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Classics General Mayhem: The Most Famous Charger in History Flying High

20:00  12 march  2018
20:00  12 march  2018 Source:

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Back in the early 1980s, at a nondescript shop not far from the end of what is now the Bob Hope Airport near Burbank, California, a war of time and attrition was waged daily. While no lives were lost in this war, this battle between man and machine was truly unique, taking normally land-bound vehicles and making them take flight — at least for a little while. And as opposed to Elon Musk's refillable rockets that land ever so gently, these vehicles re-entered the atmosphere with a bang — even their pilots rocked to the cores.

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dodge charger
dodge charger

Warner Bros. TV hired a select group of mechanics and special effects guys whose sole task was to outfit classic Dodge Chargers with reliable engines, suspension, and tires, add a rollcage to protect the drivers, and hand them off to the stunt crew. While the escapades of the General Lee's staring role were carefully captured on film to the delight of an avid audience, there was more to it than simply driving fast and e-brake turns. Only this small band of talented warriors knew what was necessary to keep these cars, and the support vehicles driven by the other actors, ready when the director yelled "Action."

The Dukes of Hazzard television show ran from 1979 through 1985 and was a top-rated show during that time. With actors John Schneider and Tom Wopat behind the controls of their legendary '69 Dodge Charger, complete with NASCAR-style non-operational doors and "01" emblazoned on the side, the car became, and is still today, arguably the most famous of all TV vehicles. Yes, bigger than the Batmobile, Knight Rider, and even Burt Reynolds' Bandit TA.

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Responsible for all of the 317 Chargers that were used on the show during its six-year run was builder/lead mechanic Tom Sarmento, who still to this day stages Dukes Fest events in the southeastern U.S. and attends other events both here and internationally. Some 30-plus years after that last orange Charger flew across the screen, the General Lee and the folks that made it popular, regardless of their roles, are celebrities to this diehard fan base.

The General's Infantrymen

While Sarmento was responsible for the timely operation of the cars on the set when called to perform, he also created an amazing team of "technicians" who worked tirelessly to build cars for both First and Second unit filming. As with most productions First Unit cars worked with the actors themselves, often on location or on stage. Second Unit cars did all of the stunts, big and small. Dukes' Second Unit tasks could range from driving action around the location, "mini-jumps" where the car hops off a short jump before returning to the ground, to full-scale ramp to ramp (and ramp to nothing) "flights."

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John Cade and Corey Eubanks did 40 percent of the jumps backed up by Al Wyatt and Henry Kengi. While it was Wyatt who holds the record for the longest jump at 236 feet, in terms of shear volume, Cade and Eubanks have the most total airtime.

"For each show, we figured we needed at least six General Lee Chargers, eight sheriff cars, two Jesse pickups, two Daisy Jeeps, two Boss Hogg Cadillacs, and at least six non-descript cars at the ready between first and second unit," notes Sarmento. "We had to have plenty of backups because we knew that things happen; guys run into trees, cars flip over, etc. — and we had to have extra vehicles if their was a jump. Things really got interesting when we moved from Lake Sherwood, which is where most of the show was filmed, to subsequent locations such as Indian Dunes, Disney Ranch, Columbia Ranch, Castaic Lake, and others before the final season at Valencia Oaks."

The record for jumps in one day happened in February 1983 when nine Chargers were launched into the air. The reason for the huge number of jumps (most of the time there were no more that one or two jumps in a week) was that the executive producer, Paul Picard, threatened to use stock footage rather than have them film new action, thinking that he could save money. Second Unit Director Gary Baxley wouldn't have it, and to get the footage in the "can," he staged a jump fest all in one day.

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None of the nine Chargers survived.

Vehicle Prep

Remembers Sarmento, "On my first day at Dukes, I arrived on location in Valencia, California, around 5 a.m. in my converted bread truck full to tools and supplies. Transportation Captain Jack Oates was already out there. Upon seeing me, he simply pointed to the pile of Chargers over by some trees stating, 'well, there they are.' In all, there were about 15 Chargers lying in a heap with flat tires and dead batteries. So began my glorious career on Dukes."

It didn't take Sarmento long to get the cars up and running. Tires and batteries were easy and after a few other simple corrections, Sarmento felt they were back in business so he took a break and filled up his coffee cup. Once again it was Oates who was to spoil Sarmento's morning, pointing a finger at the stack of Chargers commenting, "looks like your Chargers are on fire!"

