Famous movie car chases: Bullitt vs French Connection

Car chase

MUSTANG VS. DODGE CHARGER

Snowed-in with nothing to do at the hermitage but watch old movies. Today is Famous Car Chase day.

The 1968 Steve McQueen movie ‘Bullitt’ is famous for its car chase up and down the streets of San Francisco and then out on the Guadalupe Parkway.

That scene pitted Detective Frank Bullitt’s V8 Ford Mustang GT Fastback against the hitmens’ V8 Dodge Charger. McQueen and famous stunt driver Bud Ekins shared the driving scenes. Ekins also shared the stunt riding with McQueen in the famous motorcycle scenes in ‘The Great Escape.’

The Dodge Charger in ‘Bullitt’ was driven by another famed stunt driver Bill Hickman, who also acted as the backup hitman in the Peter Yates movie. The nearly 10-minute scene took three weeks to film and is said to be the most exciting car chase in movie history.

PONTIAC LEMANS VS. THE EL-TRAIN

Fair enough, but I have another contender — Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle driving a commandeered 1971 Pontiac LeMans in pursuit of an elevated train on which a hitman is trying to escape in ‘The French Connection.’

Hickman also did the driving in this film. “Hickman drove ninety miles an hour for twenty-six blocks, without stopping,” director William Friedkin said later.

The low-angle POV shots of the five-minute-long car chase under the Brooklyn subway tracks were filmed by a camera mounted on the front bumper.

A particularly harrowing moment is when a woman pushing a baby stroller walks into the path of the speeding Pontiac (at 2:12 in the clip).

BILL HICKMAN AND JAMES DEAN

Stunt driver Bill Hickman, who drove the Dodge Charger in ‘Bullitt’ and the Pontiac LeMans in ‘The French Connection,’ had a tragic connection with the highway death of James Dean.

BEFORE THE DEADLY CRASH
Bill Hickman, at right, with James Dean and his Porsche on the day of the fatal crash.

On September 30, 1955, James Dean with his mechanic Rolf Wütherich sitting next to him, was driving his Porsche Spyder to Salinas, California for a weekend of car racing.

Hickman, Dean’s good friend, was following them in a Ford station wagon and car trailer.

At 5:45 p.m., at the junction of Route 466 and Route 41, a Ford Tudor driven at high speed by 23-year-old college student Donald Turnupseed made a left turn into the path of Dean’s speeding Porsche. The two cars collided almost head-on. It was Hickman who pulled the actor’s body from the wreckage, and James Dean died in his arms.

BILL HICKMAN WAS THERE
James Dean’s mangled Porsche after the collision.

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3 Comments

  1. I grew up in the 70s when muscle cars were all the rage. They were status symbols, big powerful V8 engines to appease the young male ego. Mine was a 69 Pontiac Firebird ragtop, souped-up, jacked-up and customized to my liking.

    The feeling of raw power, the rumbling engine vibrating through the steering wheel ready to erupt at your command was all too intoxicating. And dangerous. Especially in the hands of the young male novice drivers who were drawn back then to buy them. Many, including those I knew had horrific accidents, crashes and tumbling roll-overs.

    Best left to the stuntmen, handling a muscle car at high speed is not as easy as one may think.

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