As a Northern California kid obsessed with cars my love for the 1973 movie American Graffiti was inevitable. Filmed largely in Petaluma, about 20-miles from my hometown of Santa Rosa, American Graffiti is set in 1962 in California and follows a group of friends for one night after they graduated from high school. A coming-of-age story in the purest sense, the film’s tone is that of a more innocent America before the Vietnam War and subsequent culture changes throughout the ensuing years of the 1960s.
The film is semi-autobiographical for co-writer and director George Lucas, as he spent his formative years cruising in Modesto, California. With a cast that features Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Cindy Williams the cars in American Graffiti have a secondary role in the movie but are still important characters.
Each car is aligned with a character, and it’s been nearly 50-years since the movie’s debut but a lot of us retain the year, make and model of each vehicle.
Where Were You In ’62? The Cars of American Graffiti
1955 Chevrolet 150
He was largely unknown at the time but by the end of the decade Harrison Ford would be on of the biggest stars in Hollywood. In American Graffiti he portrays Bob Falfa, the out-of-town challenger in a black 1955 Chevrolet 150.
Crass, brash and overly confident, Falfa rolls into town looking to flex some muscle and show that his Chevy is the quickest. Finished in black with a hood scoop and outfitted with a rollcage, Falfa’s Chevy 150 maintained an intimidating appearance and his demeanor tried to match it.
It’s never mentioned in the movie what, if any, modifications were made to the drivetrain. A 1955 150 was available with one V8 option, a 265cid Turbo-Fire V8 with a factory-rated 162 or 180bhp, and consumers had their choice of a three-speed manual or two-speed Powerglide transmission. Based on performance and noise, I think we can assume the car had some work done.
Side note, the Chevy 150 in American Graffiti previously appeared in the 1971 movie Two-Lane Blacktop.
1932 Ford 5-window
The truest true hot rod in the film and driven by John Milner, replete in greaser attire. Finished in yellow and stripped down for speed, this Deuce Coupe has a V8 under the hood and the header plugs removed.
Other modifications to Milner’s Ford aren’t stated in the movie, but the hot rod is fast and quick off the line. During the climatic drag race on Paradise Road between Milner’s Ford and Falfa’s Chevy, the Ford is quicker off the line. But after gaining traction the Chevy was going to win until a mechanical failure led to it driving off the road and the 150’s untimely demise. Yet another instance of mechanic failure during an illegal street race.
Side note, the license plate of the Ford, “THX 138”, is a reference to Lucas first movie, THX1138.
1956 Ford Thunderbird
An ever-elusive blonde woman in a white Ford Thunderbird that playfully haunts Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt Henderson throughout the movie. The audience never sees more than her blonde hair and sly smile, but savvy viewers know that it’s Suzanne Somers.
The 1956 Thunderbird was offered with a 292ci Y-block V8 or the optional 312ci Y-block V8 engine and consumers could pair the engine with a three-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic, or a three-speed manual transmission. For 1956 Ford added the iconic “porthole” windows to the removable hardtop.
1958 Chevrolet Impala
Ron Howard played the popular, possibly big man on campus, Steve and he rolls in a 1958 Chevrolet Impala coupe. Based on the movie it’s powered by a Chevy 327ci V8 with six Stromberg carburetors, but the 327 made its debut in 1962, and it’s unlikely Steve’s Impala had one. This Impala isn’t necessarily a hot rod like Milner’s Ford, but it has some custom flavor.
Former NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham tracked down the original Impala used in the movie and restored it to the same appearance it had in American Graffiti. Evernham’s meticulous restoration included pouring over every scene the Impala appeared in the movie and putting the car back to its movie glory.
“I don’t know if it’s that I see myself as more of a Steve or a Toad than a Bob Falfa [Harrison Ford] or a John Milner [Paul Le Mat], but there’s just something about it,” Evernham said in 2016. “In its 22 minutes of screen time, all the characters interact with it. Even Bob sits on the fender at the end of the movie.”
1951 Mercury coupe
After a series of events Curt is coerced to join the Pharoahs, a local gang of delinquents, that cruise in a chopped 1951 Mercury. As hoods up to no good they manipulate Curt to vandalizing a cop car, with the Merc as the getaway car.
The Merc’s drivetrain details aren’t mentioned in the movie, but it is a proper custom cruiser. The production company for American Graffiti purchased the Mercury and did a quick custom job, including the four-inch chop. The car was meant to be seen and admired in the movie, with nary a care about the craftsmanship of the job.
The Mercury used in the movie was ultimately purchased by Eddie Van Halen from Universal Studios and it was later sold to Brian Setzer. It was sold to a car collector in New York who committed suicide and his father refused to sell the Merc. It is reported to be rusting in a junkyard.