Yee-Haw! Car buffs star-struck by ‘The General Lee’

Bill McCleery |


According to replica owner Bob Scott, "The General Lee is the
first car that a huge amount of people fell in love with."

The wide realm of MoPar enthusiasts includes some good ol’ boys devoted to one particular car – a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger with the numbers “01” on the doors and a Confederate flag emblazoned across the roof. Oh, and a horn that plays “Dixie.”

Yes, that Charger is the General Lee.

The iconic car has inspired a loyal subculture comprised mostly of guys who grew up watching “The Dukes of Hazzard” each Friday night during its airing on CBS from 1979 to 1985. Most of the male TV viewers probably had a crush on Daisy Duke, but almost as many developed a love affair with the cherished Charger that jumped ravines and slid around the curvy dirt roads of Hazzard County.
Now that “Dukes” devotees have reached their 30s and 40s, hundreds are building replicas of their favorite car. Actor John Schneider, who played Bo Duke in the TV series, is gratified by the continued enthusiasm for the show and the car by Generation X-ers.

“When they first saw the General Lee, a lot of them were way the other side of a driver’s license,” Schneider said. “They were either riding their bicycle or even a Big Wheel out in the driveway … So, you know, the first impression that’s made on you, if you have oil in your blood, which I do – whatever that first impression is, it sticks with you forever.”

Schneider’s description of modern-day General Lee owners fits 39-year-old Bob Scott of Eminence, Ind.

Indiana resident Bob Scott has spent roughly
$32,000 building his own "General Lee".

“I had the dream of having my own General Lee ever since I watched ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ as a little kid,” said Scott, who was 9 years old when the show made its debut. “I remember telling my little brother that I would own a car like that one day, and sure enough, my dream came true.”

Scott has spent roughly $32,000 building his dream, which boasts a 383-cubic-inch V-8 and an automatic transmission. His “General Lee” replica bears signatures from many original Dukes of Hazzard cast members. At an event called DukesFest 2008 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Schneider and Tom Wopat — who played Bo’s cousin, Luke Duke — even took Scott’s car for a spin around the race track.

Scott’s Charger boasts a 383-cubic-inch V-8 engine
mated to an automatic transmission.

Schneider understands the craze for the car. He recalled his own teen-age infatuation with a certain souped-up Pontiac.

“When I first saw ‘Smokey and the Bandit,’ I was 16 years old,” Schneider said. “I wanted a black Trans Am 455 Super-Duty four-speed more than I wanted to take my next breath. I still want that car. It’s kind of like the first girl you fell in love with. The ‘General Lee’ is the first car that a huge amount of people fell in love with.”

Schneider spoke from a cell phone while stuck in traffic on a California freeway.

“It’s amazing to me because, you know, it has been 30 years (since the TV show began airing),” Schneider said. “But I think ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ managed to keep muscle cars in general alive in some regards. Case in point, I’m driving a new Challenger right now, which is a great car, and it happens to be orange.”

Though Schneider has never bought himself that black Trans Am, he has owned 11 Dodge Chargers customized into “General Lee” replicas. Of those 11, he has put his own elbow grease into four cars that he specially built as “Bo’s General Lee.” Each time he has finished one, he has sold it to recoup his investment and start on another project — often after envisioning new touches he wanted to include on the next car. He sold his last “Bo’s General Lee” in January 2008 at the Barrett-Jackson Auction in Arizona.

That car, complete with a 511-cubic-inch Hemi and an extensive array of high-performance parts, sold for $450,000 at the auction, but everyday Joes are buying or building ‘General Lee’ replicas from a low-end cost of $15,000 to $30,000 and beyond. Several companies, such as Smith Brothers Restorations in Appleton, Wash., specialize in building “General Lees.” A base-level “General Lee” from Smith Brothers sells for $45,000.

Among the 11,000 Chargers documented by www.dodgechargerregistry.com, more than 300 are cars rebuilt as “General Lee” replicas, said Wayne Wooten, a Virginia resident who operates the Web site and whose personal history is intertwined with the cars used by Warner Brothers on the TV show.

