The director called for speeds of about 75-80 mph, but the cars (including the ones containing the cameras) reached speeds of over 110 mph. Filming of the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in 9 minutes and 42 seconds of footage. They were denied permission to film on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Steve McQueen based his character on San Francisco Homicide Inspector Dave Toschi, made famous for his work on the Zodiac killings. McQueen had a copy made of Toschi's custom fast-draw shoulder holster.
At the time, San Francisco was not a big film-making mecca and the mayor, Joe Alioto, was very keen to promote it as such. Consequently, Bullitt (1968) enjoyed a freedom of movement around the city that would be hard to come by today, including giving up an entire hospital wing for filming, closing down multiple streets for three weeks for a car chase scene and taking over San Francisco International Airport at night.
Two Mustangs and two Dodge Chargers were used for the famous chase scene. Both Mustangs were owned by the Ford Motor Company and part of a promotional loan agreement with Warner Brothers. The cars were modified for the high-speed chase by veteran auto racer Max Balchowsky. Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin got Bud Ekins to drive the Mustang for the bulk of the stunts. Both of the Dodges were junked after the filming, as was one of the Mustangs. The other less banged-up Mustang was purchased by a WB employee after all production and post-production was completed. The car ended up in New Jersey a few years later, where Steve McQueen attempted to buy it. The owner refused to sell, and the car now sits in a barn and has not been driven in many years.
The film's famous chase scene wasn't originally in the script. In the first draft of "Bullitt", adapted from Robert L. Pike's novel "Mute Witness", Det. Frank Bullitt was a Boston policeman who ate a lot of ice cream and never solved a case. The book had originally been bought with Spencer Tracy in mind; but with Tracy's death, the property fell into the hands of Steve McQueen and Producer Philip D'Antoni. D'Antoni added the chase and changed the location to San Francisco.
According to Peter Yates, Steve McQueen made a point to keep his head near the open car window during the famous chase scene so that audiences would be reassured that it was he, not a stunt man, who was driving,
Frank Bullitt's car is a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback. The bad guys drive a 1968 Dodge Charger 440 Magnum. The Charger is just barely faster than the Mustang, with a 13.6-second quarter-mile to a 13.8-second.
Jacqueline Bisset's character is shown working in an architectural studio with a model of a modernistic and angular fountain her character has designed. This is an actual model of a sculpture entitled "Quebec libre!" by the Canadian sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. The monumental fountain was being studied at the time the film was being made. The fountain was built and completed 3 years later in 1971, not in black as the model shows, but in natural gray concrete. It may be seen today at the Embarcadero Center in downtown San Francisco across the street from the Ferry Building.
After losing control of his car and smashing into a parked vehicle, Steve McQueen's then-wife Neile begged Peter Yates to use stuntmen. So when McQueen reported for duty to find stuntman Bud Ekins sitting in his car, dressed as McQueen, he was furious.
