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15 little-known facts about "American Graffiti"

Joe Lorio Jul 10 2020

Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.

Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.


American Graffiti, the surprise summer blockbuster that ignited the career of filmmaker George Lucas (director and co-screenwriter), is one of the most car-saturated movies that is not explicitly about cars. Set in Modesto, California, at the tail end of summer 1962, it follows the exploits of a quartet of recent high-school grads: college-bound Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), class president Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), the nerdy Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith), and drag-racer John Milner (Paul Le Mat). The action takes place on a single night against a backdrop of endless cruising. Lucas made the movie in 1972, and it was highly autobiographical. In an interview in The New York Times, Lucas said of the film:

It all happened to me, but I sort of glamorized it. I spent four years of my life cruising the main street of my hometown, Modesto, California. I went through all that stuff, drove the cars, bought liquor, chased girls... a very American experience. I started out as Terry the Toad, but then I went on to be John Milner, the local drag race champion, and then I became Curt Henderson, the intellectual who goes to college. They were all composite characters, based on my life, and on the lives of friends of mine. Some were killed in Vietnam, and quite a number were killed in auto accidents.
American Graffiti is newly available on HBO's streaming services this month, so we figured it was worth another pass down the main drag. Here are some lesser-known facts to know about it, in case you settle in for a rewatch or a first watch — it's highly recommended if you haven’t seen it before.
1. Some 300 cars were used in filming. Local vintage-car owners were paid $20 to $25 per night (reports vary) plus food.
Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.
Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.
2. Milner’s ’32 Ford chopped-top Deuce coupe had a ’66 Chevy V-8 with four Rochester 2GC two-barrel carbs. The engine was mated to a Super T-10 four-speed gearbox, and a ’57 Chevy rear end with 4:11 gears. The car was originally red but was repainted yellow for filming, and the red-and-white interior was dyed black. The rear fenders were bobbed, front cycle fenders added, and the dropped front axle chrome-plated. When the movie was done, the car was advertised for $1,500 but failed to sell for more than a year. It eventually ended up with a collector in Kansas and has since gone to an owner in San Francisco, both of whom preserved it.
Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.
Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.
3. The character Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), who drives a '55 Chevy, comes to town to challenge reigning drag racer Milner. Three black ’55 Chevys were used, including a junkyard find for the crash scene and two others. The two principle cars had previously appeared in the film Two Lane Blacktop. One had a V-8 and a Turbo Hydra-Matic 400, while the other was powered by a 427 V-8 paired with a Muncie M-22 transmission. During the race scene, the car’s axle broke. In a second take, the replacement axle broke. Only one of the ’55 Chevys remains, and for a time was owned by the same Kansas collector who had the ’32 Deuce coupe. It later went to an owner in Maryland, who restored the car to show condition, but extensively changed from its appearance in the film.
4. After filming, transportation manager Henry Travers sold Steve’s '58 Impala via a classified ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. A local teenager bought it for $285, and on the way home, the brakes failed and one of the taillights fell off. The owner kept the car until 2015, when it went to auction and was purchased by NASCAR personality and racing commentator Ray Evernham. Evernham had the car restored to its as-filmed appearance, and the renewed Impala made its public debut at the 2016 SEMA show.
5. Curt’s obsession is a mysterious blonde (Suzanne Somers) in a white ’56 T-Bird. Somers had a surprise reunion with the car in 1999 on an episode of Leeza Gibbons’s TV show.
6. The film takes place in 1962 but Curt’s Citroën 2CV is actually a ’67 model.
7. Toad’s crashing his Vespa in the opening scene was unscripted. He lost control of the scooter but stayed in character, and George Lucas kept filming.

8. The license plate on Milner’s Deuce coupe is THX 138, a nod to George Lucas’s earlier science-fiction film THX-1138. Steve’s ’58 Chevy Impala has the license plate JPM 351, and that plate appears again on the Studebaker that Carol, Judy, and some other girls are riding in.
9. The prank in which Curt attached a chain to the cop car’s rear axle, which is then ripped out from under the car when the police set off, was tried and proven not possible on Mythbusters. For the film, the axle had been cut away from the frame, and the chain was not really attached to a light pole but to a winch on a heavy-duty tow truck. The winch was activated as the cop car pulled away, yanking the axle out from underneath it.

10. Although set in George Lucas’s hometown of Modesto, California, the film was shot largely Petaluma, California. Petaluma hosts an annual Salute to American Graffiti.
11. The entire movie takes place over one night, and filming was done between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. The shoot lasted just 28 days.
Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.
Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.
12. An assistant camera man fell off the trailer of a truck and was run over shooting one of the road scenes, suffering minor injuries.
13. The DC-7 airliner that appears in the final scene was later converted to cargo use, and in 1986 it crashed after taking off from Dakar, Senegal, killing all four people on board.
14. All of the principal actors were unknown, and Universal Studios was so sure the movie would flop that it wanted to release it as a TV movie. Co-producer Francis Ford Coppola convinced the studio to do a theatrical release, and the film grossed $55 million (on a budget of just over $750,000); it earned another $63 million in re-release. It also earned a Best Picture Academy Award nomination and the Golden Globe for Best Picture.
Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.
Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.
15. There was a 1979 sequel, More American Graffiti, that checked in with the crew in the mid 1960s, but it lacked the cruising theme (although the Milner character had become a drag racer). The sequel was a critical failure and a box-office flop.
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