By on December 15, 2013
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Way back in 1973, a relatively young and inexperienced director by the name of George Lucas made a movie that starred a whole bunch of nobodies. Called “American Graffiti,” it turned out to be the little movie that could. Co-Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz for just $775,000, it went on to become one of the most profitable films of all time, making an estimated $200 million dollars and, in the process, turned several of those “nobodies,” people like Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, Suzanne Summers, and Cindy Williams, into bankable stars. In 1995, the National Library of Congress declared it to be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation by adding it to the National Film Registry.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the story by revealing any of the finer points of the plot. Generally speaking, it is the story of teenage angst and antics set amid classic cars and punctuated by great old-time rock and roll music and the action follows several teens on a hot August night in the far away year of 1962 as they cruise their cars around the California town of Modesto in search of action and adventure. The movie hit theaters just as the first wave of the baby boom generation, people born between 1946 and 64, began to close-in on the ripe old age of 30 and to see it now is to look back upon the days of their youth through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia.

It has taken me a long time to appreciate it. I was all of 7 years old when American Graffiti went into theatrical release and didn’t actually sit down and watch it until VCRs became commonplace in the American home sometime in the early 1980s. Frankly, I didn‘t get it. For me, a founding member of Generation X who was born in 1966, the movie seemed a cloying tale of ancient silliness that had long since been wiped away the decades that had followed them. I think now, however, that the real problem was that, even though I was the same age as the kids depicted, I would never have done the things they did. Having nothing real in common with any of the characters, I ended up listening to the dated, but admittedly wonderful, soundtrack and watching that old Detroit iron endlessly circling the town. In that regard, at least, the movie reflected a reality that I actually knew. That’s because, despite the 20 years that had elapsed between the action depicted in American Graffiti and the tawdry days of my own youth, virtually nothing had changed.

Yours truly, master of the pin-stripe tape.

Yours truly, master of the pin-stripe tape.

I got my driver’s license in early 1983 and by my senior year of high school, 1984, my Nova and I were a regular part of the street scene. My car, armed with a six cylinder and a three on the tree, was never competitive but, thanks to my ability with pin stripe tape and a set of rallye wheels that came from my brother Tracy I had a good looking little cruiser that was both reliable and about as fuel efficient as I could get. It was my buddies who had the heavy iron, Rick with his Javelin at first and later a 69 Charger and Denny with a 340 Demon, who carried the honor of our small group. Even so, we were never the “fast guys.”

The fast guys were older than us. Already working solid $4.00 and hour jobs 40 hours a week, they had real money to throw at their cars. There was Jim, who had an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with a 442 front end grafted on. It wasn’t fast, but it was custom. Then came Dave, whose father owned a local body shop, who had a wickedly fast 68 Camaro but who spent most of his time selling and smoking pot rather than actually racing. Next was Bob, who had a custom bodied Comet Caliente that mounted square headlights above a front spoiler do big we called it “The Bulldozer.” And finally Tye, our own local hot-rodder who had finished school just a year earlier. His 68 Mustang had none of the shine or polish the other cars enjoyed, but he worked relentlessly to make it just a little bit faster each week.

Perhaps it was because their cars were so similar beneath the skin, or perhaps it was because, when everything was said and done, they were both a couple of jerks way down deep inside, but for some reason Bob and Tye who should have been, in my opinion, friends were instead mortal enemies. I remember them now, a couple of wanna-be toughs in greasy pants and with cigarettes dangling from their lower lips as they glowered at one another from opposite ends of our local video game arcade’s parking lot. They got there early and staked out their spots, their supporters filling in around them while the rest of us endlessly circled around like a giant school of fish.

Like stags in the rutting season, each boy was compelled to trumpet his prowess in the loudest way possible and every so often, one or the other would jump into his car to start and rev his uncorked engine. If we were lucky, the other boy would respond to the challenge and a burn off contest would ensue. Back and forth it would go, the pressure of imminent conflict gradually increasing by the hour as the witching hour drew nigh. Then, just before midnight, when most of us had to be home, both boys would lead their troops to the battlefield.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

We had a special spot close to the Everett Boeing 747/777 assembly plant. The factory is immense and tens of thousands of people work there. Every shift change floods the roadway with commuters and as a result the plant is served by its own 6 lane wide highway spur. At one end, close to the factory gate is a stoplight to control ingress and egress from the huge parking lots that line the roadway and approximately ¼ mile away is a giant overhead sign that directs traffic onto the main highway, East to Mukilteo or West to Everett. The course was wide, safe and, at anytime other than shift change, totally desolate.

