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 Warner Brothers 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 until recently when it was used by Ford to promote the 2018 "Bullitt" Mustang when revealed at the Detroit international auto show.
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,
While filming the scene where the giant airliner taxis just above Steve McQueen, observers were shocked that no double was used. Asked if the producers couldn't have found a dummy, McQueen wryly replied, "They did."
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.
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.
Director Peter Yates called for speeds of about seventy-five to eighty miles (one hundred twenty to one hundred twenty-nine kilometers) per hour, but the cars (including the ones containing the cameras) reached speeds of over one hundred ten miles (one hundred seventy-seven kilometers) per hour. Filming of the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in nine minutes and forty-two seconds of footage. They were denied permission to film on the Golden Gate Bridge.
At the time, San Francisco was not a big filmmaking mecca, and Mayor Joseph L. Alioto was very keen to promote it as such. Consequently, this movie 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.
The film's famous chase scene wasn't originally in the script. In the first draft of this movie, adapted from Robert L. Fish's novel "Mute Witness", Detective 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.
After Steve McQueen lost control of his car and smashed into a parked vehicle, his then-wife Neile Adams 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.
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 untrustworthy, as they remembered his oily performance in this film.
Robert Vaughn (politician Walter Chalmers) received the script and didn't like it. He felt that there was no plot, nor a sensible story line. Steve McQueen insisted Vaughn do the film, but he refused, until the studio finally offered him so much money, he finally said yes.
Frank Bullitt's (Steve McQueen'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 compared to the Mustang's 13.8-second.
After Lieutenant Frank Bullitt breaks the glass door of the hospital basement to try to catch the killer, across from the parked ambulance, the black 1968 Dodge Charger can be seen parked on the left where presumably (unknown to Bullitt) the killer, and Phil the driver, are hiding.
When fake Johnny Ross departs the Mark Hopkins Hotel in the taxi, the Bank of America building at 555 California Street, the second tallest building in San Francisco, can be seen under construction. The building, known mostly for its use in The Towering Inferno (1974), where it was seen during the opening credits), was completed in 1969.
Bill Hickman (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).
Much was made at the time, and over the years since, of Lieutenant 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 departments' 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 menswear shoppe in London, England, Dougie Heywood's, Peter Yates' tailors.
The safe house scenes were filmed in and around the Kennedy Hotel at 226 The Embarcadero near Howard Street. That building, along with the two-level freeway behind it, was torn down as part of a major development of the waterfront after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
In 2008, Motor Trend Magazine did an article promoting the 40th Anniversary Edition Bullitt Mustang. Because Dodge had also brought back the Charger, the article featured a promotional gimmick of photographing the 2008 Mustang and 2008 Charger simulating the famous chase scene with the writers breaking down the chase, moment by moment, to explain each car's strengths and weaknesses.
Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) 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 titled "Quebec libre!" by Canadian sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. The monumental fountain was being studied at the time the film was being made. The fountain was built and completed three 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.
Several items of clothing worn by Steve McQueen received a boost in popularity thanks to the film: desert boots, a trench coat, a blue turtleneck sweater and, most famously, a brown tweed jacket with elbow patches.
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.
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.
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).
Pay close attention during the car chase at Steve McQueen's reflection in the mirror. If you look at his mouth, you'll see that he's indulging in popular habit among race car drivers: He's chewing gum.
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 it was undergoing a massive modernization.
The editing of the famous chase scene was not without difficulties; Ralph Rosenblum wrote in 1979 that "those who care about such things may know that during the filming of the climactic chase scene in Bullitt, an out-of-control car filled with dummies tripped a wire which prematurely sent a costly set up in flames, and that Editor Frank Keller salvaged the near-catastrophe with a clever and unusual juxtaposition of images that made the explosion appear to go off on time." This is why a careful view of the footage during the final explosion shows the Dodge Charger visible behind the flames.
In the Spanish dubbed over voice, the insult "bullshit" said by Bullitt (Steve McQueen), talking with Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), was censored. It can be seen by Steve McQueen moving his lips, but not saying it.
After Bullitt purchases his frozen TV dinners and heads up the stairs to his apartment seen on the wall are a group of posters. One is Wes Wilson's Grateful Dead and James Cotton Blues Band poster for a Fillmore West concert on Nov 18, 1966.
