Fifty years ago, George Lucas directed the Godfather of car movies: American Graffiti. Ironically, Francis Ford Coppola was the producer of American Graffiti, and challenged young Lucas to change gears from his directorial debut, the dystopian THX-1138 and make something more accessible. American Graffiti is a coming of age comedy set in Modesto, California in 1962. America’s last summer of innocence; before Vietnam, before the Kennedy assassination, before the social turmoil of the late 1960’s (that era is explored in the sequel More American Graffiti the subject of next week’s review by R.D. Francis).

The movie is a glimpse into the lives of four characters on the verge of adulthood. Some heading off to college back east, others seemingly stuck in Modesto. The entire story takes place over a couple hours on a late summer night during the zenith of the “Rock Around the Clock” era, before the Beatles and the British Invasion. One of the protagonists, prototypical greaser John Milner, even comments “Rock and roll’s been going down hill ever since Buddy Holly died.”. America was changing, and the the lives of these four young men were changing too. Steve,, Curt, Toad and John contemplate their futures during a night of endless cruising the downtown streets, and drag racing at dawn.

Enough of that plot and introspection stuff. What about the cars!

The movie features some of the coolest cars ever committed to celluloid. The true hero car is a yellow 1932 Ford hot rod driven by John Milner (Paul Le Mat) the king of the street and the fasted car in the valley. The deuce coupe has a chopped top, a dropped front axle, and a chromed out 327 Chevy V-8.

Second fiddle is played by a mildly customized 1958 Chevy Impala owned by Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) a clean-cut character reminiscent of the Richie Cunningham from Happy Days. The car has a jacked up rear end, lowered front suspension giving it a mean stance to back up the V8 power. Cherry red paint outlines the sculpted white body, and custom tuck and roll upholstery gives the car a cool look.

Steve’s girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams, who also ended up on Happy Days) drives a two-tone mint-green and white 1958 Edsel (by Ford). The ‘Corsair’ model was a stock, 4-door hardtop and wasn’t significant back in the day, although Edsel’s were a such a sales flop for Ford, and almost bankrupted the company. It’s unclear whether the director’s choice of this car was meant as a put down, although Steve spends the entire movie trying to break up with Laurie.

A 1955 Chevy nearly steals the show. A lightweight 210 model in sinister black paint, a roll bar and a massive hood scoop topping a big-block Chevy. The car is an evil villain on wheels and driver Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) spends the night hunting down hero John in the deuce coupe to challenge him for his street racing title. The same shoebox Chevy was also used the 1971 existential street racing movie Two Lane Blacktop.

Cars help to define the characters in the movie. The stock ‘nerd’ of the bunch Terry ‘Toad’ Fields (Charles Martin Smith) rides a Vespa, while the blonde bombshell (Suzanne Somers) looks angelic in her white 1956 Ford Thunderbird, as she is pursued by goofy Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) who drives an oddball Citroen 2CV. Curt does get lucky, when he’s kidnapped by local gang of juvenile delinquents called The Pharaohs. The guys drive around in a chopped-top 1951 Mercury coupe ‘lead-sled’ while committing mischievous crimes. Curt is so good at being bad, the gang offers him membership into their car club.

There is no movie score in a Hans Zimmer sort of way. Rather, period rock ‘n roll plays throughout the film, songs communicating what the characters are feeling. What’s really cool is that every car cruising the strip is tuned into the same radio station. Music simultaneously playing from dozens of cars echoes off the downtown buildings. Songs fade in from the right, then fade out from the left, as cars cruise by, immersing the viewer in the moment.

Absolutely one of the all-time best car flicks.

16 thoughts on “Fast Film Friday: American Graffiti

  1. Great article, also, when the 32 driven by Milner takes a right hand turn, just as Surfin Safari starts, notice the white 70/71 Toyota Corolla stopped at the intersection (to the right of the deuce as he turns).

    1. It must have been really hard to keep only period correct cars in the shot. There’s only so much control a director has.

      I be there were other post 1962 inventions that made it to the film, like an 8-Track player in one of those cars.

  2. Great article.
    Laurie’s Edsel was a 4 door hardtop not a sedan.
    4 door sedans were only available in the Ranger and Pacer models, which also had 2 and 4 door hardtops.
    Sedans have a B pillar/post and framed doors around the glass, hardtops have no B pillar and unframed doors above the belt line.
    Corsair was one model down from the top of the line Citation.
    Corsair and Citation had 2 and 4 door hardtops.
    Citation and Pacer had convertibles.
    Although built by Ford, Edsel was it’s own make `58-`60 minus the Ford name.
    Marketed in between Ford and Mercury.
    Curt’s Citroen in the film was apparently a 1967 model based on the grille.
    A street parked `67 Caprice also snuck by the editors.

    1. Hi David! Hope you liked our movie review that ignores the movie and just focuses on the cars!

      You’re totally right about hardtops having no B-pillar. What a dumb mistake on our end (EDIT: fixed now) especially considering when we were watching American Graffiti and noted how much the Edsel looked like a 2-door. It’s the frameles doors! Also and the way the cove on the tailfin extends so far forward, visually shortens the length of the car,

      Thanks for all the cool details about the Edsel!

      And heyy, bet the directors knew that NOBODY could tell a 2CV from the 40s vs 60s so they used the one that was available (even if it was built after the year the movie is set in). I mean, what’s the chance that 50 years later, people will be looking at details like that?

      1. I did enjoy it.
        You’ll be happy to know that your piece was posted on Facebook by Candy Clark who played Debbie in the film.

      2. It is now the second post down on her page.
        The above link I added took me right to it.

  3. Also note the `60 Valiant V200 at the curb on the right in the last photo.
    It appears a couple times in the film.
    Valiant was it’s own make by Chrysler it’s introductory year in `60, and all were 4 door sedans and wagons.
    It became a Plymouth model in `61, when 2 door sedans and 2 door hardtops were added to the line up.
    I have a `61 V200 2 door hardtop, 1 of 18,586 built.

  4. Oh, I just remembered the movie Hollywood Knights! Granted, it’s a low-budget and years-too-late American Graffiti clone that’s forgotten, but there’s some great rides in the film, including Nubaum Turk’s “pie wagon” that gets center stage. I always wanted to dig into that film with a review and never did. It’s one of my oft-run HBO favorites.

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