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Motors

Bullitt has the looks, but it’s hardly hitting the zeitgeist

Wednesday, 2nd January, 2019 4:51pm

My initial thought was; ‘who remembers Bullitt?’

The 1968 police thriller was notable for a couple of things. Star Steve McQueen basically used the film to underline his classic, taciturn, screen hero image (essentially updating his ‘Magnificent Seven’ character to contemporary San Francisco), and reunited McQueen on screen with his fellow ‘Magnificent Seven’ alumnus, Robert Vaughan.

It’s a low-key police procedural, featuring long takes of McQueen doing very little, and is almost a prototype ‘mumblecore’ film, given the paucity, and low-key delivery, of much of the dialogue.

Oh, and it just happens to feature a bombastic, enormously influential ten minute car chase between McQueen’s Detective Frank Bullitt, driving a Highland Green Ford Mustang Fastback, and some murderous baddies in a black Dodge Charger.

The scene, which basically became the template for every car chase that followed, features both Mustang and Charger using those iconic San Francisco hills as launchpads and crash-matts, as metal is bent, and eardrums are ruptured (mostly thanks to McQueen using an unsilenced Ford GT40 Le Mans racer to provide the sound effects for his Mustang).

It’s almost incongruous, slapped into the middle of this otherwise slow-burn film, but it has created an enduring legacy; one that Ford continues to honour and/or cash-in on by releasing a Bullitt special edition of every generation of Mustang since 2001.

Now, thanks to the current-generation Mustang having crossed the Atlantic with its steering wheel on the right (and, indeed, correct) side, Irish car-and-movie buffs have a chance to add a for-real Mustang Bullitt to their car-and-Blu-Ray collection.

My initial question of just how many people still remembered and cared about Bullitt?

Well, the UK allocation of 350 cars is already sold out, so clearly there were, as the Rolls-Royce power outputs used to claim, sufficient.

What are those buyers getting for their £47,545 sterling (Irish prices aren’t yet set but around €80-85,000 seems about right)?

Well, the car is based on the 5.0 litre Mustang GT fastback.

There’s no convertible option (McQueen’s movie 390 GT Mustang was a coupe), no automatic option, and you only get the choice of two colours — Highland Green, just as the original, or black — why, when you’ve gone to the trouble of buying a Mustang Bullitt you’d have black is beyond me, but there you go.

There is more, and indeed more power. Well, a little more. The V8 engine gets a few tweaks — different throttle bodies, a new open air induction system, and a bespoke engine management system, but that liberates a mere 10hp extra over the standard V8, with a total of 460hp. The 529Nm figure for torque is unchanged.

The rest of the changes are purely cosmetic.

The grille is now de-badged, there’s a Bullitt logo on the rear, replacing the usual cantering pony badge, the shifter for the six-speed manual gearbox is now topped by a white, round, cue-ball-style knob, and the digital instrument panel is backlit in sixties-style green.

There’s also a Bullitt plaque on the dash, featuring the car’s production number, 19 inch dark-finish alloys, and a Bang & Olufsen sound system.

The sound system is entirely superfluous, as that 5.0 litre V8 makes all the music you’ll ever need. Ford says that the exhaust system has a quiet Good Neighbour mode, but I, ahem, couldn’t find the button for that. #SorryNotSorry.

It makes all the expected ridiculous growls, grumbles, and snorts and as the revs rise up along that up-and-over bar-style digital tachometer, so the sound hardens and sharpens into a proper race-car roar.

It’s fabulous noise. It might get wearing on a long run, but hook the meaty-feeling six-speeder back and right into top, and the Bullitt lopes along at motorway speeds at 1,500rpm so you’ll probably be alright. Besides, this car sounds like all cars should sound, really.

It goes only pretty well, though. That 529Nm of torque is delivered at a relatively lofty (by American V8 standards) 4,600rpm so you have to work the engine to get it to give its best.

It’s sure is not slow — 4.6 seconds to 100km/h from rest) — but with 1,800kg of kerb weight, it lacks the immediate, animalistic urgency of, say, the BMW M4 or Mercedes C63 AMG. Plus you’ll be lucky to see the claimed 22mpg figure and with CO2 emissions of 277g/km, it’s clearly been made by people who, at best, skim-read the IPCC report into climate change.

It’s also rather limited from a handling point of view. While the optional Magnaride dampers (which adjust their stiffness constantly according to the road conditions and how you’re driving) do their strong-armed best, the Mustang is never going to be pin-sharp to drive.

With all that weight, and much of it rested atop the front wheels, you have to adopt an old-school driving technique — brake in a straight line, use the weighty, fulsome, but slightly slack-feeling, steering to guide that bluff nose in, wait for the corner to open up, and then firewall the throttle, feel and hear the big V8 do its big V8 thing, and repeat at next corner.

You could spend all day criticising the relative imprecision of its handling, especially on the tight and twisty roads around Nice where Ford let us loose.

You could equally take much issue with the scrappy, inconsistent quality of the cabin (great seats, though). But that would be to entirely miss the point. Almost because it is a touch wayward, a little crude, a tad unruly, the Bullitt is huge, enormous, abiding fun.

I doubt you’d ever truly tire of driving it, and unlike many modern cars, it doesn’t feel so secure and solid in its handling that it thinks it’s better than you are.

Instead, you and the Mustang have to work together, building a rhythm, finding a groove.

It is, in a technical sense, a long way south of such as a BMW M-car or an AMG coupe or a Porsche or a Jag F-Type or any other similarly or higher-priced car you care to point at.

But so what? Personally, I’d rather have a Mustang than any of those, simply because it makes you feel better, and because other people won’t hate you for owning one.

A Bullitt, though? Well, that’s probably a bit more problematic.

There’s the issue that Steve McQueen’s legacy is a lot more complicated than him just having been a screen icon. There’s the drink and drug use, the alleged wife-beating and more to consider in the debit column.

Plus, it’s true that a standard Mustang V8 is just as quick, just as much fun, makes all the same sonorous sounds, and while you can’t have it in the same, handsome green, is the Bullitt really worth the extra money?

For 350 people, it clearly is. Movie magic strikes again.

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