Some movie cars are so ideal for their roles that they become characters themselves.
It doesn’t often happen. Cars are usually just props and treated as such. But in rare cases, some magic ignites and that car-prop becomes an actor worthy of its own billing — and its own price.
The evil ’68 Dodge Charger made famous in the movie Bullitt is an example of that transformative magic: Black magic, specifically.
The black Dodge Charger was perfectly cast for the famous chase scene through (and down, and up, and occasionally leaping over) the streets of San Francisco. The Charger appears self-serious, upright and formal in its malevolence. It’s a hitman in a well-cut suit tailored around a shoulder rig with a silenced Colt .45.
Frank Bullitt’s green Mustang fastback strikes a cooler, hipper and younger vibe. That black Charger is the establishment reasserting itself. It seeks to oppress the young and raucous rebellion embodied in Steve McQueen’s amusing little muscle car.
The Charger is the man to the Mustang’s kid. That chase sequence is the story of the 1960’s, in its own way. The chase scene in Bullitt is famous for a few reasons – some of them misperceptions.
For instance, it is often assumed Steve McQueen – an admirable racer at the time – did the driving. However, Peter Yates, the film’s director, could not have risked his star in that way. McQueen lookalike and longtime-stuntman Loren Janes drove the Mustang, with McQueen in the driver seat only for scenes that would have spoiled the illusion. McQueen relied on Janes to advise him when a stunt was something he should not take on, though McQueen was more than capable enough to handle most of the maneuvers in the film.
There is also a mistaken assumption that the sequence was filmed while the streets were live with “real” traffic. Although this has been done at times throughout movie history, that wasn’t the case in Bullitt. All cars appearing in the scene – including the famous green VW Beetle that gets passed at least four times during the chase – were piloted by well-trained stunt professionals.
The scene looks amazingly dangerous, but few chances were taken. Even the motorcycle crash was handled by McQueen’s legendary biking sidekick, Bud Ekins.
Perhaps the largest misperception of all was that a Mustang could actually hang with a Dodge Charger.
Stuntman Bill Hickman piloted the Charger. Hickman complained he had to back off the gas in Charger to let the Mustang catch up. The 390 cubes of the Mustang were no match for the 440 Magnum-equipped Dodge. Despite its larger size, extra weight and more upright profile, the Charger mopped the streets with its pony car rival, and in more ways than just straight-line speed.
A shot during the chase shows the Mustang going into the rough and breaking a front-wheel spindle. The next shot shows the intact car back in action – as though nothing happened. Car guys noticed this, but it assumed most of the moviegoing public would not, so it was left in the final cut.
The thing is: The Dodge Charger not only went faster – it also did not break, despite its larger size.
Perhaps it was just another example of black magic.
The surviving movie car – the one that was not destroyed in the gas station explosion at the end of the chase – was sold back to Glendale Dodge for resale after filming. This was quite amazing given the abuse the Charger had suffered.
Almost 40 years later, the Charger was discovered in Arizona languishing behind a shed. The then-current owner had no idea a legend resided in his backyard. The Charger’s identity was confirmed by the holes drilled in the floor pan and body for various camera mounts. A long restoration effort returned the car to its dark 1968 glory, and demanded a $1,000,000 asking price.