One Show, 300 Chargers

When I was a kid, everyone with older brothers had something handed down to them. For me, it was the licensed Big Wheel or Coleco Power Cycle from the Dukes of Hazzard. It was the early ‘80s and kids got toys from shows their parent’s watched. Nothing excited families as much as those good old boys from Hazzard County. I was so inspired by my days as a kid spinning out and trying to jump off the incline on my driveway, I decided to take a look back at the most famous ’69 Dodge Charger, the General Lee.

The General Lee (sometimes referred to as simply “The General”) is driven in the series by the Duke boys, Bo and Luke, along with cousins Coy and Vance (in season five). The car is known for its signature horn, its police chases, stunts – especially its long jumps – and for having its doors welded shut, forcing the Dukes to climb in and out through the windows. The car appears in every episode but one (“Mary Kaye’s Baby”). The car’s name is a reference to American Civil War General Robert E. Lee. It bears a Confederate flag (a rectangular variant of the square battle flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia) on its roof, and also has a horn which plays the first 12 notes of the song “Dixie.”

Although the actors who played Bo (John Schneider) and Luke (Tom Wopat) performed their own fight scenes and did a little driving in the first unit General. All the show’s spectacular chases and jumps were performed by a skilled crew of stunt drivers. Surprisingly, no one was ever hurt filming a Dukes stunt.

The “Dukes of Hazzard” stunt crew did a lot of fancy driving, executing “bootlegger” turns, high-speed drifting on dirt roads, and breakneck chase scenes. However, the General Lee is known best for taking on huge jumps – clearing rivers, gullies, highways, other cars, and even trains. The train stunt was initially supposed to see the General jump through the open doors of a moving boxcar, but budget restrictions changed it to a simple jump over the train. Through seven seasons, the General Lee went airborne more than 150 times. While it always seemed fine on screen, the General rarely survived a jump. In preparation for each one, The General’s trunk was filled with sand or concrete to keep it from tipping on its nose when airborne. Each jump was manned. The highest jump the General ever performed took place in the first episode featuring the “replacement Dukes,” cousins Coy and Vance (Wopat and Schneider were on strike due to a contract dispute with the studio). To clear the entire Duke family farm, the stunt crew had to use nitrous oxide to give the General a little boost.

Warner Brothers totaled an average of two Chargers per episode. Each jump practically destroyed the car, ripping the engine mounts, bending the chassis, and ruining the suspension, effectively taco-ing the car. By the time the show ended, an estimated 300 Chargers had starred as the General Lee. What happened to all those cars?

Warner Brothers salvaged the most beat-up vehicles. Mechanics saved the doors, the rebel-flagged roof, and engine parts, which were cannibalized by future Generals. The car’s wrecked remains were then sent to a junkyard crusher, where it was crumpled beyond recognition. An estimated 75-220 Chargers were demolished or scrapped this way. Eventually, a special studio shop was built that cranked out General Lees, along with the other various vehicles driven and crashed in the show. Over 150 General Lees were produced, along with 500 other cars, mostly police cars.

Chargers that weren’t as badly damaged often became props, called “bucks.” Mechanics rebuilt and repainted the battle-scarred autos, which reappeared as town or chase cars. By the end of each season, these Chargers were also retired to a car graveyard.

When the show’s Nielsen ratings sunk in 1986, CBS pulled the show. Warner Brothers abandoned 18 General Lees at the set, and the cars gathered dust for five years. In 1991, WB sold 17 of those cars to private owners.

In 2001, two collectors found a General Lee in a Georgia junkyard. The car ended up being the original, from the first episode. The car was restored and sold for $110,000.

The General Lee was such an icon that small fan performances of the General showed up in county fairs across the states. Like the TV show’s production vehicles, these cars needed to jump without tossing headfirst or becoming bent out of shape. Therefore, it’s a rare sight to see one of these Dodge Chargers at county bonanzas and auto shows. Even with the movie revival, it’s hard to see something like one of these classics soar into the old blue once again.

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