Vanishing Point Article
Behind the scenes of the movie Vanishing Point
Reprinted with permission from Musclecar Review magazine March 1986
by Paul Zazarine
Kowalski's Last Ride
For movie goers who are also autobuffs, a few "road movies" stand out as a
cut above the standard box office fare. Perhaps the best known of these is
the critical and box office hit Bullitt. While the Bullitt plot was a
little thin, it did have Steve McQueen and that exciting chase sequence
through San Francisco. Equally as popular today is the 1971 cult classic,
Vanishing Point was more than just a chase movie, although at the time of
release the message it carried beneath the explosive photography and fast
paced music wasn't fully appreciated. Over the years it has remained in the
minds of movie goers who just happen to also be in love with high
performance cars. Vanishing Point had a subconscious effect on the viewer;
its impact remained long after seeing it.
Fifteen years after its release, many are still intrigued about the stars,
the plot and, of course, the cars. Over the years, numerous myths have
developed concerning Vanishing Point. Ever since we ran a Vanishing Point
trivia question in the March, 1984 issue of Car Review, we've received
scads of letters and phone calls relating contradictory details about the
movie and the cars. What began as a passing trivia question soon turned
into a tidal wave of Vanishing Point mania.
We had really touched a nerve, so to put the capper on a lot of wrong
information, we talked to some Vanishing Point experts. That only proved
to cloud the story even more. So we cranked up the Watts line, assured the
boss it was for a worthy cause, and proceeded to call Hollywood. We
arranged two interviews, one with Vanishing Point stunt coordinator Carey
Loftin; the other with Barry Newman, who starred in the role of Kowalski.
What we learned from them reinforced some stories while other myths crashed
Carey Loftin has coordinated and performed stunts in numerous movies
including On The Beach, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World and Grand Prix.
Many will remember the exciting street race sequence in the recent film,
Against All Odds, which won Loftin an Academy Award. Newman has high praise
for Loftin, "Carey is the greatest stunt driver that ever lived. I did a
few of the minor stunts, but Carey set up and did the major ones. He really
set them up beautifully and made me look great!" Loftin is currently
working on a car chase sequence on the elevated railways of Chicago for
One of the main points of controversy has centered around the 1970 Dodge
Challengers using in Vanishing Point. Carey Loftin remembers that he
specifically requested Challengers because of the "quality of the torsion
bar suspension and for its horsepower. It was a real sturdy, good running
car." Five Alpine White Challengers were loaned to Cupid Productions by
Chrysler for promotional consideration and were returned upon completion of
How the cars were equipped has been a point of controversy among
Vanishing Point buffs. "There were five cars," Loftin said. "The number
five car that we never used was an automatic and it did have the 383. All
the rest had the 440. All the 440's were equipped with four-speeds, and
all were four-barrel motors." Speculation had been that Hemi or Six Pack
Challengers were used, which Loftin and Newman dispelled. The cars
performed to Loftin's satisfaction, although dust came to be a problem.
None of the engines were blown, and Loftin recalls that no special
equipment was added or modifications made to the cars, except for
heavier-duty shocks for the car that jumped over No Name Creek. No special
bracing or frame ties were used in any of the Challengers.
Newman remembers that the Challengers were wrenched for the movie by Max
Balchowsky, who also prepared the Mustangs and Chargers for Bullitt. "Max
was like a surgeon. It was amazing. He would take parts out of one to make
another car work, because we really ruined a couple of those cars, what with
jumping ramps from highway to highway and over creeks."
Newman agreed with Loftin's memory about the cars. "I remember the cars
had 440 engines and had a tremendous amount of power. It was almost as if
there was too much power for the body. You's put it in first and it would
almost rear back! They had a four-speed and there was also an automatic
car. That was a 383. I think we used that one as the camera car on the
One difference between the filming of Bullitt and Vanishing Point was
speed - or the appearance of speed. As the Mustang and Charger sped
through the streets of San Francisco, the were moving at actual speed.
For Vanishing Point, the cameras were undercranked. Consequently, as
Loftin explains, "the top speed at the most was between 100 and 110
miles-per-hour. We had a fairly low rear end ratio, and to get the
appearance of speed, we would undercrank the camera. When people are
walking, it can look really crazy, but out in the desert, it looks like
the car is really flying. For example, on the scenes with the Jaguar,
we cranked the camera at half speed. The cars were going about 50
miles-per-hour, but at regular camera speed, it would appear to be
For the high speed desert scenes, Newman remembers traveling a little
slower. "It was more like 80-90," said Newman. "What happens is if you
shoot a car from the side, you can go by at 30 miles-per-hour, but it
looks like you're doing 20. The perspective is off. So those shots
where I look like I'm traveling at 150, we weren't going that fast at
We asked Loftin how well Barry Newman drove the Challenger during the
filming. "He caught on so fast I couldn't believe it," Loftin laughed.
