When Vanishing Point came out in early 1971, it got mixed reviews, most of them not good. Starring Barry Newman as car delivery driver Kowalski, most of the movie revolves around Kowalski’s trip from Denver, Colorado to San Francisco, California in a bright white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. Filled with lots of high speed police chases and action footage, Vanishing Point gained popularity as it became a second feature favorite at drive-in theaters across the USA, eventually becoming a cult classic, especially with Mopar fans thanks to Kowalski’s Challenger.
Like the Dukes of Hazzard did for second generation Chargers, Vanishing Point opened the eyes to millions of people and helped drive up the popularity of the 1970 Challenger. For Jess Tackett, he can still remember the first time he saw the movie. He tells us, “I went to a drive-in movie with my best friend Billy in the summer of 1972 or 1973. We watched two movies that evening, but I only remember one of them; Vanishing Point. The star of the movie to me was the beautiful white ’70 Challenger R/T. From the second I saw the movie, I wanted a car exactly like Kowalski’s.”
He continues to say, “My first job was an auto technician, I did it for 8 years. After that, I became an auto tech instructor for 27 years and was an Certified Master Auto Tech 25 of those years before finally retiring. My pursued hobby has always been old classic muscle cars and over the years, I always kept my dream of owning a ’70 Challenger R/T just like Kowalski’s. By the time I could pursue this dream, prices of real ’70 Challenger R/T’s had reached the stratosphere and I had a hard time even finding one equipped exactly like Kowalski’s let alone in a certain budget.”
Not willing to give up his dream, Jess decided to go with the second best route and look for the best ’70 Challenger body he could afford, R/T or not. After some searching online, he found and purchased a ’70 in Oklahoma in September 2000. Originally a green 318 3-speed manual “Deputy model,” the car was missing it’s fender tag and broadcast sheet so Jess knew it would be the perfect candidate to build a Vanishing Point car out of. Once getting it back home, Jess tore the original drive train out and went straight to work.
To make the restoration easier, Jess mounted the Challenger on a home made rotisserie and started doing the body work in his two car garage. Thankfully the car was almost rust free and didn’t require much metal work, only needing a trunk floor thanks to a leaky seal. With the new trunk floor installed, the rest of the body was stripped to bare metal, straightened, primed and block sanded to perfection. Underneath, Jess added all of the correct under body reinforcements such as the K-frame skid plate, front and rear torque boxes, pinion snubber plate and leaf spring front mount reinforcement plates before painting the car himself in Dupont’s Chrysler PW7 Brite White.
Under the hood, Jess took a steel crank 440, bored it .030 over and installed SP2355 forged pistons, LY rods with ARP bolts, a balanced rotating assembly, ported 906 heads with 2.14-1.81 valves and a Hughes camshaft. On top sits a factory Six Pack set-up featuring three Holley 2-bbl carburetors paired up with the aluminum intake. The exhaust consists of factory ’70 HP exhaust manifolds that run into an Accurate Exhaust 2.5 inch system with factory stainless tips. An original re-cored correct radiator keeps the engine cool.
The 440 is backed by an 18 spline A-833 Pistol Grip 4-speed transmission that has been fitted with Passon Performance’s Hemi 4-speed overdrive gear set so it cruises at 75 mph at 2,750 rpm very comfortably. Out back sits a Dana 60 rear end fitted with 3.54 gears, a power lock differential and stock 35-spline axles. Besides sourcing the machine shop work out, Jess built the entire drive train himself!
The suspension consists of .960 diameter torsion bars and extra heavy duty rear leaf springs along with a one inch front sway bar and an original factory E-Body rear sway bar. The original steering box was rebuilt and upgraded to “sport level” specifications by Steer and Gear of Columbus, Ohio. Jess built the car so that it would handle and ride firm but remain comfortable still. Braking is done by power disc brakes that have been upgraded to 11.75 inch rotors up front on later A-body spindles with their larger wheel bearings. The Challenger rides on factory 15×7 Rallye wheels wrapped in 245/60R15 Mickey Thompson radials.
On the inside, Jess’s Challenger has been completely restored with new black leather seat covers, seat foams, carpet and a headliner from Legendary. The door panels are originals that have been cleaned up and detailed. The original Rallye instruments were restored by Jess and a factory dash pad restored by Ultimate Rides was installed. While Kowalski’s Challenger didn’t have A/C originally, Jess opted to have it on his so he installed a Vintage Air system. Everything is finished off with an original Rim Blow steering wheel restored by the late Jerome Verbitt.
The electrical system has been upgraded to include relay powered headlights along with a hidden electric door and trunk lock system controlled with a key fob through a salvage yard sourced electronic controller that Jess wired into the factory harness. Using the key fob to lock and unlock the doors or the trunk lid activates the interior courtesy lights.
After 14 years of work, Jess’ Challenger was finally finished in summer 2014. “It’s as close as I could make it to the movie car, with the addition of the Six-Pack system, A/C and the factory style driver side chrome mirror. Since finishing it, I have driven it about 6,500 miles, including a 500 mile round trip excursion to the 2018 Mopar Nationals last August. I routinely take it out to local cruise-ins, the grocery store, post office, or just exploring those back country roads. It’s really fun and satisfying to drive and I am truly enjoying it!” says Jess.