Mus­tang Bul­litt

Wel­come to movie land, where there’s a new Mus­tang in town. Time to re-live the great­est car chase cin­ema has ever seen... this is Bul­litt, reloaded

Top Gear (Malaysia) - - Contents - WORDS: JACK RIX / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: WEBB BLAND

There’s a new Mus­tang Bul­litt... what else could we do but hot­foot it to the streets of San Fran­cisco?

CHANCES ARE, YOU’VE SEEN THE 11–MINUTE CHASE SCENE BUL­LITT, FROM prob­a­bly more than once. Movie buffs with Domi­nos on speed dial and poor so­cial skills may have watched it sev­eral hun­dred times, por­ing over ev­ery frame, but I’ll bet pre­cious few of you have sat through the full one hour and 54 min­utes. I have, and let me save you some pain: Bul­litt is 11 min­utes of film-mak­ing ge­nius wedged be­tween one hour and 43 min­utes of stag­nant drivel. But that’s OK, be­cause what the soggy edges of this sand­wich do is bring the de­li­cious­ness of that fill­ing into stark relief. In fact, I im­plore you to sit through the open­ing hour just to ex­pe­ri­ence a movie move up three gears in the space of 30 sec­onds – it’s quite some­thing. The fury, dan­ger and re­al­ism of the chase hit you like a base­ball bat to the face un­til you’re sit­ting bolt up­right, eyes on stalks, adren­a­line pump­ing and fu­ri­ously scan­ning Google Maps for the near­est hump­back bridge.

Con­sid­er­ing it comes from a time be­fore CGI made any­thing fea­si­ble, it was, and re­mains, the finest piece of car-based hi­jinks ever com­mit­ted to cel­lu­loid, and ce­mented the Mus­tang’s sta­tus as a pop-cul­ture icon.

But there’s no sin­gle thing that makes a movie car stick in the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, it’s a com­bi­na­tion of many: a great lo­ca­tion, a hero be­hind the wheel, stunt driv­ing to die for, a sound­track to make your hair stand on end, and looks ca­pa­ble of caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant trouser trou­ble at 50 paces all help. You’ll no­tice that an ac­com­plished nar­ra­tive arc or char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment aren’t strictly nec­es­sary, which is why the Bul­litt Mus­tang has it all.

When the Mus­tang was picked for its role, it had only launched four years be­fore and wasn’t quite the sym­bol of free­dom, fun and cheap horse­power it is now. It ar­rived in 1964, pitched as well-priced, prac­ti­cal trans­port for cou­ples and young fam­i­lies, and was only se­lected for Bul­litt ahead of one of McQueen’s beloved Porsches be­cause Warner Broth­ers had a pact with Ford to use its cars. In 1967, Ford had slot­ted the big­ger 390-cu­bic-inch (6.4-litre) V8 into it – some proper mus­cle – and it did the trick. The sight of this GT 390 Fast­back smok­ing and gar­gling its way through San Fran­cisco cat­a­pulted the Stang’s stock into or­bit. So much so, that here we are, ex­actly

50 years af­ter de­tec­tive Frank Bul­litt donned his tweed jacket and went for a drive, be­ing handed the keys to a 50th-birth­day trib­ute to his car. In front of us, the Golden Gate bridge and the very streets he and a team of stunt driv­ers carved up in hot pur­suit of a black Dodge Charger – and noth­ing to do but fol­low in his tracks.

So how faith­ful is this mod­ern re­make to the orig­i­nal blue­print? Cos­met­i­cally, it hits all the marks. There’s the High­land Green paint of course, al­though Shadow Black is op­tional (any­one who or­ders the lat­ter shall be shot), leather Re­caro seats with green stitch­ing and logo, 19-inch alu­minium wheels, no badges at the front but Bul­litt graph­ics on the rear and steer­ing wheel, and a sub­tly chromed grille. Non-his­tor­i­cally cor­rect equip­ment in­cludes a 1000W B&O stereo and Bul­litt wel­come graph­ics on the LCD in­stru­ment clus­ter.

