TWO SUPERB stunt drivers, two aggressive cars, lots of clashing metal and a huge cinematic fireball at the end. The car chase in the 1968 film Bullitt set new standards for the day and was recently voted the best in film history. A Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback driven by Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) duels with a DodgeCharger 440 driven by a pair of assassins down the jagged hills of San Francisco to the soundtrack of squealing tyres and howling V8 engines.
The scene gave rise to one of the most hotly debated questions of all time, at least among car buffs, pub bores and, er, motoring journalists. Could the Mustang, with 50 less horsepower and less torque than the Charger, really have caught and overtaken the bigger car, forcing it to career off the road and explode?
Some say the Charger had the edge in raw speed but the Mustang was tighter in the corners. Perhaps. Others say the weight of an extra person in the Charger slowed it down and tipped the balance in favour of the Mustang. Maybe.
The only way to answer the question was to get two cars identical to those in the film and race them head to head. So that’s what we did, right down to the colour (highland green for the Mustang, villain-black for the Charger).
Naturally, Andrew Frankel’s imposing height and menacing demeanour cast him as the bad guy, but it quickly became apparent that he had nabbed the better car. The Charger is a classic Yank tank — a two-ton barge with a 375bhp engine. The Mustang should have the advantage of being lighter, nimbler and better. But it doesn’t because it handles every bit as badly as the Dodge: the weight is distributed wrongly, the live rear axle was a liability on the damp Silverstone track, and it’s held together by pop rivets and paint.
You wouldn’t expect the Mustang to drive as if it had modern ABS or traction control. The trouble is it doesn’t have much of any other type of control either. Its suspension feels like a waterbed and it steers like an old mattress. It was as much as I could do to keep up with Frankel even though he could barely see out of his sunglasses. Furthermore, had I wanted to force his more solidly built Charger off the road I would have needed a demolition crane. The Mustang would have folded like a tin can.
The problem was that the Mustang, which still holds the record for the fastest-selling model in history, was a quick-sale, pile ‘ em high car. Ford could have given Warner Brothers something quicker for the film — like the 390bhp 427 Fairlane — but it wanted to promote a car with mass appeal.
In reality the baddies in the Charger (which for the film was driven by Bill Hickman, the same stuntman behind the wheel in the famous French Connection car chase) would easily have outrun Bullitt’s Mustang (
But once you start confusing reality with fiction you’re lost. There are plenty of anorak websites reminding us of the flaws in Bullitt. For example, alert viewers will spot that the Charger actually misses by a long way the line of petrol pumps it was supposed to have hit moments before the fireball. It also loses an impossible six hubcaps at various stages during the chase; the same green VW Beetle gets overtaken repeatedly by both cars; and the Mustang had no wing mirrors when it arrived at the car wash but had one on the driver’s side when it drove away.
Okay, so the Mustang wasn’t as good as the scriptwriters made out but there’s another consideration: pose value. This is directly related to coolness (the precise formula is pose value = coolness x the number of onlookers). McQueen was cool even though he dressed for the film like a Liberal Democrat MP in a brown jacket and turtleneck sweater.
Likewise the hastily built Mustang was miles cooler than any other car of its day — and still is. It was a piece of classic design translated into metal. To give you an idea of how it scores on the coolness scale, if the Mustang were at the North Pole, an Aston Martin DB9 would be on the equator in terms of relative coolness.
Parked outside the Silverstone cafe, everyone wanted to admire the Mustang. In most cases talking was an excuse to amble up and run their hands across it. They wanted to sit in the cracked leather driving seat that feels as though it’s padded with straw, and grip the old-fashioned deep dish steering wheel. How many cars do people want to touch? Not many.
In shooting Bullitt, the film crew used two Stangs; one was junked afterwards, the other acquired by a Warner employee who sold it. The new owner resisted all offers to buy it, including one from McQueen. Towards the end of his life the actor keenly wanted the car back. You can see why.
Terence Steven McQueen would be 75 if he were alive today. He died aged 50 in a Mexican clinic from a mesothelioma, a rare cancer, probably caused by inhaling blue asbestos while working on ship repairs in his younger, itinerant years.
Dying before his time made him even more famous. Today his image is licensed to at least 29 companies selling everything from sunglasses to slot machines. It was even hijacked by Ford to posthumously promote the Puma — a car McQueen would have scorned. He’s making more money now for the McQueen estate than in his prime.
And thanks to his endorsement of the Mustang, the car is still going strong more than 40 years after its launch. Look into its radiator grille and you can see McQueen, blue eyes focused straight ahead, a defiant smile on his lips. The Charger’s superior performance seems insignificant next to that.
