Bullitt Mustang #559 Discovery*
* Now with more words!
March 12, 2017 -- In 1990, while on staff with a car magazine that is no longer around, I stumbled across the biggest find in the Mustang world – the surviving ’68 fastback from the movie Bullitt.
This article is a combination of several pieces I’ve written for magazines over the years. It includes material for the feature that appeared in the April 1990 issue of Mustang Illustrated all the way through the April 2010 issue of Mustang Enthusiast. You will notice that there is some conflicting information in this story, such as the selling price of #559 as it traded hands between the second and third owners. I am quoting interview subjects when I give that information, and they each have different memories of the sale. I leave those minor details in place, unchallenged.
NOTE: With the recent discovery of this car's "twin" in Mexico, I have updated my article to distinguish between the two by the final three digits of their VINs. The Bullitt survivor I've written about for 27 years is now known as "#559." The Mexico car is "#558." – Brad Bowling
The car was a 1968 Mustang 390 GT. The last thing in the world you’d take the green fastback for is a serious collector’s item. Gifted with hindsight, it’s difficult for us modern-day enthusiasts to consider owning the surviving Bullitt Mustang and thinking of it simply as transportation but, strangely enough, that’s exactly how it has been treated by its three owners to this day.
Steve McQueen was a hot property in Hollywood in 1968. He had just completed The Thomas Crown Affair with Faye Dunaway, and he was enjoying the kind of creative leverage every actor works for. Because he wanted more control over 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, based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike. Originally optioned by television producer Phil D’Antoni as a “facing retirement” cop role for Spencer Tracy in New York City, McQueen’s interest in the project brought about major changes in the script – including the addition of several intense chase scenes. English director Peter Yates, a former club racer who once served as Stirling Moss’ race team manager, was hired to helm the movie.
As with most successes, the Bullitt chase scene had many fathers. McQueen, Yates, and the two men credited with writing the screenplay – Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner – have each made claims in interviews that the idea was theirs. Regardless of pedigree, it is a tribute to McQueen’s persuasiveness and credibility that the city of San Francisco agreed to the mayhem he proposed for its streets. (Picture the meeting in which negotiations took place: “Okay, Mr. McQueen, you’d like to race two cars through our city at 100 miles an hour; could we interest you in burning down some of our buildings?”)
To get McQueen to sign on for the movie, Warner Bros. assumed a tremendous financial risk by giving in to several of the star’s demands. McQueen wanted every shot to have the grit and texture of the real 1960s San Francisco scene, which meant that easy shooting in a studio backlot was forbidden. Realism was enhanced by the use of a 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 McQueen specifically requested his character drive a Mustang is unclear. An ongoing product placement arrangement between Ford Motor Co. and Warner is most likely the reason for the choice. Two Highland Green fastbacks sporting GT packages, 390/4V motors and sequential vehicle identification numbers were shipped to the studio. The cars wore VINs 8R02S125558 and 8R02S125559. Likewise, two new Dodge Chargers were purchased, reportedly with 440-cid motors, 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 Balchowsky installed heavy-duty front springs, a thicker anti-roll bar and Koni shocks. A power increase came from milled heads and ignition and carb upgrades. Several pieces were removed from the Mustangs, including the driving lights, running pony grille emblem, Mustang lettering, and even the GT badges. Stock wheels were pulled in favor of sportier custom rims from American Racing.
The fastback assigned to jump duty, #558, also received a rollbar-mounted camera so that thrill-seeking moviegoers could get a taste of what it was like to fly through the air above San Francisco’s hilly pavement. Not only did #558 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 so that, through clever editing, it would look like the Mustang ran the Charger off the road into the gas station where it blew up.
Carey Loftin was the movie’s stunt coordinator, with Bill Hickman acting and driving the Charger. Bud Ekins, a motorcycle buddy of McQueen who had doubled for him in The Great Escape, was hired to drive the Mustang during the dangerous downhill sections.
Because #558 was so damaged by the time shooting ended, people behind the movie reported in interviews that it was sent to a junkyard and assumed crushed. (For latest updates on #558, google "lost Bullitt Mustang.")
But what about #559?