The two caravans of cars, and those of us who had dared to break our curfews to become hangers on, would converge on the spot just prior to the main event. Looking back on it now, the local police had to know what we were doing but for the most part they left us alone. Generally they were good to us so long as we were good to them and, unlike the movie (spoiler alert!) we played no shenanigans. Usually we would get about 30 minutes on-site before a single cruiser would roll through with its lights on reminding us that we needed to go home.

In that 30 minutes we had, however, the ritual was unvaried. Bob and Tye would stage up singly and make a practice run while the other watched. Final adjustments would be made and burn offs would follow. At last, the night culminated as they came to the lone, door handle to door handle.

The stoplight switched to green and both drivers hammered the gas. The sound of their Fords’ engines pounded the night and reflecting back at us off the wall of the factory as the two cars accelerated. Bob hit his shifts perfectly while Tye’s automatic did the work for him as they came out of the hole and ran up to speed. It was neck and neck and then, slowly the Bob’s Bulldozer began to inch away. He stretched out his lead to one car length as then two before they passed the finish line. The winner would slow and turn, making a victory lap along the line of kids while the loser, unwilling to face the jeers of the masses, would continue up the on ramp and onto the freeway.

With the main movers done, the rest of us would take our own turns. Rick or Denny would take on all comers, sometimes winning sometimes losing, while I looked for someone whose engine was as deficient in acceleration as my own lest I be beaten to a pulp every time. There was never money involved, we never had more than a few dollars in our pockets anyhow, it was all for fun and, perhaps, just a bit of pride. And then, as he 30 minute mark would approach, that single police cruiser would come and, as quickly as it started, it would end.

At the end of the movie, we get to find out what happened to the kids those “nobodies” played. As the credits rolled, a single subtitled line told us their fates. Without ruining for you, all I can say is that some of them went far in life and some of them didn’t. I would imagine it is the same for the kids I knew too. Some of us have found our way to places no one would ever have believed we could go while others of us still struggle. The one thing we have in common now are those nights and the heady days that came at the ends of our own childhoods. Maybe one day, someone will make a movie about that.

Snohomish High School Auto Shop 1983/84

Snohomish High School Auto Shop 1983/84

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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82 Comments on “American Graffiti – X...”


  • avatar
    Lie2me

    American Graffiti was a good fantasy movie, but I don’t think it was anybody’s reality. I appreciated it for what it was an idealized look back at Hollywood’s version of youth in 1962. As they say, it was just a movie. There is one thing that always bothered me about the movie, in the scene where they chain the rear axle of of the cop car yanking it from it’s body as they started their pursuit, great scene, but in the background parked along the curb is a ’67 Impala identical to the one I had when this movie came out. I was thrilled that my car was depicted in the movie, but so disappointed that through all the editing no one caught that 1967 Impala in a movie that showcased the cars of 1962

    … it was just a movie

    • 0 avatar
      Cubista

      “American Graffiti was a good fantasy movie, but I don’t think it was anybody’s reality.”

      George Lucas insists that it was his. Of course, he also insists that the “Star Wars” movies were completely thought out years in advance, too.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      While AG may have been a good fantasy movie for some, as a kid growing up in Huntington Beach, CA, I lived much of that lifestyle. In ’62 I was 15 years old and tagged along with my older cousins (on my mom’s side) when I wasn’t working somewhere.

      My own AG happened in 1965, just prior to joining the Air Force and leaving home. My AG wasn’t all that different from the George Lucas version.

      Nostalgia, indeed!

      Somehow, back then, everything seemed less complicated than now.

    • 0 avatar
      bomberpete

      So was playing a 1964 Beach Boys tune “All Summer Long” in the closing credits.

  • avatar
    StatisticalDolphin

    A book was written and published about our end of childhood exploits.

    The act of writing and publishing changed it.

    Probably unintentionally.

    Be careful what you ask for.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Thomas, good stuff you wrote there! It is sad that this type of interest in cars seems to be on a pretty big, long decline. Even in my yuppie high school back in the day there were at least two fast cars in the student lot, though the vast majority of the students did not associate in any way with the owners of those cars. Your “Hangar ons” was a great play on words considering your race track. No 777 at that time though. Funny how they consider those born in the early 60s to be boomers. I really disagree with that assessment. I don’t know anybody of that age that has anything in common with the “real” postwar boomer generation. I sure don’t.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      While the 777 is a creature of the 1990s, it is built in the 747 plant, so I think the description is valid. However, I wonder what “hangars on” might happen to be.

