Barry Newman as Kowalski, car delivery driver and disgraced ex-policeman, race car driver, and Vietnam veteran
Across the American west from Colorado to California, Summer 1971
Film: Vanishing Point
Release Date: March 13, 1971
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Wardrobe Master: Ed Wynigear
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today’s post wraps up the first BAMF Style Car Week! I figure there’s no better way to end it, especially on Flag Day, than with the all-American 1970 Dodge Challenger in the archetypal “car movie”, Vanishing Point.
For those unfamiliar, Vanishing Point is the greatest feature-length car commercial in history. After I first saw it, all I could think about for months (okay, years) was how much I wanted my own white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T with a 440 Magnum V8 engine and a 4-speed Hurst pistol grip shifter. Of course, fans know it’s about far more than just a cool car.
The screenplay was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a Cuban novelist who based his story off of the true life high-speed pursuit of a California teenager who refused to stop and was killed when he crashed into a roadblock. He added another layer from real life—the disgraced career of a San Diego policeman—and the foundation for Vanishing Point was set.
The film’s elements of rebellion, drugs, rock music, and sexual freedom reflected the popular counterculture lifestyle of the post-Woodstock generation, embodied by the laconic Kowalski. Our film’s mononymous hero is played by Barry Newman, a relative unknown at the time who had done five TV roles in the mid-’60s after his first screen role in 1960 B-movie Pretty Boy Floyd, playing a cohort of the notorious outlaw. After Zanuck and Sarafian fought for Newman to play Kowalski, Newman’s career took off, culminating with his award-nominated titular role in the mid-70s drama Petrocelli.
Kowalski is a Vietnam vet who was awarded the Medal of Honor, a dishonorably discharged former police officer, and a former car and motorcycle racer. He recently suffered the loss of his girlfriend Vera in a surfing accident and, with nothing left to lose, now thrives on the adrenaline he can get as a car delivery driver.
After a brief flash forward to Kowalski’s final moments, the film begins late on a Friday night in Denver as Kowalski pulls into his delivery service garage with a black Chrysler Imperial. His boss and friend, Sandy, tries to convince him to stick around and rest, but Kowalski is adamant that he gets his next assignment on the road. It is then that we first see… the car.
Kowalski pulls out of the garage in a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T and zips over to a local biker bar, where he nabs some Benzedrine (“speed” if you’re not down with the lingo) from his dealer Jake. Kowalski bets Jake the tab for his bennies that he’ll be in San Francisco by 3:00 p.m. the next day, despite the delivery not being due until Monday. From there, it is a series of thrilling police chases and moving encounters with friends and foes along the road to San Francisco.
The film was ill-received at the time but quickly grew into a cult hit, to the point where Steven Spielberg now names it as one of his favorite films of all time. Quentin Tarantino also paid homage to it in his 2007 film Death Proof, where a group of women refers to the film as “one of the best American movies ever made” and drives a white 1970 Challenger during a crazy chase. In a final tip of the hat, Tarantino graces his film’s Challenger with the same Vanishing Point license plates: OA5599.
An ill-advised remake was made in 1997, for some reason, with attempts to adapt the script to the zeitgeist of the ’90s. In my opinion, it’s an awkward, forced, and ultimately unnecessary remake that de-mythologizes our hero—now fully christened Jimmy Kowalski (Viggo Mortensen, who does his best)—by adding clearer motives to his journey… and thus, missing the point entirely.
What’d He Wear?
From the time he pulls into Sandy’s garage on Friday night to when he’s facing down a pair of bulldozers outside Cisco on Sunday morning, Kowalski’s dressed in the same simple and utilitarian outfit for his journey. Perhaps dated in some of the details, his white shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers would be an ultimately timeless outfit for a man who seems to exist outside of time.
Kowalski’s white oxford cotton button-down shirt follows the example Brooks Brothers had established three quarters of a century earlier when it introduced the “polo shirt” to the States. Cycling through campuses as an Ivy staple, this classic shirt marks an appropriate choice for Kowalski as it can’t hide our driver’s perspiration or the dirt and dust kicked up by three days of the road. It’s also a practical choice, the light cotton absorbing less heat than darker colors or heavier fabrics, even for a long-sleeved shirt. The back of the shirt has a pleat on each side that aid arm mobility, shaped by darts at the waist line.
