Growing up, in the age of the car.
When George Lucas survived a serious automobile accident, his ambitions of becoming a professional racing driver ended. Fortunately, his ideas concerning movie making took an altogether less destructive route.
American Graffiti revolves around several characters on the cusp of life changing affirmations – leaving school, home, starting college or jobs – growing up. Gawky, inexperienced teenagers fighting with pent up emotions; some brim with confidence, others choosing facades to hide behind, but the whole story orbits around a love affair with the automobile.
Made in 1973, the film is set in the director’s hometown of Modesto, California during 1962. Using semi autobiographical references, Lucas sets out his stall using twenty human and dozens of petrol-engined protagonists. The opening scene initially surprised your author – the first car on screen being no gas guzzler but a Citroën 2CV. Swiftly realising this car to be Curt’s, (Richard Dreyfus) the avant garde yet overly worried main man’s wheels he barely drives. Metaphors abound within this movie.
The next vehicle on screen isn’t even a car. Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields rides a Vespa and quite badly at that, crashing the Italian scooter into a garbage can, attracting Curt’s attention somewhat. The geeky Fields aspires to a large automobile, arriving by chance as night falls and the engine revolutions, along with testosterone levels, rise.
If you weren’t cruisin’ the main drag, you’d be at Mel’s drive-in diner, where, along with the gaggle of late teenagers is your first real view of American iron. Former school president Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) drives a pristine 1958 Chevrolet Impala, white with copper embellishments. Resembling a custom car from the outset, Fields is charged by Bolander to not only look after but also drive his Impala. Cue toothy, gormless grin.
The car is powered by “a 327 with six Stromberg carburettors,” according to Fields but such an engine didn’t arrive under a Chevy hood until the year the film is set in, 1962. This being the movie world, anything could have been fitted but the Impala certainly rouses aurally as well as visually. Another sad silver screen fact being the car was sold for a mere $325 once the cutting reel hit the deck. Snapped up by a student borrowing cash from the bank of ma n’ pa, he stored the car for years. In 2015, the very car was in the History Hollywood auction – expectations as well as price was high – $800,000-1.2million. It failed to sell.
Star of the show for many (in more ways than one) was Johnny Milner’s (Paul Le Mat) 1932 Ford five window coupé. Milner is King of the Valley, having the fastest, meanest looking flathead V8 around. A handsome and fist wielding brute to boot, Johnny clamours to maintain his crown by taking on any comer to challenge his lofty position but slowly realises age creeps ever on, his speed and commitment ain’t the same.
Lucas stipulated his exacting details, down to the canary yellow paint job. The car is a true Hot Rod – chopped top, hood less and, movie world again, houses another Chevy V8. The car (and film) helped restart a Hot Rod Renaissance and this particular example still resides with the owner.
At various stages of the two hour film, Milner is searched for by a black, sinister looking, 1955 Chevrolet One Fifty. Clad in bright colours and wearing his cowboy hat, the driver cruises the Modesto area for Milner, seeking that moment – the race. Bob Falfa is played by Harrison Ford, then a callow youth with the idea of beating that darned yeller Ford.
Considering the 265 cubic inched V8 sounds cinematically dynamite, the actual output is a piffling 162bhp or, if blessed by the Powerglide auto-shifter, as in this behemoth, 180. Without wishing to spoil the outcome of the inevitable clash between Milner and Falfa, three Chevy 150’s were made for the film with just the single one surviving. Two of the three had already become silver screen starlets in the 1971 (now cult movie) Two Lane Blacktop – a film where very little happens, yet remains compelling. Here too, the engine sound is like nothing found in 1962 Margate, never mind Modesto.
Perhaps the most badass car to be found in town is that driven by Joe Young (Bo Hopkins), leader of the juvenile Pharaohs gang – a 1951 Mercury with, thankfully it’s Ford flathead V8…and 112bhp. If Milner was all out for speed, Falfa prioritised speed over comfort then the Merc headed down the brooding boulevard. A malevolent, two-week chop job for the movie had four column inches removed, including side windows.
Detail spotters may see the weld lines – these eyes only saw a Cimarron red beast, ideal for a gang of three to plod through town, grasping opportunities to goad the local cops into a one truly hilarious scene which sees a Fairlane cruiser quite literally leap into the air.
As is the way with many movie stars, be they human or otherwise, stories and lies abound. It would appear this Mercury coupé lounged in the Universal Studios for some time before being bought by sign writing hero, Ed Big Daddy Roth. In time, the Merc was bought, sight unseen (and inoperable) in the 1980s by Brian Setzer, out of the American rockabilly band, The Stray Cats.
He too jettisoned the car, the coupé ending up on the New York/ New Jersey border with a chap who sadly hasn’t found the time nor money to restore the car. More nefarious tales include the genuine car up for sale at a kings ransom, being owned by none other than David Lee Roth, forged documents, you name it. Delinquents aren’t always teenagers.
Other noticeable wonders include an Edsel Corsair, a white Thunderbird driven by a beautiful blonde who drives Curt crazy attempting to find her identity, along with many others. Whole websites exist towards this one movie. Enjoyment will be magnified should you possess even a modicum of interest in such automotive minutiae.
But therein lies a problem: time. Teenagers have all the time in the world to do nothing with it. It’s only taken me nigh-on fifty years to see this story once.
 Actor, Charles Martin Smith openly admitting much later this was no script-written act but a genuine clutch slip – movie gold.
 But here’s a chap who created a perfect replica showing the dedication that 120 minutes of Americana inspired.
Data sources: kipsamericangrafitti.blogspot.com/ blog.consumerguide.com/ thefreelibrary.com/ thenewswheel.com