      With respect to the film, one of the things I cherish most about my youth were those unexpected adventure nights that started innocently yet led you to places and experiences that were both a surprise and a delight. AG evokes that experience beautifully.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      Golden: I think the demographers used to give the “generations” about 18 or so years before they reproduce… 1946 + 18 = 1964. But, I agree with your assessment. With me being born in 1962, my experiences were much different than my older brothers, born in 1953 and 1956. I’ve often thought that the baby boom generation born after 1958 should have an entirely different designation.

      WRT to the high school street racing, it happens everywhere. I can recall similar situations in my own hometown. I used to call it fun for the feeble minded, as our unofficial raceway was a section of local freeway that was heavily patrolled. Our local police were nowhere near as nice; the end result was that we took to racing in the countryside. That’s when the poop really hit the fan, all it took was a stray doe or an icy spot and someone’s car was wrapped around a tree. I lost a few neighbors and friends in HS that way.

      OTOH, now HS kids stay at home and hang out on Xbox live. Or go to school and shoot the place up…

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        Okay you can be “Boomer II” the sequel that never quite lives up to the original ie “Mustang II”

      • 0 avatar
        nickoo

        I have that same problem being born in 1982. The range between about 1979 and 1986 give or take a year could be considered X or Y depending on how/where you grew up, or even a mix of both.

        - Hair bands were on the way out, we listened to Michael Jackson before graduating to Grunge/Thrash Metal/Gansta Rap, most of us were middle school aged at that time.

        - It was “us” the guys who owned used 3rd gen F bodies, fox bodies, G bodies, and two gens of T-birds vs the import guys who owned used eclipses, talons, 3000GTs, celicas, etc.

        - Arcades were on their way out, by the mid 90s they were gone.

        - Beepers/Pagers were for the status kids, to be slowly replaced by cell phones starting when I was a senior in high school

        - Grew up using the school’s green screen apple 2s to be replaced by black and white all-in-one macs. The WWW was there from the time I was in 9th grade, but most of us didn’t pay it too much attention until we hit college and DSL started coming out, moving away from Dial-up.

        - Most of my friends had jobs, played sports, had their own vehicles, and cruised around town, which we could luckily afford to do without help from mom and dad, which mostly hadn’t been too interested in us in the first place as they were both involved in their careers so things like curfew didn’t exist.

      • 0 avatar
        jupiter119

        Joe Wilcox writes a great little article commenting on a New York Times piece about Baby Boomers being the “Greediest Generation”. Joe says “I’ve long held the contention that people born in the last six years of the boom really aren’t Boomers. I call them “Cuspers,” born on the cusp between generations; many Cuspers that I know don’t share most Boomer values. Most of them are closer to Generation X, although there are plenty of differences.”
        As for AG, yes it’s another movie where the universe revolves around Baby Boomers but it’s still fun. Check out a movie called the Stoned Age. It’s a lot of fun and kind of a mix of Bill and Ted’s and Dazed and Confused.

        • 0 avatar
          Lorenzo

          Actually it’s more than just “cuspers”. The postwar 1940s boomers had little in common with the mid 1950s contingent, and they had little in common with the tail end “cusper” group. The signal event for the first group was the JFK assassination, while the third group was in diapers. The ’50s group’s event was likely the Watergate/Nixon Resignation. The cuspers’ main event was likely the Iran hostage crisis.

          You can have fun dividing the boomers up by musical taste, or fashion, or autos, but the bottom line is: it’s hard to find any continuous thread tying them all together into a cohesive group. The “boomer” generation is a demographer’s construct.

    • 0 avatar

      We had a training at my job a few months ago where we split into three groups, boomers, Xers and Yers, and then looked at the basic worldviews/ life experiences of the three groups. To be honest, I’ve always felt like I was caught between the baby boom generation and X anyhow, my parents were “greatest generation” but too young for WWII and all my brothers and sisters were officially “boomers.”

      The things I have in common with Gen X are the same shitty employment situation and the feeling that we have been somehow shorted by life. We have a chip on our shoulders and were called “X” because we hate to be lumped into groups. I found it funny that when they put us into the group I thought the others were all jerks and none of us wanted to participate. We just spent our time bitching about the other two groups.

      As for the 777, yes they weren’t there at the time. They expanded the plant quite a bit to fit them in. I called it the 747/777 plant just to silence people who might feel like they needed to tell me they build other things there now too – 787s too these days.

  • avatar
    Drzhivago138

    My father was one of the very last baby boomers, born in 1964. As such, his high school auto shop would have looked nearly identical to yours. In fact, I was a bit surprised not to find him in that picture!