Echoing the trends of the era, the shirt has a substantial collar with an elegant roll that Kowalski, despite the rigors of the road, always keeps buttoned in place. Not so much for the rest of the buttons on his shirt, as he keeps the plain “French placket” front generally half-buttoned (and when driving through the desert, why not?) and the barrel cuffs undone and half-rolled up his forearms.
For the first leg of his trip, Kowalski wears a simple vest, made from a broken-in brown napped leather—possibly deerskin—with thick, swelled tan piping around the edges. There are no buttons, zippers, or ties to fasten it, but even a completely open layer like this adds too much heat, and Kowalski discards it after pushing his Challenger deep into the sweltering Nevada desert. Stylistically, it echoes the chest-tied vest worn by “Angel” (Timothy Scott), the hospitable motorcyclist who lends Kowalski some speed.
Of his primary attire, Kowalski’s low-rise, two-pocket jeans may date the outfit the most. Made from a medium-wash blue denim, these jeans are detailed with just a pair of front pockets, each accessed via a thin-welted opening set in straight across the top.
(Update! Thank you to reader Mike S., who commented that these are likely a pair of Landlubber jeans which—according to Vintage Fashion Guild—reached their fashion zenith in the early ’70s.)
The lack of back pockets are a curious detail for men’s jeans, though this was more common during the ’70s as jeans were finding wider acceptance and thus more manufacturers experimenting with new trends… some trends would catch on while others, such as eschewing back pockets, would be thankfully discarded as denim marched on. (For what it’s worth, I do remember jeans without back pockets being fashionable among girls in my 8th grade class circa 2002.)
Kowalski holds up his jeans with a wide dark brown leather belt with a solid rectangular silver-toned single-prong buckle.
Given that more pocket-laden jeans were certainly around at this time—Lee, Levi’s, and Wranglers still battling for supremacy—I suspect that these were an intentional choice to keep Kowalski “free” of material possessions as he continued his journey. After all, his shirt and vest are also free of pockets, and there’s room in his jeans just for his regular stimulants: Benzedrine and cigarettes.
Does he even carry a wallet? He doesn’t give the pursuing police a chance to even ask to see any identification, and he doesn’t seem concerned with money, living generally outside of society and making his way via betting and bartering. A place for his car keys? No need to bother if he never leaves his car!
Like his white shirt, Kowalski’s worn-in white sneakers can’t hide the sooty realities of life in the fast lane, the canvas uppers being particularly prone to absorbing every molecule of dirt and grime kicked up. Laced through four eyelets, the uppers are beginning to separate from the white rubber outsoles, which have a small blue logo on the back suggesting Keds. Our hero wears a pair of white tube socks that provide enough contrast to show just how much abuse his once-white shoes have taken.
Though he may be running out of time, Kowalski still keeps track of the passing minutes on his stainless steel dive watch, its fixed wire lugs strapped onto a dark brown leather “bund” strap that envelops his left wrist. (In his homage Death Proof, Tarantino appropriately outfitted Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike character with a watch on a similarly sizable strap.)
Kowalski’s watch has a black-finished rotating bezel and a black dial that appears to have a bubble over the crystal for a date window in the 3:00 position. The bund-style bracelet dates back to the World War I era as gents were beginning to seriously explore tracking time on their wrists rather than relying on pocket watches, fastening timepieces onto large leather cuffs that would serve as two-fold protection: protecting the mechanics of the watch from skin oils and sweat and protecting the skin from the metal of the watch-back in extreme temperatures.
Kowalski protects his eyes from the sun reflecting off the desert sands ahead of him when he puts on a set of thin silver-framed aviator sunglasses with amber-tinted lenses.
Go Big or Go Home
While Kowalski’s drug use isn’t something I can publicly endorse—you know, for legal reasons and such—it was definitely a sign of the times and a mark of the character. Having lost his career and the love of his life, Kowalski now only relies on speed, whether authentic (adrenaline) or artificial (benzedrine). As Super Soul, Kowalski’s mythical radio DJ/guide, even says:
This radio station was named Kowalski, in honour of the last American hero to whom speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when’s he gonna stop, but who is gonna stop him.