Sure enough, the cars were doing one of two things — either generating huge plumes of steam as they overheated because of busted radiators and hoses, or leaking oil all over the ground. Clearly, the General Lees has been worked hard and required a lot of attention just to get them to run, let alone perform. Sarmento's saga had just begun.

If there's a silver lining to the story it was that as a result of the poor condition of the picture cars, Sarmento, and his good friend, Rich Sephton, made a living turning junk cars into reliable picture vehicles using their skills honed building their personal race cars. It didn't take Sarmento a lot of convincing to make Picard understand the need to have cars that do what the director wanted when he yelled action. Spending a little more money to avoid downtime made a lot of sense.

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Said Sarmento, "While the police cars were fairly new (1977-1978), the Chargers were falling apart. We picked them up from all over Los Angeles, and we rarely paid more than $500. The transportation people in charge of the cars didn't know the difference between a 318 and a 440 [ci engine]. Back then you could even get Charger R/Ts for under $1,000. It seemed like most of them were green for some reason — clearly that was a popular color from the factory. More than once, we spotted a car on the street, knocked on the door, offered $500 for the car and a clean title. Those were the days of cheap and plentiful muscle cars."

Giving the General a Hand

Warner Bros.' producers had no clue as to what it would take to get the Chargers to not only fly through the air but be simply operational. Most of the Chargers were equipped with big-block Mopar engines, ranging from 383 to 440 ci. We used small-blockpowered cars for midsized jumps, installing nitrous oxide to give the cars the added lift. When a car was required to slide around in the dirt during a chase or complete other dynamic driving, a 383ci-or-bigger cube-equipped car was preferred because they had the necessary torque.

As with most accounting departments, they began to become very concerned about overruns of the budget down at Warner Bros. headquarters. To that end, the guy charged with riding heard on the guys at the mechanics shop was affectionately nicknamed "Clipboard" Steve because of his obvious and ever-present clipboard. Every day, he would arrive at the show to tally the parts required to keep the Chargers coming down the line — and take the torment dished out by the mechanics (who were a cast of characters themselves).

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Some time during 1982, "Clipboard" Steve decided Sarmento should begin keeping a log of the cars and repairs, not only the Chargers, but also all of the police cars and picture vehicles. What remains are the logbooks that now place the times and dates for each jump and verifies the total cars used. That's priceless information for car guys.

The Big Jumps

"Someone installed a 413ci big-block in one of the Chargers — the early style Mopar engine — as odd as that would seem. To make things more unusual, the car also had a four-speed transmission," said Sarmento. "It was the only manual transmission car I can remember from my days on the show. The stunt guys didn't like them because there were too many pedals to contend with during a jump. Between the gas and brake and the parking brake (the latter used for fast sliding turns — the ratcheting mechanism was removed so the brake could be depressed locking the rear tires — and then released once the driver had made the turn) there was just too much going on."

Wyatt completed the biggest jump ever for Dukes at 236 feet, but Cade's 186-foot jump in Oxnard, California, over a moving train was one of the most dramatic. The prep completed to launch the Charger at the right angle was typical of how it was done.

Says Cade, "When they strapped me in the car, I found that I couldn't reach the gearshift. The gear I needed was Third, which was the furthest way from me so they taped the gear shifter into Third, which meant that I had to feather the clutch to get the car to move and get up to speed without shifting."

"Strapping in" a guy in a stunt car was fairly unusual at the time, but something that would seem extremely unsafe by today's standards. The driving suit used at the time wasn't really the typical flame-retardant race car suit you might imagine. Frankly, it was more like the gear you might where to play football back in the 1940s. Ankle, elbow, and knee guards were required along with protection for the kidneys, hips, and forearms, topped off with an open-face helmet. But that wasn't always the case. "Al Wyatt was a wild man," remembers Cade. "For his record jump, he wore shorts and flip-flop sandals." The typical "strapping in" operation took several minutes and, interestingly enough, utilized a lot of original Chrysler parts, including the factory Charger seat.

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"We'd start by welding eyelets into the inside of the roof of the car after the headliner had been removed," said AJ Thrasher, the Dukes' rollcage specialist. "Once the eyelets were in place, the harness for the driver was hung from these eyelets so that the stuntman was actually suspended within the car."

