(first posted 6/5/2014) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a shot of a 1973 Thunderbird interior from oldcarbrochures.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Serving in a secondary role, there were also a few Plymouth Fury’s of 1970 and 1971 vintage.
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.
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)
Jason, Thanks. My Mother grew up in McNairy County(she went out on a date with one of Buford’s deputies) and I can remember going to the Esquire in Cape Girardeau to see the first walking tall move – the clerks were a little bit aghast that our parents were taking us tender youth to see such a movie.
What a small world. When researching this I found an audio clip on YouTube of Deputy Petie Plunk (I think that was his name) talking about the Louise Hathcock shooting. Those were some mean folks he tangled with.
It is a good thing to retain history and let people learn from the past of true events but I really doubt that it’ll help anyting except old people like me to remember
I remember the movie – I think NBC showed a heavily cut version of it in prime time, which would be where I saw it. It seemed too unbelievable to be true.
As Jason pointed out, The movie was a little Hollywood-ish. No big stick(unless you count a shotgun stock), The trial at the first, etc.
The reason it seemed untrue is because it was…Pure BS…
Sure it was bullshit, just like Louise Hathcock was a Sunday school teacher!
No….No one said there weren’t some local alcohol laws broken and of course some fighting between drunks…but Mr.Pusser was quick to turn blind eye for a greased palm…and quick to jump in bed with any woman he saw…When his wife left him and was going to tell a lot of things…she came up dead in a unsolved ambush…do a little research….
I’ve not seen the film but want to see it.The 72 Polara has a rather strange looking front end,not as odd as the beaked Mercuries from a couple of years before or the AMC Matador but definitely strange.
The used the back of a ’68 Bel Air to make the front of the Polara.
One of the cars I’ve owned over the decades was a 1972 Dodge Polara. I sure didn’t buy it for its looks! The 1971 and 1973 had much better-looking front ends but on what money I had at the time, I could afford this particular 1972. It was retired from the Oroville, CA Police Dept., painted a glossy powder blue, and served me for several years and some hard running, including ninety miles from San Francisco to Davis CA so my brother could get into his class graduation photo. Most of that distance, once we cleared the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, was at 90mph and up. He had his eagle eye out to the rear for California Highway Patrol Dodges but we made it to Davis, on time and unmolested. This was with air conditioning running (just a little faster and the air conditioning overspeed control would have shut down the compressor), and without the Dodge breathing hard. With a 440 Magnum, it was ready for more!
After entering law enforcement I could afford newer cars and the 1972 Polara went on its way. It ran as well on the day I sold it, as on the day I got it…better, in fact, because I’d just replaced the vacuum choke pull-off, a weak point on that particular model carburetor.
My cousin owned a 69 4 door sedan with a 2 barrel 383 for his first American car.Comfortable and very reliable but a bit big and thirsty for me.He drove it back home in the dark,his first time in a LHD auto,quite a change after his Ford Anglia!
More than Ford or GM, Chrysler had a very strange habit of alternating the styling of their full-size Dodges and Plymouths from year to year. In effect, one year the Plymouth would look good while the Dodge would not, then the situation would be reversed, sometimes the very next year.
I get the feeling that the way it worked was they’d come up with a good design, then have to tweak it for the other make and, invariably, the ‘tweaking’ simply didn’t look as good as the original.
“…a pickup owned by President Jimmy Carter’s younger brother Billy…”
Were there any empty cans of Billy Beer still in the truck? Or had Billy already crushed them all on his forehead?
Although the cars used in the movie may have been Mopar police cars of the wrong years, it could have been worse — they could have given him a jacked up pickup truck, as used in the newer Walking Tall starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. At least casting a former professional wrestler as the main character in the remake was somewhat true to real life.
They also set the remake in Kitsap County, WA; which in reality is the county of Bremerton, WA and a large Navy shipyard. Doubtful the sheriff’s office is a double-wide trailer.
I think we could use a few more police officers like him. Great movie. The Olds 98 is a 1972.
Nice article, Jason. I have seen the movie, probably more than once. I have always remembered those 72 Polaras.
My college roommate bought a butterscotch 72 Polara wagon during our college years. That was one ugly car, but I still liked it. Maybe because it made us feel like Buford Pusser while driving around in it. 🙂
The T-Bird that was pictured w/Sheriff Pusser is a ’73 from looking at the door trim & the front hubcap (my father owned a ’73 which had the same interior as the one pictured in the brochure)
The sequel, “Walking Tall II”, with Beau Svenson, had 1975 vintage Chevys, even though the real Sheriff died about a month before that model year started. Quite a few brand new 75’s were wrecked in “II”, including a yellow Vette.
