It’s 1978, and a stuntman drives a 1969 Dodge Charger up a ramp and over a police car for a scene on the network’s TV show. No wonder the car is totaled. But the 82-foot, 16-foot jump makes for a memorable moment in television history. The vehicle is the General Lee, perhaps one of television’s most famous cars, and the show is The Dukes of Hazzard.
The CBS network television series ran from 1979 to 1985 and featured some 329 General Lees, a car as famous as the series’ Daisy Dukes, the name of the cropped, skinny jeans Catherine Bach wore in her role as Daisy Duke.
Dodge creates an icon
The Dodge Charger debuted in 1966 as a sportier, two-door version of the mid-size Dodge Coronet. The hardtop coupe featured a fastback roofline, hidden headlights, and an interior with bucket seats and a center console. Dodge’s long-lived 230-hp 5.2-liter V8 was standard, but buyers could opt for a 265-hp 5.9-liter V8, a 325-hp 6.3-liter V8 with dual exhausts, or a 425 High-horsepower 7.0-liter Hemi V8 with powerful twin four-barrel carburettors and twin exhausts. All engines were mated to a three-speed manual gearbox. A four-speed manual or a three-speed TorqueFlite automatic were optional.
The Charger didn’t change again until 1968 when it was redesigned along with Coronet as its sportier brother. The new “trunk” styling, now featuring rounded panels below the car’s waistline, was used on all Chrysler Corporation models well into the 1970s. For the Charger, it gave the car a simpler look that went well with its coke bottle belt line. It retained its signature hidden headlights, but now boasted a buttress roofline that replaced, but still evoked, the previous model’s awkward hatchback.
Sales improved dramatically, reaching 96,100 units, far exceeding the 1967 total of 15,788. Engine choices remained the same, except for a 375 hp 7.2-liter Magnum V8. Options included power steering, power brakes, power door locks, heavy-duty differential, cruise control, air conditioning, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, dual exhaust, an AM radio, a tachometer, and a vinyl roof.
The only significant change to the Charger for 1969 was the inclusion of the Charger Daytona, a vehicle that would steal the NASCAR championship from Ford. It sported an extended nose cone two feet long, a rear wing three feet high, and a curved rear window. The other change was the option of a 145hp 3.7L Slant Six, although only 500 were sold.
But it was the show’s star turn with the Dukes of Hazzard that made it a cultural star.
It’s not high art
The premise of the show is well known. Cousins Bo and Luke Duke (played by actors John Schneider and Tom Wopat, respectively) have constant trouble with the officers of the fictional Hazzard County, Georgia, led by corrupt boss Jefferson Davis Hogg and his sidekick Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane. The Duke boys are supported by their cousin Daisy and Uncle Jesse.
But it’s the car chases, a staple of ’70s filmmaking, that are a key part of the show, and the star was the General Lee, an orange 1969 Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag on the roof, a horn that said ” I Wish I Was in Dixie” and the numbers 01 on the doors. Inside, a Citizens Band radio keeps the boys in touch with Uncle Jesse. The series was created by Gy Waldronwho had written and directed a lanky action film called Moonrunners in 1975.. In it, Grady and Bobby Lee run moonshiners for their Uncle Jesse. As in the later TV show, country singer Waylon Jennings is the ballad singer. Sound familiar?
The car everyone remembers
Throughout the show’s seven seasons, the 1969 Chargers were decades-old used cars, not collectibles, and since Dodge built 89,700 of them, they were easy to find, at least initially. Each car featured a roll cage, heavy-duty shock absorbers and springs, and modified brakes to allow the smugglers to make a 180-degree turn with ease.
But when producers wrecked their share of Dodge Chargers due to stunts, they created a shortage of 1969 Dodge Chargers in the series’ final years. In a fit of desperation, manufacturers began scouring parking lots for 1969 Dodge Chargers and asking the owners if they wanted to sell them. It did not work.
So producers switched to using orange AMC Ambassadors or shooting miniatures.
Despite this, the General Lee proved popular. During the show’s first run, the car received about 35,000 fan letters a month, quite a fan base for an inanimate object.
Why the car was popular
The Charger survived into the 1970s, becoming a personal luxury coupe as its performance and popularity waned, a trend that began with a disastrous 1971 restyling. It was replaced by the Magnum in 1979, the year The Dukes of Hazzard debuted. By then, high insurance costs and government regulations had relegated the 1960s muscle cars to history. The American landscape changed.
The proof came in 1981 when the Dodge Charger ignominiously emerged as a small three-door hatchback powered by a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine producing just 84 horsepower. Its name was retired in 1987 and reappeared in 2005 on a rear-wheel drive sedan. It was made into a film that same year, starring Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, Jessica Simpson, Burt Reynolds, Willie Nelson and Lynda Carter.
For Charger fans, the General Lee upheld traditional values in a changing American landscape, a charming 1980s cultural relic. For others, the show was racist due to its use of Confederate symbols, whether it be the Confederate flag, the “Dixie” car horn, or names like General Lee and Jefferson Davis. The controversy was sparked by a white supremacist who murdered nine worshipers at a historic African American church in South Carolina in 2015 while carrying a Confederate flag. The massacre sparked an outcry as Confederate symbols became a cultural abomination. As a result, reruns of the show on cable network TV Land were cancelled.
But the show still has fans, including Schneider, whose replica of the General Lee was badly damaged by Hurricane Ida earlier this year.
“This car is me” he told the Daily Mail.