July 1, 2007

Editor's Note: Seventeen years ago, while on staff with a car magazine that's no longer published, journalist Brad Bowling stumbled across one of the biggest finds in the Mustang world: the surviving '68 fastback from the movie Bullitt. He had no idea then that it would still be hidden from public view well into the 21st century. Here are the most recent updates to the story.

The car is a '68 Mustang 390 GT. The last thing in the world someone would take the green fastback for is a serious collector's item. Gifted with hindsight, it's difficult for today's enthusiasts to consider owning the surviving Bullitt Mustang and regarding it as transportation. Strangely enough, that's exactly how it's been treated by its three owners up to this day.

Steve McQueen was hot property in Hollywood in 1968. He had just completed The Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway, and he was enjoying the kind of leverage every actor desires. Because he wanted more control in the production of his movies, he signed a six-picture contract between his Solar Productions and Warner Bros.

The first-and ultimately only-product of that collaboration was Bullitt, a movie based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike. Originally optioned by television producer Phil D'Antoni as a "facing retirement" New York City cop role for Spencer Tracy, Steve's interest in the project brought about major changes in the script, including the addition of several intense chase scenes. British director Peter Yates, a former club racer who once served as Sterling Moss' race team manager, was hired to helm the movie.

As with most successes, the Bullitt chase scene had many fathers. Steve, Peter, and the two men credited with writing the screenplay, Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner, each laid claim to the idea. Regardless of pedigree, it's a tribute to Steve's persuasiveness and credibility that the city of San Francisco agreed to the mayhem he proposed for its streets. Picture the meeting: "Okay, Mr. McQueen, you want to race two cars through our city at 100 miles an hour. Could we interest you in burning down some of our buildings as well?"

To get Steve to sign on for the movie, Warner Bros. assumed a tremendous financial risk by giving in to several of the star's demands. He wanted every shot to have the grit and texture of the real '60s San Francisco scene, which meant easy shooting in a studio backlot was forbidden. Realism was enhanced by the use of the new Arriflex camera, a lightweight wonder that gave Director of Photography William Fraker tremendous mobility and flexibility. Action was captured on celluloid from a Corvette-based chase vehicle known as the Bullittmobile.

Whether or not Steve specifically requested his character drive a Mustang is unclear. An ongoing product-placement arrangement between Ford and Warner is most likely the reason for the choice. Two Highland Green fastbacks sporting GT packages, 390 engines, and-according to Kevin Marti's Ford production database-sequential VINs were shipped to the studio. Likewise, two new Dodge Chargers-reportedly with 440 engines-were purchased for the bad guys to drive.

Hollywood car-builder and racer Max Balchowsky modified all four cars with extra welding, bracing, suspension, and engine work to handle the heavy abuse. The Mustangs' shock towers were stiffened, and Max installed heavy-duty front springs, a thicker antiroll bar, and Koni shocks. A power increase came from milled heads along with ignition and carb upgrades. Several pieces were removed from the Mustangs, including the GT foglights, the running-pony grille emblem, the Mustang lettering, and even the GT badges. The stock wheels were replaced with custom-made rims from American Racing. In addition, the fastback assigned to jump duty received a rollbar-mounted camera so moviegoers could get a taste of what it was like to fly through the air above San Francisco's hilly pavement.

Not only did the main Mustang get trashed performing the jump scenes, but it was also the car responsible for the fiery destruction of the Charger at the end of the chase. Special towing equipment was mounted to the passenger side of the Mustang, and two dummies were placed in the Charger. Through clever editing, it looked as though the Mustang ran the Charger off the road and into the gas station where it blew up.

Because the main Mustang was so damaged by the time shooting ended, it's unlikely anyone at Warner considered selling it. Most of the people behind the movie recall that it was sent to a junkyard where it was eventually crushed.

But what about the second car?

The First Owner
An employee of Warner Bros., Robert M. Ross, bought the surviving car after production was finished. When I contacted Robert to interview him for an article I was writing in 1990, he politely but firmly told me, "It will be a long time before I talk to anyone again about the Bullitt car." He explained that previous interviewers misquoted him and printed "pure b.s." about it. When he realized that I had located the Mustang, he offered some information but was still reluctant to agree to a longer interview.

Robert suggested I talk to his friend Bill Norton, who owned Valley Ford Mustang in North Hollywood at the time. Bill is one of the few people who can claim to have driven the Bullitt Mustang. "The car wasn't as beat up as you might imagine," he recalled. "It was very nice because it hadn't been as abused as the Mustang that did all the jumping."

"It was a fun car to drive," he said. It was "very powerful but also very squirrelly, especially one rainy night on the Ventura Freeway when Bob and I were going home from a party. The car was really noisy because it didn't have any soundproofing. Apparently the movie people had used that one to make the 'live' recordings that were later dubbed into the soundtrack."

Robert kept the fastback for a year or so, according to Bill, before he put it for sale in Hemmings Motor News. "It was sold to a cop back east who wanted it shipped to him," Bill said. "I remember it was sent by train because that was the cheapest way to transport a car back then, and the guy was on the thrifty side."

Bill got more from the Bullitt car than just his driving impressions. In a cardboard box at Valley Ford Mustang sat the GT driving lights that were removed before filming. Apparently, they went to Robert along with the car, but they didn't wind up with the second owner.

