Tracing Kowalski’s Vanishing Point tire tracks in modern and classic Challengers
Words and Photos by Richard Truesdell
In movie lore, the bad guys generally drive black Mopars. In Bullitt, the black Charger lost out to the Highland green Mustang of Steve McQueen in a blaze of fire. In Grind House, Kurt Russell’s Black Charger was pure evil and, of course, the black supercharged, wheelstanding Charger in the original Fast & Furious was the nemesis of Vin Diesel.
But, the bad guys don’t always drive Mopars — or at least black ones. Take for example the shiny white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T driven by Barry Newman in the 1971 movie Vanishing Point. In what is now a cult classic, Newman takes a bet from a co-worker that he can deliver the big-engined Mopar from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours.
As you’ve already guessed, the cops are not pleased with his antics and after many run-ins along the way, the shining knight of freedom (remember this was the hippie era) is cut down. His progress and ultimate demise are broadcast to an audience of fans by a soul radio DJ. If it were today, it would just be on Facebook live, right?
In 2006, the Dodge Challenger Concept debuted at the Chrysler Technical Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Since then, it has evolved into the monster muscle machine we know today, the Dodge Challenger Hellcat Demon with 840 hp and nine-second quarter mile times — its fastest format yet. These are surely different times from when Newman’s classic white Challenger raced across the desert. As a major fan of the movie, I set my sights on duplicating Kowalski’s epic adventure. Just how to frame the trip became the challenge.
It’s not an original concept for car journalists to embark on such adventures. Many have previously made the run, but it was my hope to be the first to drive Colorado to California in a Dodge Challenger SRT8, along with an original 1970 Challenger. This was made possible with support from Buzz Graves, a printing executive from Reno, Nevada, who offered up his stunningly restored 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T Hemi for the trip. While the car is restored to its original (and highly valuable) glory, Buzz is not afraid to drive it.
Three other members made up our crew: Heath Nelson of Team Performance (Teamppi.com), a maker of twin turbo upgrades for Ford Mustangs; George Gubler, a retired Oregon marshal invited by Buzz to join the program, given that he is a Mopar enthusiast and something of an adventurer himself; and, finally, Buzz’s good friend Brian Wilson, who owns a body shop in Reno, and towed the classic Challenger to Denver and then followed in his Ram tow vehicle for support.
The premise was simple. After repeated viewings of Vanishing Point, massive Internet research, and a copy of the actual movie shooting script, we were able to connect the dots and determine the route James “Jimmy” Kowalski drove from Denver to his intended destination of San Francisco.
Day One – Denver to Moab, Utah
The day started with a cross-town run in rush hour traffic to the offices of the Auto Driveaway Company, the spiritual successor to Argo’s Delivery Agency, the car delivery service immortalized in Vanishing Point. Located in a non-descript industrial office building, this is probably where Kowalski would look today if he wanted to pick up a driveaway for a run to the West Coast.
Even though we weren’t being chased by cops like Kowalski, driving the original Challenger in rush hour traffic was still a harrowing experience. Buzz’s car is equipped with a 4-speed manual transmission. Originally, it was a 383 R/T with a 3-speed TorqueFlite, an upgrade that served to make the car even more attractive to other drivers, who attempted to take photos while in transit. Frankly, we’d rather have had the cops on our tail.
Heading west out of Denver on I-70, we photographed both cars at the Eisenhower Tunnel, 11,013 feet above sea level. Yes, the twin AFB carbureted ’70 Challenger had trouble adjusting to the rarified air over two miles up, but no more than the rest of our crew. The long, three-lane downgrade out of the tunnel past Dillon gave us ample opportunity to shoot both cars with the spectacular Colorado Mountains in the background.
In Avon, it was my turn to get behind the wheel of the Challenger R/T. While Buzz takes great pride in his factory-correct 8-Track tape player, the only music I was interested in was what was coming from under the shaker hood. Getting situated behind the wheel, the car felt tighter than most of the other vintage muscle cars I’ve driven.
During the 1,500-mile drive to Denver to start the tour, I had acclimated to the new Challenger. This in no way prepared me for my time behind the wheel of the ’70 R/T Hemi. Where the new Challenger is totally competent in every measurable way with heavily bolstered bucket seats, modern climate control, and the Kicker audio system, I felt insulated from many of the tactile elements that made driving the classic such an exciting experience.
Rolling the windows down on the ’70 Hemi to breathe in the fresh Colorado air, my vision of heading west on I-70 was fulfilled. I could almost imagine the orange exterior turning to white as I was transported back in time to the summer of 1970 when the Vanishing Point film team first covered the same route. The best part of the run was through the Glenwood Springs Canyon. Here, I put the R/T through its paces. Easing off the gas in an original Hemi emits a performance sound every petrol head should experience once in their life, surpassed only by the hard acceleration roar that echoed through the tunnels approaching Glenwood Springs.
