Lost in many discussions of top auto-themed movies is 1971’s “Vanishing Point,” starring Barry Newman as “Kowalski” — Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, former racer, and disillusioned cop turned car-delivery driver who bets a friend he can ferry a supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. Maxed out on speed (both velocity and pills), Kowalski quickly attracts the attention of the cops, leading them on a multistate chase that ends when . . . well, go buy the DVD.
Since first seeing the picture as a teen, I’ve been a “Vanishing Point” fan. The film is loaded with iconic American imagery: the vast, untamed West; sun-hardened loners scrabbling out their meager existences amid the unrelenting glare of the desert; the broad-shouldered Challenger R/T taunting limitless skies with its audacious V-8 bellow; and, of course, Kowalski, “the electric centaur, the super driver of the golden West, the last beautiful free soul on this planet.”
Though “Vanishing Point” achieved only modest success in the States, it was a huge hit in Europe. No doubt the French understood the movie right away. It’s an existentialist thing, see? Kowalski running from the cops is really a metaphor for mankind’s enduring struggle to escape the cruelties of the universe while celebrating the power of individual . . . hey, wake up. I was just getting to the really cool car crashes.
While “Bullitt” gets all the attention for its chase scene, it’s, what, less than ten minutes long. “Vanishing Point” runs for more than an hour and a half, and for most of that time Kowalski is gunning the Challenger full-tilt — outrunning cop cars and motorcycles, racing an E-type, jumping over obstacles, and generally behaving as if the infinite roads of the West were one giant amusement park. The man responsible for the thrills: stunt-driving legend Carey Loftin (who was also stunt coordinator on “Bullitt”). “Carey was fantastic,” Barry Newman recalls. “They’d say, ‘Carey, can you roll this car four times and end up right here?’ And he’d just stare back and say, ‘Yep.’”
Two years ago, when I had the opportunity to be the first journalist to drive the one-of-a-kind Dodge Challenger concept car, I looked up Barry Newman and asked if he’d like to take a spin in the reincarnated version of the car that helped make him a cult icon. “Sure!” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. “Bring it over!” What resulted was a memorable afternoon with the actor (who had gone on to star in the 1970s TV series “Petrocelli” and such films as 1999′s “The Limey”) — including reminiscences of the original Challengers, his thoughts on the new concept car (he loved it), plus, ahem, some fabulous stories Newman shared on dating the likes of Raquel Welch, Lynda Carter, and Morgan Fairchild . . .
Thus, when the new, production 2008 Challenger showed up several weeks ago, naturally I rang up Newman again to see if he’d like to see and drive the finished version of Dodge’s retro star. “Absolutely!” he replied with that famous Kowalski baritone. This time we brought along our video team; you can watch Barry drive the Challenger here.
Needless to say, he was smitten by the new car. “Brings back a lot of memories,” Newman said. “But it’s really a far better automobile in every way than the Challengers we drove in ‘Vanishing Point.’” After filming our video piece, we swung the Challenger over to the offices of a few movie-producer friends of Newman’s. They climbed all over the car, ooohing and aaahing and petting the sheetmetal like kids playing with a tiger kitten. “Fantastic!” said one. Other bedazzled onlookers began spilling out of nearby celebrity eatery The Ivy. For sure, the Challenger is going to be the “It” car –- at least until it becomes a familiar sighting; — when it hits the streets in late May.
I bade farewell to my friend Barry Newman -– who is currently shooting a pilot for CBS — but as I drove away, in the rear-view mirror I could see him still standing in the street. There was Kowalski, watching the car and smiling, transported by a Dodge Challenger all over again.