Kowalski is also seen lighting up a cigarette from time to time, notably after borrowing a soft pack of filtered Winstons from the naked girl on the bike. However, for all of his smoking and drug use, we never see Kowalski drinking anything stronger than a can of Coca-Cola.
1970 was really a fantastic year for cars. Chevy was offering their Chevelle with an SS 454 engine, Ford was offering Mustangs with the powerhouse Boss 429 engine, Dodge had just introduced the 440 Six-Pack for its muscle cars, which included the legendary Dodge Charger R/T, and, of course… the 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T.
The Challenger was the car of choice for Kowalski since the very beginning. While I’m not sure if Guillermo Cain’s original script specified a car or not, 20th Century Fox executive Richard Zanuck chose to use the new ’70 Challenger R/T as a way to repay Chrysler for their years of providing rental cars to Fox productions for only a dollar each day. Carey Loftin, Vanishing Point‘s stunt coordinator and a veteran of great car films such as Bullitt and The French Connection, said he also preferred using the Challengers because of their horsepower and torsion bar suspension. Loftin described the Challenger as a “real sturdy, good running car”.
The film’s star, Barry Newman, also recalls driving the Challenger R/T, equipped with the 440 Magnum engine, saying that the cars were so powerful that “it was almost as if there was too much power for the body. You’d put it in first and it would almost rear back!”
While Ford may be popularly credited for the development of the modern muscle car with the introduction of the Mustang in 1964, Chrysler was always two steps ahead of the game. The 300 series in the late 1950s was offering powerful and fast engines unlike anything before with its constantly-evolving Hemi engine. By 1970, every major American car company had at least one good offering in the muscle car market. Unfortunately for Dodge, it was losing power in the “pony car” segment against the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro. To combat this, Dodge developed a pony car with the strength of a muscle car.
The Challenger first hit the streets in 1970 and was an immediate success with the public, despite some press criticizing Dodge’s late effort for the pony car segment. Engine options ranged from a 225 cubic inch slant-6 to the massive 440 Magnum V8 and the legendary 426 Hemi.
The car received an additional boost when it was cast as Kowalski’s vessel to immortality in Vanishing Point. Five Challengers were loaned from Dodge; four were fitted with the 440 Magnum engine and a four-speed manual transmission while another, which Loftin recalled was a less-used work car, had the base 383 V8 engine and a three-speed TorqueFlite automatic. Dodge’s “Alpine White” color was chosen to help the car stand out against the desert backgrounds. Not all of the cars were originally white, so some had to be painted. When Kowalski is changing tires in the Nevada desert, some original green paint can be seen in the car’s dents. Each car was given Kowalski’s Colorado plates, OA-5599.
Loftin recalls that they “really ruined a couple of those cars” with the heavy stunts, especially jumping ramps between highways and creeks, and had to take parts from one car to repair another. While dust was a problem, none of the engines were blown, thanks to the maintenance of Max Balchowsky, who also prepped the Mustangs and Chargers used in Bullitt. Obviously, the guy has a good history with keeping muscle cars clean and ready for heavy duty chase scenes. In an interesting note, some of the sounds of the Challenger shifting were definitely taken from the sounds of McQueen’s Mustang working through the gears in Bullitt.
440 Magnum-rigged Challengers were used primarily throughout the production, with the 383 only used for some exterior shots. No modifications needed to be made, other than adding heavier-duty shock absorbers to the Challenger used for jumping over No Name Creek in the “Where Do We Go From Here” chase sequence in Colorado.
Newman also learned some tips from stunt driving from Loftin and was evidently a quick learner. In the first scene—a flash-forward to Kowalski’s first run towards the bulldozers—the Challenger does a 180-degree turn on the road before heading back in the other direction. Director Richard C. Sarafian was shocked to learn that it was Newman himself who performed the stunt.
The 383’s primary role, as remembered by Loftin, was as the rig pulling the stunt Camaro up to the bulldozers in the film’s fiery climax. As most Vanishing Point fans know, the car used for Kowalski’s demise at the bulldozers in the finale was actually an engineless 1967 Camaro shell, laden with explosives. The filmmakers purchased the derelict Camaro and removed the engine and transmission. A quarter-mile cable was attached between the 383 Challenger and the Camaro shell. Loftin had used this setup before and, with the help of an on-site mechanic, they ran through the stunt a couple of times (without the explosives and bulldozers) to ensure that the car would tow straight in the center of the road.
