On this day in 1978, a stuntman on the Georgia set of “The Dukes of Hazzard” launches the show’s iconic automobile, a 1969 Dodge Charger named the General Lee, off a makeshift dirt ramp and over a police car. That jump, 16 feet high and 82 feet long (its landing totaled the car), made TV history. Although more than 300 different General Lees appeared in the series, which ran on CBS from 1979 until 1985, this first one was the only one to play a part in every episode: That jump over the squad car ran every week at the end of the show’s opening credits.
The General Lee was a neon-orange Charger with “01” painted on the doors, a Confederate flag on the roof, and a horn that played the first 12 notes of the song “Dixie.” It belonged to the Dukes of Hazzard themselves, the cousins Bo (played by actor John Schneider) and Luke Duke (actor Tom Wopat), who used it to get out of dangerous scrapes and away from the corrupt county commissioner Boss Hogg. Scenes featuring the General Lee are some of the show’s most memorable: Luke Duke sliding sideways across the car’s hood; the boys hopping feet-first through the windows (the Charger’s doors were welded shut, so the windows were the only way to get in and out); the General flying over ditches, half-open drawbridges and police cruisers.
Because practically every one of the General Lee’s stunts ended up wrecking the car, the show’s prop masters bought every 1969 Dodge Charger they could find (and there were plenty: the Chrysler Corporation sold about 85,000 in all). Then they outfitted each one for action, adding a roll cage to the inside, a protective push bar to the nose and heavy-duty shock absorbers and springs to the suspension. The prop masters also tampered with the brakes to make it easier to do the 180-degree “Bootleggers’ Turn” that so often helped the Duke boys evade Boss Hogg. Cars used for jumps also got trunks full of concrete or lead ballast to keep them from flipping over in midair.
While “The Dukes of Hazzard” was on the air, the General Lee got about 35,000 fan letters each month. Fans bought millions of remote-controlled and toy versions of the car, and some even modified their real cars to look like the Dukes’ Charger. Indianapolis DJ Travis Bell restored the original General Lee in 2006.