Cars and Culture: The Cars of American Graffiti.American Graffiti was the surprise hit of 1973. Made on a budget of $750,000, George Lucas s depiction of fifteen hours in the lives of a group of teenagers as they cruise the streets of Modesto, California in 1962 earned more than $55 million in its original run. But American Graffiti had more than financial success. It earned five Academy Award nominations including best picture, best director, and best screenplay. It also won a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics Award. In 1998 American Graffiti was included in the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Best American Films of all time.
Like so many other Hollywood successes, this movie almost didn't get made. Despite its low cost the studio was reluctant to give it the go-ahead until Francis Ford Coppola stepped in. But even after he became co-producer with Gary Kurtz, the studio had little hope for a film "where nothing happens" and with a confusing title. Unfamiliar with the term "graffiti," studio executives suggested that the movie be retitled Another Slow Night in Modesto while Coppola offered Rock Around the Block.
The film's initial success had much to do with its timing. American Graffiti is a film about the end of one era, the Fifties, released just as another was coming to an end. By 1973 the Beatles had broken up, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix were dead, and the antiwar politics of rock had morphed into the personism of Carole King and James Taylor and the personae of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust period. More importantly, in 1973, the war in Vietnam, the focus of almost a decade of counterculture attention, was effectively over when the United States signed a truce with North Vietnam. About this time, Seven-Up ran a commercial in which a young man in a nice suburban house steps out on his back porch while young children cry in the background. He looks longingly at his psychedelic VW bus up on blocks in his back yard before he drinks a Seven-Up. The Sixties were done.
Another sign that the Sixties had run out of gas can be found in the widespread nostalgia for the 1950's that American Graffiti helped launch. In 1971 Peter Bogdanovich released The Last Picture Show, a grimly realistic tale about growing up in a small Texas town in the Fifties. In 1972 the Broadway musical Grease began its decade-long run. Toward the end of the 70's, Hollywood explored the impact of Fifties icons in movies like September 30, 1955 (1978) about the impact of James Dean's death on a number of Southern teenagers, American Hot Wax (1978) about the pioneering disk jockey Alan Freed, and The Buddy Holly Story (1978). There was a doo-wop revival and Elvis made a triumphant return in Las Vegas.
In contrast to the cartoonish Grease and the saccharine TV show Happy Days, there was also a growing interest in the darker side of the Fifties. Teen gang culture flourished throughout the decade in films like The Lords of Flatbush (1974), The Wanderers (1976), and The Warriors (1979). Their appearance suggests that it was not only nostalgia that accounted for the look back, but a search for the roots of a youth culture that seemed to have lost its way in glitter, glam, and disco--the sort of look back that produces the Ramones rather than Sha-Na-Na.
Lucas's situating of the film at summer's end in 1962 was personal as well as cultural. He graduated from high school in Modesto in 1962. In the summer of '62 he was involved in a serious car accident that changed the course of his life. He had been a serious street racer and avid cruiser up to then.
And the film doesn't just look back. It begins about the same time that the Beatles released their first single in England. The March on Washington, the assassination of JFK, and the war in Vietnam are just on the horizon. The film is all about endings and beginnings: the end of summer, the end of high school days, the beginning of the end of Milner's run as top dog on the strip, the beginning of the high school year, beginning college, and the hints of a new generation arriving in the form of fourteen-year-old Carol, a fan of surfing (she wears a Dewey Webber T-shirt) who also loves the Beach Boys.
Contrary to one reviewer who believed that "the world of American Graffiti is almost as carefree as Beach Party," the tone of the film is more elegy than nostalgia. Roger Greenspun, the reviewer for the New York Times, got the tone better: "although it is full of the material of fashionable nostalgia, it never exploits nostalgia." The root concerns of the film, under the light surface, are serious, even grim. How does one face an uncertain future? The loss of youth? How does one confront change or, even, death?
