A history of TV's most famous car
It’s perhaps the most famous car in television history, but it’s more than one vehicle. It’s decorated with a symbol that’s either a racist banner or an emblem of cultural pride, depending on your viewpoint. And, while it’s supposed to be a ’69 Charger, sometimes it has actually been a ’68, and, every once in a while, a remote control toy.
It’s the General Lee from the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. And it represents a time when gas was cheap, Google was an obscure math concept, and the only things that mattered to a young man were girls and cars, not necessarily in that order. In 1975 the film Moonrunners was released starring Robert Mitchum. The plot revolved around two cousins in the deep south who ran moonshine for their uncle Jesse. The movie was so popular that CBS used it as the template for a program the network launched in 1979. As in the film, it centered around the adventures of two cousins, named Bo and Luke, who lived in Georgia and were on probation for bootlegging. But the show’s real star was the car the pair drove, a 1969 Dodge Charger named General Lee.
The idea for the General Lee came from the vehicle of choice used by real life North Carolina moonshiner Jerry Rushing. It was a 1958 Chrysler 300D that Rushing modified to run at speeds in excess of 140 mph to escape pursuing police. If that doesn’t sound crazy enough, Rushing often drove it down winding roads late at night with no headlights. It was named Traveller, after Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse. The CBS execs changed both the car’s name and model for the series. But they kept the spirit of Rushing’s Chrysler alive, by having the General Lee outrun the local sheriff, tear down dirt roads at breakneck speed, and leap over rivers and ravines on a weekly basis. In doing so they went through 256 real-life Dodge Chargers, according to actor Ben Jones, who played local mechanic Cooter in the show. Depending on the scene in question, the General Lee was actually either a ’69 Charger or a ’68 modified to look like the later model year. It was painted either GM Flame Red or Chrysler Hemi Orange. Most models had either a 383 cubic inch power plant or a 440 V-8 Magnum. One thing that remained fairly constant throughout the show was the tan interior. General Lees that lacked this shade had their seats sprayed with interior dye. The reason for the number of vehicles used during the show’s six seasons was simple. No real car could accomplish what the General Lee managed to do every Friday night . The jump scenes were filmed only after loading the trunk with sandbags or concrete ballast, to prevent the Charger from landing nose first. Severe structural damage was always a result, and on occasion the vehicle in use actually bent upward upon landing. The stunt drivers for the show earned every penny of their checks.
All of this was possible only because there was a plentiful supply of ’68 and ’69 Chargers at the time. In later seasons finding replacements became challenging, however. And, since there was no EBay or Google in 1981, airplane pilots were hired to do aerial surveys of rural areas, in the hopes of spotting suitable vehicles. Ultimately producers resorted to using motorized toy cars for some scenes, a highly unpopular choice among both viewers and cast members. Of the Chargers used in the show, 23 are known to still exist, from junkyard wrecks to one that was immaculately restored and recently fetched $110,000.00 at auction. The 2005 movie went through 24 Chargers, including some 1970 models. Avoiding injuries during filming was a major concern, leading the stunt crew to launch the General Lee over obstacles with gas-powered catapults. It was safer, but somehow it wasn’t as real.
THE BASICS Make: Dodge Model: Charger Year: 1969 Engine: 6.3L V8 Horsepower: 335 Car Type: Classic Car, Muscle Car See more of the 1969 Dodge Charger General Lee here Written by Bill Wilson Photos courtesy of RM Auctions