It all started late one night when publisher Jerry Pitt opened his office e-mail at our hotel room during Carlisle's All-Chrysler Nationals 2000. His "In" box had a fresh e-mail from Will Holman, an editor with Practical Classics, one of our sister emap magazines in England. Will said he was interested in coming to America to do a story on driving a white Challenger from Denver to San Francisco, and asked if we knew a Challenger owner willing to let them use it. I told Jerry we could go one better: Ted Stephens, owner of Stephens Performance and VP Merchandising, now owns all the Challengers used by Twentieth Century Fox for the 1996 television remake of Vanishing Point, and moreover, he was at Carlisle for the weekend. We had an answer for Will by the next morning.
Of all the movies featuring Mopars, Vanishing Point and its meth-driven star are perhaps the best-remembered. Wheeling a dirty Challenger R/T across the far west, Kowalski had just 15 hours to thunder from Denver to San Francisco, though we never actually found out why. Chased by the cops through three states and meeting a surreal assortment of characters, his at-speed experience reached its brutal end at 140 mph. It's still a benchmark car film. With our friends from the other side of the world, a plan was formulated to indeed recreate Kowalski's last run, minus the mind-altering substances (the ride would be stimulant enough).
Day 1: DenverFast forward three months to October, and it was showtime. When my connecting flight to Denver was grounded in Minnesota, I was a day late to the party; so Ted took the opportunity to show the Brits some down-home Southern hospitality. He'd had the Challenger trailered from Alabama to Denver, and then found a ratty green Challenger parts car to put on the trailer for the haul back to 'Bama. Fresh off the plane from Britain, and after spending 24 hours crammed into the coach section, Will and photographer Mark Dixon were shown this heap and told quite frankly that the boys back at Ted's shop had loaded the wrong car on the trailer and their requested white Challenger was about 3000 miles away. "But we think we can get this one running...." Swear words sound quaint when spoken with a British accent. Fortunately, Mark and Will saw the humor after seeing the white car parked around the corner. Welcome to America, boys!
After tweaking the carb to acclimate it to Denver's thin air and adjusting the T-bars to level the front of the car, our gang was off. Gang? Well, while it'd be cool to say we headed for San Fran with nothing more than the clothes on our back and cameras around our necks, the real story is that we played it a little closer to the vest. Ted's friends Dan Schultz and Russ Welch followed in a dually pickup with a trailer, while Jackie Stephens was behind the wheel of a rental van hauling luggage and camera gear.
Heading out of Denver, the plan was simple-cover the same ground the film crew used during the filming of Vanishing Point 30 years ago, all the way to the California border while avoiding mechanical failures, bulldozers, and The Man. Just like Kowalski, we would not.
Driving west from Colorado, there are extremes of scenery across the high plains and mountains of Colorado to the endless miles of nothing that is Utah and Nevada. We followed the map shown and verbally communicated throughout the movie, though it was obvious that the location coordinator of the first Vanishing Point film had taken some geographic liberties while plotting Kowalski's course.
Besides driving through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country, the week-long culture clash with our British guests was also fun. While both car enthusiasts of the first order (Mark has owned several American cars, and Will is currently putting one together), they were amazed at the absolute expanse of our country and our customs, which went beyond our liking cold beer and food with flavor.