When pop culture becomes pop history
Movie cars have a special magnetism that often outlasts the movie. Consider the bizarre creations that powered the Mad Max maniacs in the two post-apocalyptic thrillers from the 1980s. Today you can buy replicas of the bizarre creations in The Road Warrior – from Pappagallo’s “beerkeg” roadster to the cut-down ‘60s Ford pickup with the machine gun, or even Max’s own Ford Falcon Interceptor. They’re built in Australia near the movie locations.
But those are replicas, the real cars are Holy Grails, and many were destroyed during filming. Mad Max’s Interceptor from The Road Warrior was destroyed, the Jaguar E-type hearse from Harold and Maude was crashed at the end of the movie and multiple Fast and Furious cars were crashed over the course of seven movies.
For many Baby Boomers, American Graffiti’s star cars are icons. “Where were you in ’62?” the poster asked, and George Lucas’s 1973 film followed a motley collection of friends through high school graduation night in California’s Central Valley – an event Lucas himself supposedly missed due to illness. No matter, his memorable “best of” stories jump-started or accelerated half a dozen important actors and actresses’ careers. It also rendered their cars immortal.
Alongside Harrison Ford, Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Wolfman Jack, Candy Clark, Paul LeMat, Bo Hopkins, Suzanne Somers, Mackenzie Phillips and Charlie Martin Smith, who could forget the yellow ’32 Ford Coupe, white ’58 Chevrolet Impala, black ’55 Chevy 2-door sedan, white ’56 Ford Thunderbird, and candy-apple red ’51 Mercury Coupe?
Not surprisingly, all of those cars are known to exist, most in the same condition as in the movie. Rick Figari of San Francisco has owned John Milner’s (Paul LeMat) yellow Deuce Coupe since the mid-1980s and he also has a black ’55 Chevy’s built for Graffiti and styled after 1971’s Two Lane Blacktop. The ’55 Chevy was driven in American Graffiti by Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) and featured in the final dawn drag race with the yellow Deuce Coupe.
The film’s transportation manager Henry Travers sold the cars cheaply after production wrapped and both the black ’55 Chevy and yellow ’32 Deuce Coupe were bought by Steve Fitch of Kansas City. Figari bought the ’32 in 1985, finding the piston gearshifter and THX 1138 license plate in the trunk. He bought the ’55 Chevy later and tours with them to hot rod shows, remaining amazed at the response.
In an interview a few years ago, accompanied by Paul Lemat and Candy Clark, Figari recalled when he first realized that American Graffiti had evolved from pop culture to pop history. He was driving the ’32 on a California freeway “when a carload of kids pulled up alongside me. They wound down the windows and shouted ‘Hey is that the real car from American Graffiti?’ he said. “They were only about 20 years old – they weren’t even born when the film was made and I realized it had jumped generations.”
One effect of car’s the historical significance is that Figari said knew he couldn’t change it from its movie condition. “The body shop that painted it offered to block it out and redo it – they just shot it quickly for the film, and it killed them it wasn’t that good.”
Three black ‘55 Chevrolets were built for American Graffiti but the only survivor is unrecognizably modified. Figari said builder Richard Ruth had one extra car left after the movie, “so he built it exactly like Harrison Ford’s car, for me.”
Ron Howard’s white ’58 Chevy Impala Coupe, was advertised for $325 and bought by S.F. Bay Area high school student Mike Famalette, who borrowed money from his father. The car was parked for years while Famalette served in the military, but finally repaired rather than restored. It was offered at the Profiles in History Hollywood Auction on September 15, 2015, with an estimate of $800,000-$1,200,000, but did not sell.
Suzanne Somers will always be remembered as the blonde in the white ‘56 T-Bird who obsessed Richard Dreyfuss. The car was owned by Clay and May Daily for more than 30 years and loaned for the film. It still lives in Petaluma, where the movie was filmed. The T-Bird started out red, but Daily painted it white in the late 1960s, as it remains.
Perhaps the saddest story accompanies the chopped-and-channeled, red 1951 Mercury custom. In the movie it belonged to Bo Hopkins and the Pharoahs, who led Richard Dreyfuss to the adventure with the cop car. Eddie Van Halen eventually bought the Mercury from a Universal Studios back lot and later sold it to Brian Setzer of The Stray Cats. Eventually it belonged to a young collector in New York, who committed suicide over a failed love affair. His father refused to sell the car, and at last report it was rusting away in a junkyard.
Other cars in the movie like Richard Dreyfuss’s blue 1967 Citroen 2CV and Cindy Williams’ turquoise and white 1958 Edsel Corsair are unaccounted for at present.
One clear lesson is that owning a pop icon requires a commitment and responsibility to respecting their history, and maintaining them as created when they transcended being mere vehicles to become cultural touchstones. Native American lore affirms that nobody actually owns anything, we are merely caretakers for a while.