"I'll tell you one thing Barry did. The scene before the crash at the end
where he comes up and does a 180 on the road and goes back, he did that
himself. The director didn't realize that. I was standing behind the
cameraman, and when Barry did the stunt, I said 'he's a good listener and
learner.' Sarafian thought it was me. I told him Newman had to do
something! Barry did a terrific job."
Driving across the desert was not all fun and games, as Newman relates.
"We had tremendous traffic control, although once I almost did get in
trouble. They blocked off five miles of road to keep traffic away while
we made the shots. One of the Challengers was used as a camera car.
That particular Challenger was set up with three cameras. One was mounted
on the hood looking into the windshield and looking at the driver.
Another camera was hooked onto the front bumper and it looked ahead of the
car at the white lines. A third camera was on the rear bumper. The
camera car also had a tremendous amount of lights on it. The lights were
extremely bright, and it's difficult to see, especially with that Colorado
sun shining in your eyes. Somehow, while I was driving on this controlled
five mile strip of road, a car got through the traffic blocks, and I was
on the road by myself, and suddenly, I happen to see a car coming at me!
I just swerved off to the right and went up a hill. A couple of the
cameras fell off, but we were alright. It was a close call."
Special preparations were made for the spectacular crash at the end of
the movie, as Kowalski speeds into the bulldozers placed across the road
with blades down to stop him. Several days were needed to set up the
stunt. A derelict 1967 Camaro was purchased and stripped of engine and
transmission. A tow-rig setup that Loftin had used successfully in the
past was employed. "I've used this rig for a long time," Loftin
explained. "And as long as you're towing it, it will go to that fulcrum.
There was a crown on the road, and I had a mechanic there. I would tow
the Camaro, and he'd reset the front end. We did this several times
until the car would tow right in the center of the road."
"I had a quarter mile of cable when we did the stunt. The strip of road
leading to the bulldozers went straight back, over a slight hill and then
to the left. When I started to tow, I couldn't see the Camaro, so I told
the effects man to put it in the ditch on the left hand side so it will be
in a straight line. After all the testing I just had to believe that it
would work. Once I got it up to speed, it came straight down the road,
I was doing a good 80 miles-per-hour at the time of impact."
"With the motor and transmission out, we were prepared for the car to go
end over end, but it stuck into the bulldozers, which was a better effect.
The effects man loaded the Camaro's front-end with explosives to go off on
impact, and if I had lost control and gone into the ditch and really hit
something hard, it would have exploded there. The director set the
bulldozers about five to six inches apart, just enough to get my cable
through. He asked me what the point of no return was, and I said 'about
two seconds after you say 'action'. Once I go it's all the way. I don't
have anything to stop the Camaro except those bulldozers!"
"We towed the Camaro with the fifth car, the 383 automatic. I used that
one because if you miss a gear and your line goes slack you lose the car.
I'd rather use an automatic than risk a chance of losing the car. That
383 was a good running car. In fact, it would probably run just as fast
as that 440."
What happened to Vanishing Point after it was filmed is as interesting as
the making of the movie itself. Newman recounts that a portion of Vanishing
Point was cut, shortening the film from 107 to 99 minutes. "There was a
wonderful scene where Kowalski stops the car and picks up a hitchhiker,
played by Charlotte Rampling. The girl, dressed in black and shrouded in
fog, is carrying a sign that says San Francisco. He picks her up, she gets
into the car and she asks him 'What are you?' He answers, 'a car delivery
driver.' She says, 'No, what sign are you?' They talk and end up spending
the night together in the desert. Suddenly she says, 'Don't go to San
Francisco,' and vanishes. She was the symbol of death."
"That was an interesting scene, because it really gave the film an
allegorical lift and explains everything." I was in Austria filming The
Salzburg Connection while they were editing Vanishing Point, and I received
a call from my agent in New York. He had just seen a screening of Vanishing
Point and said they cut it up and made it look like a "B" movie. They cut
out the Rampling scenes because they were afraid the audience wouldn't
understand what happened to the girl in the car; why was she suddenly not
there? That was their explanation.
In its final form, Vanishing Point bears little resemblance to the
Guillermo Cain screenplay, which was loosely based on two real life events.
The movie was released without the Rampling scenes, and the 107 minute
version was never shown. Vanishing Point premiered in late January of 1971
in an edited state that bore little resemblance to the original version.