ANYONE WHO has seen Bullitt will probably remember an otherwise forgettable film saved by one outstanding car chase where a couple of bad guys in a Dodge Charger are pursued by a San Francisco cop. The Charger came off considerably worse in the chase and from that day earned itself a place in car history as inferior to Steve McQueen’s Mustang.
Sadly that is a travesty of the truth because the 1968 Charger marked the zenith of that most fabled of all American automotive species: the muscle car. Never before or since has America offered a family of four a combination of such power and beauty as the 68 Charger. By the early 1970s, emissions regulations (yes, even then) and soaring insurance costs had begun to eat into the performance figures and muscle cars were never quite the same again.
The concept behind the Charger was simple. How big an engine could Dodge squeeze under the bonnet before the car became so nose-heavy it was unsteerable? The rest of the car was a relatively simple design with a purity in its lines that I have always found breathtaking. Even the 69 and 70 Chargers, which used the same bodies but with added brightwork, clouded the clarity of the 68′ s vision, and by 1971 a new and ugly Charger ended the era for good.
The other problem that came along in the 1970s was the dratted Dukes of Hazzard which, while making the Charger instantly recognisable, condemned its image to a cheesy, clichéd, hillbilly hell. It became known for being good at jumping dry river beds, showing us Catherine Bach’s legs as she fed them through the windows of its welded-up doors, and really very little else.
The car deserved a fate far better than that. If you ever see one in the street, take the time to drink in not just its perfect proportions but also the exquisite detailing on its bodywork. Look at its blind-eye grille, the side strakes and, if you have access to a high building, its extraordinary Coke-bottle view from above. This is a car that’s gorgeous in all three dimensions. Then hope its owner comes along and starts it up and hope even more that the sound proves it’s fitted with the largest engine available at the time, the 440 Magnum.
Naturally the Bullitt Charger had Magnum power — 375bhp oozing malevolently from 7.2 litres of Detroit iron. It had even more torque, some 480 lb ft of the stuff, enough to smoke its tyres down to the carcass in seconds if you weren’t judicious in your use of the gas. And then there was the noise. Sadly 1968 sound-recording techniques mean you will never experience the true Charger thunder from the film alone. If you want to know how badly it’s infected me, I once found myself on my hands and knees, my head positioned next to its two fat tailpipes, while a colleague spun the rev counter into the red time and gain. The earth shook and now every time I fail to hear what someone says, I wonder if that Charger had something to do with it.
The thing about the Charger is that it provides an unforgettable memory. Granted, Nick Rufford attracted more admiring looks in his Mustang when we raced the cars at Silverstone, but whatever appeal the Ford possesses it is undoubtedly slower (as I proved on the day) and to my mind uglier. The Charger can provide an hour’s entertainment even before you hit the road just by dabbing your foot on and off the gas pedal.
A few years ago I planned the ultimate road trip: I’d fly to California, find and buy a Charger, drive it across the continent, ship it back to Blighty and sell it, the profit covering all my expenses. The plan failed because all the cars I researched were either basket cases I didn’t want or immaculate examples I couldn’t afford.
Secretly I was glad as I knew I would never have been able to bring myself to sell it on my return, with inevitably catastrophic consequences for my bank account, marriage and other things I hold dear. But the point is that, of all the cars that I could have bought, not for one second did it even occur to me to look for anything other than a Charger, and a 68 Magnum at that.
I’ve driven three now, one on the road, this one on the track and, somewhat peculiarly, a third in a quarry. And I’ve learnt a few things about them. Like they’re only good to drive on dry sunny days, not least because if it’s wet it will spin its wheels so easily you’ll struggle to get out of your parking space.
But if the weather is fine and the road straight and open, it will introduce you to a form of automotive enjoyment you may not have suspected even existed. You’ll put your shades on and watch as your left arm instinctively finds the window sill. You’ll wish you smoked, if only to provide a few empty Marlboro packets to spread over the top of the dash. And you’ll waft along on just a trace of throttle, the mighty V8 rumbling ahead of you.
You’ll hope that something really quick and modern has a go at you — a Porsche Boxster is good — and you’ll call upon the Magnum to do its stuff and watch until the German’s rapidly shrinking image in the mirror disappears for good. And as you look forward over that bonnet, and back over those rear haunches, you’ll know that there are American muscle cars — Mustangs, Camaros and all the other excellent machines that made 1960s America such a fine place to be a car nut — and then there are Chargers. A breed apart, a law unto themselves and, quite simply, the best.