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.
Mark has visited the US before, but limited his stays to New York and California and didn't really see the country. The whole of Britain will fit in an area the size of the Great Lakes, and for them to drive through hours of empty country on roads with a bend only every 50 miles was hard to get used to. So were the food portions. A good country-style breakfast here in the States is apparently a bit more than most Brits eat in a day, which gives a new perspective to the United States being one of the largest countries in the world. Males being the way we are, and three of the four Yank gents in attendance not having seen the good side of 220 pounds or a 32-inch waist since high school, we felt obliged to further embellish our meals a bit for Will's benefit. A week's worth of monster breakfasts, greasy hamburgers, and country fried steak with sausage gravy sent him home a good bit heavier, and probably in need of angioplasty.
The first night, we stayed in Grand Junction, Colorado, where Mopars Unlimited of Colorado hosted a small get-together for us at the local Pizza Hut. The following morning we headed out of town for a tromp through a junkyard, and the Brits enjoyed the experience as much as we did. Ted did some serious shopping, loading the trailer with rust-free sheetmetal, while I scored a pristine hood and cable-remote mirrors for my '61 Plymouth station wagon. This was the only junkyard we hit, but it would have been easy to spend the week yard hopping our way across the west. Maybe next year.
Day 2: Cisco, Utah:Though in the movie Kowalski met his end in Cisco, California, the former uranium boom town is actually located in Utah. Or more precisely, what's left of Cisco is in Utah. No longer listed on any many maps, Cisco is little more than a road bordered by train tracks on one side and falling-down buildings constructed of railroad ties and a smattering of clapboard houses on the other. Inhabited by fewer than ten people who watch through their blinds but won't answer the door when you knock, Cisco can best be described as a wasteland. The one man we met who would talk to us spends his days smelting aluminum out of scrap he hauls in off the plains, firing it in a natural-gas-fed furnace and pouring it into 15 pound ingots he sells for thirty-five cents a pound.
The sandy rock terrain is too harsh even for scrub brush to take hold, and what plant life does manage to root is obliterated by the frequent wind storms that blow through the area. Dotting the landscape are dozens of storm cellars dug in man-made mounds or under building foundations. Many of them are filled with decaying, crystallized TNT, which is less stable than nitroglycerin, and often explodes simply because some poor mouse walked across the wooden box it's stored in.
"We keep it in the cellars so if it explodes it blows up and not out. That way nothing gets damaged," the aluminum man tells us. Looking around, we fail to see what difference it could possibly make, but we nod anyway and agree that it makes good sense. Between blowing up (instead of out), the mysterious silhouettes in the windows and inhaling the uranium dust we're sure is still on the wind out here, all of us but Ted decide Cisco is just below the seventh circle of Hell on our list of places to visit. After the aluminum man gave Ted a couple of old metal signs that may have been glimpsed in the movie, Ted has vowed a return trip to look for the ultimate piece of memorabilia: the Camaro they slammed into the 'dozers back in '70. Reasoning they wouldn't have hauled its remains far before depositing them in the desert, he's sure the wreckage is somewhere out there, though Aluminum Man doesn't know where it could be.
Remember the movie? The old man had his snakes, but Ted has the Camaro.
Day 3: Austin, NevadaBy the time we hit Austin, Nevada, the next day, the transmission in the Challenger had developed a thirsty leak past the pump seal. A call from the chase vehicle over the two-way radio the night before had alerted us that something was dripping onto the hot crossover pipes on the exhaust, evidenced by telltale white smoke trailing beneath the car. Ted was prepared for such an emergency and had brought along several bottles of transmission "miracle goo," some sort of thick blood-red salve with the consistency of rubber cement on a cold day. By now, the travel on the brake pedal had also begun to grow, and there was a good distance between depressing the pedal and the brakes responding.
The sign along the road into town proclaims Austin "The loneliest town on the loneliest road in America." We've already been to Cisco, but that can't be considered much of a town anymore, so we had to agree.
Kowalski blasted through Austin, barely spending more than thirty seconds in it. In real life, just doing the speed limit gives you the same experience. Austin, like many towns in this part of the country, is a dying boom town.
"We're a small town, and it's nice," says the keeper of the Lincoln Motel, Austin's only inn. "We're so small, we know everybody's pets' names and recognize them when we see them."
Everyone in town remembers Vanishing Point and comments on the Challenger. The cast and crew were in Austin for a time during the filming, staying at the Lincoln and eating across the street at the Frontier Hotel and Caf. Barry Newman stayed in Room Number 5, and that's the room Ted and Jackie request. The brown shag carpeting and green glass lamp with a tasseled shade lead us to believe that not much has changed since Newman turned the dials to change channels on the television set. But the price is right, the rooms are clean, and there's just something right about staying in a small-town motel instead of a Holiday Inn Express.
