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