The chase sequence takes place over a number of non-contiguous streets in and south of San Francisco. The sequence apparently starts under Highway 101 in the Mission District. When the Charger does a U-turn on what is Precita Avenue to follow the Mustang, a storage tank on Potrero Hill, in the southeast part of SF, is visible in the distance. The next few scenes are in the Bernal and Potrero areas; you can see green hills to the southwest on the horizon in one shot. Twenty-one seconds later, Coit Tower appears in the Mustang's front window to the east (as can be ascertained by the buildings' shadows). They then come to a stop for a Cable Car on Hyde Street and Filbert. The twin towers of Sts. Peter and Paul Church are visible just to the right of Coit Tower. They turn hard left next onto a four-lane street with a concrete median, what might be Columbus. A F-type street car is seen coming the opposite direction. They top a rise and Angel Island comes into view slightly on the left, placing them on about Stockton and Chestnut. They turn north, then west, then south uphill. In the next cut, they are coming downhill, north towards the Bay. They turn west and the next few scenes are inter-cut, reused footage of the same street sequence, as shown by repeated presence of the same Cadillac and a Green Volkswagen Beetle. They drive downhill or north, towards the Bay, and turn west in front of the same Caddy, several blocks north of Van Ness. They turn left or south, going uphill. They then are headed north and turn from Larkin St. onto Francisco St. headed west. In the next scene the Dodge is going north, rounding Laguna onto Marina, having leaped six blocks. They turn from Laguna St., in front of Ft. Mason, onto Marina and in front of the Safeway. (The bottom of the store's name can be seen as the Dodge veers onto Marina.) They accelerate down Marina with the Marina Green and the Bay visible in the background. In the next cut, Ft. Mason is again visible in the background as they once again round the turn on Marina onto the Marina green. With the next cut they turn in front of the Safeway again. The next cut puts them eight miles away, back in the Vistacion Valley district, turning right from University St. on to Mansell St. From there they cut to Western entrance to Guadelupe Canyon Parkway on San Bruno Mountain in Daly City three miles away, heading East. To extend the length of the chase the cars are shown driving East then West and back and forth with each cut while supposedly heading only one way before the Charger crashes at the Parkway's Eastern exit in Brisbane.
This film is edited entirely by cuts except in two instances. The first occurs when the jazz club scene dissolves to a shot of Steve McQueen lying in bed. The second occurs after the Dodge crashes into the gas station and burns, when the shot of the two dead villains dissolves to a scene at the police station.
Robert Vaughn, who plays politician Walter Chalmers received the script and didn't like it. Vaughn felt that there was no plot nor a sensible storyline. Steve McQueen insisted Vaughn do the film which the actor had refused, until the studio kept offering him more money when he finally said yes.
Bill Hickman, seen as the baddie "Phil" who drives the Dodge Charger, actually did drive the Charger in the movie. The driving scenes netted him additional stunt work which included yet another classic car chase for The French Connection (1971). In 1973 he drove the Pontiac Bonneville as Bo in the chase of Roy Scheider's character Buddy driving the Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe in The Seven-Ups (1973).
Although Steve McQueen was credited with the driving during the chase sequence it was actually shared by McQueen and Bud Ekins, one of Hollywood's best stunt drivers. From the interior shots looking forward inside the Mustang it's easy to see which one is driving. When McQueen is driving the rear view mirror is down reflecting his face. When Ekins is driving it is up, so his face is hidden.
Steve McQueen was very keen to do as many of his own stunts as possible. He had been hugely embarrassed to admit that it was not him performing the celebrated motorbike stunt in The Great Escape (1963).
Several years later, Robert Vaughn actively considered going into politics. To his dismay, he discovered that people couldn't take him seriously or found him trustworthy as they remembered his oily performance in this film.
Peter Yates hired a local trucking company for some background shots (most notably the scene where the Dodge Charger crashes into the gas station), but sent back the initial truck because it was red. He didn't want any red vehicles in the movie because it would detract from the blood. A blue truck was dispatched in its place.
Much was made at the time, and over the years since, of Lt. Bullitt's stylish "casual" attire of a turtleneck worn with a sport coat, slacks, and suede-like shoes. Since the major portion of the story in the film takes place over a Saturday and Sunday, this was actually in keeping with some police department's traditions of a more relaxed dress code on weekends for plainclothes officers. Bullitt is first seen at work when meeting Chalmers on a Friday morning - wearing a traditionally conservative navy suit under his trench coat, with a white shirt, dark tie and dress shoes. These clothes were actually supplied by a London England menswear shoppe, Dougie Heywood's, Peter Yates' tailors.
After Lt. Frank Bullitt breaks the glass door of the hospital basement to try and catch the killer, across from the parked ambulance, the black 68 Dodge Charger can be seen parked on the left where presumably (unknown to Bullitt) the killer and Phil the driver are hiding.
When on the way back from the hotel, Bullitt and Cathy stop and talk by the bay, in the background the silhouette of the Midway, CV-41, can be seen in the San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard (Hunters Point), where she was undergoing a massive modernization.