Brian Grams has had a lot of cars come and go from the Volo Auto Museum collection over the years. Movie cars, TV star cars, celebrity cars … he’s seen a little of everything as the director of the well-known museum/collection/dealer located about 50 miles west of Chicago.
But even Grams admits that few cars he has dealt with have had a story quite as fun, juicy and noteworthy as the 1969 “General Lee” Dodge Charger that serves as one of the museum fleet’s biggest attractions. The General Lee, of course, was the four-wheeled star that was driven hard and put away dirty by redneck cousins Bo and Luke Duke in the iconic “Dukes of Hazzard” series that ran from 1979 to 1985. The car — well, there were actually about 256 “Generals” that were driven and wrecked on film in the series — became a main character on the show, rivaled in popularity perhaps only by Daisy Duke’s short shorts.
Few cars have ever been more recognizable than the Dukes’ Charger. So how did one of the coveted authentic Chargers actually built for the show avoid winding up as property of the Warner Brothers studios, eventually disappear for more than two decades, then show up again as an authentic, unrestored TV prop with huge collector appeal?
As far as Grams is concerned, it’s the “barn find factor,” along with the way that WB was hoodwinked out of the car, that make the Volo Museum’s General Lee one of the most original, collectible and interesting of the remaining ’69 General Lee Chargers.
“When we saw the car advertised, we really didn’t know what the car was all about,” Grams admitted. “For us, it had all the Warner Brothers paperwork, and that’s all we cared about. There was a three-ring binder filled with tons of stuff about the car. It has bills of sale and all kinds of other documentation. But then we started into it and finding out more, and people were saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got THAT car?’ That car disappeared, and we were wondering what happened to it.’”
As with any good story, the tale of the Volo’s General Lee took a couple of unlikely turns. Originally, there were three General Lees built for the show, which in the beginning was filmed in Georgia. The cars were painted orange and given a NASCAR style “01” on the doors with a Confederate flag on the roof. It wasn’t long before five more cars were built to keep up with the carnage during the Georgia filming. When the series moved to California for filming after the first season, Don Schisler, who worked as a transportation coordinator on the show as one of the men responsible for getting cars ready for the cameras, somehow talked the studio into selling him one of the leftover cars that hadn’t yet been used onscreen.
“He was kind of sly about it,” Grams said. “He told them it was a parts car. He didn’t tell them it was a restored car that was turned into a General Lee and it was ready to go. He told them it was a leftover parts car.
“Well, Schisler and his son, John, they didn’t like all the attention the car was getting down there at the time. They lived in Georgia, and they’d have people coming to their house looking for Bo and Luke. Eventually, they didn’t want anything to do with the car, so they sold it to another guy in 1981.”
The story goes that the Charger developed engine problems — or had them before the sale — and the new owner wound up parking and storing it. Only 1,500 miles were put on the Charger from the time Schisler had it and when the Volo Museum bought the car in 2008. As near as Grams can tell, the car hadn’t been changed at all since its days waiting to get on screen, outside of an engine rebuild.
Almost all of the Chargers prepared for the show were pieced together hastily using whatever means necessary. The studio bought up used Chargers — either ’68s or ’69s — slapped some orange paint and decals on them, installed roll bars, antennas and CB radios, and painted the interiors tan, if necessary. The Volo Museum’s Charger was spared the spray paint can interior, because it had been ordered with a tan interior originally.
The Volo Museum’s car is also apparently the only authentic General Lee with original hand-painted graphics. “There was a gentleman, Larry West, he was the one handpainting all the graphics on the cars, and as far as anybody knows, this is the only car that has original Larry West graphics on it,” Grams said.
“Also, being one of the early cars, the push bar on the front of the car is very narrow. The push bar is pretty much useless. When they went into filming in California, they were much wider and actually usable.”
The car also has a tie to “Lee 1,” the first General Lee used in the famous opening jump scene. That car was eventually pulled from a junk yard and restored after it had been destroyed during filming, but part of its roll bar wound up in the Volo Museum’s car. “There is some chain link in the roll cage, and it matches Lee 1,” said Grams. “There is a guy in Indiana that owns Lee 1. That car was originally trashed junk and he went through a total restoration process with that car. Well, he didn’t know we had this car, and he came here because he heard the roll bar from our car was originally from his car. Sure enough, you can see where roll bar was cut in half and matched the roll bar from his car.
“They had originally scraped that car off the road and left it for dead. They used anything they could salvage off those cars.”
When the series finally died in 1985, Warner Brothers auctioned off 17 leftover General Lees to car collectors, with some strings attached. The Volo Museum wound up with one of those coveted original 17 cars, but that arrangement didn’t work out and the museum sent that General Lee down the road. “We’ve had General Lees here, and we are always trying to upgrade,” Grams said. “We bought one of the original 17 surviving cars and paid well over $100,000 for it, and if it wasn’t one of original General Lees it would have been an 800-dollar parts car. It was just trashed, junk.
“We put it on display, but we got a phone call saying you can’t display that car. When Warner Brothers let the cars go, there was a contract against profiting from the car … Guys could only use them for personal use … We had to sell it because we couldn’t use it for display.
“This time, we feel like we have the right car.”
Grams noted that not only does the museum’s “General” appeal to the masses who simply remember it from their youth and have fond memories of the show, but it also gets the attention of movie car buffs and General Lee Charger fanatics who appreciate the car’s provenance and original “studio” condition. “Yeah, the General Lee, just to the general public, it always draws a crowd,” he said. “This one in particular has drawn the interest of the ‘thoroughbreds’ because of its history. The average guy walking in just remembers it from the TV series, but people that are really into the authenticity, they’re the ones that really appreciate the car for what it is.”
Grams admits that initially the car didn’t excite him all that much. It hadn’t gotten any actual air time on the “Dukes” series, and that seemed to work against its “star car” appeal. Still, the fact that it was the “car that got away” makes it a noteworthy piece of history.
“When we first bought it, we underestimated the car’s significance,” he concluded. “In our opinion, yeah it was owned by Warner Brothers, but it was never actually used on the TV series, so that was a little turn-off to us. But on the flip side, the guy got it from Warner Brothers and how he got it … This one was actually built by Warner Brothers and was supposed to be used on the series, but this guy was sly and told a few fibs and was able to get it away from them. Because he did that, that’s how the car survived.”
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