How the General Lee Works


Photo courtesy Sam Emerson for Warner Bros. Pictures

In 1979, an unlikely new series debuted on CBS. Part Western, part comedy, part hour-long car chase, "The Dukes of Hazzard" leapt (usually over a river) into the hearts of viewers nationwide. Not only did the show become a ratings winner, but it also spawned a feature film of the same name starring Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, and Jessica Simpson.

Many fans tuned in to the TV show -- and turned out for the movie -- to see a different character, one that never earned a salary. The General Lee, the Dodge Charger driven by the Dukes, still has a loyal fan following. In this article, we'll find out what was under the General Lee's hood, how they found the car to use in the series, and how they kept it running after jumping it over a moving train. We'll also take a peek at the "Dukes of Hazzard" film.

Welcome to Hazzard County

Photo courtesy Sam Emerson for Warner Bros. Pictures

Bo and Luke Duke lived in fictional Hazzard County, somewhere in the southern state of Georgia, with their cousin Daisy and their Uncle Jesse. The Duke family had a long tradition of running illegal moonshine, and as a result, the Dukes were on probation, unable to cross the Hazzard County line. Honest and good at heart, the Dukes often came into conflict with Hazzard County's corrupt law enforcement. The greed-driven Boss Hogg, the bumbling, sputtering Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, and the naïve deputy Enos Strate pinned every crime that happened in Hazzard on the Duke cousins, whether they were guilty or not. Every episode had at least one car chase, usually ending with Coltrane half-submerged in a muddy swimmin' hole. Each tale was narrated by "The Balladeer," voiced by country legend Waylon Jennings, who also wrote and performed the show's title song.

Bo and Luke tore around the dirt roads of the rural South in a 1969 Dodge Charger. In the show, the car was found in a state of disrepair in a nearby county, having been used as the getaway car in a bank robbery. With the help of their friend Cooter, the Dukes fixed and modified the Charger to resemble those driven in what was then the NASCAR Grand National circuit (known today as the Nextel Cup). That explains why the doors were welded shut, and why the car had an engine powerful enough to leave all the cops and assorted villains who visited Hazzard in a cloud of dust.

The show's producers wanted a fast, popular car for the show. The Pontiac Firebird and Ford Mustang were both considered, but the Dodge Charger won out in part because it had been very successful in NASCAR, which helped tie it into the story line as well as the show's target audience.

Next we'll learn all about the General Lee itself.

One of a Kind

Photo courtesy Van Redin for Warner Bros. Pictures

When the first General Lee rolled onto the set, it was one of a kind -- a 1969 Dodge Charger painted "hemi orange" with a Confederate flag painted across the roof. The doors were numbered "01," and the only way in or out of the car was to climb through the windows.

It didn't take long before the General Lee wasn't quite so unique anymore. For scenes filmed with Bo and Luke actually in the car, a "first unit" General was used. This version featured a 375-horsepower, 440-cubic-inch, Magnum V8 engine, according to the studio. It had been souped up with a racing carburetor, heavy duty suspension parts, and custom wheels and tires. A glasspack muffler helped give the General its signature throaty roar. A padded roll bar was installed in the driver's compartment, and a custom push bar was mounted to the General's front end.

The stunt crew used an entirely different General Lee, this one modified even further both for performance and safety. A full steel roll cage protected the driver and passenger and a special weight box was placed in the trunk. The crew could vary the amount of weight by several hundred pounds to help balance the car for different jump distances. This was important to keep the car from flipping over in the air. Each jump was planned very carefully, including the length and height of the jump, speed of the car, angle of the ramp, and weight in the trunk. Some of the longest jumps (almost 150 feet) needed 600 pounds of weight in the trunk-mounted weight box.

In his guide to "The Dukes of Hazzard" TV series, author David Hofstede includes a list of parts that would be needed to build a replica General Lee. Obviously, a 1969 Dodge Charger is the most basic ingredient, although the 1970 model is almost identical and the 1968 is very close. Hofstede recommends a set of Mopar parts (although other brands are fine), including an electronic ignition, a Torqueflite A-727 transmission, transmission cooler, double roller timing chain, and a high-volume oil pump. Ten-spoke American Racing Vector SE rims complete the look.

In the next section, we'll see how they put the General through all those crazy stunts.

Jumps, Crashes, and Chases

Photo courtesy Van Redin for Warner Bros. Pictures

Although Tom Wopat and John Schneider performed their own fight scenes and did a little driving in the first unit General, all the show's spectacular chases and jumps were performed by a skilled crew of stunt drivers. No one was ever hurt filming a Dukes stunt, although there was one death on the set in 1979 when there was a freak accident involving a truck filming background scenery.

The "Dukes of Hazzard" stunt crew did a lot of fancy driving, executing "bootlegger" turns, high-speed drifting on dirt roads, and break-neck chase scenes. However, the General Lee is known best for taking on huge jumps -- clearing rivers, gullies, highways, other cars, and even trains. The train stunt was initially supposed to jump the General through the open doors of a moving boxcar, but budget restrictions changed it to a simple jump over the train.

The highest jump the General ever performed took place in the first episode featuring the "replacement Dukes," cousins Coy and Vance (Wopat and Schneider were on strike due to a contract dispute with the studio). To clear the entire Duke family farm, the stunt crew had to use nitrous oxide to give the General a little boost.

Photo courtesy Sam Emerson for Warner Bros. Pictures

Very little stunt footage was ever reused in "The Dukes of Hazzard." That means that every time you see the General make a jump - and come crashing down - the stunt crew went out and performed that jump. Of course, there isn't a car in the world that can drive away from a jump the likes of the ones the General performed. In fact, each jump practically destroyed the car, ripping the engine mounts, bending the chassis, and ruining the suspension. At first, the studio bought replacement cars from nearby used car lots (where the original was found). However, they quickly bought and crashed every 1969 Dodge Charger in the region. Eventually, a special studio shop was built that cranked out General Lees, along with the other various vehicles driven and crashed in the show. Over 150 General Lees were produced, along with 500 other cars, mostly police cars.

Them Duke Boys Are At It Again

Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott as Luke and Bo Duke
Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott as Luke and Bo Duke
Photo courtesy Sam Emerson for Warner Bros. Pictures

The "Dukes of Hazzard" made a comeback with a feature film starring Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, and Jessica Simpson. In an interview with Cinema Confidential, Scott reports that all of the stunts were actually performed - there's no computer-generated General Lee flying through the air. The stunt crew from the "Bourne Supremacy" worked on the Dukes film. After a few weeks of training, Scott also got to drive the General for a few scenes. Knoxville confirmed Scott's skill in another interview. "Seann was training like four hours a day with Bobby Ore and Seann's damn good now," he said. "Reverse 180s, drifting, he's really good and he gets to do a lot of the driving in the movie."

For more information on the General Lee, check out the links on the following page.

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Sources

  • Build A General Lee. http://www.buildagenerallee.com/
  • Chau, Thomas. "On Set Interview: Johnny Knoxville on 'The Dukes of Hazzard.'" Cinema Confidential News, July 12, 2005. http://www.cinecon.com/news.php?id=0507121
  • Chau, Thomas. "On Set Interview: Seann William Scott on 'The Dukes of Hazzard.'" Cinema Confidential News, July 13, 2005. http://www.cinecon.com/news.php?id=0507131
  • Hofstede, David. "The Dukes of Hazzard: the unofficial companion." Renaissance Books, 1998. 1-58063-038-3.
  • Warner Home Video. The Dukes of Hazzard - The Complete First Season. 1979.
  • Warner Home Video. The Dukes of Hazzard - The Complete Fourth Season. 1982.