When the time came for the stunt, rehearsals were impossible as explosives were involved. Loftin had to rely merely on his expertise. As he recalls:
I had a quarter mile of cable when we did the stunt. The strip of road leading to the bulldozers went straight back, over a slight hill and then to the left. When I started to tow, I couldn’t see the Camaro, so I told the effects man to put it in the ditch on the left hand side so it will be in a straight line. After all the testing I just had to believe that it would work. Once I got it up to speed, it came straight down the road, I was doing a good 80 miles-per-hour at the time of impact.
Loftin drove the tow Challenger, pulling the Camaro into the bulldozers at high speed. The Camaro’s front end was loaded with explosives and would explode on impact. If Loftin was unable to control the car and hit something hard, the Camaro would have exploded prematurely. Thus, Loftin chose to use the 383, which was fitted with an automatic transmission. Using an automatic provided less of a chance for Loftin to miss a gear and slack the line, losing the Camaro. According to Loftin, “That 383 was a good running car. In fact, it would probably run just as fast as that 440.”
The director set the bulldozers about five to six inches apart, just enough to get my cable through. He asked me what the point of no return was, and I said ‘about two seconds after you say ‘action’. Once I go it’s all the way. I don’t have anything to stop the Camaro except those bulldozers!”
Loftin’s original expectation was for the Camaro to go end over end due to the lighter weight of the engineless car, but instead it remained stuck in the bulldozers, which he preferred.
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T
Engine: 440 cu. in. (7.2 L) Chrysler “RB” 440 Magnum with a 4-barrel carburetor
Power: 375 bhp (280 kW; 380 PS) @ 4700 rpm
Torque: 480 lb·ft (651 N·m)
Transmission: 4-speed manual with Hurst “pistol-grip” gear shift
Wheelbase: 110 inches (2790 mm)
Length: 191.3 inches (4860 mm)
Width: 76.1 inches (1930 mm)
Height: 50.9 inches (1290 mm)
The Challenger’s top speed estimated at 146 mph, with a 0-60 time of 5.8 seconds and a standing quarter mile time of 14.1 seconds, with Kowalski telling his drug dealer that it was “hopped up to over 160”. Compare this to the car he races, a Jaguar E-Type convertible with a 4.2-liter straight-six engine, a top speed of 149 mph (okay, that’s nothing to sneeze at), and a 0-60 time of 7.1 seconds. The Jag driver should’ve known what he was in for.
Music to Drive By
In a film where the main character is guided by a radio DJ, you should expect to hear some pretty great music. Vanishing Point does not let us down here, capturing the exact sound of 1971 and the transition from Woodstock to big pop rock.
The film’s iconic soundtrack, with genres ranging from rock and country to soul and gospel, would cover a very satisfying 40 minutes of a road trip. Most of the tracks are rare, recorded specially for the film, with only Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” attaining any mainstream success and now featured on many a ’70s rock compilation CD.
Personal highlights for me include the brassy pop rock such as Bobby Doyle’s “The Girl Done Got It Together” and Segarini and Bishop’s “Over Me”, used in the first chase and the final chase, respectively. Jerry Reed’s “Welcome to Nevada” is also a funk-driven instrumental country standout.
In track order (but not film order), the soundtrack consists of:
- The J.B. Pickers – “Super Soul Theme” (Naturally, this is the song heard when Super Soul first comes on the air.)
- Bobby Doyle – “The Girl Done Got It Together” (Kowalski’s first showdown against the police near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.)
- Jimmy Walker – “Where Do We Go From Here?” (Kowalski hops the Challenger over No Name Creek to evade motorcycle cops.)
- Jerry Reed – “Welcome to Nevada” (Kowalski drives into Nevada. Obviously.)
- Segarini & Bishop – “Dear Jesus God” (The sad scene where Super Soul is beat up.)
- Doug Dillard Exposition – “Runaway Country” (Kowalski out-drives the shit out of some hotheaded Nevada cops.)
- Delaney, Bonnie & Friends – “You Got to Believe” (Kowalski encounters a spiritual concert in the desert.)
- The Jimmy Bowen Orchestra – “Love Theme” (Kowalski remembers Vera.)
