Payne: Chasing McQueen's tracks in 2019 Mustang Bullitt

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

San Francisco Driving downhill on Larkin Street high above San Francisco Bay in a 2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt, I understand how “Bullitt” star Steve McQueen missed the right-hand turn onto Chestnut Street. Chestnut flattens out, which surely forced McQueen’s galloping ‘68 Mustang Fastback to push wide. The actor stopped before hitting the far curb, stuffed it in reverse, then peeled rubber down Chestnut in continued pursuit of his prey.

Rather than edit the error, the film's editors liked its authenticity and kept it in the movie. After pausing at the intersection, I burned rubber down Chestnut — following in the legend’s tracks.

Fifty years ago this October, Warner Brothers released “Bullitt” with McQueen and his four-wheel co-star. The film, produced by McQueen, was a blockbuster. 

It will forever be remembered for its thrilling 12-minute car chase for which it won an Oscar for Best Film Editing.

The sequence would cement the Fastback coupe as one of cinema’s great cars along with the “Back to the Future” DeLorean and Ferris Bueller’s Ferrari. A ‘60s sales hit and cultural icon, the Mustang fit McQueen’s vision of making an urban Western in which he “would strap on the car like a gun belt.”

In the 21st century the Bullitt badge has become an essential weapon in the Mustang holster — a reminder both of the pony car’s 1960s origins and its ferocious performance. The 2019 model is the third Bullitt Mustang, following 2001 and 2008 special editions.

I went to the streets of San Francisco this summer to retrace the “Bullitt” chase scene and to strap on the latest Mustang in Ford’s arsenal — the fastest Bullitt yet made.

Taylor Street parallels Larkin through San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood, but is even steeper, descending like a staircase. McQueen and director Peter Yates — both experienced race drivers — ignored Russian Hill’s most famous street, the tight, zig-zagging Lombard. They were intent on filming speed, and arrow-straight Taylor showcased the big block V-8s in McQueen’s 6.4-liter Mustang and the 7.2-liter Dodge Charger he was chasing.

The 2019 Bullitt Mustang has been downsized to 5.0-liters — yet has gained 155 horsepower (equivalent to adding a Mazda Miata engine) over the original’s 325 horses, thanks to relentless engineering advances.

To separate it from its V-8 powered, $36,000 Mustang GT stablemate, the $46,495 Bullitt has gained 20 horsepower over the standard 460. That power also comes higher, in the 7,500-rpm rev range, in order to feed your need for speed.

Ford’s engine geniuses accomplished this feat with a new throttle body, plasma-sprayed cylinders and a new air intake. The result is a glorious howl of the overhead cam V-8 as I consistently pushed it to 7,000 rpms before downshifting into corners, the quad-exhaust snap-crackle-popping off throttle.

Avoiding the city's clotted morning traffic, I took to the streets at 6.30 a.m. I accelerated hard down Taylor, before easing across the stepped, flat intersections. So steep is Taylor that the crossroads must have looked like approaching walls to McQueen and his top-shelf stunt drivers, Carey Loftin and Bill Hickman. The fronts of the Mustang and Charger slammed into the pavement before vaulting — airborne! — onto the next downhill.

To withstand the impact of San Francisco hills, the Bullitt crew upgraded the ’68 car with stiffer suspension and swaybars. I didn’t go airborne in the 2019 car, but I have no doubt that if I did, it would bounce my spine off my pelvis.

With its stiff chassis, sophisticated suspension and independent rear, the ’19 Bullitt is a serious performance car. If you want a quiet, silky ride, this is the wrong rodeo. While the Performance Pack One-enhanced Bullitt (stiffer springs/roll bars, front splitter) lacks the latest tires of the GT’s new Pack Two, the latter’s MagneRide shocks are a marvelous complement to the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires.

Though shy of the performance of the current Camaro SS (Hey, Warner Bros, how about a remake of “Bullitt” with Tom Cruise chasing a Camaro?), the Bullitt Mustang is ready for battle, rotating eagerly into corners.

After a game of cat and mouse, the “Bullitt” chase scene is joined when chasee McQueen becomes the chaser the Mustang’s menacing, cowl grille looming in the Charger hitman’s rear-view mirror. Spooked, the Charger takes off, shedding eight hub caps (a classic of movie-editing trivia) as it tears around  corners.

The new Bullitt Mustang is no less threatening.

Mustang chief engineer Carl Widmann pitched the Bullitt four years ago as the then-controversial sixth-gen Mustang debuted to the world. With a its sloped front hood and Fusion-like grille, the new pony was a departure from the retro-styled cowl of yore. Buyers embraced the new look, re-establishing Mustang at the top of the muscle car sales charts.

As the “Bullitt” movie’s 50th anniversary approached, Ford partnered with Sean Kiernan — the owner of the 1968 Mustang used in the movie — to parade the two cars together. Shoulder-to-shoulder in San Francisco, the Highland Green Bullitts are unmistakably family.

Stripped of the Mustang logo, both grilles are menacing, dark voids. The ’68 car’s signature fastback is repeated in the new Bullitt right down to the window angle. The new car’s angled headlights and low front splitter give it menace.

True to its heritage, the 2019 car has the “Bullitt” movie logo stamped on the trunk lid.

The original Bullitt Mustang still has camera mounts under the rocker panels and trunk holes that were cut to power the cameras via generator. The punishing movie-chase sequences were shot, then the cars were transported to Willow Springs race track outside LA, where chase scene sounds were recorded and dubbed in for the movie.

Inside, the new Mustang’s interior has been transformed with 21st-century electronics offering touchscreen navigation, configurable instrument display, line-lock burnouts, launch control — features that the ‘60s could only dream of.

But just like the original, the new pony only comes with a manual transmission. The cue-ball shifter tells a tale.

In the movie car, McQueen — a Porsche buff — installed a Porsche shift knob. That wouldn’t do for a production Ford Mustang, so Ford adopted the next best thing — a replica of the white shifter Kiefer’s father installed when he bought the car in 1974.

That’s OK. When you shift it into first and pop the clutch, it burns rubber down Chestnut Street like it was 1968.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Ford Mustang Bullitt

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four(ish)-passenger coupe

Price: $47,590 base ($51,385 as tested)

Powerplant: 5.0-liter V-8

Power: 480 horsepower, 420 pound-feet torque (with 93-octane fuel)

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.2 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed: 163 mph

Weight: 3,705 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 15 city/25 highway/18 combined (Car and Driver)

Report card

Highs: Movie-star looks; V-8 baritone

Lows: Stiff daily driver; Camaro SS 1LE would run away from it in a car chase

Overall: 4 stars