Another reason that the film has been so popular, and moved so many people over the years, is the perceived accuracy of its portrayal of late 50's/ early 60's teen culture. There is widespread agreement with hot-rod historian Pat Ganahl that Lucas "got it right" or, as Roger Ebert puts it, "American Graffiti is not only a great movie bur a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie's success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant."
As a veteran cruiser of the streets of Modesto himself, Lucas was especially committed to recreating teen car culture accurately, especially that segment known as Kustom Kulture.
While all of the various car cultures are interested in "personalizing" their cars, what separates the Kustom Kulture from the rest is its passion for altering, redesigning, and, ultimately, reinventing stock Detroit automobiles--transforming them into something unique and expressive. In so doing, Kustom Kulture takes the standard meanings of makes and models offered by Detroit and subverts and reconfigures them.
The two distinct categories of cars within Kustom Kulture--rods and customs--have their own sets of practices and aesthetics, although they often overlap. Rods are built from pre-1936 cars, mostly Fords. These roadsters, sedans, and coupes are stripped-down and souped-up minimalist constructions designed for speed and to communicate a love of it.
Customizers are primarily devoted to improving the design of their cars, primarily post-1936 Fords, Mercurys, and Chevys. Although not completely indifferent to speed, they devote most of their attention to modifying the look of a stock car through a process that applies individual imagination to a variety of standard modifications such as chopping the top, swapping chrome and taillights, and radically lowering the car.
Kustom Kulture is a unique segment of the car culture that is "about" more than nuts and bolts and metalwork. While its roots are older, its history is intertwined with the invention of teen culture in the 1950's. Rods and customs helped teens position themselves against the perceived conformity of the times. And, in turn, hot rodders assimilated the language, the clothing, and the music that were synonymous with youthful rebellion in the '50's. Kustom Kulture was a subculture that expressed itself notably in the cruise.
On Friday and Saturday nights in towns across the country, cars traveled a well-defined circuit in a ritual of display, a piece of performance art, called a "cruise." Lucas himself compared a cruise to dance. Largely outside the control, or even presence, of adults, teenagers slowly followed each other for hours in order to show off the latest modifications to their cars, to exchange gossip, to announce a fight or a race, to try out pick-up lines, and to trade insults--all while moving slowly on the circuit. In the Fifties and early Sixties the cruise was a constantly moving town square.
Lucas uses the cruise to provide the structure rather than the subject for his film. The endless weaving of cars through the streets of Modesto passing each other, missing each other, sometimes confronting each other gives form to the intersecting and independent stories that compose the film. Unlike other stories of close-knit groups of Fifties teens like Porky's and Stand by Me, American Graffiti emphasizes the disconnections between characters, the fact that they inhabit separate and limited realities as limited as the circuit they endlessly repeat, separated by the very cars they drive. They have little knowledge of what's going on outside the Valley--Curt is mocked when his wish to meet JFK is revealed. The cruisers' only contact with the outside world is the ubiquitous DJ Wolfman Jack, who is on every radio in the film. But he is discovered working at a small station just outside town. His world is as limited as his listeners'. American Graffiti is a road movie where the road leads nowhere.
It is the cars, stock or modified, that carry crucial messages about these different stories. One of the reasons that the movie is so convincing to car buffs is that Lucas and the co-producer Gary Kurtz did not pick particularly remarkable cars to embody teen culture. The cars of American Graffiti are representative cars rather than masterpieces--the sort of cars that you might have seen on an actual cruise night in 1962.
Each car is an extension of its driver that reveals key aspects of character--because in teen culture you are what you drive.
For example, Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) rides a Vespa motor scooter. Scooters might have had some panache among the Mods in England, but not in Kustom Kulture, where it is simply not a manly form of transportation. It is in no way "cool." The fact that Toad has trouble controlling it, crashing into the garbage can in his comic entrance, further diminishes him. Toad has been described by some as the classic nerd, but he is less nerdy than a wannabe, the comic sidekick to Milner's hero, like Smiley Burnette or Gabby Hayes who often rode mules rather than horses to show their inferiority to cowboy heroes Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Toad tries to look cool and to act cool. He has a Detroit haircut and wears a "cool" Fifties shirt. He just can't pull it off. He rides a scooter.
Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) drives a 1958 Impala. It is a pretty car, a typical high school custom of the early '60's. Not highly modified, it is merely nosed and decked (emblems removed from hood and trunk and holes filled), with a nice paint job--icebox white with crimson-fogged accents. The engine is a completely stock 348 Chevy V-8. Its best feature is its white tuck-and-roll upholstery. It is a completely conventional car within Kustom Kulture. There is nothing about it that suggests any risk or personal vision, yet it is perfectly acceptable, even admirable, because it is done in perfect taste. The car suggests that Steve is all surface with little depth. He makes a good appearance. He is comfortable. He is class president, well known and liked. He is worried about his complexion at the school dance.
In the opening scene Steve tries to convince his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) that they should see other people while he is away at school. For the rest of the film he and Laurie wrestle with the implications of his proposal. In the end he chooses not to leave for college but to stay in Modesto at community college so he can be with Laurie. To reinforce this sense of Steve as conventional, Lucas sees Steve's future in Modesto in that most conventional of careers--an insurance agent, just like Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best.
Laurie drives a stock four-door '58 Edsel--no doubt a family hand-me-down--a car that represents middle-class family values and something about bad choices because it is an Edsel, one of the most notorious failures in American automotive history and the ultimate joke car. It is significant that Steve gives up his car to Terry for safekeeping and chooses to cruise the strip in Laurie's Edsel, foreshadowing the choice he will eventually make not to go away to college in order to stay with her. He has been unhorsed and therefore unmanned.
In contrast to Laurie's very conservative ride, her brother Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), the scholarship-winning intellectual, drives a very unusual Citroen 2CV. This is not an obvious choice. It is not a VW or MG that might connect him to another taste culture--brains or preps. So completely outside conventional car cultures is the Citroen that it sets Curt apart as a true individual. It is notable that in the entrance scene under the credits he parks his car at Mel's Drive-In far from the others. It is also notable that his car never is seen on the circuit. He is the only one of the main characters who doesn't make at least one pass on the strip in his own car. The only time we see him drive his car is when be makes his lonely pilgrimage to the radio tower to ask Wolfman Jack to help him locate the elusive woman in the white Thunderbird. Although it is Curt who first expresses doubt about leaving for college, the Citroen tells us that, unlike Steve, he will make his decision on his own.
The girl in the white '56 Thunderbird (Suzanne Somers) is a mysterious figure driving a car with a mythic name (a Native American messenger god). When she sees Curt in the back seat of Laurie's car she mouths the words "I love you." From that moment on, Curt sets out on a quest to find her. He keeps just missing her throughout the film. Like Wolfman Jack, the other mythic figure in the film, she is a figure around whom legends are spun. While Wolfman turns out to be a Wizard of Oz--like figure, somewhat of a fraud who speaks the truth, the driver of the Thunderbird remains mysterious. Her true identity is never revealed. The stories continue to swirl around her--she is a regular on the strip, a married woman on the prowl, or a high-priced hooker. This goddess drives the ultimate '50's chick car.
The last image of Modesto Curt sees as his Magic Carpet Airlines plane heads east in the final shot of the film is the woman in the Thunderbird, the mechanized anima, leading him out of town. This is the American myth--on the road--leaving town to find oneself.
Some of the cars also represent an aspect of Kustom Kulture itself so that they tell a story of their own that enhances and parallels the main narratives.
The chopped '51 Mercury that the Pharaohs ride in is a relic from Kustom Kulture's past. By 1962 customized Mercs, so important in the early '50's, were no longer in fashion. By that time icons like the Hirohata Merc were sitting neglected on the back of used car lots or had already been junked as customizers sought out newer cars--Impalas, Starliners, and Bonnevilles. As Par Ganahl, in high school in California in 1962, remembers, "there wasn't a single [classic] custom to be seen in my high school parking lot, let alone the rest of town."