Me­chan­i­cally, there’s au­then­tic­ity, as well. The en­gine is a V8, the same 5.0-litre V8 as the stan­dard GT model, but with power wound up, cru­elly, by 14bhp to 453bhp in UK cars, but to 473bhp and 569Nm of torque in the US-spec car we’re driv­ing here. The ex­haust has ac­tive flaps, the six-speed man­ual comes with a cue-ball shifter – worth the £47,145 ticket alone in my hum­ble opin­ion – while, much like the Mus­tangs

“The fi­nal cut of the chase hops about like a de­mented rab­bit from one lo­ca­tion to the next”

tough­ened for the film with race shocks, skid plates and spe­cial over-in­flated tyres, the sus­pen­sion has been fet­tled too, with “heavy duty” front springs and a stiffer rear anti-roll bar. Even so, we’re asked by Ford to agree to a no-jump­ing pol­icy. I shake hands on it, but refuse to sign any­thing.

Our aim is to fol­low the route of the chase as best we can, recre­at­ing stills from the movie along the way and di­vert­ing only to take in other choice spots in­clud­ing Twin Peaks Boule­vard (a hair­pin with the best view in town) and the Golden Gate Bridge be­cause a) we’re tourists, and b) there was a chase se­quence filmed here that died on the cut­ting-room floor. But it’s eas­ier said than done. Al­though the chase was shot over four weeks, in a log­i­cal street-by-street or­der, the fi­nal cut hops about like a de­mented rab­bit from one lo­ca­tion to an­other – a hap­haz­ard edit­ing tech­nique re­spon­si­ble for sev­eral fa­mous con­ti­nu­ity howlers.

But we know where it be­gins, when Bul­litt spots the bad­dies in their black Charger lurk­ing un­der the 101, and, boy, does it es­ca­late fast. The hunted be­comes the hunter, a minute or so of cat-and-mouse, then it’s on… McQueen takes off af­ter the fat­ter, but more pow­er­ful Dodge, both cars get air on Potrero, the Charger demon­strates ex­treme, un­avoid­able un­der­steer on Kan­sas and clips a parked car on an­other physics-deny­ing right-han­der (in­ten­tion­ally, so the Charger’s stunt driver Bill Hick­man claims). McQueen gets his chance to show off, too, pulling a du­bi­ous burnout in re­verse, but it isn’t un­til they ar­rive on Tay­lor Street that things get re­ally in­ter­est­ing. It’s here, with both cars tak­ing flight at ev­ery in­ter­sec­tion and land­ing with a butt-puck­er­ing crunch, that the bru­tal­ity of what they were put through be­comes clear.

Fast for­ward 50 years and as we teeter at the top of Tay­lor, see­ing noth­ing but green bon­net and sky, the ab­sur­dity of that se­quence kicks in. This isn’t a road, it’s a di­a­mond-black run. Up is fine, but ev­ery in­ter­sec­tion be­comes a blind crest, a leap of faith. On the way down, vis­i­bil­ity is bet­ter, but po­ten­tial for skin­ning the car’s chin is far greater. For the stunt driv­ers to launch both cars, un­sighted, off ev­ery cross­road and not end up on their roofs, or curled up in the footwell sob­bing, nerves shot, is a thing of won­der. We’re not just talk­ing about a series of one-off stunts, ei­ther – they needed to be strung to­gether, like the hard left off Tay­lor into Fil­bert. They needed enough speed to take off at the last in­ter­sec­tion, but enough mar­gin to still slam onto the flat and make the left han­der at 100kph, ideally with arm­fuls of op­po­site lock.

