9 July 2013

‘American Graffiti’ and my coming of age

I find it impossible to believe that “American Graffiti” has been out for 40 years. It’s even harder for me to believe that I first saw it 40 years ago. Then a week later I saw it a second time, followed by a third viewing the next week.

It’s easy to say, “of course he saw it three weeks in a row, he’s always been into cars,” and there are a lot of great cars in the movie. But in truth, cars had relatively little to do with it or, possibly everything to do with it, because I didn’t have a driver’s license.

Back in 1973 and 1974 I was a sophomore in high school. And although I turned 16 in the late fall of ’73, in New Jersey — unless you qualified for a farm license — you couldn’t get your permit until your 17th birthday. To complicate matters, I went to school 30 minutes from home and had a girlfriend who lived a further 10 minutes away. So if the two of us wanted to have a date on the weekend we had to be dropped off in downtown Princeton.  That’s where the car, or lack thereof, came in.

Although there was a mall not too far away, malls weren’t really on our social horizon yet. They were so new that it just didn’t occur to us to hang out there, the way kids do now. Plus it was even farther for my Dad to drive me. But I digress.

Back in the early 1970s Princeton had two movie theaters — neither a multiplex — and a bunch of restaurants. We could grab a bite to eat and walk around, but if you were young and fancied yourself in something resembling love, a dark theater with comfortable seats was preferable to walking around town for three hours. In theory, we had a choice of two movies on any given weekend, but if one theater happened to be playing R- or X-rated films, we had only one option open to us. Hence, when “American Graffiti” was held over, so were we.

Even in the 1970s I was an imported car sort of kid, largely because my folks drove imports and there were a lot of foreign car dealers and importers in New Jersey. But still, the cars in the movie were great. Although the hero cars were John Milner’s 1932 Ford coupe hot rod, Steve Bolander’s 1958 Chevrolet and Bob Falfa’s wicked 1955 Chevy Bel Air, not to mention the 1956 T-Bird of the phantom blonde, there were plenty of imported cars scattered through the movie, beginning with a Citroën 2CV, a couple of Beetles, a ’56 Mercedes, a Morris Minor and an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite, although if you blink you miss that one. There were plenty of customs, 1940 Fords, and all kinds of American cars and trucks from the 1940s through the early 1950s, and the great thing is not all of them are pristine show cars. There were dents and dirt on the cars used as set dressing and that made the movie seem all the more real.

But in truth, “American Graffiti” isn’t about cars at all. It’s a classic coming of age movie. In one very long night a group of recent high school graduates discover what’s important: friends, family and their futures. It was also a movie that showcased many actors who had not yet made it big, including Richard Dreyfuss, Mackenzie Phillips and Harrison Ford.

For me it was also a coming of age experience. I was new to my high school, 16 and seeing my first steady girlfriend. I was also chomping at the bit to get my driver’s license, although I’d already been driving on private property for years. In those Saturday nights in Princeton, I learned to socialize, love and identify cars.

Recently I saw the movie again for the first time in years. And though I’ve seen it more than half-a-dozen times, I still saw details I missed in the past, though I’ve still not seen the MGA coupe that I’m told is hidden somewhere in the movie.  And no, Bob Falfa’s car was not leading when it crashed.