“WT III”, which depicted the Sheriff’s fatal ’74 Corvette crash, went back to using 1974 MY cars.
The actual Corvette as it exists today, looks like it was a big block car.
Pusser had the stock 350 taken out and replaced it with a 454.
Actually I saw the window sticker at the pusser house downstairs with the car, it was in fact a factory LS-4 454,,the last year available in the corvette..The next year was a wheezing catalytic converter 350 with no L-82 option.
I’ve read a bit about Sheriff Pusser and his Toronado, didn’t he have a run in with Bob Dylan or Jimmy Buffet or someone?
It was Buffett; I could not find details but Buffett has song lyrics about being thrown down.
The Buffett/Pusser story and lyrics.
That’s a cool story. Lots of details despite him having been as drunk as he said.
So you couldn’t start your car without buckling your seat belts in 1974? How long did that last for?
That was one of the fastest reversals in the history of auto regulation. All 1974 model cars had the ignition interlock. It was history by the time the 75 models were introduced (IIRC) and as soon as it was repealed, all of the buff books published instructions on how to disable the system in the 74 cars. It was a gigantic PITA. The only good thing about it was that the 3 point belts came along at the same time.
I remember people running the seat belts behind the front seat backs and buckling them so that they didn’t have to actually wear them. Sometimes you’d have to move around in the seat to start the car because it wouldn’t start the way that you were sitting. It would turn anyone off from buying a new car.
The interlock wasn’t too difficult to override – as a 13 year old I rigged my dad’s Mercury Montego so it started without the driver’s belt being fastened. He typically wore his seat belt just didn’t like being forced to.
Seat Belts were not even required in 1974, at least not in Georgia? They may have been in Tennessee? They only had lap belts then. I had a 74 Cadillac Coupe Deville and all it had was lap belts. I think it was 75 or 76 when they came out with the shoulder belts? No car or pickup I had before the Caddy had shoulder belts. First car I had, a 1954 Ford, didnt even have lap belts.
All 1974 models came with unitary lap/shoulder belts for the driver and right front passenger; lap belts for the middle front (as applicable) and all three rear passengers. That was the requirement of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard № 208 (Occupant Protection); it wasn’t up to the states, whose jurisdiction on the matter only extended to whether or not to require the use of seatbelts.
All cars sold as of the 1968 model year were required to have shoulder belts; seat (lap) belts since 1964.
Many ’68 models came with the required equipment from the start of the 1968 model year in Septemberish of ’67, but not all of them did; the requirement for left and right front shoulder harnesses took effect on 1/1/68, along with the rest of the first federal motor vehicle safety standards.
Great Read! Thanks as always. Still quite a few Outlaws up in Northeast Mississippi and that part of Tennessee. Worked in Corinth in the mid 80’s and from what folks told me, a number of folks went to Chicago back in the 50’s to earn a living a brought back some of the Gangster ways with them when they came home. In the 80’s insurance fraud was big. Even had a special on 20-20 on it.
Have the Walking Tall trilogy of movies on tape somewhere. Haven’t watched it in years.I thought at the time, all three were about equal as far as entertainment value. Favorite line was when Mr. Whitter the mob boss was upset because they failed to get Buford and said that person’s failures would try the patience of any true christian. Of course when Smokey and the Bandit came out a few years later the Sheriff with the name Buford Justice linked me right back to Buford Pusser.
PWhere was Bufford Pusser in 1978?
I went and watched one of the films on You Tube today after reading this article. One was 1973, 1975, and 1977. I saw the others from the series on there. I went and read about him ( true Buford Pusser) and wow.. That man was indeed legend. I read other things about him too. His death does seem mysterious.Thanks for sharing this article. He did a number in the film on that Camaro with his oak stick. Sheriff Pusser would go to the trunk of his car and get his “act right”. LOL!
Nice story. I saw the movie when it was still in the movie theater’s. Never realized it was (sort of) a true story. The C10 looks like a 1967, but it has a big rear window like in 68 up, but no side markers. That was 67 only. Must be a couple of trucks pieced together. Thanks for the great read.
One those vintage Chevy trucks, the small rear window was standard, and the big window came with the Custom Cab, or was optional. Another way squeeze a few bucks out of the customer.
Big rear windows were optional in 67….my Dad had one…they were available in the previous bodystyle too, My best friend had a large window 65 C-10
There is an editing goof in WT II where he pulls over a truck driving a ’75 Monte Carlo. Later in the movie, he is seeing trading in an Impala and taking delivery of the MC.
RIP, but that’s another last name I’m glad isn’t mine.
That was my thought at the time. Quite a name, all the way around.
