Ford’s Bullitt Mustang rides again. Can McQueen's car restore shine to faded blue oval?  

  • Fifty years since Steve McQueen made the Mustang famous, Ford hopes to recapture a little of that magic with a new version of the Bullitt.
  • Ford's not afraid to cut its losses on some of the company's least interesting cars, deciding to phase out production of most sedans.
  • Ford's shares are down more than 19 percent so far this year and its second-quarter profits plunged by almost 50 percent from the year before.

The irony is rich.

Ford, a company in turmoil that is essentially ditching the business of building cars, is looking to generate some sorely needed buzz by rolling out, you guessed it, a new car.

Then again, this is not just a new Taurus or Fusion.

It's the latest Bullitt Mustang, a version of the pony car that holds a special place in the hearts of car lovers, primarily because it was featured in one of the most famous chase scenes ever in a movie.

"Bullitt," starring Steve McQueen, came out in 1968. The scene with McQueen driving his Mustang in a high-speed pursuit through the streets of San Francisco reinforced the image of the Mustang as the ultimate in cool, at least in the late '60s and early '70s.

Fifty years later, Ford hopes to recapture a little of that magic with a new version of the Bullitt.

"The Bullitt is one of the models that helped build the Mustang reputation," said Mark Phelan, auto critic for the Detroit Free Press. "The movie is decades old, but people still see it. The Bullitt is part of the Mustang allure almost independent of the movie."

For those of us old enough to remember when McQueen and Bullitt were icons in Hollywood, seeing the new Bullit Mustang is a reminder of when muscle cars ruled the road.

Actor Steve McQueen as Frank Bullit next to a Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback in the movie 'Bullitt', San Francisco, 1968. 
Silver Screen Collection | Moviepix | Getty Images
Actor Steve McQueen as Frank Bullit next to a Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback in the movie 'Bullitt', San Francisco, 1968. 

When Ford unveiled the car at the Detroit Auto Show in January, the automaker pulled out all the stops, including having McQueen's granddaughter Molly ride on stage in one of the original models used to make the movie.

"I got emotional when I saw Molly McQueen talk about that car because it is the idea of the history of Ford where it has been a leader in categories like Mustang and F-150 not resting on its laurels," Ford CEO Jim Hackett told CNBC the night the new Bullitt Mustang was introduced.

Six months later, Hackett and his team have all but thrown in the towel when it comes to building cars and sedans, announcing in April that the company was going to stop making almost all of its car lines to focus on its popular SUVs and pickups. The Mustang was spared.

For Ford, moving away from cars is smart.

"The pressure on car sales is here to stay. That's because crossover utility vehicles have become more popular," said Jamie Albertine, auto analyst at Consumer Edge Research. "Ford is putting money behind models that are more profitable and where the company has market share strength."

Ford's also not afraid to cut its losses on some of the company's least interesting cars.

The Lincoln Town Car — commonly referred to as "your grandfather's Town Car" — was discontinued in 2011. It's also phasing out production of the Taurus, Focus, Fiesta and Fusion sedans, which Bloomberg included in a 2015 article: "The Brutal Battle of the World's Most Boring Cars."

Most of Ford's cars are considered decent, but not memorable — unlike the Mustang, analysts say.

Ivan Drury, auto analyst at Edmund's.com, said the Mustang is "so good. Any variation of it is strong," but the rest of the company's sedans are just "adequate."

"They've tried to make their sedans sexy over the years, but it's never resonated with buyers," he said.

Ford's been struggling in the meantime. Its shares are down more than 19 percent so far this year and its second-quarter profit plunged by almost 50 percent from the year before, the company said when it reported earnings last week. Executives lowered their 2018 earnings projections, due to rising commodities costs and waning demand for its sedans overseas.

Ford is looking to the Bullitt Mustang, which will be sold in limited numbers, to restore luster to a brand and company struggling to redefine itself.

"It reminds people of the heritage of the company," said Phelan. "It reminds people Ford is not just making SUVs, they are building cars you can get excited about."

— CNBC producer Meghan Reeder contributed to this article.

Correction: Mark Phelan is auto critic for the Detroit Free Press. An earlier version misstated the name of the publication.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.