To provide protection against compressing the stuntman's spine into the seat and flooring, the Chrysler seats were slit open around the perimeter of the cushion and a truck tire inner tube stuffed into the seat. Once the driver was hanging from the roof-mounted harness, the inner tube was inflated to create a cushion below him. No window netting to retain driver arms or head were used (that would show up in the filming remember) and often a wig was attached to the outside of the stuntman's helmet to make the camera believe that John Schneider or other pilot was behind the wheel. On more than one occasion, Cade ditched the inner tube and inserted a large wadding of bubble wrap under his spine as his only seat cushion. Yep, that's really what it did.

Said Cade, "We felt safe in the cars using this system and knowing that the rollcage system [built by Thrasher] was done right."

The choreography of the jumps was tuned to the production requirements. The angle of the ramp and the speed of the car were obviously the determiners of how high and far the car would fly. After the director had determined the shot he wanted, it was up to the stuntman and vehicle prep team to calculate the details of the flight.

In the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error. Often the Chargers would nose in, and the car would clearly have been totaled. As the jump team became more attuned to the dynamics of Charger aerodynamics, they'd begin installing lead weights into a trunk-mounted box to even out the weight balance. For the small-block Charger, 300 extra pounds were installed in the rear, for the big-block 500 pounds.

Initially the producers didn't expect The Dukes of Hazzard "to go past the first commercial" in terms of longevity. But 40 years later, it's still a thing, and Sarmento has had an illustrious career in the TV business, highlighted by his time turning wrenches on Chargers and making them fly — quite literally.

In the end, Sarmento summed up the overall experience and gave credit to his fellow mechanics and the cars that served him so well.

"My cars worked hard, performed great, and died a rough death," he says. "My time on the show was unforgettable, and I'd do it again if given the chance. It was a terrific time in my life.

Dukes Myths:

Insider Trading on the General Lee from Tom Sarmento:

The doors were never welded. How else would Uncle Jessie or Boss Hogg ever get into the back seat the cars?

Only 1969 and modified 1968 Chargers were used. No 1970s for obvious reasons — there are lots of incorrect rumors to the contrary.

The rollcage in the car is wrong for safety sake, the rear diagonal protecting the passenger side so that John Schneider could be seen in filming from the back seat of the car —Hollywood stuff.

317 Chargers were used all taken from Los Angeles County.

Big-block Mopar engines powered most of the cars. When used for First Unit filming, where the cars had to slide around a kick up the dirt, the 383ci engines were preferred.

To achieve the right angle when flying and avoid the "nose in" damage they experienced in the first test flights, 300 pounds of lead was installed in a weight box in the trunk of small-block cars and 500 pounds in big-block cars.

Most of the cars received some form of rollbar hoop installed by A.J. Thrasher. For the bigger jumps, a full cage was installed to protect the driver. The cages, big and small, used high-quality tubing.

Guy Walden, the creator of the original General Lee (as opposed to rumors about George Barris) wanted a Pontiac GTO. There were 180,000 Chargers built back in 1969, so by virtue of availability it was the final choice.

The original horn used on the General Lee was heard first on a food truck by Director Paul Baxley and then used on the show. Only one car was equipped with a real horn — the First Unit car driven on stage by Schneider and Wopat.

Original Stuntmen: Paul Baxley, Craig Baxley, Gary Baxley, Henry Kengi, Bobby Orrison, Al Wyatt Jr., Jerry Summers, Kay Kilmer, Richie Burch, Corey Eubanks John Cade, and Russell Solberg

Mechanics: Tom Sarmento, Rich Sephton, John Mancini, Mark Lilienthal, and David Grant

General LEAD.jpeg© Tom Sarmento General LEAD.jpeg

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2018 Honda Clarity Electric launches with $199 monthly lease price .
The deal is almost necessary, because its range is not good.Honda is offering a heck of a deal on the 2018 Clarity Electric. It'll be available for leasing at a price of $199 plus tax per month, with a $1,499 down payment. That lease runs for 36 months, and lessees get 20,000 miles per year. If you're looking to buy instead of lease, you're plum out of luck—for now, leasing is the only way to get one. 24/7 roadside assistance is included, as well.

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