“Petrol­heads clock the badge, paint colour and where we are and nod sagely”

All of it re­quired im­mense plan­ning and in­cred­i­ble skill, and not just from the driv­ers. The mas­ter­stroke of di­rec­tor Peter Yates was putting the cam­eras in­side the car, let­ting the viewer feel, and see, ev­ery neck-crush­ing bump and how busy the driv­ers’ hands were on the wheel. These days, we stick a GoPro any­where we want, hit a but­ton and think noth­ing of it. Back then, it was rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Al­though Bud Ekins (the stunt­man who slides off the on­com­ing mo­tor­bike to­wards the end of the chase and he of The

Great Es­cape fence-jump fame) did some driv­ing early on in the shoot, it’s Loren Janes (Mus­tang) and Bill Hick­man (Charger) in the cars. Con­trary to folk­lore, de­spite be­ing a se­ri­ous tal­ent in his own right, McQueen only did about 10 per cent of the driv­ing him­self, leav­ing the re­ally dan­ger­ous stuff to the pro­fes­sion­als. Af­ter all: no McQueen, no movie.

We might not be catch­ing air, but we’re caus­ing a stir. The petrol­heads clock the badge, the paint colour and where we are and nod sagely. Ev­ery­one else just swivels and stares as we rip up the hills in first gear, ex­haust in Track mode rasp­ing hard un­der load, crack­ling when we lift off. Maybe it’s wish­ful think­ing, my brain telling me what I want to hear, but given there’s 50 years be­tween the movie car and this, the sonic sim­i­lar­i­ties are spooky.

Given Pat’s damn­ing ap­praisal of the GT 390 Fast­back’s han­dling

(page 74) and the abun­dance of body roll vis­i­ble on both chase cars in the film, even af­ter be­ing stiff­ened and prepped for on-screen duty, it’s amaz­ing how far we’ve come. This new car feels rigid – on pock­marked sur­faces prob­a­bly overly so – but in­stilled with a sense of in­de­struc­tibil­ity. Ev­ery­thing, from the steer­ing to the gearshift, op­er­ates with a re­as­sur­ing phys­i­cal­ity. Ul­ti­mately, it can’t hide its mass at ten tenths, but how likely are you to treat your Mus­tang like McQueen did his, as­sum­ing you value your li­cence and your life? Within its lim­its, it feels sturdy, brawny and built to last. In all hon­esty, you don’t no­tice the ex­tra power and the beefed-up sus­pen­sion, but fair play to Ford for of­fer­ing some­thing ex­tra, not just re­sort­ing to a colour-and-trim ex­er­cise.

Ques­tion is, hav­ing taken it to the place where the leg­end was born, is it all just mar­ket­ing guff cash­ing in on Bul­litt’s celebrity, or is it truly wor­thy of the name? And does some of the movie magic rub off, mak­ing it more than the sum of its parts? I’d say yes for the sim­ple rea­son that, were McQueen alive to­day, there’s no doubt he’d en­thu­si­as­ti­cally ap­prove. There’s a raw­ness and sim­plic­ity to it that hasn’t been lost over the decades or smoth­ered by elec­tron­ics, a clear lin­eage from 1968 to to­day. If we could time-travel, it’s a car McQueen could jump in, and be fast and flam­boy­ant straight out the box.

But there’s a prob­lem… McQueen’s leg­endary hero­ics are giv­ing me false con­fi­dence in the car. With ev­ery burnout and slide, I can feel his spirit grow­ing in­side me, blur­ring the lines be­tween Hol­ly­wood and re­al­ity, con­fus­ing real mem­o­ries with make-be­lieve. I’m tee­ter­ing at the top of Tay­lor again, but this time I back up, floor the gas, dump the clutch and let it fly, serenely and in slow mo­tion, into the end­less Cal­i­for­nian air. Real life: it’s never quite like the movies, but to­day we got damn close.


On the tail of McQueen’s Mus­tang. Should take about 50 years to catch up

“Well, Of­fi­cer, I was speed­ing be­cause I was be­ing pur­sued by Steve McQueen from Bul­litt...”

San Fran driv­ing tip #432, get your hand­brake cablechecked reg­u­larly

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