The First Owner of #559
An employee of Warner Bros. named Robert M. Ross bought #559 after production finished. When I contacted Ross to interview him for this story in 1990, he politely but firmly told me, “It will be a long time before I talk to anyone about the Bullitt car after the last time.” Ross went on to explain that previous interviewers had misquoted him and “printed pure b.s.” about the car. When he realized that I had located #559, he offered some information but was still understandably reluctant to agree to a longer interview.
Ross suggested I talk to his friend Bill Norton, who owned Valley Ford Mustang in North Hollywood at the time. Norton is one of the few people who can claim to have driven the Bullitt Mustang when it was new.
“The car was not at all beat up like you might imagine,” Norton recalled. “It was very nice because it had not been abused like the Mustang that did all of the jumping.
“It was a fun car to drive,” he told me, “very powerful but also very squirrely, especially one rainy night on the Ventura Freeway when Bob and I were going home from a party. It was also really noisy because it didn’t have any soundproofing; apparently the movie people had used that car to make the ‘live’ recordings (that were later dubbed into the soundtrack).”
Ross only kept the fastback for a year or so, according to Norton, before he put it up for sale in Hemmings Motor News.
“It was sold to a cop back east who wanted it shipped to him,” Norton said. “I remember that it was sent by train because that was the cheapest way to transport a car back then and the guy was a little on the thrifty side.”
It seems that Norton 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 Ross along with the car but did not wind up with the second owner.
The Second Owner of #559
For years, no one had a name for the second owner of #559. Ross did not supply it during our brief conversation; Norton couldn’t remember it, and no other previously printed material mentioned it. Ross thought that the man might have been a detective (like Frank Bullitt, perhaps) but didn’t mention the city or state, only that it was somewhere on the East Coast.
Then, in November 2009, my Gmail account delivered a header that read: Lost Years 1968 Bullitt Mustang – Second Owner. The attached message said, “You found me. I owned the Bullitt Mustang from 1970 to 1974. Call [this number] if you want more details.”
Three phone calls and a 10-hour drive later, I was shaking hands with Frank Marranca, the retired detective whose personal archives and anecdotes would quadruple the amount of documentation I now have in my Bullitt files. He would also provide the only photographs anyone has seen of #559 since it slid to a stop on the big screen in 1968.
What follows is my 2009 interview with Marranca. It ran in almost this form in the April 2010 issue of Mustang Enthusiast magazine.
BOWLING: How many times did you see Bullitt before deciding that you wanted to own that very car?
MARRANCA: Twice. My first wife’s father worked at CBS News, and he used to show films at his house. He had something like a studio upstairs where we would watch first-run movies. That’s where I saw Bullitt for the first time. A friend of his worked for a film company, and he brought these big reels they would use in movie theaters. I mentioned to him once that I would love to own the car Steve McQueen drove in Bullitt.
He flew to California a lot with his job, so he heard the Mustang was for sale and told me. He gave me the number. That was on the weekend. Come Monday morning, I called Robert Ross.
BOWLING: Had you owned any high-performance cars prior to this one?
MARRANCA: When I was in the Marines, I bought a ’65 Pontiac LeMans convertible, then later a ’65 GTO. I kept that for a few years, picked up a ’62 Corvette, which I sold for a ’67 Buick Riviera Gran Sport. Then came the Bullitt Mustang.
BOWLING: Was the sale contingent on Ross verifying that this was the actual car from the movie?
MARRANCA: I was convinced, just by talking to him, but I wasn’t going to release the money until I saw the car and the paperwork he had sent me. How we worked it out was…he would put the car on a train and ship it through the rails. I would deposit the money in the bank. That money would not be released to his bank until I looked at the car to ensure the car was in substantially the condition he described. He put the car onto the rails on Nov. 10, 1970, and sent me this paperwork that you see here. I went down to Southern Pacific on December 4 to pick it up.
This is a letter from him. It’s handwritten in their [Warner Bros.] envelope, postmarked the 18th. In that, I have the original bill of lading, and there is the location where it was sitting in Staten Island. A copy went along with that, and when I picked the car up and authorized the release, I signed for it here, and I had to pay $356.16 [for the transportation].
BOWLING: How much did you pay for the car itself?
MARRANCA: Six thousand dollars.
In the car was the original registration from him, from California. This is the letter of authenticity. This was also in the car – a list showing what was done to the car and how much money they approximately spent [getting it ready to be in the movie].
Also in the car were these photo cards. They would be put inside the movie theater to show what was playing, and this Pressbook was with it.
