Ford’s Commemorative Pony Car on Hills Steve McQueen Would Have Loved
Go back a century and a new community, Mission Hills, sprouts north of downtown San Diego. Automobiles are The Next Big Thing and early adopters—just the kind of upscale clientele building homes in Mission Hills—were testing them on the steep roads leading up from San Diego Bay.
Go back to 1968 years and movie icon Steve McQueen plays a detective named Frank Bullitt, chasing the bad guys around the hills of San Francisco in a Highland Green 1968 Mustang GT 390 Fastback.
So how to connect and commemorate these events and have a fun day of driving? San Diego isn’t San Francisco and nobody’s Steve McQueen, but there are some seriously steep streets in San Diego’s urban neighborhoods, especially in the transition from the sea-level downtown and bay to Mission Hills.
This loop is around 10 miles and is among the most challenging drives anywhere in the county. It starts with a nice cruise through Balboa Park along state Route 163, heads over Cortez Hill, through Little Italy, Bankers Hill and Laurel Street.
Then our drive curves through the neighborhood clinging to the southwestern cliffs of Mission Hills in search of the pre-World War I “test street” for so many early automobiles. We end up in Old Town.
All in a 2008 Mustang Bullitt Edition, its big V-8 and taught suspension rumbling all the way. Not as nostalgia-cool as McQueen’s ’68, but probably much more enjoyable for the driver.
And nobody will mistake you or the Weekend Driver for Steve McQueen.
Please, don’t get crazy on these streets. They’re all neighborhoods, with kids, cross traffic, folks on bicycles, neighbors walking dogs and life in general. Some are extremely narrow and have limited sight lines. Enjoy the challenge of driving but keep it sane. You’re not a professional driver, this is not a closed course, to paraphrase the disclaimer on so many TV commercials.
Head south from Interstate 8 on one of the gentlest and prettiest drives anywhere, state Route 163 through Balboa Park. Just past the multilevel I-5 interchange, take the last freeway exit, to Ash Street. The climb is sudden and dramatic, with the old El Cortez Hotel (once arguably the city’s swankiest hotel and now condos) rising dramatically through the windshield. Downshifting and revving the powerful 4.6 liter V-8 under hood, the Mustang’s power kicks out the rear tires as Bullitt crosses cracks and expansion joints.
At the top, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, San Diego Bay unfolds majestically.
In the movie, McQueen in his Mustang and the Bad Guys in their contemporary Dodge Charger fly down the hills, hitting leveled-off cross streets. Slow-motion photography in some shots shows the cars bodies flexing and suspension bottoming out, with clouds of dust flying.
Don’t do this. In fact, I’m always careful when going over Ash Street because it’s the only place I remember my dad getting a ticket. Driving our big Pontiac over the hills, probably in the late 1960s, he couldn’t muscle the drum brakes enough to stop as the traffic signal turned yellow. After proceeding through the intersection, a San Diego Police officer decided he’d run the light and issued a ticket. Although brakes are better today, stale yellow lights are still there, so watch your speed.
At Third Avenue, when the road has nearly leveled off, turn north, through the Bankers Hill neighborhood, to Laurel Street. Laurel makes a sharp drop from Brant to State streets; the city has installed a stop sign to make sure drivers don’t fly over the top. More spectacular vistas of the bay, downtown, the airport and Point Loma, if you have a chance to glance at something other than the road.
Head up State Street to Reynard Way, through a canyon, then hang a left at Redwood Street (look for the 7-11). This little stub of Redwood runs into Falcon Street, winding up to the area where Mission Hills (streets run north-south/east-west) meets Middletown (streets, some with the same names, run on a diagonal… well, pay close attention to the directions).
Zigzagging through Mission Hills requires a lot of tight turns and caution. The streets are narrow, with lots of parked cars. Because the canyons dot the neighborhood like Swiss cheese, it takes a lot cot street changes to get from here to there.
If you’ve watched the movie, pay attention to McQueen’s hands flying around the steering wheel. One of the biggest difference between old cars and new is the steering. Just a flick of today’s leather-wrapped wheel turns the car; Steve’s Mustang required many turns for the same result. Also, watch for the suspension hop and lean on the ’68; our ’08 sticks to the ground and corners on a dime, especially with the 17-inch premium aluminum wheels and 3.73 limited slip axle on the Bullitt package.
We’re headed to the “test hill.” In researching a couple of books, Bill Swank, the San Diego baseball historian, came across several, pre-World War I newspaper stories about intrepid drivers testing their brass-era automobiles on the hill. The conclusion: steam and electric cars did the best. Smelly, noisy gasoline cars first had to back up the hills (gas flowed by gravity — fuel pumps came later) and would frequently stall.
The location? The best Bill can figure is that it was Thorn Street between India and Columbia. A San Francisco-style challenge for all the 21st Century technology in our Mustang? No, sorry. While the hill is visible just to the northwest of the Aero Club bar, it’s not paved. We route around the top, then down what was probably just as challenging, on Sassafras Street, and the bottom, along India Street.
Stop at the classic El Indio or other restaurants in the area if you like, then cruise up Washington Street, along a 1940s freeway stub that connected the road east, U.S. 80, to the road north, U.S. 101 (Pacific Highway). Exit at University Avenue to head into Mission Hills proper, Fort Stockton Drive and Sunset Boulevard.
This stately neighborhood, celebrating its centennial this year, was the end of the streetcar line, offered beautiful vistas of the bay and was — and still is — home to many of San Diego’s elite.
One last roller coaster ride down Juan Street and we’re at San Diego’s first settlement, Old Town, just in time for freshly made tortillas and a favorite libation.
The Bullitt gobbled up the road, with its tight suspension and quick steering., probably much more enjoyable than a Mustang of McQueen’s vintage. Steve would have had a great time. ⚙
Route and Info
- About 10 miles
- Challenging. Steep hills and a lot of directions to follow.
- South on state Route 163.
- Exit Ash Street.
- Right at Third Avenue.
- Left at Laurel Street.
- Right at State Street. Continue onto Reynard Way.
- Left at West Redwood Street. Continue onto Falcon Street.
- Left at West Thorn Street.
- Right at Hawk Street.
- Left at West Walnut Street.
- Right at Ibis Street.
- Left at West Brookes Avenue.
- Left at Kite Street.
- Right at West Upas Street.
- Left at Union Street.
- Right at West Thorn Street.
- Left at Columbia Street.
- Right at Sassafras Street.
- Right at India Street. Keep right to stay on India Street at San Diego Avenue.
- Right at West Washington Street.
- Exit right at West University Avenue.
- Left at Goldfinch Street.
- Left at Fort Stockton Drive.
- Left at Sunset Boulevard. Continue onto Sunset Road.
- Right at Juan Street. Follow signs to freeways.
- Originally published in October 2008