Heading west on the flat stretch of I-70 between Glenwood Springs and Rifle is where Kowalski had his first encounter with the motorcycle cops. It was in Rifle that I had to be pried out of the car before heading to our last photo stop of the day, the ghost town of Cisco, Utah.
Here is where we struck photographic pay dirt. The climactic final scene in Vanishing Point, set in Cisco, California, was actually filmed in Cisco, Utah. Sitting out in an open field just off the highway, almost calling to us, was a bulldozer. In the movie, the Challenger meets its demise by a road block. The centerpiece of the police line is a bulldozer unmoved by the high-speed impact. Movie experts know the final scene is actually filmed with a first gen Camaro, the film company keeping their Challengers for the driving scenes still yet to film.
As the dirt surrounding the bulldozer was firm, we did several drive-bys, each car alone, and then both together. Using a slow shutter speed in the fading light, we were able to give the illusion of Kowalski crashing his Challenger into the barriers. I was able to determine from research that our bulldozer was actually just 100 yards due south of the position of the two Caterpillar D8s used in the film.
Day Two – Moab, Utah, to West Wendover, Nevada
Day Two turned out to be far more scenic than anticipated with snow in the mountains between Price, Utah, and Salt Lake City. But, the temperatures didn’t dampen the spirits of Salt Lake City’s Mopar community, as more than three dozen of them met us at 2 p.m. at Larry H. Miller Dodge in Sandy, including two who braved snow to drive their own ’70 Challengers to the dealership.
After the event, we caravanned westward. I rode in a 1969 4-speed Dodge Polara two-door hardtop, just to round out my Mopar experience for the day. Others making the drive included Mike McCoy in a purple 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T Hemi, Joe Bond in a Sublime 1970 Dodge Challenger 440 Six Pack, and John Bechard in a white 1971 Plymouth Road Runner Hemi, all who braved near freezing temperatures and snow showers.
Hemi engines – 40 years apart. The classic 426c.i. was rated at 425 hp back in 1970. The late model 6.1L also rated at 425, despite 54 fewer cubes.
Day Three – West Wendover, Utah, to Las Vegas, Nevada
This was going to be our longest day’s drive on the trip, more than 500 miles through Ely, Tonopah, and Goldfield before arriving in Las Vegas about 6 p.m. As we were deep in the heart of the Bonneville Salt Flats, home of numerous land speed records, we backtracked to get a location shot of both Challengers next to the Bonneville exit sign on I-80. Vanishing Point Director Sarafian mentions this in his location in his DVD commentary.
Next, we headed southwest on Alt US 93 to Chuck and Bessie’s Stage Stop, a gas station, café, and grocery store in Lages Junction, where Alt US 93 rejoins US 93. The area reminded us of several locations from Vanishing Point, specifically the Mobil station with the female attendant. Because of the great distances between gas stations, and the way Buzz’s ’70 Hemi guzzles dead dinosaurs, it’s always a good idea to keep the tank topped off.
Near Ely, we had an opportunity to finally put the pedal to the metal on the modern Challenger at an, err, undisclosed test location. In spite of being more than 6,000 feet above sea level and bucking something of a head wind, we were able to push the envelope, hitting 160 mph at one stretch.
From Ely, we headed west on US 6 towards Tonopah, another of the filming locations used in Vanishing Point. We thought there would be an Extraterrestrial Highway sign marking the northern start of Nevada 375 in Warm Springs, but we were wrong and missed the turn off. Because we were so tight on time, we decided to press on to Tonopah, skirting the northern boundary of Area 51, the alleged alien landing field.
We motored in to Goldfield, which was the location of Super Soul’s KOW radio station in the movie. Goldfield is just a shell of its boom-time self, but there is a beauty in its weather-worn starkness. Again good fortune shined down on us, as Sergeant Scott Johnson of the Esmeralda County Sheriff’s Office came out to meet the armada of horsepower that had descended on his town. It turns out Johnson is the owner of a 1970 Charger R/T. He was more than happy to indulge us with an impromptu photo shoot, arresting our entire team in front of the Goldfield Hotel.
As we were leaving Goldfield, about the time we originally expected to be in Las Vegas, we knew we had to crank it up. As Buzz was running 3.73 gears, we decided to increase our speed in what would be a vain attempt to arrive in Las Vegas before dark. Regardless, the setting sun and the lights of the city were a welcome sight as we rolled into town.
In all, the trip was a huge success and easily repeatable if you follow the attached map. While the locations for the original Vanishing Point movie have markedly changed during the last 47 years, the lure of the open road romanticized by the movie still is something every American understands. Kowalski’s imaginary trip was staged during a time when 101-octane gasoline was 32 cents per gallon, making muscle cars fun and affordable.
Since that time, we have gone through several rough decades but come out on the other side with far faster machinery that does a lot of things well — rather than just go straight at a great rate. Trips like this are enjoyable because they utilize secondary highways long forgotten by most travelers. Sure, you can get on I-80 and race from one coast to another in a matter of a few days. But our Vanishing Point trip was enjoyable not only because of the cars and movie locations, but because of the people encountered. And that’s what America is all about!