Today is my brother Roger’s birthday. A successful businessman, he is best known as one of the first hot rodders in the Treasure Valley. Roger’s iconic 1932 Ford 5-window, which he lovingly restored, was well known in the area and is still remembered.
Thinking about his car also always reminds me of another similar car – the one driven by the character ‘John Milner’ in the nostalgic movie “American Graffiti.” Today it spurred me to look even further into some of the cars of that movie.
American Graffiti starred Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, and Paul LeMat. It was a story of high schoolers during one night as they reflected on their high school lives and their looming futures.
The 1971 movie was set in 1962, at a high point of the ‘car culture’ of American youth. And as anyone who’s seen the movie more than once knows, the cars are also stars of the show.
Milner’s 32 Ford
John Milner (LeMat) is the saddest of the American Graffiti characters, once the baddest drag racer in Modesto, he is now wondering if it’s all worth it. His friends are heading for college or romance, neither of which seem to be in his future. His car, a high powered deuce coupe, is built for one thing – to beat every other car off the line. But that no longer seems important to John. Still, his reputation precedes him and on this night, he is pursued by another in a long line of challengers – in this case, Bob Falfa portrayed by Harrison Ford. As much as John would like to avoid it, a showdown on Paradise Road seems inevitable.
Bolander’s 58 Chevy
The white 1958 Chevy Impala of class BMOC Steve Bolander (Howard) is the epitome of the ‘must have’ car of the late 1950’s. The 1958 model, a design unlike anything produced by Chevrolet before, still evokes memories of one of the best car designs ever.
The car becomes life changing for classic nerd Terry “the Toad” Fields when Bolander hands over the keys for the evening. Fields transforms from a dweeb to the cool ‘Terry the Tiger’ when he’s behind the wheel of the Impala. He charms the more worldly Debbie Dunham (Clark) into cruising the streets of Modesto with him for the evening. In the process, he scores some booze (courtesy of an armed robber), gets in a fight, and ultimately gets the girl. That never would have happened on his normal ride, a Vespa motor bike.
Curt Henderson’s Citroen
Bolander’s friend Curt (Dreyfuss), the brother of Bolander’s girlfriend (Williams), arrives at the drive-in in his 2CV Citroen. The Citroen, a French car, epitomizes the less-than-cool cars that many of us of that era drove. Of note, the Citroen is actually a 1967 model, but it’s a design familiar to many.
Laurie Henderson’s 58 Edsel
In contrast, Curt’s sister Laurie drives a 1958 Edsel. While the 1958 Impala earned kudos for its innovative styling, the Edsel failed for the same reason. The car, named for Henry Ford’s son, failed to capture the public’s imagination.
The White T-Bird
The first three models of the Ford Thunderbird are some of the most sought-after cars of the late 50’s era. The T-Bird, introduced in response to the Chevy Corvette, has gone through significant changes over the years, most of them detracting from the original concept.
While riding with Bolander and Laurie in the back seat of the Edsel, Curt first spots a gorgeous blonde (Suzanne Somers) driving the T-Bird, a 1956 model. Curt spends the rest of the night trying to find the blonde, only spotting her the next morning as he flies away to college.
The American Graffiti Cars Today
When the movie was completed, the cars were sold by the studio. However, two of them – the ’32 Ford and the ’58 Chevy – can still be seen at car shows around the country. The owners graciously allow Candy Clark (who played Debbie Dunham in the movie) to take their cars out for display.