James Smith’s “Charger” strikes a careful balance
Words: Cam Benty; Photos: Cam Benty and James Smith
Things are not always what they seem, as any builder of custom cars will tell you.
For James Smith and brother Bob, recreating General Lee Chargers in exacting detail has been a labor of love. How exact? Well, when the brothers found the original fixture used by the Warner Brothers Studios special effects team to build the GL front push bars out in Lake Sherwood, California, some 15 years ago, it became an archaeological dig. The aged wooden fixture was carefully cleaned and restored, allowing them to build GL push bars that are perfect in every way.
The Smith brothers love Mopars. Through the years, they have restored many cars to original, their paint and mechanical work is top notch. Over time, James has also become quite the stuntman, appearing in a long list of films and TV shows. This ’69 Charger strikes a cool matte black silhouette — an actor of a different kind¬, for under the skin, this car isn’t even a Pentastar product. But, it does allow James to earn a handsome paycheck. Why? Because it drives on two wheels.
Ski car stunt
In the beginning, there was stuntman Buzz Bundy. If you watch a classic TV show or catch a James Bond film (Diamonds Are Forever would be a good one), you’ll spot his handiwork. Bundy was the king of “skiing a car,” as it is called in the movie biz.
Bundy, and now James, have mastered the craft of driving on two wheels, carefully balancing on the sidewall of the tire. With few exceptions, James rarely damages a car. As Director Michael Bay learned when he yelled action to James on the set of the original Transformers. Balancing a second-gen Camaro on its side and steering skillfully through the 3rd St tunnel in Los Angeles is just another day at the office for the Arkansas-native who now resides in Lytle, Washington.
Through the years, Smith has had a number of ski cars, his personal Foxbody Mustang doing several hundred miles of two-wheel driving. The car had a hard life and shredded lots of tires (tire sidewalls wear out quickly when called upon for this kind of stunt work). It proved a worthy stunt vessel. But knowing Smith’s penchant for Mopars, having a Charger ski car just seemed a logical next step.
The Charger you see here is really a 1997 Ford Crown Victoria police car. This project came together using the skills honed through the careful installation of new Auto Metal Direct replacement panels on real Chargers. To create the proper platform, James cut deeply into the Ford, removing all unnecessary components and retaining only the parts that would serve as mounts for the new body work.
It is interesting to note the original 1969 Charger wheelbase was 117 inches. The Crown Vic: 114.4 inches. To get the wheels centered in the fender openings, James worked his magic installing the doors and rear quarters first and then “cheating” the front fenders to make the car look just right.
Some original Charger pieces were used for the build. The windshield and rear window are Chrysler, as is the corner front grille pieces, bumpers, and lower valances, front and rear. One optical illusion: the front grille is not from a Charger, but the plastic grilles found in room fans. The surrounding Charger grille framework was cut and shaped from aluminum stock. The windshield brightwork is a combination of original stainless and aluminum stock.
The interior is all Ford, including the seats, instrument panel, steering wheel, and even the A/C, which is a luxury James has NOT had in any previous ski cars. The photos of the Charger on the dry lake bed in the California desert were taken for a Japanese rock band music video, and that A/C was mighty pleasant on those 115-degree days. Power steering, brakes, and other features are an added bonus.
The full rollcage is not only a safety item, but provides the structure needed to keep things tracking straight. As opposed to the General Lees of TV fame, the doors on this car are really welded up. The only way to enter is through the window, Bo and Luke Duke-style.
To make a proper ski car, some other subtle mechanical changes were required. To keep the rear end from transferring power to the non-earth bound wheel, James welded up the differential. Without this modification, the car would not retain power while on two wheels, eventually gliding to a stop, followed by an abrupt return to earth. With the differential modification, the car can be driven at speed for a long time — or at least until the tire sidewalls begin to scream their disgust. A blown tire is a bad thing in this game, and is about the only thing that can get this veteran ski car driver in trouble.
To get the car on two wheels, a ramp is used to flip up the car. The ramp is a story all itself, handed down to James from mentor Bundy. It’s the same ramp used in that James Bond movie back in 1970 (released in 1971). To bring the car back to earth, James has mastered the art of turning and accelerating at just the right instant. It is impressive just how gently it comes back down on all four wheels.
We caught up with James right after the desert music video debut for the Charger, the car still “dusty” from the dry lake. From there, the car was packed up and taken to the Smith compound in Washington. Plans now call for a Hazzard orange paint scheme, the car’s costume for the Duke’s Fest in North Carolina this summer. After the show, James will pass the keys to the new owner, who will take the car to shows throughout the south.
If you spot James, say “Hi.” He’d love to talk about the car — and maybe take you for a ride. It’ll be one you won’t soon forget!