George Lucas’s sentimental second film captures the cruising culture of the 1950s and ‘60s like none other. These are the classic cars of American Graffiti.
American Graffiti, released in 1973, was George Lucas’s second film. Before the sci-fi opera of Star Wars or the high adventure of Indiana Jones, Lucas made a small, sweet film about teenagers on their final night in town before leaving for collage. The legend goes that after Lucas’s first film, THX 1138, a somewhat inscrutable, dystopic sci-fi thriller, film school friend Francis Ford Coppala and Lucas’s wife Marcia both challenged him to make a “warm and funny movie” that actually reflected his personality. Lucas, somewhat miffed, said he’d make it look easy.
The film is set in 1962 and harkens back to the days Lucas’s youth spent rolling down the main drag of his hometown of Modesto, California. Steeped in nostalgia, American Graffiti is, on its face, an homage to the cars, music, and youth lifestyle of the 1950s; it also, however, an elegy to what, through the looking glass of the late 1960s, would appear to have been “simpler times.” The movie makes this underlying theme explicit with then unusual use of a typewritten coda noting that Terry goes missing-in-action in Vietnam.
Though the movie’s young cast included future Hollywood stars like Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford (and in the case of Ron Howard a star director), the cars of American Graffiti take nearly equal billing. At its core, this is a movie about a specific moment in American car culture. When John, in the beginning of the movie is already wistful of a few year back, “when it took two hours and a full tank just to make one circuit,” he’s voicing the overall theme of the film, nostalgia for the days of cruising hot rods, sock hops, and rock ‘n roll.
Steve, played by Ron Howard, is the class president and, along with his best friend Curt, is preparing to leave for college “back east” the next morning. We get an idea of Steve’s character early on when he gives the keys to his pristine ’58 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala to his friend Terry to drive until he, Steve returns for Christmas. The car is enough to impress the otherwise unobtainable Debbie into spending the evening with Terry. “I really love tuck-n-roll upholstery,” she tells him.
The 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air was the first year of the car’s third generation and included the new top-of-the-line Impala trim, notable for its long wheelbase and triple taillight design. Though Terry tells Debbie the car carries 327 Chevy that engine wasn’t available until 1962. In actuality the ’58 Impala came with a 235-cu. in. I-6 or either a 283 or 348- cu. in. V8. Whatever was under the hood, it was enough for Terry to peel out in an effort to impress Debbie.
Though the social lives of the characters in American Graffiti revolve around cruising the strip, it’s John Milner (Paul Le Mat) whose persona is inextricably linked to his car. And with good reason, Milner’s ’32 Ford V8 is the prototypical hot rod complete with chopped roof, sans hood, bright yellow paint job, and some serious speed. John’s Ford is known as the fastest car in the valley. Through much of the film he’s stalked by the new guy in town, Bob Falfa and his Chevy One-Fifty. Their final showdown on Paradise Road is the culminating scene of the film. Though he wins the race when Bob loses control and crashes, John is adamant he was losing at the time. Like Steve and Curt, John’s life too is at a pivot point. An interesting Easter egg, John’s license plate reads THX 138, one numeral from the title of Lucas’s first film.
John’s adversary and “villain” of the movie is out-of-towner Bob Falfa, played by none other than the future Hon Solo, Harrison Ford. Bob drives a growling ’55 Chevy One-Fifty as he searches the streets for Milner. Bob’s Chevy is perfect bad guy ride. Not only is the car jet black, rather than dice hanging from the rear view (as in Steve’s Bel Air) Bob has a plastic skull. Small and lightweight, the One-Fifty offered two different inline-6s and a 265-cu. in. small-block V8. Given the rumble from Falfa’s car, we can assume, like John’s, there’s been some serious tuning done to up the stock output of 180 horsepower.
After a falling out between herself and Steven, Lorie takes a ride with bad boy Bob. Though she is loath to speak with the obviously arrogant Falfa, Lorie does agree to ride with him when he races John. The fiery crash at the end so scares Lorie that she begs Steve not to leave town, something he’s been determined to do throughout the film. Though he tells Curt he’ll follow him next semester, we see in the film’s coda that Steve becomes an insurance agent in Modesto.
Another principle car in the movie, a ’58 Edsel Corsair is driven by Lorie, Curt’s sister and Steve’s girlfriend. Unlike her brother Curt’s Citroën, Lorie’s Edsel was a nice car for a teenager of the time. Even so, the Edsel was not a successful car for Ford Motor Company. In fact, the Edsel has gone down in history as perhaps the greatest of automotive flops. A weird grille design some likened to a toilet seat, an awkward and expensive production process (sharing the Mercury production line), and the new Teletouch push-button gear selector were just some of the reasons the Edsel only saw two years of production.
Early in American Graffiti, Curt sees a beautiful blonde girl (played by Susan Summers) driving a white ’56 Ford Thunderbird who mouths the words “I love you” before hanging a right and disappearing. Curt, smitten, spends the much of the rest of the movie chasing this ethereal mystery girl. Originally, Lucas had intended a shot showing the car and girl as transparent and clearly figments of Curt’s imagination. Budget concerns from the studio prevented the costly, and probably unnecessary, shot from being included.
In the opening scene, Curt pulls up in his modest Citroën 2CV, a clear contrast to his friend Steve’s flashy Bel Air. We can tell the car hasn’t earned Curt’s love as he gives it a kick on his way over to join his friends. Later, the car won’t start when he catches yet another fleeting glimpse of the blonde’s Thunderbird.
In the opening to American Graffiti, we see Terry “Toad” pull up to Mel’s Drive-In on his ’59 Vespa scooter and crash into a trash can. It turns out actor Charles Martin Smith wasn’t well versed with the Vespa and was having trouble downshifting when he lost control. The accident was perfectly in keeping with the character and Lucas ended up using the cut.
This 1963 red convertible Volkswagen Beetle was driven by Wendy’s friend Bobbie. Curt gets kicked out of the car and is left to hoof it, leading to his run in with the Pharaohs.
As John cruises the strip trying to find a girl to ride with him, he calls out to a car full of girls at a stop light to see if any would like a ride. As a joke they send little sister Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) and John spends much of the evening begrudgingly allowing her to tag long with him. The girls’ car is a ’55 Studebaker President. We even get a great shot of the car’s distinctive front grille work when Carol switches cars.
Curt takes a ride in the Pharaohs’ impressive red ’51 Mercury Sport Coupe. Like John’s hot rod, the grease gang’s Mercury is a chop top with a lowered roof. In the interior shots you can see the car also has a gussied-up interior with the white fake fur in the rear window.
These two Chevrolet Corvettes, a ’58 and a ’61, are bonus cars as they aren’t driven by any of the characters and are just seen in the background. The ’58 Vette is parked outside Mel’s Drive In. The ’61 can be seen when Terry is accosted by the car salesman to trade in Steve’s Bel Air for a new Vette.