To evoke the earlier era, Lucas took a stock '51 Mercury and had a quickie-customizing job done on it. The top was chopped (there was too little time and money to do it right, so Close and Orlandi, the builders, simply slipped the tear window into the trunk rather than fabricate a new window to fit the smaller opening). The chrome was shaved off the body, a new one-bar grille was added, and the car was painted a cinnamon red. The car sits on black walls with Olds Spinner hubcaps (the only key car in the film to have hubcaps rather than chrome wheels, another indication of the dated quality of the car). The chop is so severe that it destroys the lines of the car (very much unlike the classic Mercs in which the chop improved the looks).
In 1962 the Pharaohs were relics themselves. In the face of the emerging culture of the 1960's, car clubs, numerous and legendary in the 1950's, would fade almost completely away by mid-decade. Although the Pharaohs suggest the menace of teenage gangs driving chopped Mercs in movies like Runnin' Wild (1955) and High School Confidential (1958), they are so caught up in their image of themselves as dangerous that they verge on parody. They are reduced to recruiting the class brain--Curt is worried rather than terrified by their threats--and to robbing pinball machines. A nice touch is having the three Pharaohs function always as a group. They are never separated from each other as they cruise town in one of the few full customs among the 300 cars Lucas chose for the picture. In their own separate world, the Pharaohs cling to their illusions inside a car so severely chopped it limits their vision.
If Steve Bolander's Impala represents the present of Kustom Kulture and the Pharaohs' Merc its past, then Bob Falfa's (Harrison Ford) '55 Chevy represents the rapidly approaching future. It is a street rod, an amalgam of hot rod and custom, and the style that would become dominant in the 1960's. Street rods were based on super-stock and gasser-class drag racers, built for the strip. They featured highly modified engines in basically stock late-model bodies that were jacked up rather than lowered.
Built by a real hot rodder, Richard Ruth, for the movie Two Lane Blacktop (1971), Falfa's '55 is a genuine street rod built primarily for quick acceleration. Ruth handcrafted the front suspension and roll cage and added a potent 454 L-88 Corvette engine equipped with his own headers, a Muncie four-speed transmission, and a 4.88 posicenter rear. Although the body looks stock, the front fenders, hood, and trunk were fabricated from fiberglass to save weight. The lift-up front end of the Chevy is never opened in the movie to conceal the fact that its engine wouldn't exist until 1970. To test its capabilities, Ruth took it on the street and made $150 racing the night before be delivered the Chevy to producer Gary Kurtz, who remembered the car when it came time to find cars for American Graffiti. With its potent engine, there is little question as to which car would have won the big race in Modesto on a real night in 1962.
The chopped yellow highboy coupe driven by John Milner (Paul Le Mat) is the most timeless car in American Graffiti. By 1962 the '32 Ford or "Deuce," Ford's first V-8, had been the quintessential hot rod for 30 years--eons in teen culture. During that time the hot rod had come to represent rebellion, daring, ingenuity, and individuality. A test of both skill and courage, the hot rod was the ride of the American outlaw alongside the motorcycle.
Milner's coupe was built from a chopped five-window coupe that Lucas bought for $1300. Equipped with a 283 small-block Chevy engine and four Rochester carbs, a '57 Chevy rear end, and a T-10 four-speed transmission, it was an adequate rod rather than an exceptional one. The major changes that were made before shooting were removal of the fenders and spraying it with a deep Corvette-yellow lacquer.
While the car is timeless, its driver is not. Lucas uses the coupe and John Milner to underscore the themes of change and loss in American Graffiti. While Curt and Steve face an uncertain future that paralyzes them, Milner is caught up short by the quickly accelerating clock of teen culture. Only two years older than Curt and Steve, he is the old man of the group, the veteran racer who is trying to hold on to youth. Steve says to Curt when Curt first announces he has changed his mind about going away, "You wanna end up like John? You can't stay seventeen forever." Later, as Falfa's engine roars in the distance, one of the Pharaohs says, "Milner ain't gonna beat that. His time has come. He's gettin' old. He ain't as fast as he used to be."
