Let’s Be Frank: 2019 Bullitt First Drive

For the last 20-odd years, there has been no more reliable special edition Mustang than the Bullitt. Low effort, high reward. Every automaker’s dream. But talking to members of the team that made the latest edition, the 2019 Bullitt, it’s clear that this is anything but a cash grab. And driving it through the streets of San Francisco, it’s also clear that the car reflects that.

Every single piece made for the Bullitt was made with the type of love and attention that elevates the good to the great. So proud were the designers of the badge (the “Bullitt” surrounded by crosshairs) that they put it at the top of the tree at their Christmas party. That all sounds well and good, but the new Bullitt hadn’t actually been announced yet and Ford is a secretive company (see GT). The little indiscretion may have just been that, but it was also a concern for Carl Widmann, Chief engineer for Mustang, who was forced to take the badge down before too many people saw it and the secret got out. But that’s the kind of enthusiasm these people had for the car. They just wanted to talk about it.

And it’s more than just the badge, too. The team spent countless hours analyzing the color of the original Bullitt (which had a much yellower shade of green before being Brillo padded dull for the movie), working out how to be true to that while providing something that was still nice to look at.

The team also decided to black out the exhaust tips with Nitro plating, just like on the Raptor. And then they extended the rear bumper to hide the exhaust tips, just to make the whole car subtler. 

The aluminum trim on the dash also has a completely unique pattern, designed exclusively for this one car. The black seats are sewn together with a green thread that almost fades into them and has to be done in Michigan. 

The grille not only does away with the running horse ornament, but the spars running along its sides, too. This has the effect of tricking the eye into the believing the front end is lower and wider, even though it isn’t. 

Designers spent hours picking just the right cue ball material for the shifter and then had to find a provider to make the copper loss casted shifters because who the hell makes cue ball shifters anymore?

In fact, such was the team’s attention to detail, that when they brought fellow-journalists and I out to drive the Bullitt in San Francisco, that they not only brought Bullitts and stickers and forest green jackets, they also got in touch with Volkswagen’s press department and got a green Beetle, just like the one that’s featured an impossible number of times in the movie to follow us around.

All of these changes go into making the car look just right. They aren’t there to announce themselves. They’re there working towards a common goal. The same common goal every person on the project seems to have had. To give the Bullitt as much attitude as possible.

And the details don’t stop at the visual. The 5.0 that slots into the front end actually has a unique engine code. That’s because the top end has been modified in a manner that gives it 480 hp. Turn on the Bullitt and you’ll hear why the Shelby GT 350’s intake manifold has been fitted to the top of the V8, why the throttle bodies have been made bigger and why the Bullitt needs a completely unique air box, not to mention a special tune for the active exhausts. The sound is rounder. Like the power is bubbling up from the depths below, rather than ripping through the exhausts. Subtle pops and cracks greet you when you let off the throttle and Rice Krispy down the road. 

There’s also more power up high. Widmann says that the power peak is now at 7,500 rpm, which means that you can hang onto the gears longer and listen to engine sing. Something you will want to do in tunnels.

Further down, too, there are improvements. The GT 350’s half-shafts come on the manual Bullitt (although the manual GT also uses them) and Magna Ride is also optional (unless you live in Canada or Australia, where the non-magnaride isn’t offered). And while Brembos are offered on other Mustangs, the Bullitt’s red ones are unique to it.

And that’s all in keeping with the tradition of Frank Bullitt’s original Mustang. It was a fairly regular model made slightly better. The car was breathed on by Max Balchowsky for its role in the movie. The car got milled heads and a carb and distributor modifications. It also got some frame reinforcements, Koni shocks, heavy duty coil springs, and the American Racing wheels that are a touchstone of all Bullitts to follow.

The modifications to the cars are so similar it’s spooky. Widmann even told us that at a photo shoot they started measuring the angle of the grille and it was identical to the original’s. 

“There are no extraneous details,” says Widmann, and he’s right. Everything here is good. Well considered. Purposeful. It’s not an easy car to explain, but it’s an easy car to understand. At a glance, it looks better. Even in black it looks different than the GT. Meaner but also subtler, like a back handed compliment. Most importantly, though, it all combines to make something that’s fun.

The Bullitt is one of the few cars on the market that, despite making big horsepower and big sound, isn’t only fun at high speeds. It’s fun around town, it’s fun on the highway, and when the speeds pick up, it’s fun there, too. Maybe it has to do with the sound, maybe it has to do with feeling like Steve McQueen, and maybe it just has to do with the Mustang being a great basis to start with, but whatever alchemy has gone into making the Bullitt feel so fun, I commend Ford for it, because it’s clear that this was anything but a cash grab. It was a passion project.

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