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Welcome to Fraser Fast Facts • Vol. 1, Issue 34

Vanishing Point

Where a 1970 Stock Dodge Challenger Took Theaters By Storm

Before the days of GCI and Visual FX, real drivers beat up real muscle cars!

fff vanishing point 1970 charger dvd cover

“Honey, I’m going to have the well-respected Argos car-transport company delivery our prized 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T to San Francisco. What could go wrong?” Said no one ever, but it makes a great film plot.

And so the uber-cult film, Vanishing Point, begins.

This is the story of a ex-cop, and car racing junkie, Kowalski, turned car delivery driver, tasked with another routine job of transporting a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver, CO to San Francisco, CA.

fff vanishing point 1970 charger scene parkedAlong the journey, Kowalski stops for a little illicit-drugs boost for the drive; makes a bet with his dealer he can do it in an insane amount of time, and proceeds to engage in a non-stop car chase, (and a race with a Jaguar convertible,)  for the rest of the film. For car fanatics, this is a 100 minute, high-speed pursuit movie.

What started out as a pristine white muscle car [in the movie]… well, it wasn’t delivered in San Francisco in the same condition. (That’s pretty much the same story for the actual vehicles used by the production company.)

fff vanishing point 1970 charger engineFive Alpine White 1970 Dodge Challenger R/Ts were lent to the production company by Chrysler, and were “mostly” returned upon completion of filming. Surprisingly they were all “stock” cars. Stunt Coordinator Carey Loftin said he requested the Dodge Challenger because of the “quality of the torsion bar suspension and for its horsepower” and felt that it was “a real sturdy, good running car.”

fff vanishing point 1970 charger interior1Four of the cars came with 440 cubic inch Magnum engines, with 4-barrel carburetors, and four-speed pistol-drip manual transmissions. The fifth was a 383 with an automatic. All had the signature “hood bulge” with locking pins.

No special equipment was added or modifications made to the cars, except for heavier-duty shock absorbers for the car that jumped over the creek. Loftin noted that parts were taken out of one car to repair another because they “really ruined a couple of those cars” while jumping ramps between highways and over creeks. It was said that the 440 engines in the cars were so powerful that it was almost too much power for the body. “You’d put it in first, gun it, and the front-end would almost lift off the ground like a dragster.”

fff vanishing point 1970 charger scene jag race1For those of us who sometimes forget, all of the driving, chases, stunts, and crashes are REAL. There were no special effects back then.

You’ll have to watch Vanishing Point to find out about the blind desert radio DJ that gives the movie Super Soul.

 

Fraser Fast Facts:

  • Actress Charlotte Rampling had a role as a hitchhiker whom Kowalski met while en route, but her scenes were deleted before the US release. The scenes were re-inserted for the UK release. The DVD release includes both the US and UK versions.
  • Director Richard C. Sarafian’s original choice for the role of Kowalski was Gene Hackman, but the studio, 20th Century Fox, insisted on using Barry Newman if the movie was going to be made.
  • The color white was chosen for the car simply so the car would stand out against the background scenery in the movie. White was not symbolic in any way.
  • A 1967 Camaro shell (no engine) loaded with explosives was used for the final crash. You can see the “Camaro” fender nameplate upside-down in the lower left corner of the screen after the crash.
  • The lone 383 Challenger R/T, which was an automatic with green interior, was used for some exterior shots and it pulled the 1967 Camaro up to speed so the Camaro could hit the bulldozers.
  • All of the cars used in the movie were NOT originally white. They were just painted white for the film. During the scene where Kowalski has a flat tire, you can see green paint in the dents.
  • There was a cameo by singer/songwriter David Gates (of Bread fame), playing the piano during the rousing revival in the desert with the J. Hovah singers.
  • The city names on the California Highway Patrol tracking board (where Kowalski never made it) were Stockton, Oakland, Berkeley,and San Francisco.
  • Vanishing Point was ranked #2 on Entertainment Weekly’s “Guilty Pleasures: Testosterone Edition” list The magazine wrote, “In a decade that was wall-to-wall with great car-chase flicks, this was one of the greatest.”