In an envelope marked “to whom it may concern” was a paid itemized bill for Warner Bros. After shooting the movie, they had Precision Auto Body on Hollywood Boulevard make some repairs to the car. The job cost $920.16 and was finished on Sept. 27, 1968. It included replacing the grille, grille surround, molding, antenna, a knob of some kind (for $4.65), and several other things I can’t make out from the handwriting. They also straightened and rechromed both bumpers – all for less than $1,000! Can you imagine how much that would cost today? One thing I didn’t get with the car was the shift knob. Somebody had taken it off the car before I received it in Staten Island. That was missing.
In the movie, my car had a small round mirror on the driver’s door. [It was painted body color.] I also see round mirrors on some of these replicas people have built, but when I got the car, it had a square mirror.
BOWLING: What condition was the car in when you got it?
MARRANCA: There were no dents, scratches, or rips in the interior. It was a used car, you could tell, but in very good condition.
There was a small piece of tape on the tachometer when I picked it up from the train station. It had the words “little pieces” written on it in pen. It was pointing somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 RPM. As pre-arranged, I called Ross to tell him I had the car. When I asked about the sticker, Ross told me that McQueen or [car builder] Max Balchowsky had placed it there so McQueen would stay out of the engine’s redline. Going over would blow the engine to “little pieces.”
The only thing I’m aware of that was altered was that they took out the insulation from the firewall so the noise of the engine would come into the driver’s compartment. They had truck mufflers with straight pipes.
If memory serves me, Ross told me that in the trunk, on the left-hand side, there’s a hole and a piece of tubing in there. He told me he thought there had been a blower on there to keep the brakes cool. However, I’ve read lately that it may have been a vent for a generator to keep the camera cool. I don’t know which is true.
One of the first things I did to the car was take it to Roger’s Speed Shop in Garwood, on South Avenue. Roger Munn put a four-speed Hurst shifter in there. Not long after that, I took it to a place in Elizabeth called Cleveland Auto & Tire on 3rd Avenue. They put Pirelli racing tires on.
I’ve read something about a Nardi steering wheel being taken off. I don’t know anything about that. The steering wheel that was on the car when I bought it is the same steering wheel that was on it when I sold it.
I had a kill switch installed, but I don’t remember who did the work. That kill switch was inside the ashtray. When you lowered the ashtray, you pulled out the insert where you would put your cigarettes, and there was the switch. I’ve read somewhere mentioned there was a switch they thought was for fog lights – I don’t know if they are talking about the same switch I’m talking about. Those are the only two things I did to that car.
The first summer I had the car, my wife and I went down to Wildwood, New Jersey. It’s a seashore town. We stayed at a hotel on the Wildwood Crest. I engaged the kill switch, and I took the coil wire with me. I was still looking out in the middle of the night to make sure the car was where I left it.
BOWLING: Why did you put in a Hurst shifter?
MARRANCA: I didn’t like the four-speed shifter that was in there. It felt sloppy. It made a big difference – much tighter. As for the tires, I had gotten a flat with the Firestones on there.
BOWLING: Did you keep it a secret that you had the actual Bullitt Mustang?
MARRANCA: No. I made no bones about it. If anybody asked me about the car, I told them what it was. At that time, nobody really cared.
BOWLING: Did you keep all of the car’s original markings and decals intact?
MARRANCA: Back then, the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles put its inspection sticker on the passenger side of the windshield. Near that spot, the Mustang had a sticker that was about ¾ of an inch wide and two inches long that said “WB,” which I suspect was the Warner Bros. sticker that allowed Ross to drive the car on their lot as an employee. It was all the way in the bottom of the glass, and I wanted to keep it intact. You could not see that sticker from anywhere inside the car. You had to be outside the car, looking in, to see it.
The DMV in New Jersey said it was obstructing my vision, and they failed me. I pointed out that I couldn’t see it, but I could see their sticker, which was above it. I had to scrape it off, but I could not get all the way into that corner to remove it. They refused to scrape it off themselves. They put a “failure” sticker on. I went home, scraped off their failed sticker, put the California plates back on, and drove it like that.
The following year, I put the Jersey plates back on, took it in for inspection and they gave me a hard time because I scraped their sticker off. They threatened to call the police on me until I explained that I was the police.
