A legacy is like a car you beat in a race: You can only see it in your rearview mirror. Everyone wants to leave a legacy of their own. There’s no guarantee you’ll leave one at all. You can envision it, but you never truly see it until it’s behind you.
Ford created a sales success with the Mustang. It’s lived on through six generations spread over more than 50 years and survived the horsepower wars of the ’60s, found life after the “Malaise Era,” shed its live rear axle and adopted an independent rear suspension, and turned into a legitimate modern performance car, whether it’s going down a drag strip or through curvy back roads.
Manufacturers released hundreds of different models to compete with the Mustang, many of which lived short, insignificant lives. Mustang had its occasional low points, but it’s always had staying power which has helped it rise above the rest.
In 1968, Steve McQueen starred in the cop drama Bullitt, known for its legendary chase scene. In the movie, McQueen drove a 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 fastback up and down the hills of San Francisco in pursuit of a black Dodge Charger. At the time, it was just a long series of breathtaking stunts. Nobody in the cast or crew knew that they had just contributed to a legacy that would last for the next 50+ years. Despite the star-studded cast, history has shown that McQueen’s true co-star in the film was that Highland Green Mustang.
Just like “The King of Cool,” it’s lived on in popular culture well beyond the movie. Ford paid tribute to McQueen and the Bullitt Mustang in 2001 with the New Edge version of the movie car. Seven years later, the Bullitt Mustang returned on the S197 platform, and most recently for the 2019 model year.
Like previous versions, the S550 incarnation of Bullitt is based on the Mustang GT and features several visual nods to the 1968 original like the chrome-ringed grille devoid of the running pony badge and its signature paint, Dark Highland Green paint (Shadow Black is also available), and a set of 19-inch heritage wheels featuring five black spokes with a silver outer lip wrapped in staggered-width summer tires: P255/40R19 in the front; P275/40R19 at the rear.
Those retro cues share space with many of the cosmetic changes Ford made to the Mustang for the 2018 model year. This includes the lower hood, reshaped grille, and redesigned front and rear lighting. Red Brembo calipers clamp down on larger disc brakes. Ford’s four-mode Active Valve Performance Exhaust is standard equipment and comes finished with NitroPlate Black pipes.
Engineers upgraded the MacPherson strut front suspension with heavy-duty springs and beefed up the independent rear setup by adding an upsized sway bar; MagneRide dampers are optional. They specially tuned the electric power steering, electronic stability control, and ABS. The Bullitt puts its power to the road through a limited-slip Torsen differential with 3.73 gearing. If all of those mods sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same ones Ford packs into the 2018 Mustang GT’s GT Performance Package (click here to read about how it performed on the street and the track).
Under the hood, the Bullitt borrows from another one of its siblings. “The engine in Bullitt uses a few key components developed for Shelby GT350 to help achieve the 20 horsepower bump,” said Suzanne Robinson, 5.0-liter Engine System Supervisor. “The engine tuning ensured the vehicle gets the best acceleration possible while still maintaining good fuel economy, drivability, and emission standards.”
According to Robinson, the direct- and port-injected 5.0-liter V8 cranks out 20 more horsepower (480 at 7,000 rpm) than it does in the Mustang GT due to the intake manifold from the Shelby GT350. Other enhancements include an Open Air Induction System, 87-mm throttle bodies, and a re-tuned powertrain control module. Torque stays steady at 420 lb-ft and hits with full force at 4,600 rpm.
As another nod to McQueen’s chase car, the new Mustang Bullitt only comes with a manual transmission – with a cue ball shift knob. The six-speed gearbox can rev-match during downshifts now, a new feature for 2019 Mustang GT. It sits in the middle of a cabin trimmed with subtle and not-so-subtle signs that you’re not in just any regular Mustang. Ford offers the choice of regular or sporty Recaro black bucket seats with Dark Highland Green stitching that pay tribute to the 1968 movie car. The door sills, steering wheel airbag cover, and dashboard plaque are more plainspoken.
The Bullitt’s 500A Equipment Group includes heated and cooled front seats, the 12-inch digital instrument cluster, dual-zone climate control, heated steering wheel, and SYNC 3. Aluminum pedals and Spindrift Aluminum trim add flashes of brightness to the mostly black cabin. The $2,100 Bullitt Electronics Package upgrades the interior with features such as a 12-speaker B&O Play audio system, voice-activated navigation, and the Blind Spot Information System with Cross-Traffic Alert.
The second I found out my local media fleet had the 2019 Bullitt in it, I made sure to reserve one. I’ve always admired the less-is-more, yesteryear-inspired looks of the 2008 Bullitt and I wanted to experience the new model. It arrived at my house wearing Shadow Black paint and a variety of options, including the MagneRide dampers and Bullitt Electronics Package. Shadow Black is certainly not my favorite color for the Bullitt, but it made my test car look even more low-key than it would’ve appeared in Dark Highland Green. Even though it was a factory car, it had an aftermarket sleekness and cool vibe to it. It didn’t have anything to prove. If I wanted to go for a drive, it was down. If not, no big deal. It wasn’t going to sweat it.
