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Vanishing Point: Everyone’s Favorite Car Chase

1971’s Vanishing Point is a cult classic car chase movie that follows a folk hero out on the open road behind the wheel of a Dodge Challenger.

A Fast-Paced Delivery Driver

1970 Dodge Challenger R/T - imcdb.org
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T - imcdb.org

Today we’re looking at a cult classic motorhead film that is fondly known as a car chase movie favorite, the 1971 Vanishing Point movie. The movie starts in Denver, Colorado where we’re introduced to our protagonist named Kowalski, a former army vet, cop, and racing driver that has plenty of skill behind the wheel. He’s sat inside of a white, supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T with a 440 Magnum V8 engine that’s due to arrive in San Francisco two days later. It could have been a leisurely drive through the desert and a normal drop off to San Francisco, but Kowalski was gunning to get going as fast as he could and made a bet that he could make the trip in just 15 hours.

Scene from Vanishing Point - imcdb.org
Scene from Vanishing Point - imcdb.org

From there we witness him outrun numerous “blue, blue meanies on wheels”, speed through the desert, interact with some interesting characters, and build a folk hero status through Super Soul’s retelling of his high-speed chase over the radio waves. We’re not going to give you a full run down on every bit of the story, kind of ruins the movie experience, doesn’t it? Instead, we’re going to look at that white Mopar muscle car that’s grown to be an open road icon and the experiences it went through on screen.

The Vanishing Point Car

1970 Dodge Challenger R/T - imcdb.org
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T - imcdb.org

As previously noted, the Vanishing Point car is a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, but why this model? Don’t get me wrong, the Challenger is one of the coolest muscle cars of all time, but why not a Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro? While I’m sure some would say “Mopar or no car” as reasoning, it was actually the executive producer Richard Zanuck’s decision to include a Chrysler model as the hero car of Vanishing Point. Chrysler had been providing the 20th Century studios with rental cars at a rate of a dollar a day, so Zanuck decided to work with the company as a thank you. The stunt team landed on the Dodge Challenger in the end and Chrysler provided the production with five models to work with.

1970 Dodge Challenger 440 CID V8 - carsforsale.com
1970 Dodge Challenger 440 CID V8 - carsforsale.com

All of the Dodge Challengers that were handed over looked virtually the same and all but one carried the same four-barrel 440 CID V8 engine under the hood mated to a 4-speed manual transmission with that slick pistol grip shifter. The odd one out came with a 383 CID V8 and an automatic transmission. The stunt team didn’t really need to do much to the main 440 Challengers. The muscle car could take the punishment from stuntmen and had a good amount of power going to those rear wheels; said to almost be too much at times. The only performance modification noted for stunt use was a swap out for some heavy duty shock absorbers when attempting jumps.

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While performance additions weren’t needed, the desert still proved to be a challenge for these Challengers. In typical car movie fashion, these Dodges were on their last legs or scrap before the end of the movie. Kicked up dust coupled with excessive abuse on the engines led to the production team having to collect parts from all the cars to keep one up and running till the end.

2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com
2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com

Spoilers ahead, but speaking of the end. The final scene featuring the car exploding after plowing into a road block made with bulldozers isn’t one of the five Dodge Challengers. It was actually an old Chevrolet Camaro that the production team filled with explosives. The stunt team couldn’t bring themselves to utterly destroy one of these Dodges, but Chrysler did in the end. It’s unfortunately another case of no surviving movie cars, as Chrysler executives were upset that their car was associated with certain themes portrayed in Vanishing Point. The manufacturer decided to fully destroy all of the Dodge Challengers rather than promote in association with the movie. Ironically, on the movie’s 40th anniversary, ten “Kowalski Edition” 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 models were created as a homage to the movie car.

Remembering a Cult Classic

1966 Jaguar XK-E and 1970 Dodge Challenger - imcdb.org
1966 Jaguar XK-E and 1970 Dodge Challenger - imcdb.org

Vanishing Point just celebrated its 50th anniversary this year in 2021. Fans have often chirped to us that it’s their favorite car movie, and with good reason. Racing the against the cocky Jaguar XK-E driver, the numerous efforts to swiftly evade police, that dirt ramp jump that I’m sure inspired the Dukes of Hazzard, and going out with a bang in the end are just some of the memorable moments that made this white Dodge Challenger so unforgettable. This story of speeding across the American west on wide open roads in a true muscle car is something that motorheads dream about doing. The freedom to live as fast as you want. Probably don’t want to follow too closely in Kowalski’s footsteps, but putting the pedal down and letting the wheels spin with nobody to stop you sure seems invigorating.

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Jesse McGraw

Jesse McGraw brings his life-long car obsession into his writing. A fun childhood that involved growing up around race tracks, working on a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, and collecting Hot Wheels developed into a strong appreciation for automotive history. If there is an old, obscure, or rare car, he wants to know about it. With a bachelor's degree in Web Development & Design from Dakota State University, Jesse can talk shop about car or computer specs, focusing on classic cars, imports, and car culture.

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13 Comments

  1. Anonymous December 1, 2021

    Almost as good as Bullet, no tuntmen needed. Still a favorite though.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous December 1, 2021

    We saw Vanishing Point with The French Connection at the Victory Drive Inn in Van Nuys California .

    Reply
  3. Anonymous December 2, 2021

    Awesome movie ! ♥️😎

    Reply
  4. Joe walsh December 3, 2021

    My favorite car movie,

    Reply
  5. Robbie R. December 3, 2021

    Great movie, I saw at the theater with a friend back in the day. I was 12 or 13, I’m sure that my mom had no idea, lol.

    Reply
  6. Old Man December 3, 2021

    Although he never did the more difficult car control segments for the film, McQueen drove for a significant portion of the time.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous December 10, 2021

    Just can’t find the movie anywhere

    Reply
  8. Anonymous December 11, 2021

    I see no one has mentioned Audioslave’s Show Me How To Live video which is based on this movie.

    Reply
    1. Carsforsale.com Team December 13, 2021

      We actually mention that connection in our Top 10 Cars in Music Videos article!
      https://www.carsforsale.com/pop-culture/top-10-cars-in-music-videos/

  9. Greg December 11, 2021

    This movie is one of the main reasons I bought a Dodge Challenger R/T.

    Reply
  10. Anonymous December 13, 2021

    Yes

    Reply
  11. Anonymous December 18, 2021

    Yes- one of the top 10 car movies ever. May I include “ It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” lots of cars , stars and comedy. More convertibles than you can shake a stick at. Do yourself a favor.

    Reply
  12. Mark December 31, 2021

    Not all the cars were destroyed. Floyd Garrett’s Smokey Mountain Muscle Car Museum has one!

    Reply

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