Tricked into giving young Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Philips) a ride, he finds himself a generation away from her and her love of surfing music even though he is only five years older than she is. When the Beach Boys come on the radio, he tells her, "I don't like that surfin' shit. Rock 'n' roll's been going downhill since Buddy Holly died."
Like so many gunfighters of the "adult" westerns of the 1950s, he is haunted by the shrinking of the "frontier" and the changes that come with it. As he says at the very beginning of the film, "The pickins are really gettin' slim. The whole strip is shrinking.... I remember about five years ago, take you a couple hours and a tank full of gas just to make one circuit. It was really something."
And like Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (1950), he lives with the burden of being the fastest "gun" in town. When Milner beats the two thugs who steal Steve's Impala from Toad, Debbie squeals, "Wow, you're just like the Lone Ranger." His rival Bob Falfa wears a straw cowboy hat. And, in a scene Lucas fought to keep in the picture, Milner takes Carol through the junk yard, an automotive boot hill, where he recounts the stories of those who came before him and how they met their end, recalling dozens of scenes from various Westerns. This scene alone is enough to refute those who claim that the film is a mindless romp:
John: See that over there, that '41? That used to be, believe it or not, the fastest car in the valley. I never got to race Earl though. He got his in 1955 in about the hairiest crash we ever had here....
Carol: I bet you're the fastest.
John: I've never been beaten--a lot of guys have tried. It seems to me there's more guys lately than there's ever been.
Despite his obsession with time, he is the timeless, ageless hero. Of all the characters, it is clear that Lucas identifies most with Milner, the true hot rodder, despite his stated connections to Toad and Curt. John doesn't represent who we were, but who we wanted to be. Lucas gives him the license plate THX 138 after his own first feature, THX 1138. And, unrealistically, he lets him win the showdown with Falfa.
In addition, he tilts the sound track toward John's taste in music, back to the days of Buddy Holly and before. Beginning with "Rock Around the Clock" playing over the credits, the first true rock 'n' roll song that had any significance in a Hollywood film when it opened Blackboard Jungle in 1955, the sound track is filled with 41 songs. Fewer than a quarter of the songs heard in the film were released in the 1960's, only two as late as 1962.
Finally, Lucas foresees Milner dying in 1964, undefeated on the strip (hit by a drunk driver), in the year Pontiac GTO appeared, the first of the factory hot rods that would almost destroy Kustom Kulture. It is also the year that the last song played in the movie, a rare anachronism in the play list, was released--"All Summer Long" by the Beach Boys--and the same year that the Beach Boys charted the rodding anthem "Little Deuce Coupe." At the same time Lucas acknowledges that Milner has lost his war against time, he alludes to the immortalizing of his car.
The cars of American Graffiti have become as big as the stars who drove them. In addition to the millions of posters and models that have been sold, hundreds of imitations of the Chevy Impala and, especially, the Milner coupe have been built in the last thirty years. Many credit the Graffiti cars for playing a big part in the revival of Kustom Kulture that began in the late 1970's and continues today as forty-, fifty-, and sixty-year-olds build the rods and customs of their dreams under the motto "Lost in the Fifties." No longer teen culture, it is now made up largely of those who took to the '50's as an alternative to what now seems a joyless time. As a woman at a contemporary hot rod show said to me, "The '50's were the last time it was fun to be young." Kustom Kulture now involves hundreds of great builders and thousands of rods and customs. It is a wonderful irony that the film that so accurately recounted the last days of Kustom Kulture should be so responsible for its rebirth.
Some of the information here was obtained from:
Seth Cagin and Philip Dray. Hollywood Films of the Seventies. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Dale Pollock. Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas. Hollywood, CA: Samuel French, 1990.
JACK DEWITT's most recent book is Almost Grown (Paper Kite, 2008). He is currently finishing a novel, Old Wounds, involving a private detective in the McCarthy era. Completely "lost in the fifties," he is just beginning a memoir about growing up at the same time rock 'n' roll, Kustom Kulture and teenagers were being invented. He teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.