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.
Barry Newman as Kowalski, car delivery driver and disgraced ex-policeman, race car driver, and Vietnam veteran
American West (Colorado to California), Summer 1971
Film: Vanishing Point
Release Date: March 13, 1971
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Wardrobe Master: Ed Wynigear
Vanishing Point is the greatest two hour car commercial ever. 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 and a 4-speed Hurst pistol grip shifter.
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 mononymous Kowalski. Kowalski, the film’s hero, is played by Barry Newman, a relative unknown at the time. 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.
The film begins, after a brief flash forward to Kowalski’s final moments, 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. He quickly zips over to a biker bar, picking up some Benzedrine (“speed” if you’re not down with the drug 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 ’90s. The whole thing comes off as awkward and forced, paling incredibly in comparison to the 1971 original. The jaded, drug-driven Kowalski becomes sappy husband Jimmy Kowalski who is only speeding so he can get home to his pregnant wife, who dies in childbirth and yada yada yada… just watch the original.
What’d He Wear?
Kowalski’s attire is simple and utilitarian. Excepting a few details, it is an essentially timeless look.
We first meet Kowalski as he pulls into Sandy’s garage on Friday night, sporting a white shirt, brown vest, and blue jeans. He doesn’t have time to change and only rudimentally washes up before heading back out.
The white cotton long-sleeve shirt is a very typical American casual button-down. It features a large button-down collar and buttoned barrel cuffs, which Kowalski typically wears half-rolled up his sleeve. The white shirt was a smart choice for the filmmakers, showing Kowalski’s perspiration as his journey grows longer and more stressful. It is also a wise choice for Kowalski, as it wouldn’t absorb as much heat as darker colors would.
The shirt is very plain and minimalist, with a placket-less front and no breast pocket. The rear is fitted with two side darts. It appears to be a lightweight cotton, not quite as comfortable in the desert as a lighter material like linen but certainly better than polyester, the standard shirt fabric for about 90% of men of the ’70s.
For the first leg of his trip, Kowalski also wears a unique dark brown vest. The vest is a very simple garment, worn completely open in the front with no buttons, zippers, or ties to fasten it. Kowalski’s vest is very well-worn and is evidently a staple of his wardrobe, judging by the beating it has taken. The edges are piped in a thick lighter brown fabric. After getting deep in the sweltering Nevada desert, Kowalski ditches the vest.
Kowalski’s jeans are the most dated part of his wardrobe, a pair of narrow-leg medium wash blue denim jeans. The only pockets are two straight pockets in the front, just large enough for a pack of cigarettes. The jeans are very simple, with only side seams breaking up the denim. It is strange seeing a pair of men’s jeans with no rear pockets, especially since I remember girls in my 8th grade class wearing jeans like that. However, this was much more of a 1970s style.
Kowalski holds up his jeans with a thick dark brown leather belt, fastened in the front with a large steel rectangular single-claw buckle.
Kowalski’s footwear is a pair of comfortable white canvas 4-eyelet sneakers. Based on the small blue logo on the rear of the white rubber sole, they are likely a pair of mens’ Keds. Kowalski wears his Keds with white tube socks.
Finally, Kowalski has some cool accessories for his jaunt across the country.
His wristwatch is worn with fixed wire lugs on a very wide and very dark brown leather cuff. The timepiece itself is suspended in the center of the strap, with a silver and black dial over a black face. This type of watch, a very distinctive style, actually dates back to the World War I era when the wristwatch was first developed. To ensure that the watch would remain firmly secured to their wrists, men would fasten the timepiece to a large cuff with fixed wire lugs.
Kowalski’s wristwatch was so badass that Tarantino chose to pay homage to it in Vanishing Point by adorning the wrist of Kurt Russell’s sadistic killer stuntman with a very similar watch.
He also whips out a pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses with a set of reddish-brown tinted lenses to guard his eyes from the blinding sun reflecting off the desert in front of him. They’re not traditional aviators, but they are a very similar style.
If anyone has any information on the wristwatch or sunglasses or what the styles are called, let me know. Both are very distinct and give Kowalski an extra layer of BAMF.
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 Winston Reds 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.
How to Get the Look
- White cotton button-down long-sleeve shirt with button-down collar, plain front, and unbuttoned barrel cuffs
- Medium blue denim jeans with two straight side pockets and belt loops
- Dark brown well-worn open vest with light brown trim
- White 4-eyelet canvas sneakers – Kowalski likely wears a pair of Keds
- White tube socks
- Dark brown leather belt with a silver rectangular clasp
- Silver and black fixed lug wristwatch on a dark brown leather cuff
- Gold-rimmed aviator-style sunglasses with reddish-brown lenses
Of course, if you’re driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, you can wear whatever the hell you want.
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 ci slant-6 to the massive 440 Magnum or 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 lesser 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.
The 440 Magnums were used primarily throughout the film, 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.
- 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” in 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.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
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.
Barry Newman was relatively unknown before Vanishing Point. He had done five TV roles in the mid-60s and his first role was in the 1960 B-movie Pretty Boy Floyd, playing a cohort of the notorious outlaw. Zanuck and Sarafian fought for Newman to play Kowalski and Newman’s career took off, leading to his award-nominated titular role in the mid-70s drama Petrocelli.