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​True or False: How “real” was the General Lee?

​True or False: How “real” was the General Lee?

Posted by Jil McIntosh on Nov 17th 2021

There’s no question that the most famous 1969 Dodge Charger of all time was an orange one driven by Bo and Luke Duke as The Dukes of Hazzard. And everyone knows it was based on an actual car that had earned its keep as a moonshine runner.

But there’s lots of fiction there. The real car wasn’t orange, it wasn’t called the General Lee, and it wasn’t even a Dodge.

The television show was loosely based on a 1975 movie called Moonrunners. In that one, the cousins were Grady and Bobby Lee Hagg. They ran moonshine for their uncle in a 1955 Chevy stock car named Traveller – and there was a reason for that.

It’s because the Haggs, and from there the Dukes, were inspired by a book about Jerry Rushing. He was born in Union County, North Carolina in 1937, and got into his family’s illegal-whiskey business by outrunning the law to deliver it.

He used a 1958 Chrysler 300D modified to hit 140 mph, with an oil dump that could slick the road if the law was in hot pursuit. It was gray and Rushing called it Traveller, after the gray horse ridden by Confederate general Robert E. Lee throughout the Civil War.

Traveller was an exemplary workhorse until Rushing ran out of gas during a chase one night, and the Chrysler was impounded. Many years later, it was bought and restored by a collector. Rushing died in 2017 at the age of 80, after successfully suing the producers of both Moonrunners and Hazzard for what he claimed was insufficient credit for his role in their creation.

No one’s sure why a 1969 Charger was chosen for the Hazzard car, but we do know it was named General Lee because most viewers wouldn’t get the reference to Traveller. It was orange, instead of gray, because that showed up better on TV screens.

The story goes that customizer George Barris suggested orange, and perhaps he did. Many people also believed he built the car, and Barris didn’t mind that they did. But the show’s producers named six other car builders responsible for it, and only gave Barris the hazy credit of “car modifications.”

Jumping the General Lee became a tradition in the show, but it took its toll on the cars. It’s estimated around 300-plus Chargers sacrificed their lives for their moment of glory, but that’s only a fraction of the 89,000 Charger models the automaker built that year. Even so, they eventually became scarce around the production lot, and towards the end, some 1968 Chargers, a few disguised AMC Ambassadors, and even miniature models were substituted for the leaping Lee.

Collectors bemoan the crashed cars, but the show likely turned the Charger into a hot collectible long before it ever would have on its own. At Hazzard’s peak, the General Lee got 35,000 fan letters a month, and generated some $100 million in toys and merchandise. Not bad for a plain gray Chrysler that turned into an athletic orange Dodge.

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