The General Lee, the orange Dodge Charger from the popular ’70s TV series The Dukes Of Hazzard, is probably the most famous Hollywood Chrysler of all time. But famous is one thing, cool is another. Is the General Lee the coolest Mopar in history? Some might think so. Others may instead suggest Christine, the red ’59 Plymouth Fury from the 1983 movie of the same name based on the Steven King novel; or maybe the green Dodge Charger used in the 1974 movie Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. But as far as we’re concerned, the coolest Chrysler ever to appear on screen ” and surely right up there with John Milner’s piss-yellow ’32 Ford coupe from American Graffiti and Steve McQueen’s wicked green ’68 Mustang Fastback from Bullitt as one of the coolest cars in Hollywood history ” is the ghostly white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T that starred in the 1971 movie Vanishing Point.
If Chrysler’s goal was to promote the Dodge Challenger R/T as a tough, sleek, sporty, high speed, open road belter oozing the cool factor, then offering to supply several identical white Dodge Challengers free of charge for the starring role in Vanishing Point was one of the smartest marketing decisions it could have made.
Vanishing Point was a movie about a down on his luck character named Kowalski (his first name isn’t given), who seems to find trouble wherever he goes. He has found employment in the most unlikely of places, including as a motocross rider and NASCAR racer, and even a cop.
To add to the misery of it all, his girlfriend drowns in a surfing accident. Kowalski just can’t catch a break, and by the time he takes up a dead-end job as a long-haul delivery car guy, he’s pretty screwed up, no doubt thanks in part to the fact he’s a pill popper, and doesn’t sleep.
Anyway, Vanishing Point is set over the span of less than two days. In the opening scene he is delivering a car to his employer’s Denver base late on a Friday night. Rather than hitting the hay, he instead insists on collecting another car and delivering it straight back to San Francisco. That car, of course, is a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T (said to be a 440 Magnum big block). He’s exhausted, so the first stop he makes before departing Denver is to his supplier, to stock up on ‘uppers’.
Early the next morning, in a dazed state, Kowalski is speeding along a country road when a motorbike cop rides up alongside him, yelling at him to pull over. Suddenly snapping to, Kowalski instead puts his boot into it and the cop give chase. After a few high speed stunt driver manoeuvres Kowalski loses the cop, but the law now wants his head. They get heavier, the chase scenes get bigger, and the rest of the movie is basically about him trying to escape, mixed in with a few flashbacks and a smattering of the odd-ball people he meets during his journey.
Been There, Done That
Of course, most V8 nuts have seen Vanishing Point, and those who haven’t know how it ends. It’s a cool ending (unless you wanted a sequel), and further adds to the aura of the starring Challenger R/T. The exact number of Dodge Challengers supplied by Chrysler for the movie is not completely clear, but eight were destroyed during filming. Director Richard C Sarafian returned for the Vanishing Point DVD and talks about how, late in the piece when they were down to just one last car, it was stolen by a prostitute who was one of the hangers-on during filming (this was the laid back ’70s, remember). Whether this means eight cars were supplied by Chrysler and all were destroyed, or there were nine and one survived filming, is unclear. Another fact that isn’t explained is why the car that hits the bulldozer road block at the end of the movie is not actually a Challenger, but a ’67 or ’68 Camaro.
The Challengers used in filming were maintained by a hard-as-nails ’50s race car driver called Max Balchowsky. Balchowsky built a series of Buick Nailhead-powered sports cars, made up primarily of junkyard parts, which he named Ol’ Yellar (they were all painted yellow), and which could beat off the best European Ferraris, Maseratis and Jaguars of the day. The cars used for the film appear to have had wider tyres fitted, and the suspension seemed lower than standard, which made them look even tougher. Chrysler was gaining great exposure in the right marketplaces for the Dodge Challenger, such as in drag racing through numerous top flight drives like Funnycar racers Gene Snow, the famous Ramchargers, and Pro Stock racer Dick Landy. Meanwhile, over in the TransAm circuit racing scene the bright green factory-backed Challenger T/As of Sam Posey were keeping the roundy-roundy fans happy. But the 1971 release of Vanishing Point really completed the package and set the Dodge Challenger up as one of the greatest cars in America’s rich pony car history.
More Muscle Than Pony
The Challenger was Dodge’s contribution to the pony car craze, started by the Mustang in 1964. Dodge was quite late arriving on the scene, and by the time the Challenger finally appeared in 1970, it found the pony car market a busy place indeed, with not only the market-leading Mustang to contend with, but also the Mercury Cougar, Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, AMC’s Javelin, and even sister company Plymouth’s Barracuda. Regardless, sales figures for the Challenger reached 80,000 in its first year.
