11 May 2016

Unrestorable: American Graffiti Deuce Coupe

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.

23 Reader Comments

  • 1
    1trickpony east May 11, 2016 at 17:19
    WTF does it mean "unrestorable"? Stupid title for the article.
  • 2
    Rick Davis Vienna, OH May 11, 2016 at 19:26
    The 55s in Graffiti weren't "styled after Two Lane Blacktop" two of them WERE IN Two Lane Blacktop. http://unofficialamericangraffiti.weebly.com/the-1955-chevy.html
  • 3
    Norm Colorado Springs May 11, 2016 at 20:14
    The '32 has always been my dream car and wished it was parked in my garage!
  • 4
    Mike M Aurora, CO. May 11, 2016 at 20:18
    Great cars, all of them. I love(d) the show American Graffiti. I did not realize George Lucas made the movie. Amazing, simply amazing, both the movie, the characters, and all of the cars!
  • 5
    George doyle Lakeville,ma. May 11, 2016 at 20:33
    How about the cars in Hollywoods Knights,, I know where the pie wagon is
  • 6
    Michael Brandon San Diego,CA May 11, 2016 at 20:41
    great read. thanks for the info
  • 7
    Kirk Cincinnati, Ohio May 11, 2016 at 21:22
    Great movie...great cars...great music. Where is Toad's scooter? That opening scene where he crashes into the vending machine outside of the diner still makes me cry with laughter.
  • 8
    DAVID BROWER North Carolina May 11, 2016 at 22:22
    I OWN THE 1957 MESSERSCHMITT THAT LUCAS BORROWED FROM THE SET CATERER , MARIO GARCIA FOR THE FILM . YOU WOULD THINK A KR-200 WOULD BE PERFECT FOR THE FILM BUT SADLY , IT WOUND UP ON THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR . THE CAR WAS DEEP RED & BLACK , LIKE ELVIS' MESSERSCHMITT . IT WAS REPAINTED METALLIC GRAY INN THE EARLY 80's . I AM IN THE PROCESS OF RETURNING IT TO THE ORIGINAL COLORS .
  • 9
    Dennis Hart Utah May 11, 2016 at 23:03
    I believe the movie took place on the first day of school at the end of summer. The main characters had already graduated from high school. Watch it again, you can tell...
  • 10
    Jerome Thornley Utah May 11, 2016 at 23:40
    Priceless information. I've always wondered. AG is one of my favorite movies. I'm 71 y/o and I've seen a lot of movies. I graduated from high school in '63 but the era is so familiar,
  • 11
    Chuck Norman, OK May 12, 2016 at 13:44
    Great article. Can't even remember how many times I've watched American Graffiti. One of best car flicks of all time. Love the 32 coupe but that 58 White Impala was Boss!!
  • 12
    Richard Bonfond California May 12, 2016 at 15:36
    The 1967 2CV was owned by Richard Berteaux of Davis for quite a few years around the 1980-90 era, he sold it and it may have changed hands again but last I heard it was around Petaluma, CA
  • 13
    John Vukovich Louisiana May 12, 2016 at 18:12
    Having owned a pretty much spot-on replica of the Blues Brothers "Bluesmobile for over 13 years (and as my daily driver for over 10 years!), I can attest to the popularity of TV and movie cars. I couldn't stop to get gas, drive it down the street or the interstate without someone yelling "Blues Brothers!" or "Are you on a mission from God?". And yes, many times from people younger than the movie, or people that said "My dad made me sit down and watch the Blues Brothers movie with him and I loved it!" I even called it "the car that ruined my life" for a while because people asked us to not only bring it to parades, etc., they also asked me and a friend to dress up in the Blues Brothers costumes... Which led to people asking if we sang & danced... Which led to us having an eight piece horn band in Virginia called the Shotgun Blues Brotherhood. I slowly went from being a car-guy to being a band-guy!!! It was great fun, but moving to Louisiana last summer put an end to it. (The website is down, but look on YouTube for our video - search for Shotgun Blues Brotherhood and pick the video that has us sitting on the hood of the car under a concrete overpass). I also know a man in Chesapeake, VA who has one of the TV cars from The Dukes of Hazzard, and he absolutely loves the car because it brings a lot of happiness to people and they tell their "General Lee" stories to him...
  • 14
    Marten Colorado May 12, 2016 at 06:29
    I own both 'Two Lane Blacktop' starring James Taylor and 'American Graffitti'. While 'Two Lane Blacktop' is better left in the 'box', I have young friends who come over and want to see 'Graffitti' every time they come by. Some have told me that they actually envision themselves playing the various roles in the film and think of what it would have been like to grow up in those days. I graduated high school in 1960 so we did some of that kind of stuff in the late '50s with street drags from light to light. The cars had the power, but the handling technology wasn't there yet and so some of the results were quite spectacular.
  • 15
    Rod Morton New Gloucester,Maine May 12, 2016 at 07:32
    I've had die-cast models of all the star cars for years. If this isn't one of your favorite movies,than clearly you're not a true "car guy".Summer starts after I've watched the movie,no matter when that is!
  • 16
    carl vandewalker Mi May 12, 2016 at 09:36
    I see Candy Clark at the Syracuse Nationals every year about mid July. Still a Babe.
  • 17
    Bob Monaca, PA May 12, 2016 at 09:45
    I have long believed that we really don't own anything. We are just allowed to keep them during our time on this earth. Then they go to someone else. Our job is to maintain them for someone in the future, while enjoying them now.
  • 18
    Charlie Minden NV May 12, 2016 at 11:23
    No mention of the XKE Jaguar.
  • 19
    hotrodbob los angeles, ca May 12, 2016 at 12:51
    I've had the opportunity to meet Paul, Candy and Bo many times at various car shows. they're great ambassadors of the movie industry!
  • 20
    Mitch Seigle San Jose, CA May 13, 2016 at 17:36
    The 1967 2CV driven by Richard Dreyfuss was located in 2013. It is presently owned by one Jerry Causbrook, who located the car in Napa County, California. Jerry also owns the '56 T-Bird driven by Suzanne Somers in the film.
  • 21
    Joe F CA May 13, 2016 at 21:17
    The Blue 1967 Citroen lives in Petaluma,Ca. and is owned by a very good friend of mine and will be at the American Graffiti car show on May 21 in Petaluma.
  • 22
    Gary Coopersmith Windsor CA May 15, 2016 at 16:24
    I have participated in the AG cruise and show two years running. Toad's scooter and the blue car RD drove were there along side Falfa's '55, Milner's coupe, the Ford cop car, Steve's '58 Impala, and a copy of the Merc. Next Friday May 20 & Saturday the 21st this year's event will be happening once again on the streets of Petaluma open to one and all.
  • 23
    Wayno W Waterford, MI May 17, 2016 at 22:31
    Interesting... I read in the Hagerty mag about a year of so ago, that they found the rusty hull of the Impala in a junkyard in Saskachewan. Hmmmm

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