How the General Lee Became a Small Screen Icon
Even people who have never seen The Dukes of Hazzard have a good idea what The General Lee can do. Its iconic image is fixed in our minds. Like the Model T in The Absent-Minded Professor and the rebuilt Grand Prix racing car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, this Dodge Charger can fly.
Not even James Bond’s Aston Martin could do that (although Ian Fleming wrote the novels upon which both the Bond and Chitty films were based).
As everybody knows, The General was a 1969 Dodge Charger. The Charger had been redesigned for 1968, and the new two-door hardtop was a landmark for the brand and one of the best-looking cars of the decade. Sometimes, similar models from 1968 and 1970 were also used for filming.
If today there is a shortage of ’68 to ’70 Chargers in the collector car market, it’s because so many were consumed in 145 episodes of sloppy fun, starting from the TV show’s premier in January of 1979. Subsequent films and even a recent AutoTrader.com commercial have ensured continuing demand. Before it became too expensive and laborious and a conservation program was instituted, each TV episode claimed about three cars as casualties.
OK, maybe they’re not so scarce: Dodge was building around 90,000 Chargers per year.
Nevertheless, the lesson from all this jumping over police cars and natural obstacles and even a Peterbilt is that a 3650-pound muscle car sustains suspension and chassis damage when it lands—especially with 500 to 1000 pounds of ballast in the trunk in order to effect a more stylish takeoff and flight.
The Dukes of Hazzard derived from the 1975 independent film Moonrunners by writer and director Gy Waldron. The movie was substantially based on interviews with Jerry Rushing, who ran moonshine in a ’58 Chrysler 300D. Rushing’s Chrysler was nicknamed Traveler, after Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse.
From this starting point, it required only a couple of small steps to the ’69 Charger, which conveniently alluded to Richard Petty’s great success in NASCAR and his preeminence in Southern automotive culture.
Warner Brothers said the powerplant was the 440-cubic-inch V-8 included with the more limited production Charger R/T. But in fact, a selection of V-8s was utilized. Whichever engine was in the car, you can be sure the TorqueFlite automatic was attached.
Contemporary press coverage explained that “first unit” close-up cars driven by stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat maintained a specific look, with American Racing Vector wheels as “landing gear.” American Racing says that only one of 1360 Vectors was ever broken during filming.
In years since the series ended in 1985, it has been discovered that The General replicates itself as prolifically as Herbie the Love Bug. Any collector with an original Charger must safeguard it from becoming feedstock for a General Lee copy.
If you have one and want to do the makeover, don’t forget these essentials:
• Make the 01 numerals look like a hand-lettered variant of the Collegiate font—as if clipped from an old football jersey.
• Weld shut the doors to make it like a real stock car. Knowing that Catherine Bach is waiting for you in the passenger seat will ease the process of sliding through the window.
• Drench the body in Hemi Orange—Chrysler paint code EV2.
• Install a 12-note Wolo Dixie Horn. There’s a story about the show’s producers foolishly buying one from a motorist they’d encountered. J.C. Whitney sells them cheap.Listen
• Affix Blackjack headers and Thrush glasspack mufflers.
• But omitting the Confederate flag from the roof will not bring condemnation.
Finally, lacking your own Charger for the conversion, ask Master’s golf champion Bubba Watson to borrow his Lee 1, the second-unit warhorse that he purchased at auction in 2012. He paid $110,000 before the premium, probably showing the way for the collector’s market.