Bullitt: Chasing the detective’s mystique

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Not to go all Pauline Kael on you, but “Bullitt” -- the 1968 crime drama starring a Ford Mustang GT390 and some guy named Steve McQueen -- is a fairly tedious bit of Aquarian cinema: the chicka-chicka-waah soundtrack, the inscrutable plot, the anaerobic dullness of every second that McQueen is off-camera.

“Bullitt” scrabbles to its minor footnote status in film history on two counts. The first: It marks the only time any man ever looked cool in a cardigan -- McQueen should have gotten the academy’s knitwear award. The second is the movie’s remarkable seven-minute chase scene, with real cars (the Mustang and a black Dodge Charger), real drivers and real stunts, no special effects. The only blue screen in this movie is the perpetual scrim of cigarette smoke.

Bullitt review: In a Highway 1 review of the new Ford Mustang Bullitt on Wednesday, the wheels of the car were mistakenly described as being reproductions of Cragar wheels seen on Steve McQueen’s Mustang in the 1968 movie “Bullitt.” Those on the car in the movie were American Racing Torque Thrust-D wheels. —

McQueen -- who would have turned 78 this March -- made some fine movies, and some of his movies have great car action in them, but rarely, if ever, do the two qualities overlap. McQueen’s magnum opus, “Le Mans,” is about as strange a movie as can be found. The dialogue, such as it is, could be transcribed onto an index card. The plot is somewhere between furtive and nonexistent. It’s like Samuel Beckett at 200 mph. And yet, it’s a completely captivating document about endurance racing at its most glamorous. If you know what a Porsche 917 or a Ferrari 512M is, then odds are “Le Mans” is one of your all-time favorite films. Only please, don’t sit next to me on a plane.

Personally and professionally, I try very hard to separate Steve McQueen the actor -- who was never better than in “Papillon” -- and McQueen the motorsports idol, the patron saint of petrol, the king of cool, the hero to millions of gray-heads lost in an automotive time warp. Give me a break. I have no doubt that McQueen was a very hip cat. He smoked weed. He drove a Jaguar SS. He absolutely rocked a black turtleneck in a way Tom Cruise could never hope to.

But honestly, people, let’s grab a shovel and bury Steve McQueen. The poor man is working harder now than he ever did when he was alive. He is among the highest-earning dead celebrities -- endorsing Tag Heuer watches, for instance -- and the mawkish, ghoulish obsession with McQueen has gone so far that a pair of his Persol sunglasses -- glasses he might, might have worn in “The Thomas Crown Affair” -- sold at auction for more than $60,000. McQueen-omania has officially jumped the shark.

McQueen’s brown Ferrari Lusso sold at Pebble Beach last year for $2.3 million, which is easily twice what it would be worth without the McQueen provenance. The person who bought this car, whoever he or she is, is speculating on the rising value of all things McQueen, and I find that kind of distasteful. This is not dancing on McQueen’s grave; it’s doing the Lindy Hop.

Perhaps the biggest deal the dead McQueen struck recently was his arrangement with the Ford Motor Co. You may remember the 2004 commercials where a digitally reanimated McQueen steps out of a cornfield and jumps into a Mustang and roars off. For 2008, Ford has decided to reanimate the cinematic Mustang. Behold the Mustang Bullitt, a slightly tweaked, de-badged Mustang GT, painted Dark Highland Green and dipped with shameless McQueen nostalgia.

To say I wanted to despise this car is putting it mildly. For starters, it’s just another, not very imaginative riff on the Ford Mustang GT, aimed at goobers who’ve got it so bad for Steve they can’t help themselves. It seems exploitative, in other words. Also, Ford has a bad habit of promising that a Mustang special edition -- GT500, Cobra, Shelby, whatever -- will be a limited run and then making more if the orders come in. Ford actually already made a Bullitt Mustang in 2001. The press release for the 2008 Bullitt has weaselly language in it: “A limited production run of 7,700 units is planned.” Uh-oh.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I drove the car and found that I really, really liked it. Stunned, actually. This Bullitt -- with a 4.6-liter, 315-hp V8 and a five-speed shifter between the seats -- is way better than the axle-winding lunatic I drove a few months ago, the 500-hp Shelby GT500. You know, sometimes more horsepower is not the answer, particularly when the question is an obsolete chassis with a live rear axle.

What’s in a Bullitt? First, there’s the dark green paint, which looks terrific, no question (buyers can also get the car in black but that seems like getting a Rolls-Royce without the flying lady). The car is de-badged: no chrome pony, no Ford ovals. The only identifying marking is the word Bullitt in the cross-hair design on the faux filler cap in back. The car is gorgeous, with no scoops, spoilers or ventilating air dams.

The bit of genius in the car, though, is the wheel-and-tire package: five-spoke cast-aluminum “Euroflange” wheels -- whatever that means -- in a gray satin finish, with machined rims of bright alloy. These wheels are a convincing imitation of period-correct Cragar mag wheels. Wrapped around these rims are relatively tall 50-series performance tires. The designers needed tires with taller sidewalls to resemble the bias-ply tires of the ‘60s Bullitt; the additional benefit is a smoother, more compliant ride. Also, with a little extra give in the tires, the suspension could be firmed up. The Bullitt has a tighter spring-and-shock package, an upgrade Mustangs generally need and enthusiast owners usually order out of the Ford Racing catalog.

Under the hood, a cold-air intake and slightly raised redline (to 6,500 rpm) add up to an extra 15 horsepower over the stock GT (and 325 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm). Making the Bullitt a little quicker off the line, engineers subbed out the stock 3.31:1 rear axle with a 3.73:1 ratio.

And it’s quick, all right, not overpoweringly so, but certainly enough to get your attention. But more important, it’s all so well matched and balanced. The clutch and shift work flawlessly together, the engine is smooth and tractable. And it’s got an amazing sound. Ford’s powertrain boffins got a digitally remastered version of the film to re-create the bleak, resonant cackle of the original Bullitt. Dare I say awesome?

Throw in a strut tower brace here, some machine-turned alloy appliqués in the interior over there, and quicker than you can don a cardigan, you’ve got a Bullitt, which actually does look like the car from the movie. I don’t know if McQueen would be proud, exactly, but I know he’d be happy to cash the check.

2008 Mustang Bullitt Base price: $31,075Price, as tested: $33,500 (est)Powertrain: 4.6-liter, three-valve, OHV V8; five-speed manual transmission; rear-wheel driveHorsepower: 315 at 6,000 rpmTorque: 325 pound-feet at 4,250 rpmCurb weight: 3,500 pounds (est.)0-60 mph: 5 secondsWheelbase: 107.1 inchesOverall length: 187.6 inchesEPA fuel economy: 15 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highwayFinal thoughts: Ballistic Steve

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