I had plans for my time with the Mustang. I got the keys to it on a Wednesday. That Saturday, my girlfriend Eli and I were going to drive from our apartment in the Austin area to San Antonio, Texas to spend time with her cousin and accompaning boyfriend, Bethany and Logan, whose family has owned a 1967 Mustang notchback since new. Until then, I was going to rack up miles around the capital city.
Over the past several years, I’ve been fortunate enough to drive seven versions of the S550 Mustang. Ford has leant me the 2015 GT with a six-speed automatic, a 2015 GT convertible with a six-speed stick, a manual 2016 GT/CS, an automatic 2016 EcoBoost coupe, a 2018 GT coupe with the GT Performance Package, and the 2018 GT with the Level 2 Performance Package. The 2019 Bullitt soon became my favorite. It combined everything that made me love the sixth-generation Mustang in the first place (eye-catching fastback body, user-friendly modern infotainment technology, and addictive power and sound) with an extra punch under the hood and reserved, ‘60s-inspired styling.
It made it even more apparent that for all of Ford’s research into autonomous vehicles, it remembers how to keep things simple. The Bullitt was lovably old-school. It had a naturally aspirated V8, rear-wheel drive, three pedals, and a traditional emergency brake.
Even in Normal mode, the active exhaust had a satisfyingly deep – and familiar – grumble. Hani Ayesh, a Ford engineer who worked on the Mustang’s exhaust system, told me in an email, “We tuned the active exhaust for Bullitt to be as authentic to the original while moving this car forward. We wanted to create the signature burble that is associated with Bullitt to give it the character that fits this car.”
Just as it did when it was perfectly still, the Bullitt didn’t give me the feeling it had anything to prove when it was in motion. Just driving it at suburban speeds was enjoyable. The ride quality had a sporty stiffness to it, but never felt harsh. The cockpit seemed as it was sized to my 5’10” build. Everything felt within easy, natural reach.
I was especially pleased to discover that the clutch exhibited none of the pickiness at low speeds that the clutch in the ’18 GT Performance Package car did. That was maddeningly easy to stall if I wasn’t robotically exact with my inputs. The Bullitt didn’t fuss, didn’t buck, didn’t care. Its coolness allowed me to relax and enjoy driving it, not force me to worry about threading a needle with my left shoe. There seemed to be a difference in how Ford tuned the clutch in the two cars, but I wasn’t completely sure, so I reached out to the automaker. Via email, Peter Kuechler, Ford’s Senior Technical Leader for Drivability, said, “The main change for the 2019 Mustang V8 clutch compared to the 2018 clutch is the low-speed engine calibration – this includes how the throttle reacts to small changes in the clutch and accelerator – it makes the car easier and more fun to drive. We were able to make these changes thanks to the addition of rev-match downshifting, which added sensors on the clutch and transmission.”
Before my trip to San Antonio, I found some time to fire the Bullitt down the winding country roads just outside of Austin. Set to the Sport S+ driving mode, its steering grew more tactile. Typically, you feel a certain weight in a sports car’s steering wheel. The Bullitt was the first car to which that word didn’t apply. Instead, the wheel had a resistance in it that I needed to deftly undo. It was as if someone had their arms tightly folded against their body. Latching on and pulling wasn’t going to get the results I wanted. I had to be smooth and precise with my hands to turn that resistance into compliance.
I swung the Bullitt’s digital speedometer needle as far to the right as traffic and sightlines allowed. In the cacophony of the mechanical fury that followed, I found clarity. There’s a certain point in the rev range where the Coyote V8 goes from sounding sinister to downright dangerous. I call it “Full Howl.” It was a little piece of Heaven on earth for me as a car lover. Once I got there and heard the Coyote express itself with total abandon at full volume, all I wanted to do was stay and keep listening.
When Saturday afternoon rolled around, Eli and I drove down to San Antonio, where we met Bethany and Logan for coffee and sweets at a famous bakeshop. The gals headed to Logan’s parents’ house in his car; Logan and I followed in the Bullitt. Once we arrived, we met his father James, who was kind enough to lead me to a nearby photo spot where I could shoot both Mustangs.
Logan’s maternal grandfather originally bought the notchback in 1967, when it had a 289-cid V8. The family ‘Stang’s engine eventually got bored out and became a 302. With every errand, every trip to take Logan’s mom to school as a teenager, every WOT blast up the freeway, it developed a patina. It aged, but it kept running. It stayed in the Jones family. It’s safe to say that it’s “a keeper.”
That’s what the Bullitt Mustang is, too – the entire franchise of cars, from the 1968 GT 390 used in the legendary McQueen film to the New Edge model to the S197 to the present-day incarnation. People haven’t stopped loving or buying the Bullitt, which gives Ford millions of reasons to see the Bullitt as a keeper, as well.
I can picture many 2019 Bullitts meeting fates similar to the one the Jones family’s ’67 did. The new Bullitt is such a handsome, livable, enjoyable machine that you want to put thousands of miles on its clock and spend years driving it.
I imagine one decade from now it will be covered in dirt and the faint scratches from rocks thrown up by fast drives down gravel-covered country roads. The seats are flattened and shiny with wear. Time may have forgotten it, but its loving owners haven’t. They have the memories to prove it, and the Bullitt has a legacy.