Ever since the General Lee lit up the grey evenings of 1970s British television with a burst of Georgia Peach orange and blast of Dixie horns, I have harboured driving desires. For the generationally challenged among you, the General Lee was the Dodge '69 Charger that belonged to Bo and Luke Duke, the fast-drivin', rubber-burnin' boys of Hazzard County.
Along with their honey-limbed cousin Daisy and the moonshine-making Uncle Jessie, The Dukes of Hazzard was a kind of The Waltons for petrol heads: Americana at its most irresistible. The show ran into the mid-Eighties, a time when my brother and I fought like bobcats in a bear trap for control of our own General Lee (a go-kart dad built from an old pram). Even now, 20 or so years later, I'm still reduced to a near feral state of mouth-frothing at the sight of any Dodge car circa 1970. The latest movie remake of The Dukes of Hazzard TV series finally spurred me into action. After several months of searching, aided by the Louisiana Film Commission, various Deep South tourist boards and a shady dude called Big Al, a date was set.
It's 11am on an August morning in New Orleans and the mercury is already bubbling up around the 100F mark. I'm standing in the mercifully air-conditioned foyer of the homey Hotel Richelieu when a girl charges through the door, red-faced and gasping. "Ya'll never guess what's parked right outside," she says, eyes threatening to pop clean out onto the marble floor. What I'd mistaken for a deep rumble of summer thunder must have been the sound of The General pulling up. Restricting myself to just a couple of air punches, I explain that the car is here to pick me up. "Oh mah gaaaaaawd," she exclaims with a reverence only the deepest Deep South accent can muster. "You must be peein' y'rself with excitement!"
In fact I'm exercising my best bladder control in order not to get the denim damp. I'm wearing rather more of it than I'd hoped for. Locating my ancient pair of "Daisy Dukes" - the style of denim hot pants immortalised by the original Dukes actress, Catherine Bach, and responsible for propelling a generation of boys through puberty - I had decided on a look that's less Daisy, more Uncle Jessie. Jeans it is.
Out on the sidewalk, faced with the original '69 Dodge Charger used in the first Dukes television series, it's just as well I have my knees covered, as I'm in danger of dropping to them. The car's owner and my designated Duke, one Troy Gorrondona, introduces himself and we exchange little more than names and a handshake before, to Troy's credit, he cuts right to the chase. "Well, shall we git goin'?" he asks, and with a roar from the Charger's 440-cubic inch magnum V8 engine that rattles the wrought iron balconies of New Orleans' French Quarter, we're off in search of Hazzard County.
The Dukes' fictional hometown may have been set in Georgia but the current movie chooses Louisiana for its Deep South location, lured by tax incentives as much as the state's timeless rural landscape. We burn through Lee Circle, the film's double for downtown Atlanta, despite its distinctive statue of Confederate Army general, Robert E Lee. Troy hits the 12-note Dixie horn in salute of the car's namesake, sending out the first notes of "Way Down South in the Land of Cotton" and simultaneously rousing a responsive chorus of honking from every other car on the road. A scream of "yeeeeehaaaaaaw" from behind reveals a boy driving a pick-up truck while simultaneously learning out of the window to take a photo with his phone's camera. That Lee Circle is the site of one of the movie's many car-chase pile-ups suddenly seems alarmingly prophetic but the Charger negotiates the roundabout, complete with slippery tramlines, and we escape without a scratch.
Pristine as the Charger is, this wasn't the way Troy found it. "I got it a couple of years back from an ex-movie worker in Missouri," he says. "I think the guy was a bit of a drunk and his wife had beat up on the car some; the windows were all broken up and it was in pretty bad shape."
Troy, an oil industry worker who restores cars in his spare time, put his body shop guy to work on the Charger, re-painting it complete with the Duke's 01 racing numbers, and Confederate flag. Once flown by the Confederate States of America, the flag has largely fallen into disuse since the American Civil War and is seen today by many as a symbol of the old segregated South.
This sticky issue is one the current film, updated to the present time, gets around clumsily, losing a sponsorship deal with Chrysler in the process. "I really don't see what the problem is," says Troy. "People round here don't seem to mind any. Everyone seems to get a kick outta the car."
True, the only reaction the car has so far elicited from absolutely everyone we pass is holler-out-loud, bay-like-a-dog glee. From inside the car looking out, it's like watching a Mexican wave ripple around a stadium or iron filings stand on end when passed over with a magnet. Riding around town on a Harley Davidson driven by John Wayne would cause * *less of an electric reaction. There's no doubt about it, this is a star car; the most famous of all time according to a recent CNN poll, which ranked the Charger above the 1977 TransAm Pontiac driven by Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, and even the 1968 Mustang Fastback driven by Steve McQueen in Bullitt. It's also quite likely the hottest car of all time. Troy may have renovated The General's exterior but inside it is just as he found it. Air con? Not unless you count Flintstones-esque holes in the uncarpeted floor. Every rev of the engine sends back a wave of heat hot enough to barbecue an alligator (a Cajun speciality), making me sure that the maxim "southern women don't sweat, they glow" can't possibly have applied to Daisy Duke riding shotgun.
We pull over outside the Black Cat Bar for a drink. It's not quite midday and the owner of this suburban tumble-down shack is already a few mint juleps to the wind, hollering up the street until the entire neighbourhood emerges from their porches, blinking into the sunlight.
