Charging Forward: Forty Years of Smokey and the Bandit

photos by: the author and Universal Studios

Smokey and the Bandit Has Been an Influential Part of My Life

Sometime back, I relayed that the Turbo Buick was one of the instrumental vehicles that kicked off my passion for modern EFI performance. However my passion for cars in general goes back quite a bit earlier than 1987, when you factor in my early upbringing. As a child growing up in the ’80s, I was fortunate enough to remember the first wave of car films that inspired my leadfoot fantasies, one of which was Smokey and the Bandit.

Blasting across the silver screens all over the country back in 1977, Smokey and the Bandit would become the second highest-grossing movie for the year, only behind Start Wars [Episode: IV]. It kicked off the passion of cars for many gear heads, especially for the Trans Am. It was such a hit, that Trans Am sales had went up over 600% from the previous model year.

However the fame and notoriety didn’t end in 1977 — as sales would continue to do well and hit an all-time high in 1979 — as the movie, its subsequent sequels and endless syndication on cable TV keeps the dream alive. As a result, the movie and the car that starred in it continues to inspire. Just ask any modern Firebird or Trans Am owner, including yours truly.

As a kid, the Trans Am was seemingly always a part of my life; from the Smokey films, Knight Rider TV show, countless die-cast cars and model kits, and the ’82 Trans Am my parents had owned for a large part of my early life all were contributing factors.

I’ve managed to pick up a few Firebirds along the way myself, including a previously-owned ’95 and ’99 Trans Am, as well as Project Redrum and Project Phoenix. I don’t know what it is, but I just keeping finding these things in my garage. Though I have to say, a second-gen is also on my bucket list.

I admit that the T/A craze of my early childhood may have something to do with it (half of my toy cars were Firebirds), but I do owe a lot of my admiration (and addiction) to the now 40-year old film that starred Burt Reynolds and Sally Field. Often labeled as an action/comedy, it’s something of a love story with the two lead characters basically falling in love with one another on-screeen, in front of our eyes.

The entire film was shot on a tiny budget (much of which went to Burt) and also co-starred Jackie Gleason, who played the antagonist in the film. Jerry Reed, who Writer/Director Hal Needham, originally selected to play the role of The Bandit, stepped aside and assumed the role of Snowman, The Bandit’s best friend and sidekick, lending his comic relief and vocal chords for the movie’s score.

Many fans of the film may not realize that the dialogue was 98% improvised since there wasn’t much of a script in place to begin with, largely due to the lack of real funding. The locations weren’t anything exotic, either; just various parts of Georgia that also doubled as Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

I’m willing to bet the much confusion surrounds the cars themselves, of which four Trans Ams were used, along with two LeMans four door cop cars for Gleason’s character, Buford T. Justice.

Check out the incorrect-for-’77 Honeycombs…

The Trans Ams are something of a mystique; as the engine noises were borrowed (dubbed) from a solid-lifter 427 Chevrolet big-block. Allegedly a 4-speed Big-Block Chevy powered the car that was used for the famous jump scene — though some purists argue it was a modified 455 Pontiac under the hood.

Now I couldn’t find anything solid on this next detail, but I’m fairly confident that at least one or two of the Trans Ams, if not all, were actually ’76 models with ’77 noses and Snowflake wheels. If you recall the one scene where Burt is sitting in front of the Texarkana sign, signaling the destination point of the first leg of the trip, the car he’s sitting in actually has Honeycomb wheels of ’76, not the Snowflake wheels that would replace them for ’77.

In an interview featured on a Special Edition DVD that was released in time for the film’s 30th-anniversary, Hal Needham shared that every car used in the movie was destroyed. The jump car? Gone, destroyed on the landing.

The rest were trashed during the various chase scenes and by the end of the film, they were piecing Trans Ams together just to have a running car. By the end, they actually had to push the last “surviving” car with the camera truck just to get the shot of it in motion in its final scene, since it no longer ran under its own power.

Smokey and the Bandit would ultimately spawn two less-than-stellar sequels and even a short-lived, made-for-TV movie series roughly twenty years later, featuring a Dodge Stealth as the lead car. For the last ten years, our friends at YearOne continue to build BAN II and BAN III pro-touring edition Bandit Trans Ams, with your choice off LS or traditional Poncho power under the hood.

Just recently, there was a Smokey and the Bandit musical in Chicago in time for the movie’s 40th-anniversary and Trans Am Depot had released a Burt Reynolds Edition retro Trans Am built on a new Camaro, and followed up with a 1,000+ horsepower Demon killer.

Also in time for the 40th-anniveraary, is a Dream Giveaway featuring a ’77 Trans Am, donning Burt’s autograph in several places, including an autographed Stetson hat. You can currently enter that contest, and even earn extra tickets, courtesy of GM EFI’s sister title, Timeless Muscle Magazine. I actually had the pleasure of driving this car at length, and for a moment, I actually felt like Burt Reynolds.

I guess that’s the impact of the film, though; huge fanfare, car shows, car clubs and even a Smokey and the Bandit themed road trip, courtesy of The Bandit Run, which kicked off way back in 2007. It continues to grow every year, and although all vehicles are welcome to participate it’s largely centered around Pontiac’s pony car.

Even though a few of the key players of the film are no longer with us, times have changed and Pontiac is gone, the spirit of Pontiac and the Firebird lives on.

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