The South Shall Rise
The following article, written by Tony Young, was taken from an old CARS magazine. There is lots of background information on what led to the creation of The Dukes of Hazzard TV show and on the legendary General Lee.
The General Lee, seen on the Dukes of Hazzard, is without question the most famous car on television today. As the Duke cousin's seemingly indestructible 1969 Dodge Charger, it has as many close brushes with the law, survives just as many hair-raising adventures, and stoically endures as much abuse as the Dukes themselves. And yet the General gets no screen credit.
The General Lee, however, is no mere automobile. Since the TV series began, it's become a true personality in its own right - so much so that car nuts in general and rabid Mopar buffs in particular watch the show as much to root for the General as for the Dukes behind the wheel. Indeed, the car is greatly responsible for the show's appeal, fast-paced action, and top-ten ratings success.
The inspiration for the hit TV series was a 1975 feature film written and directed by Gy Waldron. Called The Moonrunners, it was about a close-knit family determined to produce and sell its own moonshine despite stiff competition and federal agents. Waldron, who hails from the deep south, afterwards put together a proposal for a TV series loosely based on the characters and situations in the film, but cleaned up for television.
In discussions of the proposed series, Philip Mandelker and Paul Picard at Warner Bros. Television agreed that the Dukes should have a fast car, but not for the purpose of running moonshine. The car wouldn't be new either, but something more suited to the characters and their southern lifestyle. As you probably know, the southern states are the hotbed of stock-car racing, and one of the major NASCAR events, the Atlanta 500, is held at the Atlantic International Raceway in Georgia. And so it was decided that the General Lee - the name given the car in Waldron's proposal - was to be a race car pressed reluctantly into street service by the Dukes. But the specific make and model were arrived at only after lengthy deliberations.
As executive producer Paul Picard recalls: "We talked about six or seven different cars, but Gy kept coming back to the Charger. He was the expert on cars, and so we went along." Waldron's suggestion was a logical one, because of the Charger's history of racing successes. In 1969, for example, Dodge Chargers won 22 of the 54 major NASCAR races.
After a brilliant orange was deemed appropriate for the General, the number that graces the car's flanks became the subject of much serious debate. "Gy thought we should have a double number," Picard remembers, "something unusual. And finally he came up with 01." The confederate flag was first considered for the hood, but later moved to the roof.
The first few Chargers to become General Lees were purchased straight off used-car lots for the filming in Georgia of the five pilot episodes. In case you may not be sure, there's no Hazzard County in Georgia. It was invented for the show.
As for the General Lee's horn, it was discovered when some off the production crew, on their way to start shooting, passed a car with a horn that tooted the first 12 notes of Dixie. The film crew made an immediate 180-degree turn, pursued the car full of kids, and motioned to them to pull over. As Picard tells it: "Our people kept offering the kids money until they finally just opened the hood, pulled the horn out, and sold it to us." The horn, it turns out, is readily available through the J.C. Whitney catalog, but the crew wanted it right away for filming, since it was a natural for the General Lee.
When the pilot episodes drew ratings encouraging enough to warrant a series, the producers turned to Renaud Veluzat, in Newhall, California, whose company specializes in renting vehicles to the various studios. How does Renaud find the '69 Dodge Chargers needed for the show? "We have several people who do nothing but look for these cars," he explains. "We also get calls from all over the country from owners who have a '69 Charger they'd like to sell." Some owners eager to sell their Chargers call the studio directly. They're referred to Veluzat.
Because of the car's age, every Charger is completely rebuilt from the ground up by Veluzat. All worn parts are replaced by new ones, the interior of each car is made to match that of its predecessors, and the car is ready to be turned over to the studio.
Hank Nesel is the coordinator of transportation for the show. He and his mechanics perform further work on the cars, apply the General Lee paint scheme to them, and make any repairs necessary after a day of vigorous shooting. At any one time, the General Lee may be powered by the 318, 383, or 440 that came in it. A high-performance four-barrel carb and aluminum intake manifold are installed to boost acceleration, new gas-type shock absorbers improve handling, and new radial tires are fitted with inner tubes for an extra margin of safety.
How many General Lees are set up for filming a show? "We have three or four of them, and four or five police cars," Nesel confesses. "We also run two film units - studio and location - and so we have to duplicate and triplicate the cars for both units. And we always have two backups in case of breakdowns when we run chase scenes."
Supervising producer Rod Amateau is acutely sensitive to the danger of running out of General Lees. Just as there's only one Bo and Luke, he knows, so there's only one General Lee. Says Rod: "We saw this car as a character in the show. It has a name, a personality, and the same durability the boys have. Bo and Luke get shot at, punched, and so forth, and yet they survive. And the car is a Duke, too, so it must survive as well. It may blow a radiator or crumple a fender, but it's back next week for more, just like the boys."
Amateau had a similar experience in the early 1950s, when he was involved with the popular Lassie series. No fewer than six dogs were used on that show, each with its own special talent such as jumping through an open window or opening a door. But of course the world believed that there was only one Lassie.
Amateau admits to loving the General Lee just as much as he did Lassie. "If you think I'm corny," he says candidly, "you're right!"
The show goes through so many cars, of course, because of the spectacular stunts and jumps that draw viewers every week. From eight to ten hours are devoted to planning the chase sequences and leaps for each episode. Just how these are performed, however, is a closely guarded secret - and for good reason. Viewers are impressionable, the producers say, and they don't want them trying to duplicate the stunts performed on the show with the family car.
Fans of the show will be happy to know that much of the driving they see Bo (John Schneider) and Luke (Tom Wopat) doing is actually performed by them. Schneider, in fact, went to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving for just this purpose. The two actors are quite skilled at putting the General into controlled drifts and spins, and at stopping on a dime. However, whenever the General is due to leave the ground for any length of time, stunt doubles are called in. The studio can't afford to have its principal actors put out of commission by injuries - the more so because, unlike the numerous General Lees, which can be repaired or replaced quickly, there is only one John Schneider and one Tom Wopat.
The General Lee enjoys a tremendous popularity among the younger viewers of the show, a fact which could very well be due to the almost total lack of gutsy performance cars available today, when even the ones you can buy are only sheep in wolf's clothing. The General Lee, on the other hand, is no mealy-mouthed performance car, but an unstoppable brute - a shining survivor of the muscle car's heyday. Watching the Dukes outwit the corrupt Boss Hogg, viewers get the chance to relive vicariously the days of sixties speed.
For this and other reasons, Warner Bros. Television says that over half of the 60,000 fan letters they receive each month request information on the General Lee. Indeed, according to an article in the New York Times, retail sales of licensed products associated with The Dukes of Hazzard will exceed $125 million in 1981 and, of that sum, $100 million is directly attributed to the General Lee, with a good chunk of it coming from two model kits in 1/25 and 1/16 scale, made by MPC.
In the General Lee, then, Warner Bros. Television seems to have found the goose that lays the golden egg. And with so much of the show's success riding on the General, it's certain that the car will continue to play a major role in one of TV's most popular programs.