Vanishing Point: Suspect Vehicle 1970 Dodge Challenger

My much watching, DVD copy of "Vanishing Point".
My much watched, DVD copy of “Vanishing Point”.

Every Dodge Boy under a white hat digs Vanishing Point. The doped-up, dropped-out 1971 film lays down what the Dodge Scat Pack preached, “Speed means freedom of the soul.” But, man, when you’re drivin’ another cat’s 1970 Challenger R/T and you got nothin’ to lose, freedom ain’t easy. It can send you trippin’ right out of this world.

Only a big dude Dodge could deliver that heavy message.

Director Richard Sarafian started work on “the ultimate car chase movie” just as the Dodge Rebellion lit up its first round of Challengers. Maybe because of a $1 a day deal with Chrysler, the suits at 20th Century Fox required Sarafian to cast a white Challenger R/T as the pale ride for his Vanishing Point anti-hero, a driver named Kowalski.

The origin of the Challenger may not have been artistic, but it fit.

Sarafian had a crew of 19 and a budget of $1,300,000, both small by 20th Century Fox standards. He used up a half-dozen or so Challengers and drove thousands of miles trying to film the essence of speed.

There’s no doubt that the Challenger was Sarafian’s star. “See the ‘Dodge Challenger’ perform in Vanishing Point,” was a theater bill tagline. We don’t just see the Challenger; Vanishing Point reveals it: the road wheels, the Rallye instrument cluster, the Hurst pistol-grip shifter, the glove box just big enough for a pair of sunglasses, the high-back bucket seats, the exhaust tips, and the way the sun glints off that serpentine character line.

The exception is the engine. We only hear the 440ci V8 doing its thing.

We watch those those raised-letter, Goodyear Polyglas tires throw dust across the big screen, and know that this is one car with the power to heal, and the speed to transcend the western wastes.

Transcend is the operative word. Three minutes into the movie, Sarafian shows us the end. A couple of Caterpiller bulldozers clank down their shovels to form a roadblock. Dodge cop cars and a CBS news truck add themselves to the obstruction. Itinerant hippies and the last residents of Cisco, California watch. The Challenger roars in the from the east; Kowalski sees the dozers and turns around for a moment of contemplation.

The vanishing point in art is a spot on the horizon. Parallel lines seem to converge there and disappear. Objects on the point may be invisible, but they exist.

Full of revelation, Kowalski drives the Challenger back to the dozers waiting in Cisco. He passes himself driving east bound for Denver at the wheel of a black ’70 Imperial. The frame freezes. The Challenger vanishes. Sarafian locks Kowalski onto an unending road. The story can begin.

Like the director of Vanishing Point, Kowalski’s Challenger is assigned not chosen. Inexplicably wanting to blow Denver just shy of Midnight, Kowalski tells his boss, “Look, I gotta get started out tonight, Sam. You know. Which car?”

Not until he’s driven the Challenger across Denver does he acknowledge the nature of his ride. Talking to his pusher, Kowalski agitates, “I gotta get movin’.” Then he glances at the hood and bets the tab for the bennies that he can make Frisco in 15 hours. He can do it ’cause the Challenger is “hopped up to over 160.” We never know what waits in San Francisco. It doesn’t matter.

Cruising out of Colorado, Kowalski, the road, and the Challenger have got it together. The radio plays. The car rolls alongside the Colorado River whitewater. Kowalski holds an expression that passes for contentment. Whatever troubles the man is lost on the other side of the windshield. There’s nothing going but gettin’ gone. That is until the fuzz pulls alongside.

“Wake up now. Hey, pull over! Pull over!”

Next thing ya know it’s, “Get ‘im!”

Now that he’s wanted by the law for dangerous driving and failure to stop, the car radio puts the question to Kowalski, “Where do we go? Where do we go from here?” As he drives, Kowalski realizes that in the world of 1970 there is no place for a Vietnam vet Medal of Honor winner and a hopped up Dodge Challenger R/T.

Director Sarafian described the white light between the bulldozers at the end of Vanishing Point as a crack in the fence. The question is, did Kowalski make it through?

You know, Dodge is building Challengers again. Hey, Kowalski. Are you out there?