Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The 'General Lee' rescued from oblivion

Hailey mechanic restores 1969 Dodge Charger

Express Staff Writer

Some hobbies, like icons of engineering, die hard. Brent Bellon, a Hailey mechanic, is bearing down on the final stages of a seven-year project geared toward reviving television's General Lee. Although Daimler-Chrysler plans to unveil its own re-creation of the car, which may have a natural gas motor in 2006, Bellon is focused on restoring an original 1969 Dodge Charger. Brent Bellon's General Lee, a nearly restored 1969 Dodge Charger, has custom modifications designed for drag racing. Photo by David N. Seelig

The "General Lee" nearly leaped into the street as master mechanic Brent Bellon opened his garage door. Exposing the winter sun and a few drops of melting snow to his treasure, Bellon pushed the 1969 Dodge Charger, one of the toughest cars of the muscle car craze of the late 1960s and 1970s, into his driveway for a close inspection.

Bellon, a full-time mechanic at Elbie's Automotive on Main Street in Hailey, has worked on the car whenever he has had time and money over the past seven years, and the resurrection shows meticulous attention to detail.

"I'm scared to add up the receipts," he said.

Now painted "bad ass orange," the model was made famous on the television program "The Dukes of Hazzard."

"I'm not like a Trekkie. I'm not a full-blown nut about the 'Dukes of Hazzard,'" Bellon said. "I just watched the show as a kid and the car stuck with me."

Bellon's project is complete with the requisite confederate colors (also painted -- not stick-on decals). "It has a unique look, unique lines. It's just a real attractive car," he said.

Television and movie producers thought so, too. Of the 300-odd cars used to make "The Dukes of Hazzard," the majority were destroyed as stunt drivers launched them into the air to thrill viewers. And, from Steve McQueen in the 1968 film "Bullit" to Dennis Hopper in "Blue Velvet," the car has played a supporting role to many lead actors on the silver screen.

The product of imagination and painstaking refurbishment, Bellon's hobby has pulled him through the darkness of nearly seven winters.

"I spend quite a bit of time out here," Bellon said, unveiling the carpeted shop space that stirs the creative juices of a man puzzling through how to resurrect an icon. "It's a great hobby. I do it slowly."

The car, a dream few boys have realized beyond a poster on the wall or a Hot Wheels model that fits in the palm, is totally impressive in life-size steel.

An object of internal combustion perfection, when Bellon opens the hood it is shocking to see that the car is as impotent as a sailing ship in a dead calm. The engine compartment is still empty. Installing the drive train is the final stage in Bellon's reconstruction plan. The paint job alone promises the car will return to the streets with a thunderous roar.

Countless hours and help from family and friends have gone into the project. Kenny Cook at Valley Auto Body did the bodywork so the final paint job could be completed in Twin Falls. As a hobby, Bellon said the beauty of the project has been that if at any time he gets frustrated, he can stop and do something else or start over. But, he is excited that the end is near.

"I haven't had to hurry. So, everything's done right. I'm excited to get it done," Bellon said. "Everyone who's seen the car is excited to see it done."

The car has a new interior with a custom dashboard modified from the original geared toward the car's future as a drag racing machine, the extension of Bellon's hobby. Modifications include safety features like front seats with six point harnesses and a roll bar cage. The rear seat has been reupholstered and the interior door panels look fresh.

Originally a stock street machine, brand new the car had 250 to 300 horsepower.

"For drag racing I'm more than doubling that," Bellon said. "I'm hoping in the quarter mile it might run in 11 seconds the first year. It should be a really fun car."

Bellon has to remove the steering wheel to get into the driver's seat. Once he breaks in the engine Bellon hopes to get the quarter mile done in just over 10 seconds.

"I built systems so when I'm racing I don't have to look at the gauges the whole time," he said. Lights mounted on the dashboard connected to sensors will tell Bellon if the car is overheating prematurely or if oil levels are running low.

When this particular muscle car last raced through the streets is anyone's guess. After seeing the car advertised in an auto trader magazine while sitting at breakfast during college in 1997, Bellon rescued a fading pink rust bucket from Gillette, Wyo., where it was rotting in a field as a parts car since the last owner blew the motor.

"If I had it to do all over again, I would have passed on that car," Bellon said describing the wreck he bought for $2,000 as if it were a thing of the past. For certain, the car sitting in his garage is not the same car, except for the bones. The restoration is a work of art. Watching archival footage of the General Lee pales in comparison to seeing the real thing. It is as if Bo and Luke Duke parked the General Lee in Bellon's garage during a commercial break while the two miscreants elude Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, who was nervously following Hazzard County Commissioner J.D. Boss Hogg's orders to "get them Duke boys."

Although the car is designed to satisfy a need for speed, the curious need not worry that they might miss the orange streak. Bellon has a second engine for cruising and has already won first place as a work in progress at the annual Hailey Rod, Run and Cruise car show. Perhaps the General Lee will ride in the 2005 Hailey Fourth of July Parade. But, then who will drive Elbie's bouncing Ford?

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