23 Reader Comments

  • 1
    JunkYardDog BELFAIR, WASH. July 10, 2013 at 20:10
    The 56 Chevy that crashed in the race magically had single exhaust and the underneath of what was obviously a different stock 56 Chevy.
  • 2
    bondgirl42 Texas July 17, 2013 at 15:39
    You are absolutely correct. Falfa was NOT leading when he crashed, contrary to what Milner tells Toad. My husband and I also saw this several times when we were dating. And almost every time it's been on TV since then, along with our VHS of it and now our DVD. :) Needless to say, it's one of our very favorite movies. My dream car? A yellow 32 Coupe just like Milner's. I even had a huge poster of that car hanging over my bed when I still lived at home. 40 years???? How can that be when WE'RE not even 40? LOL Okay, so maybe we are......just a teeny bit.....over 40, errrrr, over 50. But happily, still enjoying this movie and all the cars in it! We will definitely have to look for the MGA coupe, and the Bugeye Sprite (unless my husband's already found that one). "Here's one for justice!!!!!"
  • 3
    terry Tucson July 17, 2013 at 17:04
    1 it was a 55 chev. that crashed early versions showed a 4 door crash, the moviehas been edited many times. ( Miners car) Baddest car in the valley .....THX 138. Long live rock and roll baby...ps just saw it again on the big screen
  • 4
    Dave Billus Watertown, CT July 17, 2013 at 18:06
    JunkYardDog, You're correct in your observation of the Chevy which crashed except it was a 55 Chevy.
  • 5
    Stepladder Rainier, OR July 17, 2013 at 18:25
    The "56" Chevy that JunkYardDog is talking about was and is and forever shall be a 55 Chev 210
  • 6
    Richard Reinstein Vermont July 17, 2013 at 20:22
    JunkyardDog is way off track. The car in the crash was in fact a 55 not a 56 Chevy, but it was a 4 dr sedan with the rear doors welded shut and filled and a piece of metal welded in to make it look like a two door post. You can find this background info if you google it.
  • 7
    John Turrentine Illinois July 17, 2013 at 21:49
    I LOVED this movie. My friends and I saw it at least 15 times the summer it was released. I fell in love with the 58 Chevy and still dream of owning one today. A great movie and the cars and music left an indelible imprint on me.
  • 8
    ron Prescott Valley,AZ July 17, 2013 at 22:18
    I must have watched a different movie? Because I thought the 1958 Chevrolet was a Impala 2 door hardtop and the Chevy that raced John Milner was a 1955 2 door post?
  • 9
    Ron Reading pa. July 17, 2013 at 22:52
    Hey junkyard it was a 55chevy not a 56
  • 10
    Bob K United States July 18, 2013 at 14:09
    The car that crashed was a 55 4-door, not a 55 2-door that is seen through out the movie.
  • 11
    john duffy windsor, ca July 18, 2013 at 17:01
    There are a couple of Nomads in the movie as well (I own a 56'). There is a 56' in the crusing scenes and a gold 55' in the airfield scene near the end of the movie. And lets not forget Wolfman Jack who set the movie off with that great music.
  • 12
    Lajolla Seevers Katy, Texas July 18, 2013 at 07:36
    JunkYard - I believe it was a 55 Chevy but the car that rolled over was definatley not the same car that was cruising the streets. There was a switch-a-roo done just like Vanishing Point. Rome wasn't burned in a night!
  • 13
    Joe Richmond, VA July 18, 2013 at 08:15
    The movie hit at just the right time for some of us "Generation Jones" folks. Just as we were about to get our driver's licenses, Detroit de-tuned the V8s and the Muscle-Car era ended with a whimper. Then, on the big screen, we got a vision of an earlier time of carefree burn-outs, cheap gas, and street racing. I'd credit this film partly with my life-long obsession with cars.
  • 14
    1977TransAm New York, NY July 18, 2013 at 10:32
    Actually, there are a number of "oopses" in the movie. For example, in the beginning of the movie, a red first generation Mustang coupe is parked across the street from Mel's drive-in. As we all know, Mustangs didn't come out until 1964.
  • 15
    Chuck Wildwood Crest, NJ July 18, 2013 at 10:51
    When I was a kid, my cousin's dad was a hot rodder, drag raced a 56 Ford at Atco Dragway, NJ. His mom dropped us off to see American Graffiti at the Moorestown Mall, probably one of the first malls in the country. I was 13 years old and American Graffiti was the movie that turned me into a car guy. The cars, the whole "coming of age" thing and let's not forget the music. Every time I hear Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs I still see the Milner Coupe and the black '55 heading out for the race. Unbelievable. Wildwood Crest NJ (where I live) is a beach town that has an amazing boardwalk car show every year in September. For years there's been a "Milner Coupe" and a Black '55 that have cruised around together that weekend. Very cool. Personally, I just got back into the hobby with a 1970 GS 455. Thanks for a great article on American Graffiti.