BOWLING: It must have been a blast to own the honest-to-goodness Bullitt Mustang. Tell us your favorite memories of your time with it.
MARRANCA: In 1971, Bullitt was playing at the Linden Movie Theater on Wood Avenue. I spoke to the manager and asked he if wanted me to bring the car over on a Friday night. He gave us six free tickets. The car sat outside. Some people showed interest in it. Other people didn’t even notice it, just walked right by it.
BOWLING: Were people aware it was the car – not just a green Mustang?
MARRANCA: Some were. I thought they were going to announce it, but they never did. Some of the people I worked with had never seen it before, so they went over to look at it.
At one time, back around 1972, I was assigned to the Narcotics Strike Force of Union County. We had no real undercover cars in the beginning. They were usually unmarked police cars painted different colors. We had a case involving an individual from Mountainside, New Jersey, who allegedly was going to Newark to purchase drugs. I took the Mustang one day, and a couple of other guys in different vehicles followed the car to Newark, where we watched him make his purchase and drive back to Mountainside, where we arrested him. It was fun getting to drive it on the highway.
My wife and I, one Sunday morning, were going to Atlantic City on the Expressway. It was November, and it was cold. A Datsun pulled up next to us and obviously wanted to race. The speedometer was showing 120, and the tach was still rising. I left him in the dust. I never did downshift; I just opened the four-barrel. That was the fastest I ever drove the car. I normally just drove it on the highway.
It was always kept covered in a garage. I would take it out on weekends and drive around with it. It was quite a car to drive, it really was. When I drove the car, it was very tight. When taking corners – like ramps on the parkway – the car didn’t lean. It just sat there. I never tried to smoke the tires or burn rubber, but it was a very strong-running car. When you rode in that car, you knew there was something fast under you.
I had police cars that didn’t have that much power. I had a ’74 Plymouth 440. It was probably the fastest police car I had. If I remember right, it had 160 or 180 on the speedometer. That Plymouth was a monster on the highway. It would just gobble the highway up, but nothing ran like that Mustang that I ever drove.
BOWLING: Was it loud?
MARRANCA: Yes, it was. One time, it failed my DMV inspection because it was too loud. The next time I took it back, it passed, even though I had done nothing to it.
BOWLING: It sounds like you really enjoyed owning it. Why did you sell it?
MARRANCA: My wife at the time said I was being selfish having it in the garage. She had a three- or four-year-old Chrysler station wagon, and she wanted a new wagon. I sold the Bullitt car in April of 1974 and bought a new Chevy Vega station wagon. When I sold the car, it had about 19,000 miles on it. I don’t remember how many miles it had when I bought it, but I doubt I put more than 10,000 miles on the car.
BOWLING: How did you go about selling it?
MARRANCA: Road & Track, if I remember right. I put an ad in. I sold it for what I paid for it – $6,000. The car was already six years old. The guy who bought it was the only one who called. When I sold him the car, I gave him some of the paperwork that had come with the car. I kept a lot of it. He never asked me for it. I gave him the California license plates that were on it when I bought it. I remember standing in the middle of the street when he was driving away, thinking, “There goes my car.”
I can picture myself standing there now, watching it go away. It was like somebody stole my car.
BOWLING: A few years later, Steve McQueen was trying to locate the car, but you had already sold it. How did he find you?
MARRANCA: I was working sex crimes in 1977. I had come in off the road, and there was a phone message to “call Mr. McQueen.” I called the number. I had no idea who it was, because we would get calls from all over the United States concerning cases.
The girl answered the phone: “Solar Productions.”
I said, “Detective Marranca for Mr. McQueen.”
She said, “Oh, you’re the detective who has the Bullitt Mustang.” I remember taking the phone from my ear, looking at it, and putting it back to my ear.
I said, “Steve McQueen?” I felt like a little kid, you know?
I gave them the information to find the third owner. They called me back to tell me he wouldn’t sell the car. I still have that information somewhere. I haven’t looked that hard to find it, but back then I had a complete file of papers that included the contact information for the guy I sold it to.
They followed up by sending me a nice letter and an autographed picture. They sent that voluntarily; I didn’t have to ask for it. The ink on the photo is faded now because it sat in my office for 20 years until I retired.
That contact with McQueen was the last time anybody asked me about the Bullitt Mustang until you showed up.
