The new Ford Mustang Bullitt—named after the 1968 movie that featured one of American cinema’s all-time-great car-chase scenes—may not be the fastest Mustang of all time. That accolade goes for now to the 2020 Ford Shelby GT500 edition, which will reach 60 miles per hour in approximately three seconds, with a top speed electronically governed to a not-very-grandmotherly 180 miles per hour. In other words, over three times the average interstate speed limit.
That’s what 760 horsepower will do for a car.
Had you been paying attention to such things in 1980, you would have known that the hottest V8 Mustang that year was forced to justify its muscle-car existence with only 140 horsepower and a speedometer that topped out (by law) at 85 miles per hour.
Times have changed. But in this case, at a moment when automobiles are meant to be far greener than ever, they have changed for the more paradoxical. Car-makers—faced with internal combustion’s end times in the form of electrification, yet simultaneously gifted with their industry’s most-sophisticated-ever ability to extract maximum horsepower from gasoline engines—have suddenly begun throwing the ponies around with abandon. These days, 600-, 700-, and even 1,000-horsepower ratings are available for some performance models.
Not so the Bullitt, with its mere 480 horsepower and a top speed of just 163 miles per hour. That’s enough juice to travel faster than you’d ever want or need to, in an altogether more restrained and tasteful aesthetic package—which, I don’t mind saying, spoke directly to this old gearhead. The Bullitt even showed us 27 miles per gallon over 800 miles of driving, a figure that is at least heading in a green direction. Credit all that technology.
The new Bullitt has enough juice to travel faster than you’d ever want or need, in a restrained and tasteful package.
Inspired by the Mustang that actor Steve McQueen (Frank Bullitt) famously raced, often airborne, up, down, and around the hilly streets of San Francisco in the 1968 Peter Yates cop classic, today’s Bullitt is essentially a trim package, based on the current Mustang GT, but granted an extra helping of 20 horsepower, some gun-sight badges, and a cool paint job. Finished like the McQueen movie steed in an appealing dark shade—“ Dark Highland Green”—and set against matte-gray 60s-style alloy wheels, the Bullitt is aggressive yet somehow subtle, an understated example of automotive overstatement.
Hewing to the same general formula as its fabled predecessor—brawny fastback 2+2, big V8 up front, rear-wheel drive, and a manual transmission, now with six forward speeds and a groovy white cue-ball shift knob, the new car is a far more comfortable, and also a safer, faster, and—with independent rear suspension at long last—better-riding proposition than its inspirer. Even so, it looks resolutely backward.
The McQueen Connection
Not to be overlooked in this regard is the McQueen connection, which remains remarkably vital 51 years on. For a guy widely considered a hyper-competitive, mercurial asshole in life, just about everything to do with the ill-tempered thespian has become in his afterlife a near-priceless artifact of cool and good taste, especially where cars are concerned.
McQueen’s slate-gray 1970 Porsche 911S, for instance, sold at auction in 2011 for $1.375 million, an amount that included the car’s intrinsic value plus a premium of roughly $1.25 million, happily paid by someone for a hit of McQueen provenance. One of two actual picture cars used in the filming of Bullitt resurfaced recently. Now this crown jewel of the McQueen brand—bought in the 1970s for $6,000—is up for auction and valued by market analysts between 3 and 5 million. A further measure of the car’s appeal? In France, the only new American-built Ford offered for sale is the Bullitt Mustang. “We love Steve McQueen,” Ford’s Paris representative told me.
None of which has terribly much to do with the 2020 Bullitt ($47,810 starting price). Like all new cars, it can only be expected to depreciate in the near term. However, it is hardly bad value in the performance-car realm, not for something so fetching, so quick, so composed.
The Best of the Gasoline Era
As I discovered after landing in Detroit to begin a trip to Mackinac Island, this is very much an end-of-an-era machine, a true driver’s muscle car built as good as they have ever built them, one that sums up the best of the gasoline era, American-style, and leaves out the worst. That it pays tribute to a movie you’d have to be 60 or older to remember from its initial release tells us something about the Bullitt’s intended audience. But come one, come all—the driving experience will speak to you.
Leaving the surface streets, the V8 burbled muscularly, which may or may not have helped me pretend to be an honest cop like Frank Bullitt, tough but fair, a cool, sunglasses-wearing lawman of few words. Just don’t make me angry.
Adjusting my rearview mirror at a light, I proceeded to run the Bullitt vigorously through some lower gears as I entered the highway, heading for the passing lane. Only when I’d sprinted across four lanes and shifted into fourth did I look down to realize I was going 101 m.p.h. I backed off, but not too much. Having driven in this state a lot, I long ago noticed that most Michiganders on the freeway drive like they’re in their own chase scene, or operate under the apparent belief that they’re qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Which meant that I’d barely caught up to traffic by this point and still got passed on the right. By a pickup truck.
Only when I’d sprinted across four lanes and shifted into fourth did I look down to realize I was going 101 m.p.h.
Why, you might ask, drive a brand-new Mustang from Detroit to a parking lot in northern Michigan, adjacent to a ferry that would take you to an island with no cars, where all transport is by horse-drawn carriage, bicycle, or foot?
Well, you’ve got to get there somehow and there’s a lot of open road between the two. And then there’s the Grand Hotel, the island’s largest and longest-standing, which beckoned. A quaint full-service establishment with literally the world’s largest front porch, it overlooks the Straits of Mackinac, connecting Lake Huron with mighty Lake Michigan.
A Carriage Museum and the March of Time
A full 80 percent of the heavily forested island is a protected state park, but among Mackinac’s man-made attractions is a carriage museum established in an old stable with a fascinating assortment of 19th-century carriages, some bearing the names of onetime car-makers like Studebaker and Durant-Dort. Durant would go on to found General Motors. Unlike the hotel, which soldiers bravely and honestly into the 21st century, a dip into the world of carriages reminded us how hard it is for industrial concerns to prevent the march of time from coming along and trampling their business model.
There was thus something strangely appropriate about a destination with no cars. The Ford Motor Co. last year announced its intention of getting out of the car business. That is, the passenger-car business. Ford plans on canceling all its car lines in North America except the Mustang, to concentrate on building trucks and crossovers, because that’s where they figure the money is. And while we’re here to drive one of today’s finest Mustangs, they’ve already laid plans to expand the Mustang nameplate to include … what else? … crossovers, also known as small trucks. Electric ones, even.
So the Mustang, a money-spinning confection of the 1960s which early on sold as many as a half million units a year, then almost died on the vine, is the last car standing for Ford, as it braces for the anonymous, autonomous, electric days ahead. Or whatever it is that’s going to happen to cars. No one knows anything for sure. Except this: the Mustang of the future will be fast. It will endeavor to look familiar. It’s hard to imagine there will be a Bullitt edition, though you never know.
Jamie Kitman is a car columnist for Air Mail