- Eve – “So Tired” (Super Soul begins speaking directly to Kowalski.)
- The J.B. Pickers – “Freedom of Expression” (Kowalski races a Jaguar in the desert.)
- Mountain – “Mississippi Queen” (Kowalski encounters the nude girl on a motorcycle.)
- Big Mama Thornton – “Sing Out for Jesus” (Super Soul wakes up his constituents on Sunday morning.)
- Segarini & Bishop – “Over Me” (Kowalski meets his fate.)
- Kim & Dave – “Nobody Knows” (The aftermath.)
The “Kim” of Kim & Dave is actually Kim Carnes in her first known recording.
Hopefully, you have better luck than Kowalski when this song comes on the radio.
How to Get the Look
The foundation of Kowalski’s road wear is built on classic American casual staples like a white OCBD, blue jeans, and canvas sneakers, supplemented by unique details and accessories from the short-lived vest to his bund-strapped watch.
- White oxford cotton long-sleeve shirt with button-down collar, plain “French placket”, and button cuffs
- Brown deerskin open-front vest
- Blue denim jeans with belt loops and welted front pockets
- Dark brown leather belt with silver rectangular single-prong buckle
- White canvas four-eyelet sneakers
- White tube socks
- Stainless steel dive watch with black rotating bezel and black dial (with date window) on dark brown leather bund-style cuff bracelet
- Silver-framed aviator-style sunglasses with amber lenses
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, and look for the soundtrack as well. It can be hard to find but well worth the purchase.
And, of course, keep your eyes open for a 1970 Dodge Challenger. You won’t regret it.
I’m gonna bet you the tab for the bennies. I’m gonna be in Frisco, and I’m gonna call you at three tomorrow. Now, if I don’t, double the deal next time around.
I have loved this movie from the very first time I saw it in 1971. I was 16 years old then. My buddies and I ( and the girls) would hit up the local drive-in movies every time it was shown. Which was many years.
Since than I prob watch it about 3 – 4 time a year. I have it on VHS, and DVD, I have also found an original LP in great shape of the sound track. I am totally a Vanishing point Fan/nut, and it never gets old to me. I crank the CD (and the movie) of the soundtrack i made from the LP, every spring when I take my own ( I own 2)1970 Dodge Challenger out for it’s beginning of summer run. This Movie has inspired me to be a life long successful Muscle car nut. I often wonder what path I would have taken, If I had not seen this film at that young age.
Nice article, the most indepth I have read.
Keep up the good work.
I saw this movie on TV , it was the “Movie of the week” on a wednesday night .I was about 10 or 11 when i saw it and I was in awe of it . The first date I had with my wife I made her watch with me ! . I was a Cop for 25 yrs (ironically) and I just retired . My retirement gift to myself was a 2014 White Challenger R/T . Yup , I bought a car based on a movie i saw 40+ years ago . Kowalski is still my hero ! and i root for him not the cops !
That’s a great story and I’m glad to hear you got your hands on a Kowalski-style Challenger. I’m really impressed by the new generation of Challengers; it feels like we finally have a modern answer to American muscle. The new R/T has the 5.7 Hemi, right? I hear that’s a great performance engine! Thanks for getting in touch!
i just watched this the other night, and i have no idea what it is about, but i think it might be a perfect movie.
on the jeans, the other person that wears jeans like that is Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, i would link a pic, but check out the Song Remains the Same.
That was one deep dive review of vanishing point by the way. Nice job. Newman had a real good look. A very casual vibe throughout the movie. Movie touched on conservative morals vs sexual freedom homosexuality drug use and hippy culture. Women were women and not hyper politicized liberals and the men were as dumb as today but cooler. 70s pre 1975 had a mix of rock and funk thanks mostly bands and artists like Hendrix. Far out man
1st of all, I love this site! 2nd, I love Vanishing Point! 3rdly, Sarafian wanted Gene Hackman for this role but Zanuck insisted on Newman who Sarafian didn’t really fancy. When he realized that if he didn’t accept Newman the picture wouldn’t be made he said “Well, I’m going to make the car the star of this movie. Zanuck replied, “I knew you’d see it my way.”
The Jeans are a pair of Landlubbers. Jimmy Page has a picture of his pair in his new book, of all things.