NICE, France – There's nothing quite like side-stepping the clutch on a big V8-powered brute ... especially one wearing a Mustang badge. No flappy-paddle transmissions or turbocharged frippery here; just a thumping 5,0-litre lump under a vast bonnet, connected to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission.
Traction control off, clutch in, cue-ball shifter into first, revs up and ... GO! Eight cylinders of fury bark out of the open exhausts as torque is transferred through the limited-slip differential to the unfortunate strips of Michelin Pilot Sport rubber wrapped round the rear alloys. The Mustang's back end wiggles down the road, necessitating slight steering corrections to keep it on the black stuff, while tyre smoke fills the rear-view mirror. Anti-social? Yes, but I'm sure Steve McQueen would've approved…
50 years of Bullitt
When it comes to special occasions, Ford has a knack for pin-perfect timing. The very first Mustang produced in 1964 was a "Wimbledon White" convertible powered by a V8. In August 2018, the 10 millionth ‘Stang rolled off the production line in Michigan in the form of (you guessed it) another Wimbledon White convertible V8. It was, however, still a surprise to learn on arrival in France that the famous movie Bullitt was launched on the same day 50 years before. Although McQueen is a legendary actor, it's the car-chase scene and particularly the 1968 green Mustang that captured many a viewer's imagination.
Yes, it's coming to SA ... at a price
South Africans saw the return of the iconic pony car to the local market in 2015 when Ford decided to produce right-hand-drive versions of the sixth-generation model, so as not to deprive the various parts of the world driving on the “wrong side” of the road. It's still terrific news to learn South Africa will also receive a limited number of Bullitt editions in 2019. Pricing has not yet been announced, but converting the cost from euros to our local currency (not the most accurate method, it must be said) suggests this may be the first million-rand new Mustang to hit our shores.
So, for the extra money, what do you gain over a current, standard 5,0 GT Fastback? Well, first up are the changes brought about by the Mustang facelift, which include a 12-inch digital infotainment screen, optional Magneride adjustable dampers and a 10-speed automatic transmission (as found in the Ranger Raptor). The latter gearbox is not available in the Bullitt, so buyers will have to make do with the stick-shift, as the Americans call it.
Meanwhile, Bullitt-specific exterior additions include the "Dark Highlands" green paint job, blacked-out wheels with red brake callipers, dark debadged grille and the Bullitt logo on the fuel-filler cap (interestingly, this design belongs to the Warner Bros entertainment company). The end result is a car so striking passers-by can barely divert their eyeballs.
— Nicol Louw (@NicolL_CARmag) October 18, 2018
Inside, the theme continues with Bullitt signage on the door sills, black Recaro seats featuring green stitching (repeated on the dash), another Bullitt logo on the steering wheel and that magnificent cue-ball gear-shifter. The last mentioned item was apparently the most difficult upgrade to source as the first supplier went bankrupt and the second just couldn't get the colour right. Luckily, an engineer in Michigan knew a small machine shop round the corner capable of producing the required product.
Under the bonnet is the familiar, naturally aspirated 5,0-litre V8, but it now features an open air-box design with a cone filter to increase the induction noise (and reduce the restriction to incoming air) as well as an active exhaust system complete with selectable sound levels (from “quiet” up to “race track”). Peak outputs are now rated at 338 kW and 529 N.m.
So, how does the Mustang drive? To objectively report on this seems nigh-on impossible as even getting into the car and starting the engine is an emotional experience. That classic V8 whoop-whoop-whoop idle sends tingles down the spine. It's difficult to resist aiming quick prods at the accelerator, as the exhaust note in its unrestricted state is movie-worthy.
That white shift ball fits perfectly in the palm of the hand and the shift action is short and mechanical. Not quite at the level of, say, the Honda Civic Type R, but certainly meaty in its operation. Leaving the parking lot and filtering through traffic is a more relaxed experience than expected, considering the beast beneath the bonnet. Still, the car is massive and care needs to be taken when navigating narrow streets. On the motorway, the Mustang shows its GT roots and is comfortable at speed, devouring mile after mile with ease.
But this isn't why we're in France. Soon a turn-off approaches, pointing in the general direction of the mountainous countryside. With that famous car-chase scene from the movie (watched again the previous evening) fresh in my memory, it's time for a spot of re-enactment. Loud pedal to the floor in third, the Mustang builds speed in a very progressive but willing manner, with the V8 changing its soundtrack from a growl to a full-on war-cry at 7 000 r/min. Hard on the brakes for the hairpin, select second gear (the auto-blip function matching engine and transmission speeds), turn in and let rip on exit. The already wide grin on my face stretches even further, making me feel something akin to a film star. Am I going too fast? Who cares when it feels this good!
A few hours later, in an attempt to return to objectivity, I concede the Bullitt is no hard-core sportscar. It's simply too big and heavy to play that role and in a world with turbocharged rivals delivering more low-down torque, it just cannot compete on the racetrack. The suspension set-up also favours comfort over precision. Indeed, a well-driven Golf R will give this analogue beast more than a run for its money, but there's no denying the Mustang driver will be the one walking away with the most memorable experience.
Where Ford seems to have missed an opportunity, though, is with the gearing. It's too tall to allow the hooliganism the owner might crave at lower speeds; second gear is good for 100 km/h and third would easily pass 160 km/h. Thus, exiting a slow bend in second, there's little chance of sliding the rear just by planting the accelerator as there's simply not enough torque heading to the wheels at that point. Corner harder at higher speeds and the action of the limited-slip diff can be felt. But it requires a brave pilot to extract the most from the Bullitt at the limit. That diff does, though, afford the owner the privilege of painting extended black 11s when the clutch is dumped in first gear – not something that Mr McQueen could manage during the chase scene where only one wheel spins (thanks to the open rear differential in the original 1968 model)…
Ultimately, the Mustang Bullitt is a vehicle rich in history, with arguably enough emotional appeal to warrant its elevated price-tag. Neither the performance nor the interior quality can be compared with those of its German rivals, but that was never the Blue Oval brand's aim. In a world where cars have become so very similar – with hybrid and electric powertrains seemingly plotting an imminent takeover – the Bullitt offers something money cannot buy: the way it makes its driver feel. It's a true American muscle car ... in the best possible sense.
Author: Nicol Louw