The gritty, 1968 detective movie Bullitt - starring a grim-jawed Steve McQueen and a '68 Highland-Green Mustang fastback - is most famous for its car-jumping chase sequence over the hills of San Francisco. In 2001, Ford began trading on the Bullitt mystique with a special edition Mustang, produced to commemorate the now iconic wheels McQueen drove to film glory.
Now Ford has reloaded the Bullitt theme with a 2008 edition. Like the '01 version, the new Bullitt is a thoroughly entertaining, lightly wildcatted version of the Mustang GT. Best of all, the Bullitt retains impeccable daily-driver manners and a quiet, near-mysterious visual presence.
In fact, the Bullitt plays the plains-clothes part to the point of undress. Nowhere on the car does it say "Mustang" or feature a Ford oval. The engine designation is missing, and there isn't a single badge or lettering anywhere save the Bullitt logo on the faux gas cap. What shows through is the unmistakable power of the basic, non-scooped, spoilerless, '08 Mustang sheet metal. It's a shape so identifiable it needs no badges. Only the tri-bar, running-horse badges in the center of the wheels positively identify it as a Mustang.
More urban camouflage comes from the argent-colored brake calipers and the dark-gray version of Ford's reincarnated Torq-Thrust D, 5-spoke wheel. No special body panels are employed, and even the black mesh grille does without the pony badge used on garden variety Mustang GTs. All 2008 Bullitts are painted Dark Highland Green, except for non-purists who can choose an even more sinister black paint option.
Tweaked Running Gear
Top-end breathing in the 4.6-liter 3-valve V8 is notably improved with a new air box designed by Ford Racing. Combined with new hood insulation to seal the air box from hot, power-sapping underhood air, the cold-air intake plays a big part in the Bullitt's 315 horsepower and 325 lb-ft rating. So does a slight recalibration of the V8's computer, plus a redline raised 250 rpm to 6500 rpm. The speed limiter has been bumped up to 151 mph.
First-generation Bullitts were prized for their combination of supple ride and excellent grip, a tradition the '08 Bullitt continues. Ford revised the spring, shock and swaybar rates, but just barely. Also subtle - perhaps too subtle - is the reduction in ride height. First-generation Bullitts were perfectly lowered: You could sense it, but had to look to identify the drop. The new car is lowered only 6mm in the rear, an almost unidentifiable drop. Still, the '08 Bullitt stands there like the lean McQueen himself: intent and coiled.
The lightly revamped interior features retro-faced instruments, a satin-finish aluminum shift knob sprouting from the 5-speed Tremec transmission, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Tough to miss is the engine-turned aluminum dash panel. Seating is augmented with larger bolsters, more lumbar support and leather trim. Inside, the seats boast Ford's new soy foam - a touch of environmental assuagement while roasting the rear tires, we suppose.
The interior is a pleasant place, but the '60s-era font on the instruments is more fun than readable, and the "BULLITT" badge in the center of the steering wheel would have been better served with a simple running horse. The swirled aluminum dash panel seems out-of-era to us, more quaintly 1930's than hipster '60s.
A Fine Performance
With an all-aluminum engine and a just slightly more aggressive chassis tune, the Bullitt handles far more eagerly than its supposed betters, such as the nose-dragging Shelby GT500. Steering precision is sharp, and the crisp cornering is deep into enthusiast territory. Winding along river roads and mountain climbs is rewarding and sports-car-like.
Power, up just 15 ponies from a Mustang GT, is plenty for spirited fun. An upgraded exhaust system that proudly captures the aural essence of the movie car gives the Bullitt a louder report at full chat, followed by a refined burble at light throttle.
We took special note of the Bullitt's much-improved shifting, courtesy of a more rigid brace in the shift mechanism. This turns out to be a running change for all 2008 Mustangs, and noticeably improves shifting feel and precision, strengthening one of the current Mustang's few weak points.
With a sticker of $31,075, Ford's profit taking from this debadged special edition is not much more than a grazing wound. Production is limited to 7,700 cars for the U.S. and Canada in 2008 only, so a sell-out is a given. With its combination of lithe handling and crisp naturally-aspirated power, the Bullitt is once again the Mustang driver's Mustang.
Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson's credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.