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Joyriding on the ‘Bullitt’ Car Chase Route

On the 50th anniversary of the Steve McQueen classic, a test driver taps into its enduring appeal—and into a Mustang’s insane horsepower.

 

When it comes to serious, capital-J journalism, preparation is everything. So when I got the word that I’d be test-driving Ford’s special-release 2019 Mustang Bullitt, I spared no expense. By the time I’m behind the wheel of the Steve McQueen–inspired fire-breather and heading over the Golden Gate Bridge from the carmaker’s press event at Cavallo Point to re-create the legendary chase scene in one of the most famous San Francisco films ever made, I’ve procured a Lieutenant Frank Bullitt–approved dark-blue turtleneck, a brown sports coat, and signature Persol shades. Armed with a map of the film’s primary shooting locations and an ecstatic vision of catching air over Taylor Street, I’m ready for anything. Or so I think.

Because no sooner do I reach the top of Lombard than I peer out and realize that, oh my God, up ahead is a Dodge Charger—the model of car driven by the nameless bad guys in Bullitt, which, I should have mentioned earlier, is having its 50th anniversary this year, prompting the Mustang release. This Charger isn’t a ’68, like in the film, but still! And I’m, what, like a mile from where the epic car chase really starts to heat up? I downshift to second, inducing one of the Mustang’s guttural roars, and hope the Charger takes the bait.

Sadly—tragically—it does not. And just like that, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity accelerates out of sight. Perhaps, as in Bullitt, the Charger rounded a corner and magically materialized somewhere atop Potrero Hill. (Fans of the film will recall that the geography of the chase route makes no earthly sense.) In any event, rather than embark on a fated-by-the-gods pas de deux, I’m left to piece together the scene alone, just me and my six-speed Highland green 5.0-liter pony. There are worse ways to spend your morning.

The author behind the wheel of the 2019 Mustang Bullitt, an update of the famed vehicle at the heart of the Steve McQueen classic.

For anyone who’s seen Bullitt, the 1968 Mustang GT fastback is an icon whose status nearly equals its driver’s. McQueen, behind the wheel, prowls up Army Street, and you can practically feel the engine’s reverberations in your chest. By the time the chase explodes into action, the car has become its own character. Roaring, screeching, and smoking its way up and down hills and around curves, it’s a terrifying embodiment of uncut brawn and recklessness—a 10,000-volt wire whipping violently out of control. I want desperately to tap into that electric charge.

Does this modern facsimile inspire the same terrible awe? No. Also, yes. At a minimum, it inspires a lot of iPhone pictures.

In truth, North Beach is not a great place to test-drive a car with 475 horsepower. The car reportedly can do 163 mph and goes from zero to 60 in under four seconds, two things that are not even remotely possible with all these pesky tourists and bicyclists and stop signs in the way. So I follow the chase’s route—or at least the parts of it on this side of town—in low gear, content to revel in that sonically pleasing engine. I slide down Filbert toward Saints Peter and Paul, then head north on Columbus to Bimbo’s 365, up Chestnut past the S.F. Art Institute to Leavenworth, and eventually to the top of Taylor, the climax of the scene, whereupon both cars bomb down the hill, catching air, hubcaps flying everywhere. Then it’s back to Filbert, over to the curve of Francisco to Polk, and down into the Marina district.

I get not a scratch on the car. I do not go airborne—in fact, I’m not sure I’ve broken 25 mph. But I’m raring to open it up just a little before returning the car to its minders, so I meander down to Crissy Field, where hardly anyone is around. As I idle at a stop sign, staring down a good half mile of empty track, the engine keeps purring. In the movie, this part of the chase cuts suddenly to San Bruno Mountain, leaving San Francisco for good. It’s my last chance to step on it, so I do, and suddenly I’m hurtling down the road and trees are whizzing by and you can probably hear the roar of the car from blocks away and it feels for a split second like I am really, truly having an authentic Bullitt experience.

So, how fast do I go? As Loren Janes, who actually did most of the driving in Bullitt, once said, a good stuntman never looks at his speedometer; it only gets in the way of things. He just knows his car has to go very fast. And my Mustang did. Anyway, the most important thing is that I looked cool. I’d look even cooler in a leather jacket, come to think of it. Isn’t there an anniversary of The Great Escape coming up?

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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