The Challenger was offered in four different forms for 1970: the base model Challenger six, Challenger V8, Challenger R/T, and the low volume Challenger T/A, which was built to homologate parts for the TransAm series. The T/A, of which just under 2400 units were sold, was only available for the 1970 model year, before being dropped by Chrysler when its brief foray into TransAm racing ended at the conclusion of the 1970 racing season. In 1971, as the pony car market began its decline, Challenger sales dropped dramatically to just over 26,000 units. This figure worsened still for ’72, at just under 23,000. For 1973, 27,000 units were sold, while in 1974, the final year in the Challenger’s brief existence, Dodge could shift only 11,000 units. While the Mustang and Camaro carried on beyond the mid-’70s despite being mere shadows of their former selves, Chrysler ” which was in financial strife by this stage ” chose not to continue with the Challenger.
Chrysler sold around 165,000 Challengers over the five years the model was in production which, by American standards, made it quite a low volume car.
Examples can be found today, but because they are relatively rare and enjoy a strong image thanks to their many drag racing successes, allied with their excellent factory performance, aggressive styling and the clever marketing campaigns of the day, they are quite rightly highly sought-after cars.
Home Town Hero
Today, many Dodge Challenger enthusiasts have Vanishing Point director Richard C Sarafian to thank for their love affair with this swoopy, staunch-looking coupe. One of those enthusiasts is Aucklander Mark Barton, who is the lucky owner of this magnificent 1970 Challenger R/T. As Mark puts it, “I watched the movie Vanishing Point as a young guy and just loved it. I remember the naked girl [who famously rode a motorbike in the movie wearing nothing but a smile], and then I remember the car! I love all muscle cars, but the Challenger is just a little different. And that movie did inspire me, and I thought, shit, I’m going to have one of those some day.”
Mark has owned his Challenger for around 18 months, although it has been in New Zealand for about five years. Being a factory manual car and a genuine R/T, it’s one of just a handful in the country ” if not the only one. It was imported from Oregon, where it had spent most of its life. It was a bone dry car with no rust, but it required a rebuild to bring it to the point Mark was happy with it: as an immaculate factory original vehicle. “When I got it it’d had a partial restoration, and then I took it home and basically pulled it to bits again. I tried to buy all the right bits, spent hours on eBay searching for parts. It really required a lot of finishing stuff, like mouldings, badges, the jack, all that sort of fiddly original stuff.
“Thank goodness for the internet and good exchange rate!” he says. Mark also had portions of the bodywork tidied up and straightened, and repainted by Manurewa Panelbeaters, while the gearbox and diff were both restored, and the bumpers were re-chromed. The dashboard was beautifully restored by Dashboard Restorations in Auckland, while Robinsons Instruments did all the gauges. The only other change to the interior was a full install of Dynamat sound deadening, which Mark says did a fantastic job of removing unwanted rattles and made the cabin a really nice place to be. Carl at the NZ Mopar Registry (see page 36) was extremely helpful, finding parts and supplying info, while the American Muscle Car Club also played an important role.
As Good As It Gets
What Mark has ended up with is a picture perfect, factory stock Challenger that is true to its roots. And it’s no trailer queen, either ” he gets it out and drives it as much as he can. The lack of brake booster makes for an interesting drive, even though the car has new drums all round, but it’s all part of driving an old car and a small price to pay for the stunning performance of the machine. He didn’t build the car to win awards, he built it to drive and enjoy. That said, he was recently invited to a Mopar Show, put on by Mopar Connections at Meremere, to display the car (see page 84). And he was pleasantly surprised when he was awarded top E-body at the show. “I was actually pretty chuffed with that,” he says. “I actually amazed myself at how chuffed I was. I’m not really into the whole car show thing, I’m happy to go along and park it there. But though it’s not really my thing I was really happy with that.”
Who wouldn’t be happy with a Challenger in the garage, let alone one that takes out those types of awards?
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T
Engine: 6276cc (383ci), Roller rockers, Edelbrock Torker manifold, Edelbrock 700cfm carb, Mallory distributor, Top Gun leads, 2.5-inch custom-built exhaust
Driveline: A833 Chrysler four-speed with factory Hurst shifter and pistol grip, Centreforce clutch, 8.75-inch diff, 3.23 gears
Suspension: New shocks and springs
Brakes: All-new factory drum brakes all round, no booster (scary)
Wheels and tyres: Magnum 15-inch, Cooper Cobra tyres
Interior: Dynamat installed throughout, reconditioned dash pad by Dashboard Restorations
Age: “Past my best before date”
Occupation: Owner Auckland Motors Mitsubishi/Manukau Mitsubishi
Previously owned cars: 1972 GT Falcon, ’68 Camaro, AC Cobra, and lots and lots of others
Dream Car: “If it’s got a Hemi I will take it”
Why the Challenger? Vanishing Point movie when young — as well as the naked girl on the motorbike, the car made an impression
Build time: Ongoing
Length of ownership: 18 months
Mark thanks: Manukau Mitsubishi, Manurewa Panelbeaters, NZ Mopar Registry for parts and knowledge, Mike Lancaster @ year one, my partner Rayleen and their two boys Joe and Ollie, Kelly at Stitches Upholstery for helping out, Otahuhu Chrome Platers
Words: Steve Holmes | Pics: Quinn Hamill