Cannonball Replica: 1978 Dodge Sportsman

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If you loved the movie Cannonball Run, then you likely remember the Transcon Medi-Vac van that was a real-deal racer piloted by the legendary Brock Yates in the actual running of the 1979 race. This impressive replica of the souped-up ambulance here on eBay misses out on a few key details, but still looks like a lot of fun and a perfect platform for making the mechanical tweaks necessary to become as authentic as possible. 

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The Cannonball movies have become a bit of a guilty pleasure in recent years. I didn’t appreciate them when the movie was still fresh enough to occasionally appear on network TV, and truth be told, the later movies were downright bad. But the vehicles were always interesting and some of the female pilots (and co-pilots) made watching enjoyable. The use of a Sportsman van as a well-disguised ambulance capable of hitting 130 m.p.h. thanks to a built 440 Magnum paired with an A727 transmission was icing on the cake of a movie and road-race already well known for its excesses.

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While this example wears the appropriate emergency vehicle livery, the engine is a far more docile 360 V8, falling a bit short of the monster motor found in the original. While I can’t blame the seller for not going to the lengths needed to incorporate the big motor and four gas filler holes for rapid fueling as found on the original, you know the first question anyone is going to ask at a show is if it has those trick bits. And really, the point of owning a replica like this is to show it, so in my humble opinion, taking this one all the way in order to be as authentic of a replica as possible is a must. To the seller’s credit, he did track down the correct Federal Signal AeroDynic emergency light bars which are likely tough to find.

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I’ve never been able to confirm if the original Medi-Vac ambulance is still in existence. For a while, there was some Internet chatter that Travis Bell had tracked it down, but I’ve seen conflicting reports that he, too, built a replica (for all we know, this example on eBay is his). Underneath it all, this is a survivor-grade example of a Sportsman that will likely return plenty of smiles per mile, even if you’re not able to pull 130 on the straights. Does anyone know if the original still exists?

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  1. Jason

    The original does exist. About 10 years ago on the forums I was following its restoration. There’s YouTube video of it driving. The plates in the video read “cpt kaos”

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    • Carry Shaw

      No that’s Travis Bells van. The original is still missing.

      Like 1
  2. Joe Nose

    Never having seen the movie(s?) I have no memories to rekindle. But all I can think is that it must NOT have been fun pushing this brick along any road at speed.

    Had a lime green version of this POS with a 318. Totally turd-tastic.

    Like 0
    • JeffAuthor

      Joe, feel free to read up on the Canonball van here – it was nothing like your truck.

      Like 0
    • JW

      I have seen the movie and it is funny, typical 70’s humor that wouldn’t be tolerated today. I agree I had a 74 Dodge short windowless van with the 318 and yes it was a POS that I returned to the dealer after 3 months of fighting brake lockup and refused to pay for it since their service dept couldn’t figure out the problem, so they gave me a 70 GTO in return for the money I had already paid on it.

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      • Rob

        That’s a pretty good trade :). I used to run a ’77 or ’78 15 passenger van. It was an old Navy Shore Patrol rig. It looked stock, had huge sweat bars, 440 mag, dual quads, it was truly a beast, and would handle triple digits with aplomb. Burn outs like none other, and loaded, would still devour most anything on the road. Truly stupid vehicle, but oh man…

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  3. Nova Scotian

    What a wild-whack-out movie about cars…loved it for that reason alone. All the guys played over scenes with dinkies, and hot wheels cars. We all wanted to hook up with the chicks for sure. Fond memories. Thanks!

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  4. HoA Howard AMember

    Oh, I hear the nay-sayers stewing right now. While I’m not too familiar with those movies, I believe they were pretty lame. All star cast, though, ( Jackie Chan’s 1st American movie) and should not be confused with the late ’50’s TV show, Cannonball.
    My old man had a van like this ( non-ambulance) that he made into a motorhome. ( had the top cut open and had a “McDonald’s carton ” camper top installed). It totally transformed the van into one of the most dangerous vehicles I ever drove. It handled horribly and got single digit gas mileage, and always smelled like gas. I don’t care for vans, but I think the Dodge was nicest of all of them. Unless you are starting your own ambulance service, I’d strip it out.

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  5. Birdman

    I love Cannonball Run! I run a small hauling business to make a bit of extra cash, so I would buy this to haul my cargo trailer and rename it ” Cannonball Hauling”!


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    • JeffAuthor

      Awesome idea! Might even result in some new business opportunities…

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  6. dave

    This was at a shop recently. Love the old Dodge vans.

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  7. Kevin Harper


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    • '59FORDfan

      3rd that; I, just, was going to mention “Gumball Rally.” And, agree, with(movie critic) Leonard Maltin(paraphrasing): “…the first, of the cross-country road race movies…and, still, the only good one.”

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  8. Rick

    2nd that, Gunball was the far better movie. “First rule of Italian driving, what’s a behind me is not important.”

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    • Jamie Palmer JamieStaff

      Any movie that has a real 427 Cobra facing off against a Ferrari Daytona is terrific in my book. And don’t forget “Plan Alpha” ;-)

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    • Car Guy

      Best line ever,” first rule of Italian driving, what’s behind me is not important” as Raul Julia rips the rear view mirror from the car, and throws it away. I have it on DVD , When i feel down after a hard day I put it on and crank the surround sound to 10 ( so the windows rattle) just to listen to the roar of the exhaust.
      I my opinion best car movie ever!!!!

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  9. Frank Semonious

    My daily driver is a 360 HP 1965 Chevy van with a pop up top. I was inspired by the other cross country race movie, Gumball.

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  10. JoshStaff

    I know this comes a little late, but I thought Jeff and you guys might think it’s cool to know that the guys over at CarAndDriver read the site and thought this find was worth featuring on their blog! Good work Jeff!

    Like 0

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