Friday, August 10, 2007

General Lee lays rubber on Hailey streets

Hailey mechanic to debut true classic at car show

Express Staff Writer

Mechanic Brent Bellon stands next to his restored 1969 Dodge Charger, which, as made obvious by the paint scheme, was the same model used in the classic TV series ?The Dukes of Hazzard.? Bellon spent nine years working on the car and will display it for the public at the Valley Motor Club Car Show on Saturday, Aug. 11, at Roberta McKercher Park in Hailey. Photo by Willy Cook

After four years of college, memories of my youth often have all the clarity of a pint of Guinness. However, it would be impossible to forget the endless hours spent recklessly driving the "General Lee," the prized possession of Bo and Luke Duke.

Perhaps my Hot Wheels version was a tad bit smaller than the original "Dukes of Hazzard" muscle car and I had to substitute my bunk bed for the adventurous back roads of Hazzard County. But I somehow managed to console myself with the fact that this would be the closest I would ever come to riding in the most revered car for any boy growing up in the early 1980s.

That is, until master mechanic Brent Bellon offered a ride in his newly restored 1969 Dodge Charger, replete with bright-orange and confederate flag paint job. Of course, the word "newly" is used loosely, as Bellon spent the last nine years getting the automobile into its current, immaculate state.

Bellon, who graduated from Wood River High School in 1995, spent $2,000 to salvage what he described as a rust-covered wreck from a field in Gillette, Wyo.

Since 1999, the full-time mechanic at Elbie's Automotive in Hailey slowly brought the car to life, working on it whenever he had the time and, as importantly, the money.

"It's like a piggy bank," the 30-year-old Bellon said. "You just keep putting money into it."

Bellon said he received a lot of help from friends and family as he restored the interior, repaired bodywork and added enough custom components to make the average commuter stare in wonder.

Standing in front of the end result, it's impossible to question the motivation behind the painstaking effort.

The unique look of the Charger's body design is foreign to no one, having been ingrained into the American consciousness. Aside from the "Dukes of Hazzard," the car has been immortalized by countless other big-screen appearances, from careening Steve McQueen through the streets of San Francisco in "Bullitt" to the ride of choice for an uber-creepy Dennis Hopper in "Blue Velvet."

However, the car sports another feature that's amazingly able to draw a viewer's attention away from the highly buffed finish: the engine.

Even to the mechanically challenged, it should be obvious that Bellon's Charger has something special under the hood. That is, if it had a hood. The 528-cubic-inch Hemi-block motor is so large it requires a custom hood, the final brush stroke on this work of art. Custom built in Indianapolis, the 737 horsepower-engine was designed to meet Bellon's plans for the car, namely drag racing.

"It was truly emotional the first time I was able to move it under its own power," Bellon said as he rolled the car out of the garage, the bright sun gleaming off the chrome. "Then it just got really exciting."

While Bellon wouldn't allow me to enter the car through the window—the method favored by the Duke boys—sliding into the passenger seat was vastly different from getting into a typical family sedan. The racing seats seem more befitting of a fighter jet, as does the dashboard, which has numerous switches and gauges where one would usually find air conditioning knobs and a stereo.

This similarity was reinforced when Bellon flipped a switch and pressed the ignition button, the engine roaring to life and making me feel like Slim Pickens sitting on the bomb at the end of "Dr. Strangelove."

In October, Bellon plans to take the Charger to Firebird Raceway in Boise to make the adjustments necessary to drive a quarter-mile in less than 10 seconds. In the meantime, he's been breaking in the engine, and he demonstrated exactly what that meant.

"My dad always said 'if you break it in like a grandma, it will drive like a grandma,'" Bellon said, stomping on the accelerator, the force pushing me further into my seat.

In my excitement to actually ride in the General Lee so many years after first dreaming about it, I failed to check the speedometer, but the noise of the engine and the indescribable feeling of power left no doubt that we were going fast. Really, really fast.

"It's all you can do to look at the dash," Bellon said and pointed at a series of lights he installed atop the all-metal dashboard to warn the driver if the car is overheating or is losing oil pressure.

The effect the car has on people is noticeable, as a bystander stood with an admiring grin as we rolled by. Bellon hopes this universal appreciation of the 1969 Charger will result in a few hours of fun and a hefty chunk of cash sometime in the near future.

"It's self satisfying," said Bellon, referring to his plans to sell the car so soon after restoring it. "I set the goal and then accomplished it. Now it's time for a new project."

Bellon said he would like to do a similar project with either a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda or a 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle.

"I grew up around cars," he said, explaining his interest in muscle cars. "I like anything that goes fast and makes noise."

Before moving on, however, Bellon will proudly put the Charger on display at the Valley Motor Club Car Show, which will take place Saturday, Aug. 11, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Roberta McKercher Park in Hailey.

"A lot of people in the valley have had a hand in this car," Bellon said about showing his car on Saturday. "It will be a really neat thing for them to finally see it done."

As it will be neat for all of us who watched the General Lee help the Duke brothers elude Hazzard County Commissioner J.D. Boss Hogg time and time again.

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