The Third Owner of #559
In 1974, a 24-year-old man got the bargain of a lifetime when he happened upon Bullitt Mustang #559, with documentation, for what he says was “an unbelievably low price.” Because he would become a successful businessman and had no intention of selling the car or considering any offers, I promised him total anonymity in exchange for his cooperation. Let’s just call him “Joe.”
Joe provided several pages of documentation, including copies of the first owner’s card (registered by Bob Ross on Dec. 14, 1968, license plate VVE 590) and the latest (registered by “Joe” in his home state on March 7, 1978, license plate 850 IPZ). Both cards gave the vehicle identification number as 8R02S125559, which matches the number from the Warner Bros. letter. (Years later, Marti Auto Works verified for me that this car and its twin, VIN 8R02S125558, were initially shipped to the same office in Southern California as were a few other “movie” Fords.)
Joe told me in 1990 he had not 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 was not 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 back up Bill Norton’s stories about it being a real handful and noisy at any speed. In fact, during a rainstorm, Joe did some Frank Bullitt-style driving when he lost control of the fastback and slid 360 degrees around, resulting in some minor body damage.
According to Joe, he had made no changes to the car and, in 1990, it had 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.
UPDATES: 1997, 1998, and 2000
I contacted Joe three or four times by phone since breaking the story in 1990 but was unable to convince him to share #559 with the general public.
When I met Steve McQueen’s son Chad in 1997 while visiting some friends in Malibu, Chad asked me about the car. I showed him Joe’s paperwork (while maintaining Joe’s 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 owner’s name or whereabouts – but I could not 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 #559, my contact at the museum even offered to have board member Jay Leno phone the owner.
When I reached Joe, he did not want to discuss #559, which he had relocated twice in the 10 years since our first talk. It had been stored in his father’s garage in 1990, before being 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 that had a history. From the description, the Mustanger suspected it was the Bullitt car and snuck onto the grounds to take some pictures without permission. Joe told me he had dealt with the employee who allowed this to happen, then moved the car to the garage in his Tennessee home, where it was sitting next to his Porsche as we talked. He thanked me for keeping his identity a secret but once more declined to consider any offers to show the car.
The Petersen built its display around Dave Kunz’s replica of the movie car.
On May 1, 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 had tracked him down. It seems Drew Barrymore wanted her character to drive the honest-to-goodness Bullitt Mustang.
This exchange did not sit well with Joe because, “They would not take ‘no’ for an answer!”
According to Joe, the producers called him at home and at work and even sent gifts to his house in an attempt to change his mind. Their offer grew to include money, a trip to Hollywood, and dinner with Ms. Barrymore. Joe, whose privacy is apparently quite precious to him, finally threatened the movie makers with legal action if they did not stop bothering him.
He said he was dedicated to keeping the car’s existence secret because his son wanted to “clean it up and start driving it now that he’s getting his license.”
Before I let him off the phone, Joe promised he would consider showing the Bullitt car to the public if and when an official Mustang museum was built.
“Otherwise,” he declared, “it’s staying in the garage!”
That was the last time I heard from Joe.
UPDATE: May 2007
During a roundtable interview for a Bullitt-oriented podcast for themustangsource.com, Dave Severin of Columbia Pictures told me (and the audience) that he had also tracked down #559 and verified that we had been in touch with the same third owner. Brad Barnett was the host of the discussion, and Dave Kunz was the third panelist for the talk. I have been unable to locate a recording of that podcast.
UPDATE: August 2015 -- Meet "Fred"
In August 2015, I received an email from one of Joe's friends, asking if I knew the latest information on Joe and #559. I arranged a phone call to... let's call him "Fred"... who graciously provided me 45 minutes of his time for an interview.
He started by letting me know that Joe had been struggling with a chronic disease for a decade, and he died in 2014. Fred had only spoken to Joe a few times over the final 10 years of Joe's life and was prompted to contact me when he saw an old article I wrote for a magazine. (He couldn't remember which article.)
Fred spoke to me from his memory, and he noted several times that he might be remembering a few things wrong after so many years. I am reporting his comments here, because they come from someone who drove and rode in #559 from 1974 through 1980. According to Fred's recollection...
- Fred told me that Joe was "anything but a recluse" when he bought #559 in 1974. Joe was just starting his career, making about $12,000 a year, when he bought #559 for $3,200 from Frank Marranca. Joe drove #559 as his everyday car until 1980, when a job transfer relocated him from New Jersey. Fred and his wife rode in #559 many times with Joe and his wife. Fred drove #559 many times.
