Bullitt (1968): Famous Chase Scene–Everything You Always Wanted to Know

The Chase Scene

Though boasting many merits, Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen at top form, is best known for the famous car chase, which lasts 10 minutes and 53 seconds.
It’s the longest car chase scene in film history, surpassing the other famous and exciting car chase, in William Friedkin’s 1971 Oscar winning, The French Connection.
Surprisingly, the scene wasn’t originally in the script.
In the first draft, adapted from Robert L. Fish’s novel “Mute Witness,” Detective Frank Bullitt was a Boston cop who ate a lot of ice cream and never solved a case. The book had originally been bought with Spencer Tracy in mind, but when Tracy died, in 1967, the property went to McQueen and producer Philip D’Antoni.
Preparing for the Chase
To prepare for the car chase, McQueen and other team members spent a day at Coati racetrack near San Francisco, hitting speeds of 140 mph.
John Aprea was originally cast as Johnny Ross but he was replaced by Pat Renella, who bore greater resemblance to Felice Orlandi. Although credited as “Killer” in the credits, Aprea only appears briefly in the opening credits sequence, shooting at Ross’s car during his escape.
Car Color
The Bullitt Mustang color was officially called Highland green. The cars were hatted up with chassis and engine mods to keep pace with the faster Charger in the chase scenes and hold up to the abuse. There was a hole in the boot where a smoke machine was installed to help enhance the cloud made from the rear tires in particular where Bullitt missed the turn reversed and shot off again.
D’Antoni did not know that he was making movie history, when he added the chase, and changed the location to San Francisco.
San Francisco
At the time, San Francisco was not a big filmmaking center, but Mayor Joseph L. Alioto was keen to promote it. Thus, the movie benefited from freedom of movement around the city, including giving up an entire hospital wing for filming, closing down multiple streets for 3 weeks for the car chase scene, and taking over San Francisco International Airport at night.

Who Actually Drove?

McQueen was keen to do as many of his own stunts as possible. He had been embarrassed to admit that it was not him performing the celebrated motorbike stunt in The Great Escape (1963).
Although McQueen was credited with the driving throughout the entire chase sequence, the car was actually shared by him and Bud Ekins, one of Hollywood’s best stunt drivers.
From the interior shots looking forward inside the Mustang, it’s easy to see which one is driving. When McQueen is driving, the rear-view mirror is down reflecting his face. When Ekins is driving it is up, so his face is hidden.

While shooting the scene where the giant airliner taxis just above McQueen, observers were shocked that no double was used. Asked if the producers couldn’t have found a dummy, McQueen wryly replied, “They did.”

