In the early eighties the most intense rivalry on television wasn't among vain leading men or voluptuous screen sirens but two American muscle cars. Audiences of millions both sides of the Atlantic tuned in every Saturday afternoon to watch two iconic cars vie for the most thrilling chase and the most daredevil stunt of the week. Each show had its handsome leads, sultry sidekicks and preposterous plots but the car was always very much the star.
Knight Rider was high-concept and high-tech with KITT, a jet black Pontiac Trans-Am with more gadgets than a top of the line Lexus, literally playing a speaking role. The car was suave, svelte and so cool that it acted the Hoff off screen. In comparison, the garish orange Dodge Charger of The Dukes of Hazzard was, like its drivers Bo and Luke, hearty, hunky and humorous. It lacked the optional extras of KITT and, in fact, its most memorable feature was that the doors were welded shut and the drivers simply jumped through the window. But what it lacked in gadgets and gizmos, it more than made up for in grunt and gas-guzzling power. There was nothing clever or pretentious about the show. It was a simple all-American outlaws versus officers caper. If Knight Rider was the modern and sophisticated North then Dukes was the laid-back spirit of the old South. General Lee had a confederate flag painted on the roof and when the horn sounded, it played the first 12 notes of Dixie, the anthem of the South. If KITT had brains, General Lee had the brawn; where Michael Knight would think fast, Bo and Luke would simply drive fast.
But though each episode was played for laughs and light relief for the television executives and car manufacturers, this was serious business. By the time The Dukes of Hazzard ran in 1979, the second-generation Charger was already a decade old, but it nonetheless served as one of the greatest promotions any car has enjoyed. For when the commercial breaks ended, the action-packed adverts for the car began. The series became synonymous with gravity-defying stunts as cousins Bo and Luke got airborne to outrun the sheriff's men and turn the head of Daisy Duke. Those working on the show say more than 300 Chargers were used during the series, at least one per episode, as the increasingly dangerous stunts saw chassis after chassis buckle, bend and break. Such was the casualty rate that it became difficult to replace the cars and, in the last series, with the budget itself at breaking point, they were forced to use archive footage and scale models.
Though the Charger became best known for drifting round the hairpins of Hazzard county, Chrysler's design brief was to make a serious challenger to Ford in the world of Nascar racing. Dominance on the track would bring dominance in the market, or so the theory went. With the Mustang very much the benchmark, Dodge gave the charger a butch, fastback body with hidden headlights that flipped into view with a switch of a button, a distinctive electric shaver grille and electroluminescent dials. The bonnet was endless and the wheel arches bulged with rubber-burning intent. Power was provided by a 426 cubic inch incarnation of the legendary, Nascar-winning Chrysler Hemi. Its looks talked but it was also blessed with a very dashing pair of trousers.
Its initial Nascar appearances were blighted by a tendency to lift off the ground at speeds exceeding 240kph, a feature that was used to full advantage in The Dukes of Hazzard but was more of a hindrance on the track. To solve this problem a spoiler was fitted and the Charger became the first production car fitted with a spoiler as standard. This modification worked wonders and, with traction assured, the Charger won the coveted Nascar challenge in 1967, giving Chrysler both a pole and promotional position that other marques coveted.
With dominance on the track the prime driver for development, the design was tweaked year-on-year to adopt the latest aerodynamic style cues. The '69 model - the one used in The Dukes of Hazzard - was butcher and braver, trading sleek lines for a more muscular look. Just under 90,000 of these cars were made, with no customer purchasing more than Warner Brothers. But despite success on the screen, the '69 model did not repeat these successes on the track and it quickly evolved into the 500 and then the Daytona. In the seventies the design changed more dramatically, making it look much more like a Trans Am. But sales dwindled as the allure of the earlier models was lost and the model finally ceased production in 1978.