Chris Vopat
August 27, 2013

I’d like to think my bucket list is fairly reasonable. As a gearhead, just about everything on it involves internal combustion. As I get closer to the bucket than I am away from it, I’m making more of an effort to cross things off of that list. Run the Baja 1000, check. Ride a BMW 1200GS across Patagonia. Still working on it.

When our friend Michael O’Donnell from the Southern California chapter of the International Mustang Bullitt Owners Club told us about a very special event coming up in San Francisco, I knew that I’d be able to scratch one more off the list—driving the chase route from the movie Bullitt.

The year was 1968, and the nearly 10-minute duel between Steve McQueen’s Mustang and Bill Hickman’s Charger became a cinematic legend that has never been rivaled. The lore of the Bullitt chase continues to stir controversy to this day. How many hubcaps did the Charger really lose? Why does the owner of the surviving Bullitt Mustang keep it locked away, refusing to share it with the world? The fact that Ford has produced two generations of Bullitt-edition Mustangs is a testament to the movie’s place in history.

There have been plenty of car chase scenes since Bullitt. Some damn good ones. But nothing endures like the original. The final chase scene from Ronin was spectacular. But can you remember what kind of car DeNiro was driving? Neither can anyone else.

Amazingly, 2013 marks the 45th anniversary of Bullitt, and to commemorate the king of car chases, perpetrated by the undisputed king of cool, Hoondog Events organized a celebration that would be a pilgrimage for the serious devotees of the Dark Highland Green Stang. Hoondog specializes in events for non-profit organizations, and this one would be very near and dear. The proceeds from the Bullitt 45th Anniversary benefit the Boys Republic in Chino, California, which serves to help troubled youth. Steve McQueen was its most famous graduate.

The anniversary festivities were to commence on Friday, June 21 at the Hilton Garden Hotel near the San Francisco airport. Rolling into the parking lot, I saw a phalanx of Bullitts. There were a few ’68 clones, but the bulk of the nearly 40 cars present were of the ’01 and ’08 variety. Scanning license plates, there were cars from as far away as New York, Indiana, Missouri, and even a few from Canada. These guys were serious. Kurt Anderson and Paul Rocha from Hoondog Events gave me the rundown of the day’s events. Paul is one of the faithful, with a Bullitt Mustang of his own. He says it runs in the 9-second range, and we won’t be surprised to see it an NMRA event soon.

After a drivers meeting, the first order of business was a caravan to San Francisco City Hall. Bullitt was a police movie of course, and none other than the President of the San Francisco Police Commission, Tom Mazzacco made an official declaration in the mayor’s chambers that June 21 would henceforth be Bullitt Day. Chad McQueen was on hand to accept the proclamation certificate, and to shake hands with all of the Bullitt Mustang owners.

Three of the participants represented a multi-generation testament to Bullitt legacy. Frank Panacci Sr. was a San Francisco Police Officer who helped to block streets and direct traffic during the filming, and he also acted as an extra, in uniform, directing traffic during an early scene in the film. McQueen’s commitment to realism meant that actual police officers, not actors were used where possible. Panacci’s son, Frank Jr., and his grandson Tony own movie-correct replicas of both the Mustang and the Charger, and they were each parked outside the entrance to City Hall during the ceremony.

Following the commemoration at City Hall, it was time for the main event, and the reason I made a 400-mile banzai run from L.A.—the running of the chase scene route. There was an official San Francisco Police escort, but trying to line up 40 green Mustangs in heavy downtown traffic on a Friday afternoon is about as easy as a moon landing. I ditched my search for the black and white and followed the comprehensive driving directions provided by the Hoondog crew. To make it official, I cued up track two from Lalo Schifrin’s soundtrack—the funky music that builds the tension as McQueen and Hickman play cat-and-mouse in traffic, leading up to the point where the Charger nails the gas, whips left, and rockets uphill. From that point on, a 390 and a 440 provide the only accompaniment.

Visualizing the chase scene in my mind, driving the route became a series of “Hey, I know this spot!” moments. Waiting to turn left where the music stops, I could picture that yellow cab blocking McQueen from making the turn to chase the Dodge. With everyone at different points along the route, at any given point there were Mustangs behind me, in front of me, and coming the other way. The local residents quickly figured out what was going on, and we started seeing fans on street corners snapping pictures.

If you’ve done your research, you know that the chase didn’t follow a consistent point-A-to-point-B route. Different sections of San Francisco streets were used, and the entire chase was edited together. However, the route that was set up for us hit most of the main recognizable locations, and the entire experience was indescribably cool.

Following the running of the chase route, we were given instructions to proceed to a community center in Brisbane, on the other side of San Francisco, fairly close to the airport. I didn’t immediately recognize the importance of the location until I realized that Guadalupe Canyon Parkway lead to our destination. The final portion of the chase scene, with both cars running flat out and banging into each other, eventually leading to the Charger’s demise, took place on Guadalupe. Pretty clever planning!

At the community center, we were treated to a barbecue, a live band, and guest speakers who gave in-depth detail about the filming of Bullitt, as well as the latest details about the current fate of the surviving Mustang. Nope, you still can’t go see it, unfortunately.

The following day, the Bullitt herd proceeded to the Blackhawk Automotive museum in Danville. Taking over the parking lot, the exterior of the museum became a Bullitt car show, and the Panaccis brought their Charger and Mustang to round out the scene.

All in all, any Bullitt freak would have been crazy to miss this event, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the 50th anniversary!

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