This is the point I rather foolishly decide to try the characteristic Dukes dismount, exiting the car through the window, only to get stuck with my belt loop hooked around the lock button. "Yeh, they took those out for the TV series," says Troy, looking on quizzically from the other side of the car. "Perhaps that's how they made it look so darn easy. It sure ain't," he says, coming to my aid.
Meanwhile, I'm trying to ignore the rather alarming conversation that's going on behind me. Two local lads are discussing the possibilities of hacking me free and in turn cutting my jeans down to Daisy Duke size. I clearly hear one of them saying he "might have some kinda cuttin' implement". Louisiana being the birthplace of the dagger-like Bowie knife, I'm none too keen to see what he produces. It's time to get the hell out of the Dodge.
"Hold on," Troy urges as we round a corner out towards the freeway. Hold on to what? With no seatbelts, door handles or even a window winder, the only thing to grasp is the stunt roll bar that's loosely bolted between the back and the front seats. I'm about to grab for the CB radio, the original from the TV series, and yell the Dukes' SOS "shepherd to lost sheep", in the hope of raising Uncle Jessie, when I'm distracted by the ramp onto interstate 110, the site of the movie's "big jump" scene. A total of 30 Chargers were used during the filming of the movie, 13 of which were written off during this scene alone, something that Troy both winces and smiles at. "I bought this car for $40,000 a few years ago. Thanks to the movie buying up - and trashin' up - every Sixties Dodge Charger they could lay their hands on, it's worth almost double that now," he says.
Tearing through the Louisiana swamps, out into the rolling farm country north of Baton Rouge, we continue our search for Hazzard County. It's easy to imagine that Hazzard County, the fictional heart of small-town America, where good ol' boys raise hell only enough to save the day with Robin Hood acts of derring-do, would be impossible to actually find.
The film certainly struggles to drag the place into contemporary existence with much charm, but outside the tiny town of Clinton, it's as if we've arrived on Hazzard's city limits. We're looking for the farmhouse used as the Dukes' homestead, said to be around here, though the precise location remains a mystery at the owner's behest. Following a country lane into town, it could be any one of the tumbledown clapboard shacks propped up at the end of long haystack-flanked drives. We pull over to ask an old man selling potatoes on the roadside, looking like a clean-shaven Uncle Jessie, dressed in overalls and a white straw cowboy hat. His accent is so thick I have trouble making out what he's saying, catching only "y'all have a great week, now" as we pull away.
The Seventies Daisy may have been content to rest her famously insured pins in the back of Uncle Jessie's pickup truck while her cousins got to hoon around Hazzard country, but times have changed. As part of this "Daisy Duke reclaims the streets" tour, it's time I took the wheel. Trouble is, it's no easy ride. The Charger jumps like a jackrabbit every time I put it into gear and stalls just as readily. Pretty soon Troy takes back the wheel to show me how it's really done. "You wanna do a burn off?" he says, grinning like a man who has had too much moonshine, and promptly slams two feet down, depressing the accelerator and brake. Smoke pours off the hot tarmac behind us until we near vanish under a cloud. Then he releases the brake and we're away like a runaway train, sideways down the street at a velocity impossible to determine - the speedometer is, of course, broken. Yeeeeeeeeeehaaaaaw!
We pull up outside the garage that doubled as Cooter's Place, the Dukes' trusty mechanic. We're hoping to get some water (the Charger is boiling over) but unfortunately "Cooter" seems to have gone to lunch. Troy is midway through explaining how Catherine Bach used to "drive the hell outta this car" between shooting scenes for the TV series when the State Troopers pull up. The officers that emerge don't look quite as mean as Hazzard County's Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane, yet I can't help thinking we're in a whole heap of trouble. Rather than clapping on the cuffs for reckless rubber-burning, however, the law just want their photo taken next to the car. They even lend us their roadmap to direct us to Clinton's picture perfect courthouse - thankfully for sightseeing purposes only.
In the blink-and-miss-it Bayou town of Port Vincent our journey ends. At the Moonlight Inn, the setting for the Duke's local, The Boar's Nest, we pull up at what would have been Boss Hog's parking spot. Inside, Bunny the barmaid gives us the Dukes tour. "There's not much of the props left," she says. "We woulda loved to keep 'em but they weren't up to health and safety spec." This from the woman hosting the Moonlight's "raciest tattoo" contest later that evening.
I take the opportunity to bounce my beer bottle on the fake wooden support beam, against which Johnny Knoxville (aka Luke Duke) was thrown - a cop out when you consider his Jackass past - while the boys gather round the bar to ogle the still shots of Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke. But the real star is parked outside. I steal out for one last look and can't resist another attempt at window entry; this time I don't get stuck. Emotionally speaking, of course, I'm more stuck on the car than ever.
There are no longer direct flights between the UK and New Orleans, but any of the big US airlines will get you there via a gateway city: the widest range of UK departure points is offered by Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com) via Newark from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Gatwick or Manchester. The writer travelled as a guest of Louisiana State Tourism (020-8460 8473; www.louisianatravel.com).
Hotel Richelieu, 1234 Chartres Street, New Orleans (001 504 529 2492; www.lerichelieu hotel.com) is an old Southern-style "motor inn". Doubles start at $95 (£52) room only.
The Stockade, 8860 Highland Road, Baton Rouge (001 225 769 7358; www.thestockade.com) is a smart B&B. Double rooms start from $85 (£45), including breakfast.
Dukefest, a fan-fuelled car rally featuring hundreds of Dodge Chargers is held annually (May/June) in Bristol, Tennessee; www.cootersplace.com.
The Dukes of Hazzard will be in cinemas from 26 August.Reuse content