Ask our Experts, we're here to help!
Pictures can say a thousand words, and James Smith’s incredible General Lee jump at MoParty 2022 is certainly no exception. Hitting a custom-designed ramp at just under 60 mph, James Smith launched his purpose-built General Lee high into the sky before landing directly on the unyielding asphalt of the Beech Bend Raceway Park oval track infield. Though certainly not unscathed from the jump, the General Lee had no problem blasting its Dixie horn and heading off the course under its own power after the stunt, and somehow Smith himself was no worse for wear.
Perhaps even more miraculously, there were also no Mopars harmed during the performance. While pictures can convey a lot of information, sometimes they don’t tell the whole story.
The General Lee jump cars that Smith uses these days actually start out as a 1998-2002 Ford Crown Victoria P71 Police Interceptors. Thanks to its identical width and similar wheelbase, along with its body-on-frame, V8-powered rear-wheel drive configuration, Ford’s perennial full-sized sedan can make for a very convincing Charger lookalike.
Like many of us, Smith – who does stunt work for TV and film franchises like Transformers and Fast and Furious when he’s not overseeing operations at Smith Bros. Restorations – grew up on a steady diet of movies like Bullitt and Smokey and the Bandit. “That kind of primed the pump for me wanting to slide and jump cars,” he recalls. “But it was The Dukes of Hazzard that really opened my eyes to the ’68 and ’69 Dodge Chargers. Those became my favorite cars of all time, and they always will be.”
Smith’s love of that classic Mopar shape brought him first to the annual DukesFest in Sperryville, Virginia, back in 2001. The show became an annual tradition for Smith, and eventually he became directly involved in the event. “In 2003 I asked [Luke Duke stunt double] Gary Baxley who drove the car up on two wheels. He told me that it wasn’t him, it was Buzz Bundy. And he told me that since Buzz had retired, nobody was really doing that kind of stunt anymore...at least, not with passion. So I thought to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to try that.’”
After chopping the car down to its floorboards, Smith installs the roll cage. The cage makes the structure stiffer and safer while also providing mounting points for the reproduction Charger bodywork.
Smith went back to his home in Appleton, Washington, and set to work designing his own ramp setup to learn how to “ski” the car around on two wheels. “I figured I would just use it in a show or two, maybe at DukesFest, and that would be the end of it,” he says. But with some guidance from Bundy along the way, Smith was able to establish a career as a stuntman. And when it came time to organize the first annual MoParty in 2020, the folks at Holley Performance knew that Smith could bring some additional excitement to the event. “I think they were doing some research to find out what fans would want to see at the show, and they found a picture of me doing a jump at Cooter’s Last Stand in 2017,” he explains. “I think jumping the General Lee has become a pretty iconic image in the Mopar world. But a true Dukes fan doesn’t ever want to see the General Lee jump and then crash – they want to see it jump and drive away.”
But as second-generation Chargers have become sought-after commodities in the muscle car world, the potentially unrepairable damage that these stunt cars are subjected to has become increasingly problematic for both fans and performers. Sensing the need for a long-term game plan, Smith began looking for potential solutions more than a decade ago.
“From 2002 to 2008 we had been involved with DukesFest every year. We were working with [The Dukes of Hazzard television show lead mechanic] Tom Sarmento to prep the cars for the stunt show. At that point Tom was still putting cages in rusty ‘69 Chargers for the stunts because that was really the only option at the time. But I kept saying that we needed to figure out some other way of doing this. We needed a way to build a General Lee jump car without wrecking more Chargers.”
In 2011, Smith made a discovery. “By then there was a company called Auto Metal Direct that you could order reproduction panels from, and that meant I could just make a phone call to get the Charger bodywork. But I needed a chassis; a car that was more or less ‘disposable’ that you could buy a lot of for relatively cheap. It needed to have good suspension and good brakes, and I wanted something that had a bolt pattern that the General Lee’s Vector wheels were available in. The car also needed to have a full frame, along with the right width and length so I wouldn’t have to do a massive amount of work to make it look right.”
Under the hood is Ford’s P71-spec 4.6-liter DOHC V8. Good for 235 horsepower and 276 ft-lbs of torque and barking through glasspack mufflers, it gets the job done.
After finding out that the wheelbase of a Late Model race car was about a foot too short, Smith was mulling over his options when he stumbled across the solution right in his own driveway. “I looked at this Crown Vic that I drove every day and just decided to go get a measuring tape,” he says. “The 115-inch wheelbase was just two inches shorter than the Charger’s. Then I put the tape over the trunk and it was six feet to the outside of the fenders, which is exactly the same as a Charger. And it didn’t matter that it was a four door because we could just cut out any of the metal that we didn’t need.”
