engines were largely unmodified, but the brakes and suspension were upgraded to deal with the daring leaps and sharp turns. 
  • Bullitt was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound, while Frank P. Keller won an Academy Award for Film Editing. 
  • McQueen’s reverse burnout wasn’t actually part of the script. Rather, the actor made a wrong turn, but managed to produce one of the scene’s most memorable moments in the process. 
  • McQueen unsuccessfully tried to buy the surviving Mustang a few years after filming.