GEN­ERAL MAY­HEM

BE­HIND-THE-SCENES STO­RIES FROM THE MEN WHO KEPT THE MOST FA­MOUS CHARGER IN HIS­TORY FLY­ING HIGH

Mopar Muscle - - Contents - BY CAM BENTY/TOM SARMENTO PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY TOM SARMENTO

Be­hind-the-scenes sto­ries from the men who kept the most fa­mous Charger fly­ing high.

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.

Warner Bros. TV hired a se­lect group of me­chan­ics and spe­cial ef­fects guys whose sole task was to out­fit then com­mon 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.

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.”

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 non­de­script 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 there was a jump. Things re­ally got in­ter­est­ing when we moved from Lake Sher­wood (near Thou­sand Oaks, Cal­i­for­nia), 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 (all lo­cated just out­side the Los An­ge­les area).”

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.

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 of 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 and 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 had 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.

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 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, and 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 also be sim­ply op­er­a­tional. Most of the Charg­ers were equipped with big-block Mopar en­gines, rang­ing from 383 to 440 ci. We used small­block–pow­ered 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 383cior-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).

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 wear 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.

“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 big­block 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.”

(aka Bo Duke) wasn’t the Here’s proof that John Sch­nei­der These were worked hard and only driver of the Gen­eral Lee. spend a lot of time prep­ping forced the Sec­ond Unit crew to sup­port ve­hi­cles. and re­pair­ing these cars and other

Lead me­chanic on the show was Tom Sarmento who was im­mensely helpful in cre­at­ing this story and set­ting the record straight about the car prepa­ra­tion. Here Sarmento poses with a Gen­eral on the straight­away at Atlanta Mo­tor Speed­way over 30 years af­ter...

Cade (in gog­gles) required to launch show­ing The “Ground Crew” Here they pose was a talented crew. through the air, pilot safe. used to keep their off the equip­ment

These were truly the “Gen­eral’s Men,” the me­chan­ics of the shop in Bur­bank, Cal­i­for­nia, where the cars were prepped. Sarmento is far right next to his friend, Rich Seph­ton (white shirt). On top of the car is spe­cial ef­fects and rollcage builder A.J....

Stunt­man John Cade suits up for duty. Look­ing like he’s ready for a foot­ball game rather than a car stunt, this pro­tec­tive gear was typical of the “safety” equip­ment used for the show.

Early at­tempts to make the Charger fly straight and true met with to­tal dis­as­ter, the car nos­ing in hard when it re­turned to the ground and en­dan­ger­ing the driver. To fix that is­sue, a weight box was added to the trunk and out­fit with lead weights to...

Di­rec­tor Paul Pi­card was a hands-on the guy and not afraid to get be­hind rare cam­era to check the shot. This in image shows Pi­card tak­ing a ride make sure filmed the Gen­eral Lee to images were perfect.

st in case you were ri­ous there was ore than one Gen­eral e Charger used durg the six sea­sons of e show. In all, 317 harg­ers were used to ay the star car of the ries. If you think at’s a lot, the number po­lice cars that saw eir demise dur­ing the ow was...

The Dukes of Haz­zard TV show pi­o­neered a lot of unique cam­era an­gles and tech­niques. Re­mem­ber this was be­fore the age of Gopro cam­eras and dur­ing a time when spe­cial ef­fects weren’t used with the reg­u­lar­ity they are to­day. The last sea­son of the show,...

Charg­ers weren’t the only mis­siles launched dur­ing the show’s run. Cade was again the driver picked to jump this Satel­lite over a mov­ing dump truck. The car landed at the same spot where the dump truck started mov­ing when the di­rec­tor first yelled...

Stunt­man John Cade’s big­gest jump was in Ox­nard, Cal­i­for­nia, over this mov­ing train. The car had a 413ci en­gine and four-speed trans­mis­sion — the only time a man­ual trans­mis­sion car was used.

Key to mak­ing the jumps all the more dra­matic is usage of cam­era an­gles that fur­ther in­crease the height of the fly­ing ve­hi­cle. In one of the more me­morable episodes, “Jumpin’ John” Cade flew this Charger over a team of horses — with­out use of spe­cial...

As stunt­man John Cade tells it, the red smoke was sup­posed to clear out once the car be­came air­borne, a smoke bomb fir­ing off just af­ter the car hit the launch ramp. Clearly, the spe­cial ef­fect guys were wrong, and the car filled with smoke mak­ing it...

In terms of pure air­time, the Gen­eral Lee could’ve started its own air­line. The long­est jump in his­tory was by Al Wy­att, 236 feet, wear­ing shorts and flip-flop san­dals.

Leg­endary “ski” car driver, Buzz Bundy did all of the two-wheel stunt driv­ing at that time — for most of the TV and film in­dus­try. No one was faster or bet­ter at driv­ing on two wheels, and The Dukes of Haz­zard Charger was one of his fa­vorite rides.

Run­ning from 1979-1985, The Dukes of Haz­zard was fa­mous for film­ing ac­tion scenes like this.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.