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A Barage of Pursuing Lawmen, the Thunder of a V8 engine, and the Hot Asphalt of a Desert Highway. It Could Only Be Vanishing Point.
If you are a classic car buff who loves the rumble of a big block V8 blasting down the highways and byways of America, with the police departments of four US states in hot pursuit, then Vanishing Point is definitely the movie for you.
Released in 1971, Vanishing Point, directed by Richard C Sarafian, is widely regarded as one of the greatest Hollywood Road Movies of all time. Plus, for fans of cars made under the Chrysler banner, it is motor movie mecca. This feature contains SPOILERS, so you have been warned.
The plot centres around a character named Kowalski, we don’t know his full name. Kowalski, played by Barry Newman, is a Vietnam veteran and ex racing driver working for a car delivery agency in Denver, Colorado. Kowalski leaves the agency in a 1970 Dodge Challenger RT. His destination? San Francisco.
Before he leaves, he drops in to a biker friend who supply’s him with “medical” supplies to keep him awake throughout the long journey. It is during this encounter he bets his drug dealer mate he can deliver the Challenger in 15 hours. Filled with optimism, and speed, he sets off at speed into the night, unaware of his date with destiny.
It isn’t long before Kowalski attracts the attention of the local constabulary. So starts one of the greatest car chases in cinema history. Along the way he meets a host of eccentric characters. They include a grizzly snake charmer, a crazy motorist driving a ratty Jaguar E Type, a pair of newlyweds, and a naked girl on a motorcycle.
During Kowalski’s wild chase across State Highway 50 the Nevada Desert, we also find out more about his inner demons. Discharged from a corrupt police department and losing his wife in a surfing accident, Kowalski is a man with a heavy past.
His guide on this reckless charge is blind radio DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who regards Kowalski as the last American hero. Super Soul happily sends Kowalski hints and help over the airwaves thanks to his police scanner.
Five Dodge Challenger RT’s were used during filming, with all but one of them using the hefty 7.2L 440ci Magnum V8 and four speed pistol grip manual transmission. The fifth car was an automatic 383ci.
Famed racing driver and Hollywood stunt guru Carey Loftin, prepared each car and was responsible for the films more death-defying vehicular action.
This included when the Challenger takes a flying leap over a river bed and slices between freeways at high speed. Barry Newman did his share of the minor stunts, such as when the Challenger pulls a quick 180 turn to avoid oncoming police cars.
The finale of the film sees a smiling Kowalski speeding towards a a beam of light between two police bulldozers blocking the road ahead. Kowalski and the Challenger slam into the bulldozers, resulting in a fiery end. However, if you look closely, you will see it was in fact a white 1967 Chevrolet Camaro.
Loftin towed the Camaro’s bare shell using the 383 Challenger. The Camaro hit the bulldozer, setting off an explosive charge, resulting in what you see on screen.
The UK release of the film features an additional scene featuring a young Charlotte Rampling playing a hitchhiker. She tells Kowalski she has been waiting for him for a long time. They spend the night together she vanishes the next morning. She represented Death.
Today, Vanishing Point is a bonafide American classic. Sure, the 1997 TV Movie remake with Viggo Mortensen had its good moments, but it pales in comparison to the original. If Vanishing Point isn’t on your car movie shortlist, it should be.
By Ben Selby