COOTER AND THE GREY GHOST 02
IT ALL STARTED IN 1946, MAYBE ’47, WAY BACK WHEN….
I remember it like it was yesterday. Well, maybe the day before yesterday. My cousin Earl and I were about the same age, but he was a few months older than me, and lived in an actual neighborhood. So he was slightly wiser in the ways of the world. I was 6, you see, and he was 6 and a half.
He lived on a paved street in Petersburg, Virginia. I lived in a town, too, but not on what could really be called a street. “Harper Street” was then a one lane dirt road, down on the docks of Portsmouth. The road was filled with cinders from the steam engines of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. We lived in a railroad “section house”, hard by the big freight yard in Sugar Hill. Our backyard was blessed by the tidal waters of Scott’s Creek, an inlet of the Elizabeth River. Overhead there was air traffic, mostly flying out of Oceana Naval Air Station.
World War Two, the one they still call “The Big One”, had just ended. I sometimes wonder about the effects of growing up surrounded by a world at war, with B-29’s and P-38’s and giant Navy blimps overhead, on the hunt for the Nazi U-Boats that lurked just off the coast. The world’s largest battleships and aircraft carriers cruised up the Elizabeth River for repairs at the gigantic Navy Yard, and troop trains came through the rail yard in front of our section house, a big shack which had no electricity or indoor plumbing.
But “The Big One” was over and we were playing in his back yard up in Petersburg with his dog “Pal”. When a car came by we immediately paused to try to be the first to identify it.
“Ford!” “Packard!” “DeSoto, no, that’s a Plymouth!” “Frazer!” “Hudson”! “Nash”!
And then “it” appeared.
“That’s a, it’s a……..what the heck is it?” It looked like something from the deep future, something that not only couldn’t have been invented yet, but not even imagined. To us, it was like a spaceship of some sort. We couldn’t even tell which direction it was going.
We yelled at the driver and he stopped by the fence. “What is it? What is it?” Even Pal the Dog wanted to know.
The driver was very pleased. A couple of neighbors also came out to look.
“Its the brand new Studebaker,” he smiled. Almost 75 years later, I still see the guy’s face and his pride. And I still remember telling my older brother Bubba what I had seen. He acted too cool to be impressed. “Oh yeah,” he fibbed, “I’ve seen lots of them.”
Studebaker had promised in its advertising, “First by far with a post-war car”. A clunky line, but they pulled it off.
Those cars only got cooler when Studebaker added the bullet nose to the grill, a look that honored the F-86 Sabre jet, then fighting in the skies over Korea.
A few years later, when I was 13 or 14, my father bought me a junked 1938 Studebaker for $35. The tires were bare, but even though that sorry old hound dog had several hundred thousand miles on it, it still ran a little, with a top speed of about 40 mph. It wasn’t street-Iegal, but I could drive it up and down dusty Harper Street, which was on railroad property. I learned the straight stick on that car, and even learned to throw a bootleg turn, basically doing a 180 at about 35 mph. I can’t prove that, because I made sure there were no witnesses to the risks I thought I was taking. Fact is, it wasn’t all that risky, but a simple matter of old fashioned physics, done slowly.
Brother Bubba bought a used Studebaker Hawk when he was a senior in High School, but he was wise enough not to let me drive it.
The United States lost something special when the Studebaker Company closed its South Bend, Indiana plant in 1964. In 1966, the company closed for good. That same year one of their competitors came out with the Dodge Charger, and the “muscle cars” became the rage of the Nascar tracks and the back roads.
In 1979, a ten year old Charger became the most popular vehicle in the history of entertainment when “The General Lee”, a 1969 Charger, came out of Cooter’s Garage in Hazzard County with Bo and Luke Duke at the wheel. The General Lee became by far the most popular car in the history of show business, and that was verified by several serious surveys.
In the first season of filming down in Georgia I approached the Dukes’ producers with the idea of Cooter having an old Studebaker called “The Grey Ghost”. The producers nixed the idea immediately, pointing out that Cooter had his tow truck, which came to the Duke boys rescue just about every Friday night.
A few months later, Boss Hogg drove a moonshine car called “The Grey Ghost” in a script called “The Days of Shine and Roses”, a really terrific episode. So “that was that” for my version of the Grey Ghost, until….until I got the idea of creating a concept car for our Cooter’s Place in Luray, Virginia. Over the years, a lot of Dukes’ fans have suggested different ideas about Hazzard County cars that would be fun if the show was ever to be revived. Well, I doubt if the continuing popularity of the Dukes is even on Hollywood’s radar screen. Those people are famously clueless about life in the Heartland. So it is the fans of the show who keep it alive, and it is that way all over the planet. The Dukes is still a hit, especially in the heartland of America.
(And it is still going strong internationally. For instance, every day this past week, each of our cast members did a one hour ZOOM show in Ireland, where the show is still watched and still beloved.)
The idea of Cooter’s Studebaker never did go away. It still crossed my mind every now and then. That classic car was originally conceived by the famed designer Harley Earl, and refined later by the also legendary Raymond Loewy.
I never forgot that idea and then one day I realized, “Well, Ben, why don’t you just do it yourself?”
And, as if it was meant to happen, my dream car just sort of appeared, listed on Hemmings, the Bible of classic cars. There it was, a perfect 1950 Studebaker in great shape, which runs like a dream, and, (I’m not making this up) just happened to have a really sweet new grey paint job.
So guess where it is now? Well, it is finally where it was always supposed to be.
Jeff Spring and Mark Bradley, who do much of the design for our stores and our Cooter’s products, did their magic artwork on it, and now, sitting proudly next to the General Lee in our Luray location is our first “Cooter’s Concept Car”, and she is beautiful.
“The Grey Ghost” has finally come home to Hazzard.
(*The original “Grey Ghost” was Major John Singleton Mosby of the Southern Army of the Confederacy. Mosby’s exploits were legendary. There were many books writtenof his adventures, and a television series called “The Grey Ghost” was quite popular in the 1950’s. The great Buster Keaton’s comedy classic “The General” is based loosely on Mosby’s adventures. After the War Between the States ended, Mosby became the United States Ambassador to Hong Kong, i.e., what would now be the Ambassador to China.