McQueen made a point to keep his head near the open car window during the famous chase scene so that audiences would be reassured that it was he, not a stunt man, who was driving,
After McQueen lost control of his car and smashed into a parked vehicle, his then-wife Neile Adams begged Yates to use stuntmen. However, when McQueen reported for duty to find stuntman Bud Ekins sitting in his car, dressed as McQueen, he was furious.
Bud Ekins, who drove the Mustang, also did the motorcycle jump for Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape (1963).”
Director Peter Yates called for speeds of about 75 to 80 miles (120 to 129 kilometers) per hour, but the cars (including those with the cameras) reached speeds of over 110 miles (177 kilometers) per hour. Filming of the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in nine minutes and forty-two seconds of footage. They were denied permission to film on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Bullitt’s reverse burnout during the chase scene actually wasn’t in the script; McQueen had mistakenly missed the turn. The footage was still kept, though.
Cars: Mustang and Dodge Charger
Two Mustangs and two Dodge Chargers were used for the chase scene. Both Mustangs were owned by the Ford Motor Company and part of a promotional loan agreement with Warner Bros.
The cars were modified for the high-speed chase by vet auto racer Max Balchowsky. Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin got Bud Ekins to drive the Mustang for the bulk of the stunts. Both of the Dodges were junked after the film, as was one of the Mustangs. The other, less banged-up Mustang was purchased by Warner employee after post-production.
The car ended up in New Jersey a few years later, and McQueen tried to buy it. The owner refused to sell, and the car now sits in a barn. It has not been driven until recently when it was used by Ford to promote the 2018 “Bullitt” Mustang, shown at the Detroit international auto show.
Initially the car chase was supposed to be scored, but composer Lalo Schifrin suggested that no music be added as the soundtrack was powerful enough as it was.
Bullitt’s car is a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The bad guys drive a 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum. The Charger is just barely faster than the Mustang, with a 13.6-second quarter-mile compared to the Mustang’s 13.8-second.
Deconstructing the Chase
In 2008, Motor Trend Magazine promoted the 40th anniversary edition Bullitt Mustang. Because Dodge had also brought back the Charger. The article featured a promotional gimmick of photographing the 2008 Mustang and 2008 Charger simulating the chase scene with the writers breaking down the chase, moment by moment, to explain each car’s strengths and weaknesses.
The editing of the chase scene was full of challenges. Ralph Rosenblum wrote in 1979 that “those who care about such things may know that during the filming of the climactic chase scene, an out-of-control car filled with dummies tripped a wire which prematurely sent a costly set up in flames, and that editor Frank Keller salvaged the near-catastrophe with a clever and unusual juxtaposition of images that made the explosion appear to go off on time.” This is why a careful view of the footage during the final explosion shows the Dodge Charger visible behind the flames.
The Chase: Route
The chase takes place over several non-contiguous streets in and south of San Francisco.
The sequence starts under Highway 101 in the Mission District. When the Charger does U-turn on Precita Avenue to follow the Mustang, a storage tank on Potrero Hill is visible in the distance.
The next scenes are in the Bernal and Potrero areas, with green hills to the southwest on the horizon and quick view of downtown San Francisco to the northwest in another.
About 21 seconds later, and 5 miles away, Coit Tower appears in the Mustang’s front window to the east. They then come to a stop for two cable cars at Hyde and Filbert Streets. The twin towers of Sts. Peter and Paul Church are visible to the right of Coit Tower.
They turn hard left onto Columbus Avenue, a four-lane street with concrete median. F-type streetcar is seen coming the opposite direction. They climb and Alcatraz Island comes into view on the left, placing them at about Stockton and Chestnut.
They turn north, then west, then south, headed uphill.
In the next cut, they are suddenly going downhill, north towards the Bay.
The next scenes are from different camera angles that capture the same sequence as the two cars head downhill and turn west off the same street. This is clear due to the repeated presence of the same Cadillac, and a green Volkswagen Beetle seen three times.
They complete this sequence by turning west in front of the Caddy towards the bay, a few blocks north of Van Ness. They turn left or south, going uphill, and then the scene cuts to the cars headed downhill or north on Larkin Street, before they turn west onto Francisco Street.
In the next clip, the Dodge has leapt 6 blocks across Van Ness, heading north on Laguna Street.
They turn from Laguna Street, in front of Ft. Mason, onto Marina Boulevard, in front of a Safeway store. (The bottom of the store’s name is seen as the Dodge veers onto Marina.)
They accelerate down Marina Boulevard with the Marina Green and the Golden Gate Bridge briefly visible in the background.
In the next cut, Ft. Mason is visible in the background as they turn once more onto Marina Boulevard. In the next clip, they pass in front of the Safeway again.
The next cut puts them 8 miles away, back in the Vistacion Valley district, turning right from University Street on to Mansell Street.
They then leap 3 miles to the entrance of the Guadelupe Canyon Parkway on San Bruno Mountain in Daly City, heading east.
To extend the chase’s length, the cars are shown driving east then west and back and forth, while supposedly heading only one way, before the Charger crashes at the Parkway’s eastern exit in Brisbane.
About 45 seconds of the chase were filmed on Taylor Street, from 4 different cameras, giving the impression of 4 different parts of the chase. Notice the green Volkswagen Beetle in all of these shots.
James Dean Connection: Bill Hickman (Sep 30, 1955)
Bill Hickman, the backup hit man and driver of the Charger, was experienced in driving stunts and in racing. Thirteen years before this film, being a friend of actor and budding race driver James Dean, he was accompanying Dean to a race in Salinas, California. He was driving Dean’s station wagon and car trailer while Dean drove ahead in his Porsche Spyder. Dean died in an accident on the way, and it was Bill Hickman who extricated Dean’s body from the wreck.
Avoiding Red
Yates hired a local trucking company for some background shots (the Dodge Charger crashes into the gas station), but sent back the initial truck, because it was red. He didn’t want any red vehicles because it would detract from the blood. A blue truck was dispatched in its place.
Ford Mustangs
There were two Ford Mustangs, one which was used in the majority of the jump shots and ultimately ended up crashing into a ravine, and another which wasn’t wrecked during filming.
The crashed car turned up in a junk yard in Mexico, but it was literally a pile of rust. The other was repaired after filming and sold, passing through two owners before it was purchased by  Robert Kiernan in 1974 for $6000. Mustangs were cheap and plentiful back then so it was used as a daily driver until it was parked up with mechanical issues in 1980.
Robert and son Sean began putting it back together in early 2000s, before life took over and the restoration stalled. Robert passed away in 2014 and left the car to Sean. He contacted Ford around that time and the mystery of the original movie car was solved.
In January 2018, the original green Mustang GT from the film was brought out into the spotlight (after being in hiding for decades by the NJ owners) on stage at the Detroit Motor Show with Ford to introduce the new 2019 ‘Bullitt’ Mustang. The original typed letter on Steve McQueen’s Solar Production Company’s letter head asking to buy back ‘his’ car in 1977 was also on hand.
Chase: Bill Hickman
During the car chase scene, the Dodge and Mustang pass the same dark-colored Volkswagen Beetle at least three times, and a white Pontiac Firebird is seen at least twice.
Bill Hickman (Phil), who drives the Dodge Charger, actually did drive the Charger in the movie. The driving scenes netted him additional stunt work, which included another classic car chase for The French Connection (1971).