Your right. Optional on 67, standard 68 up. So 1967 it is. Thanks.
Walking tall is the 1st movie I ever saw, I’ve seen it at least 200 times and it never gets old,we got to visit the home and museum in 2012 ..Buford is my hero !!
Concerning the Corvette Pusser was killed in. If you look at the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s accident report the car’s tag is said to be an Alabama tag # 20-10005. Why would a McNairy County resident have a Cobert County Alabama tag on his car? Did he just buy it and if so wouldn’t it have been a temporary tag? Why buy it all the way in Cobert County Alabama to? Just a curiosity that I noticed from the Walking Tall 2 film when I paused it on the State Trooper Accident Report.
Because the car wasn’t his….It belonged to a Dealer in Alabama…Pusser did an appearance at the lot and signed autographs…also some commercials…in return they leased him the Vette…It was an well used Vette….It had a 454 in it..and I believe it had a salvage title….People really need to know the real facts about Pusser….
You are correct,i saw the window sticker and it was a factory LS-4,454..the last year in the ‘vette.
great little site . I have a 1968 plymouth replica ambush car .That I show all my pusser collection with. I know it was a 67 but this was a 50,000 mile original car. and was tan. also have a adam 12 replica . Sick family member . Might have to sell 434-547-8890
Dont know why it didnt leave pusser ambush car picture 434-547-8890
Is this a repllica of the car in which Pusser was ambushed? The original car was supposedly buried. I do notice a copy of the last book on the windshield that I co-authored with W.R. Morris before he died in 1998.
The ambush car was not buried in Hardin county it was cleaned up and sold ….it is in Louisiana……that’s a fact I’ve seen it personally years ago ……. yall need to keep your false information to yalls dumb group that dont know J.S. let the man rest already
Well, I have heard Louisiana, Alabama and other places. I know for a fact it was buried. Why would Petite Plunk lie, unless he’s a liar? BTW- Who are you to be a know it all.
Nice article and great movie. Just wanted to say that the Chevy truck is a 67 and not a 69. 69 had a one-piece brushed aluminum grille and side marker lights where the 67 had the thin painted steel grill and no side marker lights.
Hey Ben maybe you’ll get to like the Air Force. Zooming all over the sky and shouting ROGER and WILCO and everything. Maybe it won’t be so bad.
Where in the world did this “No Time for Sergeants” reference come from?
A real Chester County S.O. marked patrol car was borrowed and used in the original movie during the response to the ambush on August 12. It was the car where the deputy punched out the door window in frustration. In addition, all the first movie owned cars were sold to a friend of mine that owned a salvage yard in Murray City, TN.
I met him in 1974 when I was a freshman in college. He had spoken in the auditorium. I happened to be walking by outside and someone told me who he was. I shook his hand. A couple things I noticed was he was pretty tall and he had thick hands. He then got into a Corvette and drove off at about 55 mph. The speed limit in front of the auditorium was 20 mph.
My dad was a Chrysler-Plymouth salesman in Chicago, and I remember that he sold cars to Sheriff Pusser. I wish I could recall more details.
The movie, “Walking Tall Part II” featured 1975 Chevys, even though Sheriff Pusser died in ’74.
Oops, I see an old reply saying same thing about the 1975 Chevys in setting of 1974.
But, was cool to see “malaise’ cars in chase scenes, etc.
I wish I could have shook his hand and shot one of his M15’s! What a hero he was.
I grew up in Selmer, was at a friends house sometime during Jr High, and this vette pulls up and Buford steps out. Nice guy, BIG guy, shook my hand and spoke for a few minutes, cool car!
Can anybody tell me why the original actor did not appear in 2 and part 3 ….I Believe his real name was Joe Don Baker?
I co-authored the last book published with W.R. Morris, as many refer to him as the “Walking Tall” author. His first book, “The Twelfth of August,” sold nearly three million copies and helped launch the “Walking Tall” movie into a box office sensation, even out grossing “The Godfather.” While the movie was a smash hit, it failed to tell the real story of Pusser’s life, which many claim was heavily embellished which I tend to agree. Although Pusser was a larger than life figure, he never used or carried a “stick” as sheriff, but carried one to promote the “Walking Tall” movie. Pusser initially fumed over the movie version of him using a stick. He didn’t need one. Here is a photo with me and the stick Pusser used after he was no longer sheriff to help promote the movies. Visit my facebook group page to learn the truth about the real Buford Pusser.
My. Wife was on vacation in Tennessee, we stoped at a rest stop, we were only 20 miles from where this happen, started to go there, started to rain, we didn’t go, always regreted it.
Was Pusser ever a Constabule in Texas,?