Ford Mustang Bullitt GT: Cop that! Fast as a speeding Bullitt

Forty years ago, Steve McQueen made the original Mustang into a movie icon. Now, Ford has released a new musclecar for the anniversary
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Car enthusiasts tend to remember where they were when they first watched Bullitt. Ford's president of the Americas, Mark Fields, watched it on TV with his dad at the age of 10. He sat, awestruck, while the Mustang GT 390 and Dodge Charger 440 R/T soared and crashed over the humps of San Francisco's mountainous roads.

There was no CGI back then, tyres squealed and smeared the road with rubber, the Charger ran smack into the camera and they left the shot in. The Dodge shed hub caps as if they were going out of fashion. Throughout the film, a silent Steve McQueen communicated everything with just a flick of the eyes to the floor and back into the face of Robert Vaughn while he ranted and raved.

At a sneak preview of the 2008 Mustang Bullitt GT, before its debut at the LA show last month, Fields said: "When I saw that car chase, it was the first time I fell in love with cars; the first time I thought I might want to work in the industry." No pressure on his design team, then.

Ever since the retro-shape Mustang appeared in 2005, everyone has been waiting for the Bullitt version. Ford has never been slow to milk its Bullitt heritage. Its ad agency put McQueen into the new pony as soon as it appeared for the "Cornfield" ad (see YouTube) using some of the same footage it used to put him into the Puma in 1997 (ditto). The previous Mustang had a Bullitt special edition in 2001. It was obvious, though, that this car had to wait until 2008 and the 40th anniversary of the movie.

Now, at last, it's time to for lucky buyers in the States and Canada to pull on a turtleneck, turn up the Lalo Schifrin groove and get a posh girlfriend who knows about pipes. Some 7,700 Bullitt GTs will be sold from spring next year at a very reasonable $31,075 (15,000, but the UK retail price will be higher).

Very far from San Francisco, lurking in the corner of a conference room near Detroit, the new Mustang Bullitt GT looks the hound's jewels. Approving smirks from the assembled journalists note the menacing grille minus the usual Mustang pony. In contrast to the pumped-up Shelby Mustangs with their bulges and stripes, it's mean, understated and true to the original. The Highland Green paint is just right, and the chunky Euroflange wheels are a good match for the Sixties American Racing Torq Thrusts worn by McQueen's car. Their brake calipers are grey, not the usual red or orange shown off by modern performance cars the equivalent of a visible thong. The only jarring note is the small rear window where the 1968 GT had ultra-stylish louvres.

Under the bonnet there's a 4.6-litre, three valve-per cylinder V8 ready to pump out 350bhp at 6,000rpm and 325lb ft of torque at 4,250rpm. That's decent amount of grunt, if not in the realms of the mighty Shelbys. But then there was always about as much chance of the 1968 Mustang catching the R/T as there was of an ordinary cop being able to afford that car. The US monthly Motor Trend has recorded the Bullitt GT's 0-60mph sprint at five seconds. In 1968, the same magazine's test team clocked a standard 6.4-litre GT at 7.8secs, but the film car had been tweaked by veteran racer and builder Max Balchowski, and could probably have done better.

The 2008 car has been built up using Ford Racing Performance parts. It has a special performance calibration, revised cam timing and an open-element air filter. The bonnet has been modified to provide a full seal to the air box, ensuring that the engine can gulp down plenty of air.

Chief engineer Paul Randle says: "We wanted to get as close to the exhaust note of the original movie car as possible, so we based it on a digitally mastered DVD. We wanted something that would rumble your heart, literally buzz you."

Chief designer for the Mustang, Doug Gaffka had to buy the DVD as none of his young team had seen the film. "We watched it together, and they were amazed because they're so used to noise and explosions. Bullitt is so low-key; no one is more subdued and restrained than Steve Mc Queen."

Just as McQueen frequently demanded fewer, rather than more, lines, Ford's team stripped away badges and chrome: The only badge is a Bullitt roundel on the boot. The film team did the same in 1968, removing the driving lights and pony emblem to give the car a stealthy appearance. As it appears in the bad guys' rear mirror, it looks like a bulldog that has just spotted a burgler.

Gaffka insists, though, that the 2008 car is not simply a slavish copy of the movie icon, and that's why there are no rear quarterlight vents. He says: "The vents were on the original car's sheetwork, they're not on the new car, so it wouldn't be true to this car." Pity.

Another departure is that you can order one in black as well as Highland Green, although that colour remains exclusive to the Bullitt. Inside, both cars get black for the cockpit leather. The dash has turned aluminum panels to evoke the period, although, again it breaks from the original.

If it had been a slave to the film car, this Bullitt would have been an automatic. One of the film's many bloopers, along with the Beetle that gets overtaken four times and the Dodge Charge driving away after "blowing up", is a shot inside the cabin showing its auto stick. This one has a short-stubby shifter for quick changes like those on the dubbed soundtrack. Only a manual five-speed will be offered.

Balchowski tweaked the suspension of both Mustangs used for the punishing two-week shoot in San Francisco, and Ford's engineers have tuned this one four decades later. It uses the live rear axle from the Shelby GT500 with a ratio of 3:73 for improved off-the-line-performance. New Ford Racing Performance shocks and struts have been added, along with a tower-to-tower brace wearing the car's serial number. The ride height has been lowered to improve sporty handling, but also just to look meaner.

Gaffka says "It's a handling car rather than a performance car." So what would McQueen say? "I'd like to think he'd just take the keys and drive off."

The other man behind the wheel

On so many Christmas afternoons, when millions held their breath, hoping that this time, surely, Steve McQueen would make it over the second wire fence, they were watching actually Bud Ekins (right) at work.

Ekins and McQueen became bike buddies when the movie star wandered into Bud's California Triumph dealership in 1961. Ekins also found a new career as he started performing the stunts producers and insurance companies wouldn't let McQueen attempt.

As well as jumping the bike over the wire for The Great Escape, he drove the Mustang for the majority of the Bullitt car chase. Towards the end of the sequence, he comes off a motorbike in front of the Mustang, causing it to spin in the dirt, this time with McQueen at the wheel.

During his long career as a stuntman, action double and stunt consultant, Ekins worked on The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Love Bug (1968), Diamonds are Forever (1971), Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). Ekins outlived his buddy by 27 years, but, sadly, died just before the Bullitt GT's launch, on 6 October this year at the age of 77.

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