"20th Century had no faith in the movie," Newman recalled. Therefore they
dumped the film in neighborhood theaters as a multiple release, and it was
out of the theaters in less than two weeks."
Vanishing Point was then taken to London, where it became the biggest
critical and box office hit of the decade in Britain. Because of the
immense popularity of Vanishing Point in Britain and Europe, it became a
"back door classic" and returned to American theaters on a double bill
with The French Connection. Thanks to the tremendous popularity of
The French Connection, Vanishing Point finally played to an appreciative
American audience. And the cult following began to grow, spurred on by
one broadcast on network television in late 1976.
What amazes Newman is that even though Vanishing Point has not been aired
nationally for almost ten years, "Kids still line up along side of me in my
car and say 'Hey - Vanishing Point, Man' and give me the thumbs up sign,
It's amazing!" Why has Vanishing Point become a cult classic? "At the time
it was made," Newman explains, "we were still living in the sixties, with
the individual against the institutions - the establishment. The
individual, the loner, the anti-hero was very, very popular then, and it
was a very moving thing when the guy killed himself. When he died, it
stayed with people. They came back and saw the film over and over again.
I was never aware of the impact of the film while I was making it."
Newman played Kowalski as "a man who has failed before - and that's the
allegorical thing in this film - that Kowalski was going to get through
those bulldozers. He smiles as he rushes to his death at the end of
Vanishing Point because he believes he will make it through the roadblock.
Deep down, Kowalski may have believed he wasn't going to make it, but
that's the basis of an existentialist film. The hero is fated to die, and
you know it when he takes off that he's not going to live. The title
Vanishing Point was meant not for his impact into the bulldozers. At the
beginning of the movie, the Challenger and a black Chrysler pass each
other and the Challenger vanishes, and he delivers the black car to Denver.
It represents Kowalski's point of no return - it was his Vanishing Point -
it was his last ride."
Vanishing Point - The Movie
Vanishing Point is based upon two true events. The story centers around
a car delivery driver ferrying a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San
Francisco. He's made a bet that he can make the trip in 18 hours. The
driver, who's name is Kowalski, has a number of encounters with the police
who try to stop him. His cross country trek snowballs into a massive
police hunt that attracts the attention of the national media. The
Vanishing Point story line was inspired by a young California driver who
refused to stop and died after crashing into a police roadblock.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Kowalski was a Vietnam
veteran with a Medal of Honor. His girlfriend had drowned, his careers
as a police officer, a motorcyclist and as a stock car driver had all
ended in failures. The Kowalski character was loosely based on the
shattered career of a San Diego police officer.
Few understood the existentialist message in Vanishing Point, however
there is much more that just 90 minutes of chase scenes. The dramatic
final scene in which Kowalski vaporizes the Challenger and himself into
the two bulldozer blades was not because he had given up on life. He's
smiling at the end of Vanishing Point, as he rushes toward the center of
light between the blades, because he thinks he can make it.
Barry Newman told us he is currently negotiating for the rights to
Vanishing Point. There is a good possibility we may yet learn what
happened to Kowalski, because Newman has plans to make Vanishing Point II.
Vanishing Point Collectibles
Among Vanishing Point fans, and there are a lot of them, a highly prized
possession is the 99 minute videotape of the film, which, interestingly
enough, has Charlotte Rampling's name on the label, although she doesn't
appear in the movie. It can be purchased from your local video dealer or
through Magnetic Video Corporation, 23434 Industrial Park Court, Farmington
Hills, MI 48024. The catalog number is 1028, and the suggested retail
price is $59.95.
The Holy Grail for Vanishing Point fans is the original soundtrack album,
released on the Amos label and distributed by Bell records, a division of
Columbia Pictures. Its catalog number is AAS8002. It is no longer in the
catalog, however you may run across a copy in used record stores or swap
meets. The music used for the soundtrack features Delaney & Bonnie &
Friends (one of whom is Rita Coolidge), Jerry Reed, Kim Carnes and a number
of unknown artists. The cover artwork shows a white 1971 Challenger, with
New York plates, inside and on the back are stills taken from the movie.
Our sincerest thanks to Barry Newman and Carey Loftin for taking time
out to speak with us. Special thanks to Robert Hilpl who loaned us the
Vanishing Point videotape and soundtrack album and supplied us with
pictures of his Alpine White 1970 Challenger. Special thanks also goes
to Jill Kirklander at 20th Century Fox for researching the Vanishing
Point stills. Also thanks to Mark Warren and Jeff Johnson of the Special
Interest Auto Club for their help. Photos by 20th Century Fox,
Robert Hilpl, and Paul Zazarine. Kowalski lives!