Stoking teenage fantasies among the boomers.
by Marc K. Stengel
Since the Mustang's debut at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, more than 6.9 million of these precocious pony cars have hit the road. They're everywhere; and they're such an integral part of the automotive landscape that driving a Mustang elicits very little special attention anymore.
So it was a singular pleasure to be strafing through traffic last week and note, out of the corners of my eyes, that perhaps I was making a bit of a spectacle of myself behind the wheel of Ford's special-edition Mustang GT, surnamed Bullitt.
I was only 12 years old when Steve McQueen, a.k.a. Frank Bullitt, taught the world that four-wheel aviation was simply a matter of choosing, one, the right car and, two, the right place to abuse it. His chase scene in the '68 Peter Yates movie Bullitt still ranks as the most hair-raising, adrenaline-pumping, adolescent-frenzifying single sequence of motor mayhem that's ever been preserved for posterity. Up and down San Francisco's diabolical hill streets, McQueen launched his '68 Mustang Fastback GT 390 weightlessly into mid-air through intersection after punishing intersection.
I can still remember watching that film beset by involuntary groans that synchronized with every chassis-mangling crunch of a hard landing. Although I didn't understand why at the time, I also remember this odd, shall I say stirring of the loins that accompanied every rippling fusillade of V-8 acceleration, every tire-shredding power slide through inner-city corners. By the time McQueen ditched his shambling heap of a muscle car at the end of that chase, I was almost grateful because by then, I was completely, blissfully drained.
I suppose Ford is betting that there are at least 6000 guys around the country who have similar suspicions that they may have lost their vehicular virginity while flying vicariously like a Bullitt through San Francisco traffic three decades ago. That's how few Mustang Bullitt GTs are available for 2001, in comparison with the 160,000 or so run-of-the-mill Mustangs that Ford is on track to sell by year-end. What's particularly fascinating about this $26,830 coupe is the calculated way Ford can coax adolescent yearnings out of hiding with a tour de force of subliminal manipulation.
If I point out that the Bullitt Mustang has 10 more horsepower (at 270 hp) and three more pound-feet of torque (at 305 ft-lb) than a mainstream Mustang GT, it's clear there's not a lot of extra performance to crow about. If I say that a combination of fake hood scoop, fake side scoops, and remolded rear quarter panels provide a distinctive look, Bullitt sounds like the victim of an unethical plastic surgeon.
True, there are those massive Brembo disk brakes (including ABS) with their snappy red calipers at all four corners. And those fat-spoker alloy wheels are not only McQueen-era authentic, but at 17 inches in diameter, they're the real deal in performance terms. So is the fact that this car is lowered three-quarters of an inch, while shocks, struts, and front/rear stabilizer bars are correspondingly stiffened.
The cleverest modification by far, however, is also the most nefarious. According to specs, the Mustang Bullitt wears "high-flow mufflers for increased power and aggressive sound." Yes, the exhaust flow combines with better intake flow to eke out those 10 extra ponies. But the carefully orchestrated sound of this exhaust is worth, psychologically at least, an extra 90. This is no mere poetic license, mind you. I've actually participated in a focus-group simulation at Ford's Dearborn design facility, in which sample "ideal" exhaust notes are "matched" to the car models they best represent. Armed with this kind of perception data, engine and audio engineers proceed to custom-tune exhaust systems to enhance the experience of driving a given car. In the case of this Bullitt, the result is one of the most exhilarating symphonies of wanton power I've ever heard.
I'm not alone in thinking so. Almost without exception, every friend and relative—and many bystanders besides—reacted the same way during my stint with this car: "What's under the hood of that thing? There must be 350 horsepower under there." To drive the Bullitt, you'd surely agree. The exhaust note enfolds and envelopes you like a raspy mantra. You grasp the gleaming cue ball of a shifter knob — which seductively matches your body temperature because it's solid aluminum — and you roar your way up the gear changes. Musicians might imagine a classic Hammond B3 organ when its Leslie speakers are spinning towards climax in a Doppler wail. Everyone else will simply understand that something magnificent is taking place. If you're the driver, you're basking in the realization that you're the source of this very good thing (with Ford's sly help, of course).
In muscle car circles, Mustangs are famous for their short-wheelbase nimbleness. The Bullitt doesn't disappoint on this score, and in fact, the lowered suspension and quick steering seem more aggressive than usual. As for creature comforts, Ford brags about its Mach 460 sound system, whose 460 watts combine with an in-dash six-CD changer to create a sound garden for the interior. But not for me. I was so seduced by the car's rip of acceleration — the Lorelei wail of the exhaust, the throbbing peal of smoking tires burning out in first and second gears — that I mostly kept the stereo off and the windows down.
This here car, I am forced to admit, is a Bullitt with my name on it. When I grow up, I hope I'll remember what it felt like, what it sounded like, during my very first time.
2001 Ford Mustang Bullitt GT
Base price: $26,830
Engine: 4.6-liter V-8, 270 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 183.2 x 73.1 x 53.1 in
Wheelbase: 101.3 in
Curb weight: 3254 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18/25 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control
Major standard equipment: 17x8 aluminum alloy wheels, four-wheel Brembo disc brakes, leather seating, HVAC, cruise control, power locks/mirrors, Mach 460 stereo with in-dash six-disc CD changer
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
Copyright © 2001 by the Car Connection