Automotive History and CC Cinema: The Cars of Buford Pusser and the Movie “Walking Tall”

Buford_Pusser

Every once in a while events collide with personalities, resulting in a legend.  This was certainly the case with Sheriff Buford Pusser of McNairy County, Tennessee.

Pusser, a former Marine and professional wrestler, moved back to his home in McNairy County in 1962.  Serving as town constable of Adamsville from 1962 to 1964, Pusser was elected sheriff in 1964, becoming the youngest sheriff in Tennessee history at age 26.

At the time of his election, McNairy County had an significant infestation of corruption, prostitution, moonshine, and illegal gambling, plus was reputed to periodically harbor various mafia members from around the United States.  Pusser was determined to rid his county of the cancer.  Standing 6’6″ tall (1.98 meters), he certainly had the physical presence to put wind in the sails of his ambition.

The undertakings and events from McNairy County gained national attention throughout the course of Pusser’s tenure as sheriff.  While books have been written about these events, and the internet is packed with various accounts, the focus here is on his automobiles.  But let’s face it – any sheriff who cleans up a county while surviving seven stabbings, eight shootings, and killing two persons while in the line of duty will be a very memorable person.

1967 Plymouth Full Line-11

Events of August 12, 1967, propelled Pusser to national prominence.  Having been called to a disturbance early that morning, Pusser’s wife Pauline decided to ride with him as he answered the call.  Sadly, the call was a ploy to flush Pusser out for an ambush that resulted in the death of his wife and the bulk of his jaw being blown off.  The car they were driving was a 1967 Plymouth Fury.  The only known pictures of the car are post-ambush and they run counter to good decorum.

pusser toronado

In 1982, your author took a family road trip that included a stop at the Smokey Mountain Car Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  Amongst the various celebrity owned vehicles, such as a pickup owned by President Jimmy Carter’s younger brother Billy, was this 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado formerly owned by Sheriff Pusser.  While in excellent shape, it had an unusual blemish.

pusser toronado bullet hole

There was a bullet hole on the top of the left front fender.  This was the car that introduced your humble author to the story of Sheriff Pusser.

pusser bullet hole explanation

A version of this story was on display with the car back in 1982.  Click the image for a larger view.  From research conducted for this article, it was learned the Toronado was on display at the museum until 2006 when it was auctioned; it was auctioned again in 2010.

As an aside, the Toronado is still fully functional and has just under 70,000 miles on it as of 2010.

pusser grand prix

While nothing has been found to confirm it, your author distinctly remembers information displayed with the Toronado stating that Pusser traded cars quite frequently due to the ongoing attempts on his life.  Various google searches tend to lend credence to this memory, as Pusser can be found with a variety of cars within a few short model years, such as this 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix.

pusser LTD

He is also found with this 1969 Ford LTD.  Further information found about this Ford revealed Pusser wrecked it during 1969, causing extensive facial injuries.  The corrective surgery was greatly complicated due to the multiple surgeries Pusser had had to correct his jaw injury from the 1967 ambush.

A newspaper article from the time of the wreck referred to this Ford as being supercharged.  Given Pusser’s frequency of swapping cars, combined with the media’s inclination for exaggeration, this claim does facilitate some skepticism.

Buford Pusser in His Car

It seems that after Pusser left office in 1970 (due to term limits), he was still an avid trader of cars.  Based upon the interior of this particular car, this appears to be a 1972 or 1973 Ford Thunderbird.

1973 Ford Thunderbird-10

Here is a shot of a 1973 Thunderbird interior from oldcarbrochures.

pusser thunderbird exterior

image source:  www.bufordpussermuseum.com

This picture of Pusser, standing in front of a Ford Thunderbird, seems likely it may be the same car.

pusser corvette

Pusser died in a car wreck on August 21, 1974.  He was driving a 1974 Chevrolet Corvette.  The circumstances of the wreck have always been questioned as to whether or not tampering had been involved to help promote his having a crash.

The burned remains of this car are still in existence and are currently on display at the Buford Pusser Museum in Adamsville, Tennessee.  These remains had previously been on display at a police museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Due to his unique notoriety, Pusser captured the attention of moviemakers.  Released in 1973, Walking Tall was inspired by actual events during Pusser’s time as sheriff; in typical Hollywood fashion, it is also greatly embellished at times, blurring the lines between fact and fiction about Pusser’s life.

Here is the full-length movie.  It is a very good story but its depiction of events are sometimes not for the squeamish.  The production values are not always the highest as the microphone boom is quite visible on multiple occasions.

If you don’t care to spend two hours watching the movie, let’s cover the cars they used.

wt 71 mercury colony park

At the beginning of the movie, the Pusser character has retired from professional wrestling and is driving his family back to McNairy County in this 1971 Mercury Colony Park wagon.  Appearing to be quite a comfortable ride, it quickly disappears as part of the story line.

wt 67 c10

While the Pusser character is running for sheriff, he is seen driving a 1969 Chevrolet C-10.  It definitely cuts a few good moves and is seen here in the middle of a chase.

wt 72 polara

The patrol car chasing the C-10 is a then-new 1972 Dodge Polara.  There are several of them seen throughout the movie.  As was typical of Mopar police cars in movies from the 1970s, they were used hard.

wt 71 fury

Serving in a secondary role, there were also a few Plymouth Fury’s of 1970 and 1971 vintage.

wt 72 olds 98

Automobiles for this movie were provided by the Chrysler Corporation.  In a likely intentional twist, this 1971 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight had a cameo appearance.  The Pusser character pulled this car over and was shot three times.  With the good-guys driving Mopar products, having a murder attempt from a New Yorker just wouldn’t be appropriate.

wt polara unmarked

The automotive star of Walking Tall is this 1972 Dodge Polara.  This is the car driven by the Pusser character from his election as sheriff until near the end of the movie.  This car isn’t driven quite as hard as the marked Polara’s as seen above but it does not come through unscathed.  Viewers are treated to multiple instances of getting to hear the delightful sounds of its starter motor.

Buford Pusser died at age 36, his life being one of incomprehensible loss and violence.  Many of the websites devoted to him are falling into various states of decay; let us hope that compiling the automotive information about him helps keep the legend vital and based upon fact.

(All pictures from Walking Tall came from www.imcdb.org)