Vanishing Point - Movie Summary (Spoiler)

Car delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) arrives in Denver, Colorado, on a late Friday night with a black Imperial. The delivery service clerk Sandy (Karl Swenson) urges him to get some rest, but Kowalski insists on getting started with his next assignment to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum (supposedly supercharged) to San Francisco by Monday. Before leaving Denver, Kowalski pulls into a biker bar parking lot around midnight to buy Benzedrine pills to stay awake for the long drive ahead. He bets his dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) that he will get to San Francisco by 3:00 pm Sunday, even though the delivery is not due until Monday.

Through flashbacks and the police reading of his record, we learn that Kowalski is a Medal of Honor Vietnam War veteran, former racecar driver, and motorcycle racer. He is also a former police officer.

Driving west across Colorado, Kowalski is pursued by two motorcycle police officers who try to stop him for speeding. He forces one officer off the road and eludes the other officer by jumping across a dry creek bed. Later, the driver of a Jaguar E-Type roadster pulls up alongside Kowalski and challenges him to a race. After the Jaguar driver nearly runs him off the road, Kowalski overtakes him and beats the Jaguar to a one-lane bridge, causing the Jaguar to crash into the river. Kowalski checks to see if the driver is okay, then takes off, with police cars in pursuit.

Kowalski drives across Utah and into Nevada, with the police unable to catch him. During the pursuit, Kowalski listens to radio station KOW, (as 2011 is KGFN 89.1) which is broadcasting from Goldfield, Nevada. A blind black disc jockey at KOW, who goes by the name of Super Soul (Cleavon Little), listens to the police radio frequency and encourages Kowalski to evade the police. Super Soul seems to understand Kowalski and seems to see and hear Kowalski’s reactions. With the help of Super Soul, who calls Kowalski “the last American hero”, Kowalski gains the interest of the news media, and people begin to gather at the KOW radio station to offer their support.

During the police chase across Nevada, Kowalski finds himself surrounded and heads into the desert. After he blows a left front tire and becomes lost, Kowalski is helped by an old prospector (Dean Jagger) who catches rattlesnakes for a Pentecostal Christian commune. After Kowalski is given fuel, the old man directs him back to the highway. There, he picks up two homosexual hitchhikers stranded en route to San Francisco with a “Just Married” sign in their rear window. When they attempt to hold him up at gunpoint, Kowalski throws them out of the car and continues on his journey.

Saturday afternoon, a vengeful off-duty highway patrolman and a group of thugs break into the KOW studio and assault Super Soul and his engineer. Near the California state line, Kowalski is helped by hippie biker Angel (Timothy Scott), who gives him pills to help him stay awake. Angel’s girlfriend (Gilda Texter), who rides a motorcycle nude, recognizes Kowalski and shows him a collage she made of newspaper articles about his police career. Kowalski suspects that Super Soul’s broadcast is now being directed by the police to entrap him. Confirming that the police are indeed waiting at the border, Angel helps Kowalski get through the roadblock with the help of an old air raid siren and a small motorbike with a red headlight strapped to the top of the Challenger, simulating a police car. Kowalski finally reaches California by Saturday at 7:12 pm. He calls Jake from a payphone to reassure him that he still intends to deliver the car on Monday, while acknowledging he won’t win their bet, and offering to double it for the next time.

On Sunday morning, California police, who have been tracking Kowalski’s movements on an electronic wall-map, set up a roadblock with two bulldozers in the small town of Cisco, where Kowalski will be passing. A small crowd gathers at the roadblock, and as Kowalski approaches at high speed, he smiles as he crashes into the bulldozers in a fiery explosion. As firemen work to put out the flames, the crowd slowly disperses.

 

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