The Second Owner
No one knows the name of the second owner. Robert didn't supply it during our brief conversation, Bill couldn't remember it, and no other previously printed material mentions it. Robert thought he may have been a detective-similar to Frank Bullitt, perhaps-but didn't mention the city or state, only that it was somewhere on the East Coast. My best guess is that the Bullitt Mustang stayed with that owner for approximately two years before the third and current owner found it for sale in the newspaper.

The Third Owner
In 1972, a 24-year-old man got the bargain of a lifetime when he happened upon the Bullitt Mustang, with documentation, for what he says was "an unbelievably low price." Because he's now a successful businessman and has no intention of selling the car or considering any offers, I had to promise him total anonymity in exchange for his cooperation. Let's call him Joe.

Joe provided several pages of documentation, including copies of the first owner's card (registered by Robert Ross on Dec. 14, 1968) and the latest (registered by Joe in his home state on March 7, 1978). Both cards gave the VIN as 8R02S125559, which matches the number from the Warner Bros. letter. Years later, Kevin Marti ran the number through his production database and verified that this car and its twin were initially shipped to the same office in Southern California as "movie" Fords.

In 1990, Joe told me he hadn't actually seen the car in almost six years because it was stored in a relative's garage on the East Coast, several states away from where he was living. He was surprised to hear that his car had been the source of such speculation. Joe wasn't a hardcore Mustang enthusiast and told me his interest in the car was a combination of the low asking price and the fact that a major movie star had driven it.

Joe's anecdotes about driving the car backs up Bill's stories about it being a handful and noisy at any speed. In fact, Joe was doing some Frank Bullitt-style driving during a rainstorm when he lost control of the fastback and slid 360 degrees, resulting in minor body damage.

According to Joe, he hadn't made any changes to the car, but it was equipped with an aftermarket shifter and steering wheel when he bought it. That's exactly how it sat in 1990, with approximately 40,000 miles on the odometer. "Otherwise," he told me, "the engine compartment, interior, and paint all look original."

Despite the fact that he wasn't driving it any more, he insisted it would never be for sale. Steve McQueen himself tried to buy it in 1977, but Joe had already promised that it wouldn't leave the family, flattered though he was by the offer.

The Last 17 Years
I've contacted Joe three or four times by phone since breaking the story in 1990, but I've been unable to convince him to share the Bullitt car with the general public.

When I met Steve McQueen's son Chad in 1997 while visiting friends in Malibu, he asked me about the car. I showed him Joe's paperwork-while maintaining anonymity-and Chad became enthusiastic that something could be done to get the car into the open. I phoned Joe and discussed possibilities Chad had raised-such as the McQueen family buying it and promising that no one would reveal the previous owner's name or whereabouts-but I couldn't move him from his position.

A year later, I called Joe at the request of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which was celebrating Bullitt's 30th anniversary with a special exhibit of period clothes and movie memorabilia. Hoping against hope to borrow the surviving original, my contact at the museum even offered to have board member Jay Leno phone the owner.

When I reached him, Joe wasn't happy to entertain questions about his car, which he had relocated twice in the 10 years since our first talk. It had been stored in his father's garage in 1990, then was moved to a horse farm where it spent a few years in a barn. While there, a worker on the property told a Mustang enthusiast about a hidden green fastback with an interesting history. From the description, the Mustanger suspected it was the Bullitt car and snuck onto the grounds to take pictures without permission. Joe told me he dealt with the employee who allowed this to happen, then moved the car to the garage in his Southeast home, where it was sitting next to his Porsche as we talked. He thanked me for keeping his identity a secret, but once again declined to consider any offers to show the car.

The Petersen Museum built its display around Dave Kunz's replica of the movie car.

In 2000, I happened to call Joe on the day of his son's 16th birthday. He told me I was no longer the only person who knew about the car because the producers of the first Charlie's Angels movie tracked him down. Actress Drew Barrymore wanted her character to drive the honest-to-goodness Bullitt Mustang.

This exchange didn't sit well with Joe because "they wouldn't take 'no' for an answer."

The producers called him at home and at work and even sent gifts in an attempt to change his mind. Their offer grew to include money, a trip to Hollywood, and dinner with Drew. Joe, whose privacy is precious to him, finally threatened the movie makers with legal action if they didn't stop bothering him.

He says he's dedicated to keeping the car's existence secret because his son wants to "clean it up and drive it now that he's getting his license."

Before I let him off the phone, Joe promised to consider showing the Bullitt car to the public if and when an official Mustang museum is built.

"Otherwise," he says, "it's staying in the garage."

That was the last time I heard from him.

Bullitt Trivia

  • For his role as Frank Bullitt, Steve McQueen was voted World Film Favorite by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
  • Because Bullitt production went well over the studio's budget, Warner ended the six-picture agreement with Solar.
  • Many studio-owned cars were used in the film to interact with the Mustang and Charger; it's possible to see some of them over and over if you know what to look for. The most obvious repeats include a yellow cab, a white '68 Firebird hardtop, a green Volkswagen Beetle, a Cadillac, and numerous Mustangs. Besides supplying realistic street scenery, company-owned vehicles were placed alongside the road to catch the Mustang or Charger if they lost control.
  • Through the miracle of movie-making, the Charger loses a total of eight hubcaps during the chase scene.
  • Steve McQueen's letter attempting to buy back the Mustang is dated Dec. 14, 1977, one month after he and his second wife, Ali MacGraw, divorced.
  • Three years after attempting to buy back the Bullitt Mustang, Steve McQueen died of cancer. His collection of cars, motorcycles, and antique toys survived intact for many years in the hands of his son Chad.