“The vast majority of ‘General Lee’ owners have a respect for what the show stood for,” Wooten said. “They believe in the value system the TV show taught. It wasn’t squeaky clean, but it was good guys against bad guys. It had heroes. It worked on a lot of human emotions even though it was light-hearted.”

Scott agreed.

“The interest in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ has to do with the fun everyone had watching the show,” he said. “It is more nostalgia, brings back those memories of being kids and watching a cool car and funny guys on television. Nothing really bad ever happened on the show. It was a more simple time back then.”

For his part, Wooten owns two “real” “General Lees” — cars actually used by Warner Brothers in the filming of the TV series. Any bona fide series-used car is considered something of a Holy Grail among die-hard “General Lee” enthusiasts.

Wooten’s opportunity to own a screen-used “General” began with a letter he wrote in 1986 to Warner Brothers, in which he expressed a desire to document facts related to the TV show’s history and the Dodge Chargers used in the series. Studio officials were noncommittal on the future of their leftover cars and parts, but they at least took time to answer Wooten’s questions.

Among the facts Wooten learned: Warner Brothers documented using 235 cars as “General Lees” during the seven-season series — 1969 Chargers and some ’68 models modified to look like ’69s. The majority were destroyed during filming. At the time of the show’s cancellation, Warner Brothers still owned a documented 19 “General Lees.”

When viewers saw cars fly through the air during the show’s first five seasons, the cars really flew. It wasn’t special effects; a crew of stunt men performed the jumps and other maneuvers. When a car took flight, however, the landing generally reduced it to a wreck — different from the on-screen fantasy in which the Duke boys charged ahead in a car none the worse for wear. In the show’s final two seasons, producers saved money by using footage of past jumps and scale-model miniatures to create illusions of jumps.

In 1989, Wooten unexpectedly heard from Warner Brothers again. The studio was ready to dispense with some leftover parts from its fleet of Chargers, a studio official said. He invited Wooten to tour the Warner Brothers studio in California, speak with staff members who had been involved in “The Dukes of Hazzard” and collect a few leftover parts that might be useful to members of Wooten’s Dodge Charger registry.

Once Wooten arrived in California, his visit evolved into a more significant event than he’d imagined. Warner Brothers enlisted Wooten’s help in a transaction to sell off 17 series-used Chargers to owners with a genuine interest in the show. Wooten bought one of the cars (he acquired his second one in later years) and arranged for buyers of the other 16. Besides those 17 cars, Warner Brothers kept possession of two screen-used “General Lees.”

One other series-used car escaped into private hands without Warner Brothers’ direct involvement, Wooten said. That car, dubbed “Lee One” because some believe it to be the first “General Lee” used by Warner Brothers, has been the subject of controversy. Rescued from a Georgia salvage yard after a Warner Brothers contractor left it behind, its owners undertook a complete restoration of the car. The final result, Wooten said, was a vehicle that contains only a small percentage of the original car. He no longer considers it an authentic screen-used car. The car’s owners have a different view.

Replicas remain the bread and butter of the “General Lee” subculture. For that matter, some enthusiasts without the necessary $25,000 to drop into a hobby car must content themselves with admiring the cars from a distance. A Web site devoted to the “General Lee,” www.cglfc.com,  gets 1.5 million to 2 million hits per month, said Scott Romine, who operates the site. The site’s initials stand for “Confederate General Lee Fan Club.”

Romine occasionally hears complaints from Dodge Charger enthusiasts who would like to see more Chargers restored to original specifications rather than made into “General Lee” replicas.
“‘General Lees’ aren’t actually loved like you might think on Dodge Charger Web sites,” Romine noted, though Wooten’s is an exception.

Romine and Wooten are considered an authoritative figure within the “General Lee” subculture. Other leading figures include Tom Sarmento, who worked as lead mechanic for Warner Brothers during the TV series and, of course, Schneider and some other former cast and crew members.

Schneider relishes his association with the show and the car.

“I’ve always been a car guy,” Schneider said. “I’m honored to be associated with the marque, if you will. Maybe even more famous than the horse for Ferrari or the bull for Lamborghini is the orange Charger for Dodge.”

For more information on the Web, check out:
www.cglfc.com
www.dohgltruth.com
www.dukesfest.com
www.dodgechargerregistry.com
www.smithbrosrestorations.com

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