Rob’s Movie Muscle: The 1970 Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point

From black jalopies stuffed with bumbling policemen in the Keystone Cops films of the silent era, to the souped-up muscle and hypercars of today’s Fast and the Furious franchise, automobiles have always featured prominently in the mise en scène of Hollywood’s motion pictures and television shows.

In some cases, a character’s car features so heavily in the proceedings, and is so important to the story, that it becomes more than just his or her means of transportation, and instead an integral symbol of the protagonist, and indeed the movie as a whole.

One need only to think about James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, Frank Bullitt’s Highland Green Mustang GT, or The Bandit’s black and gold Trans Am for examples of this.

A production still from Vanishing Point. (Photo courtesy of Steve Foster.)

For my money though, the coolest hero car of all time that held this status appeared in a low budget road movie that was released in 1971 to little fanfare. The movie was Vanishing Point and the car was a then brand new to the market 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. In the years since its theatrical debut, the movie has amassed a huge cult following, and the car has become one of the most fabled in cinema history.

In this edition of Rob’s Movie Muscle, we’re gonna take a deep dive look at this most iconic of Hollywood rides, discover how the car was equipped, and learn some behind-the scenes tales of its appearance in the film. So tune your radio to the sounds of DJ Super Soul, and let’s hit that arid desert highway!

Vanishing Point’s theatrical one-sheet poster. (Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.)

Vanishing Point was produced and released in the immediate aftermath of the paradigm-shifting success of another road movie, Easy Rider. Penned by Guillermo Cain and directed by Richard C. Sarafin, the movie was steeped in similar LSD-infused, anti-establishment sentiments of that earlier film.

Its narrative was equally as sparse as Easy Rider’s, following Kowalski, a former cop and race car driver, who now works as an automobile delivery driver, as he pilots a car from Denver to San Francisco while jacked up on amphetamines. He’s bet his drug dealer the price of the speed that he can make the trip in 15 hours and is determined to win. Ultimately for him though, what was a simple prospect becomes a race for his very freedom as he incurs the attention of the highway patrol of several states.

Yep, believe it or not, that’s about the whole plot.

Barry Newman stars as the film’s main protagonist, Kowalski. (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.)

What the movie lacks in terms of story though, it makes up for in thematic explorations of the massive and often violent cultural changes America was experiencing at the time, and on a more surface level, some of the most intense automotive action ever captured on film.

For one hour and thirty-eight minutes, we get to watch Kowalski pilot his hardtop Challenger across the highways of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, matching wits and horsepower with street racers, cops and naked hippie girls on motorcycles.

Kowalski is seen manhandling the Hurst pistol grip shifter throughout the film. (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.)

And what a Challenger is was. Dressed in EW1 White over a black vinyl interior, the car is said in dialogue to have had its 375-horsepower, 440ci Magnum supercharged. Backing this massive lump was a A-833 4-speed manual transmission topped with a Hurst pistol-grip shifter that Kowalski is seen forcefully rowing throughout the film.

Other notable equipment was the standard twin-vent hood with engine callouts, 15-inch Rallye wheels, bumper guards, standard fuel cap, an interior center console, an AM radio to listen to DJ Super Soul’s show, and a Rallye instrument cluster.

The movie’s Challenger lacked certain popular options such as a rear spoiler and shaker hood, amongst others. (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.)

Noticeably missing from the car were some popular options, including the shaker hood and pins, the rear spoiler, and any type of stripes.

The number of Challengers used in the production is disputed, with director Sarafin stating on a DVD commentary track that eight were used in total, while star Barry Newman and stunt coordinator Carey Loftin both agreed in a 1986 interview that only five cars were utilized.

What is definitively known is that the Challenger was chosen by Twentieth Century Fox studio executive Richard Zanuck, who wanted to give Chrysler free publicity in return for their long-time practice of providing the movie studio with cars on a rental basis for one dollar a day. Loftin had also campaigned for the Challenger, aware that the car’s heavy-duty torsion bar suspension and massive torque and power would make it an ideal stunt car.

Kowalski is pursued in his Challenger by the highway patrol of several states. (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.)

While many assume that white was chosen for the car’s color to symbolize Kowalski as the good guy, à la cowboy lawmen wearing white hats, in truth, it was chosen because it was thought that it would make the Challenger stand out against the southwestern landscapes that the car would be filmed against.

Whether it was five or eight cars used during filming, all were indeed equipped with the 440ci and 4-speed except for one car which packed a 383ci and a TorqueFlite 3-speed automatic. This car was used for particularly complex stunts in which the driver’s focus needed to remain on performing them without the distraction of shifting.

The stunt crew, including maintainer Max Balchowsky, who had previously worked on Bullitt, and Carey Loftin were impressed by the Challenger. So much so, that Loftin’s exuberance for it nearly led to some serious consequences.

The stunt cars were not treated gently during filming. (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.)

According to Vanishing Point actor, Paul Koslo, who played Deputy Charlie Scott, Loftin got himself into quite a spot one evening after filming was done.

“One night, coming home from location, Carey was driving one of the Challengers back to the hotel, and he passed some state troopers going 145 miles an hour! He had four or five cop cars behind him with their lights on, but they couldn’t catch up because they could only go about 125. So he drove into this little town and pulled into a gas station, and I swear to God, he did a 360 in between the pumps and put the rear of the car – the gas tank – right in front of the super pump. He got out of the car like nothing happened, and the troopers busted his ass right there! Oh, you should have seen those cops! They were fuming! They took him in, and the producer had to explain to them that Carey had actually been ’testing’ the car. I mean, you do have to test the cars, but you don’t do it while you’re driving home!”

Except for a jump car receiving more robust shocks, all the stunt vehicles were bone stock. (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.)

Unusual for cars involved in rough stunt work, no modifications were done to the Challengers aside from swapping out the shock absorbers for beefier units on the car that performed the jump over No Name Creek. Despite the fact that not one engine was blown, all the cars were heavily damaged during the production, to the extent that it was necessary towards the end of filming to swap parts from trashed cars to a lone running vehicle to complete the movie.

At the film’s climactic conclusion, in which Kowalski decides to commit suicide by driving the Challenger into the bulldozers the police have used to create a roadblock, the stunt team opted not to completely destroy one of their Mopars.

The body shell of a 1967 Camaro was used instead of one of the Challengers for Kowalski’s demise. (Photo courtesy of

Instead, they used a shell of a 1967 Camaro, its engine and transmission replaced by a massive amount of explosives, and attached it to a quarter-mile long cable system which the 383-powered Challenger towed into the dozers. Upon reaching the roadblock, the explosives were detonated to spectacular effect.

A behind-the-scenes shot of Barry Newman behind the wheel of one of the Challengers in preparation for shooting the ending. (Photo courtesy of Tom Jasiewicz.)

There were many rumors over the decades as to what happened to the Vanishing Point Challengers after filming had wrapped, with many a collector obsessed with tracking them down. In an interview shortly before his death in 2013 though, Richard Sarafin finally set the record straight.

All of the cars were returned to Chrysler in various states of destruction, with the Challenger that finished production being the only one in running condition. After screening the movie, Chrysler executives were perturbed that their product was used in a film that promoted drug use, the counterculture lifestyle, and running from the police, and thus decided to have the cars crushed and sold as scrap.

The movie’s Challengers met an untimely end, just as Kowalski’s steed did on screen. (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.)

A sad end to such significant movie cars for sure, but in a case of life imitating art, oddly fitting given that they met a similar end on the silver screen.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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