  • 16
    Dan Williamsville, NY July 18, 2013 at 10:52
    That was a 55 Chevy that crashed. I own a 55 Chevy Nomad that was in the movie at the airport scene. Watched Movie several time myself.
  • 17
    Frank Wichita July 19, 2013 at 17:40
    When American Graffiti was first shown, it was responsible for the largest spike in traffic tickets in driving history. The cops in Wichita just sat around the corners of the downtown movie house and waited with tongues hanging out for the show to let out and for the 'kids' to hit the streets.
  • 18
    Bob M Traverse City MI July 20, 2013 at 07:59
    Yeah, I think that Lucas was pretty intentional that the '55 crash car was a different car. He wanted to be sure we all knew that "no really-nice cars were injured while making this movie".
  • 19
    Larry california July 21, 2013 at 14:34
    Coming of age was just it, I am a car guy and American Graffiti just reinforced the idea. Nice article
  • 20
    Ed Avon Lake, Ohio July 23, 2013 at 13:36
    Frank from Wichita, I know the feeling, the first time my wife and I went to see the movie we were at a theater with a small parking lot stretched across the front, getting there early I was able to get a space right in front of the theater. When the show let out and we reached the Firebird common sense was no where to be found. I did the smokiest, loudest burnout across that parking lot that that theater had ever witnessed. I got away with that one but ended up breaking the car before the night was over and had to walk my wife of three years home listening to "what kind of idiot I was". The other all time favorite car flick from back then was "Hollywood Knights", this film is full of Hollywood kids that later became Hollywood's Finest, Tony Danza, Fran Drescher, Michelle Pfiefer and the list goes on. Since that movie is set on Halloween Night our local cruise spot rented a large screen TV and set it up in the parking lot for the sat night cruise.
  • 21
    Bob McConnell New Jersey July 24, 2013 at 17:58
    Two additional '55 's were especially built for the race scene out at "Paradise Road". This was to preserve the "FALFA" car obviously, but also...the crew couldn't get the car to role on cue and they needed the two Chevys (especially prepared to roll and then they edited the the heck out of all the footage and voila you had your ending scene. "American Graffiti" was made in1973 , ( thank you George ) and "Two-Lane-Blacktop" was 1971 using the same car although the lighter grey primered car had a much more powerful 427 CU. IN. motor on board. I own a real 150 Coupe that was built over 4 years as a heartfelt tribute to both vehicles although it favors the "Graffiti" most,...especially with the New Jersey QQ plates that read " FALFA "
  • 22
    Kerry McLenon Wyandotte, Mi. July 25, 2013 at 08:34
    Great article on American Graffiti.
  • 23
    Mike Cichon Illinois August 9, 2013 at 11:59
    I was 17 when I saw American Graffiti. At the time I had a 62 Belair 2 Door Sedan six cylinder with a three on the tree shifter. After seeing the movie I was hooked on cars. In 1974 I transformed my Belair into a more of a performance machine. After an infusion of a solid lifter Duntov’d Cammed 327, Headers, Muncie 4 Speed, Hurst Competition Plus Shifter, Cragars, Posi-traction, and a Sun Super Tach1 I thought for a High School Kid I had the perfect car. But the car was still lacking something. What it lacked was some of the best features of many of the cars in American Graffiti. My Belair had four taillights. Steve Bolander's 58 Chevy had six. Out came a 2 1/2" hole saw and magically my Belair now had six taillights. Every car in the movie had some sort of interior lighting that allowed interior filming, so I installed small lights on both rear armrests which light up the headliner nicely. Milner’s car had header cutouts. The exhaust system on a 62 Chevy angles out just past the front wheel wells which is the perfect place for header cutouts. After a visit to my local Muffler Shop my 62 had cutouts. Today I can still go out to the garage and find my 62 BelAir pretty much just as I built it nearly 40 years ago. We have a Cruise Night in our local town once a month in summer. Our town has permanent t speakers installed on every street corner. We get to enjoy our cars with a backdrop of songs from the Beach Boys, the Platters, Del Shannon, and other period correct music. I am very fortunate after all these years to get to relive a part of the movie regularly.

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