Super Driver Series
At its most basic principles, the act of driving is simple. You turn a wheel in the direction you want to go, you press a pedal to stop and one to go, and you select between forward or reverse with a lever. It’s when you start adding other drivers, congestion, distractions, and rules that its starts to get difficult for some people.
However, there are a few people who have a gift. A special talent for being able to predict what a car will do and where it will go in fractions of a second. An ability to take a machine built for transportation and make it dance and perform in ways engineers never dreamed of. They go by different names; drivers, lead-foots, wheelmen, pedal punchers, or just plain crazy.
I’ve always loved driving. It’s my favorite part of the automotive hobby. Ever since I got behind the wheel of a pedal car at age 3 and started whipping it around the driveway. My obsession for precision driving has been giving my parents grey hairs and scaring my friends since I became road legal at age 15.
There are a number people I consider to be my driving heroes; some are well known within the automotive community but others are starting to fade into the webpages of history. This series will be a tribute to my favorite: Stuntmen, race drivers, cannon-ballers, and people that have done remarkable, or even historic, things behind the wheel of a car,truck, or bike.
Each article will be a tribute to one Super Driver. Staring with the first Driver I became a fan of, the legendary Bill Hickman.
Bill Hickman – Supporting Actor, Lead Driver
A lot of you may not recognize the name but you will definitely recognize his work. Bill Hickman is best known for being the stone face hit-man looking at rear-view in his black ’68 Dodge Charger from the 1968 film Bullitt.
Born William Hickman in 1921, Hickman was a stuntman with a forte for making a car or motorcycle do whatever a film director could dream up. In the 1950’s, he was already an established stuntman and his work led him to a friendship with none other than James Dean! He would coach Dean on driving when he started competing in races.
In fact, Hickman was driving Dean’s Ford station wagon just 2-3 minutes behind Dean’s infamous Porsche 550 Spyder the day of his tragic fatal accident in 1955. Hickman was the first on the scene of the accident. He was the one who pulled Dean out of the wreck and was in his arms when Dean’s the last breathe left his body. A sound that would haunt Hickman’s sleep for several nights after.
Filming Driving History
Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Seven Ups are to Bill Hickman what the Dollar Trilogy is to Clint Eastwood. In each film, Hickman drove, acted, and created movie history that is still being mentioned and praised decades later.
In 1968, Hickman would meet another icon of cool, Steve McQueen, while practicing high speed maneuvers in training for the big chase scene in Bullitt. Hickman did a lot of the driving in the ’68 Charger and helped create 10 minutes of film that would start a new era in how a car chase should look and feel. Gritty, real, and dangerous.
My favorite story of Bill Hickman is when he drove for the film The French Connection (1971) starring Gene Hackman and directed by William Friedkin. Legend has it that Friedkin was not happy with the footage they had, keep in mind that they were filming without permission or warning in the streets of 70’s Brooklyn, New York.
The footage they had didn’t meet Friedkin’s expectations and took a jab at Hickman’s driving ego. In response, Hickman dared Friedkin to sit in the 1971 Pontiac LeMans sedan and said, “I’ll show you some fucking driving.” Hickman then drove the Pontiac, in real traffic with no control as far as safety, at speeds pushing 90 mph for 26 blocks! Friedkin rode the backseat holding a camera. If you look at the chase scene, anytime you see a POV shot from the car’s front bumper that is all unscripted with real NYC traffic. That is Hickman threatening the needle behind the wheel with a suspected terrified film director in the back seat along for the ride.
Just day dreaming what that must have been like keeps me up at night. The idea of just throwing caution out the window and driving a car through city traffic like you stole it and the cops were coming. How many people can say they’ve done that, gotten away with it, and have proof of it in an Oscar award winning film? Truly remarkable talent, and luck.
This video shows a great in-depth interview with Director William Friedkin on how the French Connection car chase was filmed gorilla style.
In 1973’s The Seven Ups, the sequel/spin off to The French Connection, Hickman plays another silent cold-blooded hit-man looking in his rear-view while behind the wheel of a big block chassis. In the chase you can see the rear wheels of his blue 1973 Pontiac Grand Ville buckle and shake whenever he throws it into a turn. No expression on his face, just a firm grip at the wheel and a heavy foot on the gas. No thing you have to realize is that this are the days before CGI, so every crash and bump is real and actors sometimes needed to be behind the wheel themselves.
Another Driving Roles
One of my favorite movies of all time, and one of the first Disney films I saw as a kid, is The Love Bug (1968), which Hickman also drove in. The Love Bug is one of the most underrated car-enthusiast films of all time considering that they have more car jargon dialog than all the Fast and Furious movies combined.
Other examples of Hickman’s driving genius can be seen in James Bond’s 1971 Diamonds are Forever in the scene where a red Ford Mustang rides on two-wheels through an alley. Hickman had to do this stunt twice which is why you see the Mustang entering the alley on one side and exiting the alley on its other side.
A YouTube Legacy
Bill Hickman passed away from cancer in 1986, but his legacy will forever live on in 3 of the most famous car chase sequences in film history. Thanks to the internet, new generations will be able to see his genius and rediscover Bill Hickman just as I did.
Wow, he sounds like an awesome driver. I’d never heard of him, so thanks to bringing him to my attention. It look forward to reading about your other heroes.
An inspiring stunt driver for generations to come ! Not for dangerous driving but professional roadworthiness and vehicle control.
Great story on the Great Bill Hickman.
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Thank you so much! He is a personal hero.
Bill was a personal friend of mine when I was a teenager(1960’s) & whenever he visited (NY) he’d always ask what kind of car I had & then take me for a’test drive’ in it…rides I will never forget & a lifelong friendship I still miss !
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Mr. Fowler, would you care to share some of your car related stories about Mr. Hickman? I would certainly enjoy documenting them. It be an honor considering he is a driving hero of mine.