The Frontier is no longer a hotel, but it's easy to imagine the upstairs rooms and saloon girls from a century before. The Civil War-era bar is well stocked, and like the film crew, that's where we spend our evening. Breakfast the next morning is remarkably good, and we encourage Will to eat up, as it's a long time until lunch.
Unlike most of the towns we've gone through on the trip, Austin is fighting for a second chance. Some enterprising residents have gotten grants from the government and the town now hosts several downhill bicycle races a year, and a 4x4 off-road recreation area is in the works. Small businesses catering to the tourist industry are beginning to pop up, and buildings on the only street in town are being renovated. Austin has learned that the new economy of the old west is tourist dollars, and they're taking advantage of it. It's good to see.
Day 4: Goldfield, NevadaSuper Soul, the movie's well-remembered DJ, has long since stopped broadcasting from KOW's studio on the first floor of the Goldfield Hotel, but the hotel still strikes an imposing profile, visible over all the other buildings from a couple miles out of town. Several years ago a restoration of the hotel was started, but money, along with most of the town, dried up and the project was never completed. A small group of local folks are determined to see the restoration through, but a multi-million-dollar investment in a hotel for a town with nothing to do or see leaves one wondering.
Mark and I grabbed the Challenger and drove through the town's neighborhoods, a collection of dusty windblown houses separated by dirt streets, complete with tumbleweeds on the move. We stopped at an old-style service garage, where Mark asked a crusty old man chewing a cigar if we could take a picture of the Challenger in front of his building. The man got out of his green Willys pick up and begrudgingly mumbled consent as he walked to the front door of the building, never taking his eyes off us. After watching us through the window for two minutes, he opened the door and yelled around the cigar "Awright, you godd-n camera pimps, that's enough-get going!" He shut the door and watched us drive up the street, still grumbling from behind the glass.
On the edge of town was a building with a handful of parts cars out back, and we ducked in to ask if we could take a look at the Valiant and Duster we spotted from the road. He gave us permission, and struck up a short conversation about the cars, explaining that he was planning to fence them in because too many people passing through town sneak in at night and steal parts off of them.
"Then I have to shoot them," he said, turning and walking back into the building. Mark and I just stood there for a few seconds, not saying anything because we believed him. We took his parting comment for what it was and gingerly looked at the A-Bodies, left, collected the rest of our crew, and hit the road for Tonapah, Nevada, hoping to beat the forecast of snow through the mountains.
Over the next eight hours, the trans leak got steadily worse. We hit the mountains at the same time as the snow, and between the AWOL brakes, the headlights still wearing their "movie dirt" brown spray paint and no high beams, the trip through the near-blizzard conditions was an adventure in itself. We found out the next day that most of the roads over the mountains were closed by the storm.
Late in the evening we pulled into Tonapah, found a mom-n-pop diner and enjoyed a well-deserved supper. Will ate meat loaf.
Tonapah, Nevada, and the endKowalski's run ended before reaching The City By The Bay, coming to an abrupt halt courtesy of John Law and a pair of Caterpillars. Thirty years later: Saturday, 10:32 p.m., Tonopah, Nevada, less than 50 miles from the California border...
Our not-really-legal '70 Colorado license plate number OA-5599 went over the police-band airwaves as not registered. Headed up Tonapah's main drag with the California border within our grasp, a set of red and blues appeared behind us. Our train of vehicles pulled to the shoulder at the edge of town, and a second cruiser drove past and assumed a sentinel position just down the road. We don't think it's coincidence that the white car with out-of-state plates just happened to have a sheriff's car close behind as it left town, and we're reasonably sure the plates were run when the car was parked across the street during dinner.
Sheriff Pappy (that is his real name) told us we could either put it on the trailer or he'll start writing tickets. And he was pretty sure the sheriff in the next county would do the same. He didn't mention his deputy down the road. We got the message and made arrangements with a local to store our junkyard booty and loaded the white Dodge on the trailer for the rest of the trip. In the end, there was no girl on a motorcycle, no spectacular explosion, and no crowds of onlookers, but our adventure was over just as surely, leaving us as far from our goal as Kowalski was from his.
Rough And TumbleNo, It Doesn't Need A BathVanishing Point 2001
Pig. Beater. Piece of Junk. Turd. All names hurled at this '70 Challenger during a week on the road with it. Harsh, perhaps, but uttered with the deepest affection-these epithets were always followed by the words, "I love this car!"
There's something to be said for driving a car you're not overly concerned about. It's not that you'll aim for road construction barrels with a front fender or anything (though we've probably all dreamed of watching them pop into the air like in the movies), it's just that when someone slams the door or closes the hood with a little more enthusiasm than needed, it doesn't make you cringe. Need a place to sit? The fender's right there, and it's even warm. Dirt parking lot after a rain storm? Donuts! Pulling into the restaurant for dinner? There's a nice parking place right up front there near the door, and you don't have to worry about door dings. Maybe some of the dirt will even jump off onto the new Volvo you just parked next to. Or the '81 Camaro on your other side.