In 1973, he drove the Pontiac Bonneville as “Bo,” in the chase of Roy Scheider’s character “Buddy,” driving the Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe in

Villain’s Car
During the chase, the villain’s car loses 5 hubcaps.
After Bullitt misses a turn and does a reverse burnout, only the right rear tire “burns rubber” as he drives away from camera. This indicates that the Mustang was not equipped with limited-slip differential (the gears that transfer power from the driveshaft to the rear axle half-shafts).
Both “open” and “limited-slip” diffs allow the wheels to rotate at different speeds in corners for efficiency and comfort. An open diff will allow the wheel with less grip to spin under high load (or on low friction surfaces). But a limited-slip diff balances the power between left and right wheels when traction is lost on one or both sides. The Mustang would have done a two-wheel burnout if it were equipped with a limited-slip differential.
The car chase between 1960s muscle cars features a third American classic, as the chase proper begins with the 1968 Dodge Charger breaking left and burning rubber. Bullitt in his 1968 Ford Mustang is briefly impeded from giving chase by 1968 Pontiac Firebird.
Earlier, when Bullitt tracks down the cab driver at the car wash, there is brief view of a 1968 Chevrolet Camaro.
The marquee muscle cars of Chrysler, Ford, Chevrolet, and Pontiac are all represented.
The V-shaped object on the trunk lid of Chalmers’ limo was a state of the art (for the time) telecommunications antennae, indicating the vehicle had a car telephone.
During the early scenes of the car chase, a gas station is seen. Its name is Enco, presently known as Exxon. Outside of the U.S. it was known as Esso. Its mascot was a tiger, who encouraged drivers to put a tiger in their (gas) tank.
The license plate on the Mustang is JJZ 109.
Motorcycle: Allusion to The Great Escape
A motorcycle skids and crashes during the car chase. McQueen famously crashed a motorcycle a few years earlier in “The Great Escape.”
Chase: McQueen’s Face
During the chase, McQueen’s face is reflected in the mirror.  Look at his mouth, you’ll see he’s indulging in popular habit among race car drivers: chewing gum.
Chase: Repeat Viewing
Many people came to the movie time and again just in order to see the chase scenes.