- "It was referred to as the 'static car.' It had been repainted a number of times, and not very well. It looked nice. The body was straight, but the movie studio must have dinged it up. It had a Hurst shifter with a big white knob on the top, which is different from what I read about the car when it was in the movie. The action on the shifter was fantastic."
- "Joe was enamored with the Warner Bros. parking sticker on the windshield. It made him feel good about the car's authenticity. Back then, there was no Marti Report to verify this. The second owner had all this documentation to prove its history, including some audio tape the studio had made of the car's exhaust sound for the movie."
- "What I remember, Brad, is not that the car was fast -- there were a million fast cars back then -- but it was really, really tight and incredibly responsive. The car had iron brackets welded underneath that were probably installed to hold cameras, but I think they helped with the stiffness, as well."
- "It just wasn't a big deal when Joe got it that it was the Bullitt car. It was just slightly more interesting than having a regular Mustang. But it handled like a current foreign sports car. Whatever they did to that suspension was very different from stock. I had a 390 '68 fastback Mustang. It was like driving around in a bath tub compared to this car."
- "After he had had it about a year, Joe had an accident with it. He spun out and smashed the ass-end into a tree. It was repaired by an excellent body shop in Summit, New Jersey. The car came out better after the accident. They painted it perfectly. He didn't get it totally repainted, but a lot of the repaired areas were in the rear."
- "You made reference in an article to a hole in the trunk... a rotted area. I don't remember that, so that may have been covered up with a piece of metal. Joe raised Great Danes. He used to fold the seats down and put the dogs in there. There was no hole there that the Danes could have accessed. It was all carpeted like you would expect. It wasn't rotted out or anything."
- "Can you imagine trying to put Great Danes in the back of a Mustang fastback? I wound up with one of their dogs, which is good because the car they drove when they weren't driving the Bullitt was an MGB GT!"
- "Joe was more of a mechanical guy; I was more of a body guy. He had Alfa Romeos. He was always dealing with these GTVs and racing them. He knew cars. The only thing I remember him mentioning is that the Bullitt had something unusual with the distributor. I don't know if it had dual points... they didn't have electronic distributors then, but Joe said whoever set up the car had done something very effective with the distributor. From the outside, the engine looked dead stock. It didn't have a dress-up kit or anything."
UPDATE: MAY 2017 -- PUTTING TO REST THE "THIRD BULLITT MUSTANG" THEORY
After the discovery of Bullitt #558 in Mexico, a zombie of a theory has stirred back to life that there were three identical Mustangs used in the movie. I am here to put a bullet in that zombie's brain. (Or whatever one does to kill a zombie; I don't follow that genre.)
Since people enjoy a good mystery and treasure hunt, the three-car story has gained traction in social media during the run-up to the movie's 50th anniversary in 2018. There is no evidence to support this claim. No one I interviewed for my stories ever suggested there were three cars. Kevin Marti searched his Ford production database for a third Highland Green fastback that would have been delivered to the same California D.S.O and never found one.
So, why the memory of a third car?
I pored over 27 years of notes about #559, and I solved that mystery from scribblings on a piece of scrap paper. When I interviewed Robert Ross in 1990, he told me, "After I bought it [#559], the studio rented it from me for a day for some final shooting." We know that Warner Bros. refurbished #559, which returned the factory driver-side mirror and radio antenna (among many other body repairs), before selling it to Ross. The completion date on Precision Auto Body's repair order is Sept. 27, 1968. With Bullitt making its premiere just 20 days later (on Oct. 17), I doubt the cleaned-up #559 has much, if any, screen time. Perhaps it was simply photographed for marketing materials or for scenes in the "Making of" documentary or movie trailer.
However it was used, I suspect this rental Ross mentioned accounts for the recollection of a third Mustang.
SIDEBAR – 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 and it is possible to see some of them over and over if you know what to look for. The most obvious repeats are: a yellow cab, a white ’68 Firebird hardtop, a green Volkswagen Beetle, a four-door Cadillac and numerous Mustangs. Beside supplying realistic street scenery, company-owned vehicles were placed alongside the road to “catch” the Mustang or Charger in case 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 McQueen 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.