When you get over worrying about stone chips and such, you might actually enjoy driving the car. You'll also enjoy more of the things around you, like the scenery, the rumble of the pipes, the feel of the road under your tires, and the smell of trans fluid burning off the crossover pipe. Well, maybe that's cause for concern, but you get the point. There's just something rewarding about driving a car that's "nothing special."
But despite this Challenger's rough and tumble (neglected?) appearance, it is something special. In fact, this car was built to look like this. Half the dirt on the car is actually brown paint, sprayed on to make it look dirty by Fox Television for the 1996 remake of Vanishing Point. This and a handful of other Challengers were used (and abused) by the production company during the filming of the movie. Three cars survived the filming intact, a fourth was dissected and mounted to the back of a flatbed truck for the interior filming, and a fifth was the irresistible object that hit the immovable bulldozer. Ted Stephens of Stephens Performance supplied Fox with hoods and other parts to give the Challengers the appearance of R/Ts. After the production company was done with them, Ted bought all four remaining cars by sealed bid and carted them back to his Alabama home. The "number one" car was the pretty one in the movie used for close-ups (originally a Lime 383/Auto R/T) and has just been given a complete concours-style restoration. That car's original engine was replaced with a 440 for filming, and didn't sport the Hemi until the resto. Really dedicated Vanishing Point fans will remember that there was in fact a Hemi shown under the hood in one scene: Hollywood liberty was taken, and a '69 Charger was called upon for the beauty shot (hence the wrong-for-a-Challenger air cleaner assembly).
The number three car, a '73 318/auto cobbled together to look like a '70, is on display at Floyd Garrett's Muscle Car Museum in Sevierville, Tennessee, and remains in as-filmed condition, including its original engine and trans. The car shown here is the number two car used to shoot most of the chase scenes, and is originally a 318/auto, which was yanked in favor of a 440 and 727 trans, while the 831/44-inch was filled with 4.56 gears. This Challenger was also left in as-filmed condition, and only made celebrity appearances with Ted and his wife Jackie at Mopar shows across the country until we drove it from Denver to California.
To Hollywood, cars used in filming are nothing more than props, much like a six-shooter in a western movie. They look good from a distance, but in a real gunfight, you don't want the prop. The same held true when getting this car ready for the road. A couple thousand miles over mountains and desert in a rattling, wind-leaking, worn-out car just didn't cut it, so the month prior to our trip it received a mechanical and soft-parts makeover. This was with help from our friends at Year One, Firm Feel, Performance Suspension Components, Legendary Interiors, and BFGoodrich. The engine was given a new carb, a tune-up, and Tube Technologies headers/exhaust system, while the trans was fitted with a trick Pistol Grip auto-trans shifter by Gun Slinger Products (very cool; 316 California Ave, PMB 128, Reno, Nevada, 89509 (775) 789-2825, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Obviously, the prep work didn't include fresh paint, or even a good wash. During the rehash, Ted was adamant about one thing-the character of the car's appearance wouldn't be altered. That meant leaving the painted-on movie dirt and not repairing any of the visual battle scars incurred while filming, of which there are many. For instance, in the chase scene through the airplane junkyard, the Challenger comes around a corner and fishtails the rearend, tipping over an old aircraft fuel tank with the driver's side quarter-panel. Though it wasn't called for in the original plan, one of the prop guys thought it would look better on film if something spilled out of the tank when it tipped over, so he filled it with water, unbeknownst to the stunt driver. Water weighs about eight pounds per gallon, times a couple hundred gallons in the tank; well, you do the math. The damage to the car was predictable (to everyone except that prop guy), and the fix was typical Hollywood: whack the quarter back to close enough, slap it with filler, reshoot the paint and keep the film rolling.
Other Hollywood trickery (besides the Hemi and R/T badging) included welding a skid plate on to protect the oil pan (which necessitated the removal of the factory front sway bar and mounts), and securing the front of the hood to the frame with a length of chain. Though this would keep the hood from flying open during stunts, the chain served another purpose: to ensure that the rear edge of the hood didn't go through the windshield and guillotine the stunt driver in case of an accident.
Naturally, there were a few gremlins that popped up during the trip. Deteriorated plenum-box seals allowed ice-cold Rocky Mountain air to shoot up the pants leg of the front-seat passenger, the high-beam lights didn't work (which was a real treat while driving though a blizzard in the mountains with the lights still wearing the painted-on dirt), the brakes were about as affective as the Bendix on an old Schwinn Stinger (also fun during the blizzard), and the trans developed a thirsty leak. But it wouldn't be a true road trip if everything went perfectly.
And in a sick sort of way, sometimes that's part of the fun of owning an old car that's nothing special.