Though he had a potentially viable option, the 2012 event he had planned to build the car for ended up being canceled, so the idea was shelved for roughly five years. Then, in 2017, Smith got another call for a General Lee stunt. “They wanted to know if I could do a ramp-to-ramp jump for Cooter’s Last Stand,” he says. “And they also asked me if I could bring my own car to do it, so I immediately went to work putting together a Crown Vic General Lee.”
Smith says that 1998-2002 Ford Crown Victoria police interceptors are best suited for the job, and require surprisingly little mechanical modification to prep for the stunts. “The 2003 and newer cars have rack and pinion steering, so the control arms are longer,” he notes. “And that doesn’t work as well because the track is wider, so it pushes the tires out past the fenders. But with the 1998-2002 models it looks right. And with the P-71 package they already have heavy duty suspension and brakes, heavy duty cooling, and a 4.6-liter V8 that just screams.”
Modeled after the design used for stunts in the original The Dukes of Hazzard TV show, Smith’s hanging harness essentially functions as a suspension seat.
After stripping the bodywork off, Smith installs a six-point roll cage and adds connection points to the cage itself so that the bodywork can be correctly located on the car. “It’s not a car with a cage inside of it – the A-pillar is the roll cage, and the windshield is glued into the roll cage bar,” he says. “I’ve got a bunch of different measurements that I use to locate everything correctly. For example, for the cowl I’ve got six pieces of metal that I tack down to the firewall that are all different lengths so I can set the cowl down level behind the hood. I took basically the same approach all around the car to hold the panels to the right shape and make everything fit as if you were hooking those panels to the structure of an actual Charger. And believe it or not, the quarter panel fits to the pinch weld of the rocker on the Crown Victoria exactly the same way it would on a Charger.”
In terms of personal safety gear for the stunts, Smith is outfitted with shin guards, elbow pads, a custom neck restraint, and a Simpson helmet. Meanwhile the car is equipped with a “hanging harness” that absorbs some of the brunt of the landings. “It’s similar to the harness that they developed for The Dukes of Hazzard back in the early 80s,” he tells us. “That hanging harness suspends me from the seat. There’s some cushioning material underneath me as well, but it’s really there so I’m not completely hanging in the air about four inches off of the seat during all of my test runs and things like that. Trophy trucks have long-travel shocks that can absorb that kind of impact, but since we can’t really do that kind of suspension on a General Lee, we have to put a suspension on me instead.”
Another benefit of the Crown Victoria’s Panther platform is that the factory wheel hub’s five-lug bolt pattern matches up with the General Lee’s American Racing Vector wheels.
Considering how ambitious Smith’s jumps at MoParty have become, the gear is definitely necessary. After doing some two-wheeled ski stunts and a classic ramp-to-ramp jump at MoParty 2020, he decided to set the bar higher for 2021. “We wanted to get a couple of Roscoe cars involved and do some more skiing, and we wanted the jump to be cooler,” he says. “I also wanted the driver’s side front three-quarter to be facing the crowd so they’d have a better view, and for the jump itself to be bigger.” Part of the equation included removing the landing ramp for the jump and simply launching the car over one of Hazzard County’s police cruisers and onto the asphalt, in turn raising the stakes significantly for both man and machine. But not one to rest on his laurels, Smith quite literally took the idea to another level for MoParty 2022.
“We always want to exceed expectations,” he says. “So when I say I’m going to go bigger, I’m going to go a lot bigger.” Smith designed a new ramp that was twice as long as the previous year’s, and instead of launching the car at 49 mph, as he did in 2021, the General Lee was traveling at nearly 60 mph when it launched off of the ramp at this year’s event. “My goal was to get the car above the "H" in the Holley sign,” he says with a laugh. “That’s exactly what I had in my mind all year.”
“I didn’t tell them how big I was going to go,” Smith says. “But I told the photographer with the big telephoto lens that he would probably want to be shooting straight down toward the ramp.”
And of course he’s planning something even wilder for MoParty 2023. “We could probably get the car up to 100 mph by starting from the drag strip, but at a certain point you’re limited by how much room you have left to stop when you land,” he points out. “So we may use the dirt track next year, we’re still figuring that out. But either way we’re definitely going to bring something even bigger and better.”