In the scene where at Grace Cathedral where Chalmers is talking with Captain Bennett (Simon Oakland) has a more completed Bank of America building in the background than the filmed scenes at the Mark Hopkins where the B of A structure is only a shell.
There were two cars used in the movie, one which was used in the majority of the heroic jump shots and ultimately ended up crashing into a ravine, and another which wasn't wrecked during filming. The crashed car turned up in a junk yard in Mexico but is literally a pile of rust. The other one was repaired after filming and sold, passing through two owners before it was purchased by a Robert Kiernan in 1974 for $6000. Mustangs were cheap and plentiful back then so it was used as a daily driver until it was parked up with mechanical issues in 1980. Robert and son Sean began putting it back together in early 2000s, before life took over and the restoration stalled. Robert passed away in 2014 and left the car to Sean. He contacted Ford around that time and the mystery of the original movie car was solved.
As of January 2018, the original green Mustang GT from the film was brought out into the spotlight (after being in hiding for decades by the NJ owners) on stage at the Detroit Motor Show with Ford to introduce the new 2018 'Bullitt' Mustang. The car is completely untouched and in the original condition 'patina'. The original Steve McQueen typed letter from his Solar Production Company's letter head was also on hand asking to buy 'his' car back in 1977.
The Bullitt Mustang colour was officially called Highland green. The cars were hotted up with chassis and engine mods to keep pace with the faster Charger in the chase scenes and hold up to the abuse. There was a hole in the boot where a smoke machine was said to have been installed to help enhance the cloud made from the rear tires in particular where Bullitt missed the turn reversed and shot off again.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The chase sequence takes place over several non-contiguous streets in and south of San Francisco. The sequence starts under Highway 101 in the Mission District. When the Charger does a U-turn on Precita Avenue to follow the Mustang, a storage tank on Potrero Hill, in the southeast part of San Francisco, 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, and a quick view of downtown San Francisco to the northwest in another. Twenty-one seconds later, and five miles away, 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 two cable cars at Hyde and Filbert Streets. The twin towers of Sts. Peter and Paul Church are visible just to the right of Coit Tower. They turn hard left onto Columbus Avenue, a four-lane street with a concrete median. A F-type street car is seen coming the opposite direction. They top a rise and Alcatraz Island comes into view slightly on the left, placing them at about Stockton and Chestnut. They turn north, then west, then south, headed uphill. In the next cut, they are suddenly going downhill, north towards the Bay. The next few scenes are different camera angles that capture the same sequence as the two cars head downhill and turn west off the same street. This is obvious, due to the repeated presence of the same Cadillac, and a green Volkswagen Beetle that is seen three times. They complete this sequence by turning west in front of the same Caddy towards the bay, a few blocks north of Van Ness. They turn left or south, going uphill, and then the scene cuts to the cars headed downhill or north on Larkin Street, before they turn west onto Francisco Street. In the next clip, the Dodge has leapt six blocks across Van Ness, and is headed north on Laguna Street. They turn from Laguna Street, in front of Ft. Mason, onto Marina Boulevard, in front of a Safeway store. (The bottom of the store's name can be seen as the Dodge veers onto Marina.) They accelerate down Marina Boulevard with the Marina Green and the Golden Gate Bridge briefly visible in the background. In the next cut, Ft. Mason is again visible in the background as they turn once more onto Marina Boulevard. In the next clip, they pass in front of the Safeway again. The next cut puts them eight miles away, back in the Vistacion Valley district, turning right from University Street on to Mansell Street. From there, they leap three miles to the entrance of the Guadelupe Canyon Parkway on San Bruno Mountain in Daly City, heading east. To extend the length of the chase, the cars are shown driving east then west and back and forth, while supposedly heading only one way, before the Charger crashes at the Parkway's eastern exit in Brisbane.
At the end of the car chase, with the explosion at the gas station, you can clearly see the Dodge Charger car re-appearing behind and to the left of the flames and was not, therefore, the cause of the explosion. It looks like the Dodge Charger had an escape lane behind the set-piece explosion, although it did look to be moving pretty quickly.