    He was always more of a hanger-on than a racer. He was a farm kid, but didn’t get a pickup until he graduated (mid-70′s D-100 Slant-Six). His car was a ’76 Cordoba, either a 318 or a 360, and later he got himself a Kawasaki 440 chain-drive. Always wanted a belt-drive–chain would get full of gravel on our* country road to home.
    And no, he wasn’t a Mopar man. Our entire family was almost nothing but Ford until we started getting minivans. He wanted a T-Bird, but settled for a Cordoba. It wasn’t until ’88 or so, after he was married, that he finally got one, but by then the attraction was gone. He ended up selling it to my mom’s brother, who was in high school at the time.)

    *I say “our” because I live in the same place…in fact, for all but a 1-1/2 years following his marriage, my father has spent and will spend his entire life on the same acreage, farming the same fields. His father never went to a nursing home before he passed, and had only semi-retired from farming that very year…I’m sure Dad has the same plans.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    ’73? My *parents* were born in ’73, so I don’t have any experience with the ’70′s. But I’ll have to watch that movie…

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    So, what did you think of ‘Dazed and Confused’?

  • avatar

    I was a teenager when the movie first hit the theater in my town. It caused one of the biggest lineups ever for a movie, even though music and fashion had changed drastically from the early 60s by the early 70s. The message was pretty simple: life after high school and that bridge moment between adolescence and adulthood. The idea was not lost on us at the time because there were plenty of us Boomers of a certain age who could relate to this pivotal time in our lives through a movie set in a time when we were barely into grade school. Plus we loved the cars in the movie.

  • avatar
    jco

    substitute the 60s sleds (though they were there) for fox-bodies and GM F-bodies, and that was my teenage years as well.

    we had our spots. usually frontage roads and the outside edges of those large industrial parks that locate so many warehouses and shipping facilities.

    during the summer, the nights usually followed the same rhythm. at around 8/9, one of the strip mall parking lots would start filling up. by about 10, everyone was there. sometimes we’d got booted, and head to one of the other established spots in the next township. our relationship with law enforcement was very different. we were suburban outlaws, and the bored suburban cops often had very little else to do on a Thursday night other than harass us. and this was all happening in the time right before everyone had cell phones. most didn’t, so if we got moved, it was often a case where the entire field of cars followed each other in a giant convoy so we’d all end up at the same place.

    in our circle, the relationships weren’t antagonistic. however, there was most certainly money involved. the money and the law forced a street racer environmental adaptation. ‘sleeper’ status was the universal goal in all of our car builds. the more your obvious racing mods stood out, the less chance you’d have of successfully hustling a race, while your chances of being singled out and busted were increased. nitrous bottles buried inside the fenders, shaved street tires, exhaust cutout switches (mounted ahead of the cats to run wide open on command), and lots of wire tucking to hide sophisticated engine electronics. most of the time, the biggest draw in these parking lot meets was if one of the faster guys ‘popped the hood’. secrecy was so important that there’d almost be battles over getting a hood open. looking at the engine bay was something you’d have to buy the rights to do, by putting up your cash for the race ahead of time. and even then, you probably didn’t get it. but if one of those hoods got popped, everyone in that lot would swarm over there to get a peek. the game was, who was going to give up the ‘leave’, the ‘push’, how many ‘cars’. if, say, you were running cheater slicks, the guy on street tires would ask for the ‘leave’, meaning he got to hit it as soon as the flagger dropped, and you’d have to give him that headstart. and if you were given 2 ‘cars’, you’d stage two car lengths on the faster car. again, the competition was to get the guy who was slower than you to give it up. so much of those parking lot debates was just the staging of the race..

    these were guys who’d go to test and tune nights and get them to turn the clocks off, because if your number was out, you’re not going to take the guy’s money who’s running a 13. they’d run a low 10 second time once and get kicked out because they weren’t caged. and no way were they going to run cages on the street.

    midnight rolls around, and the kids who just wanted to hang out would be heading home. then the bets start piling up. and pretty quickly, there’s now 3 or 4 grand into the pot on a big race. since we all had money in, we’d all roll to the strip. on a good night, that big race went first, but was often just the start. if we had a quiet spot, the cars would just keep lining up. and then word would get out, and the players who usually would only show up on the weekend would roll in at about 2 to start throwing more bets and more races. i’ll never forget the nights i’d see a truck roll up with a barely-streetable fox body on a trailer. roll it off, stage it, and absolutely roast the tires. watching a 10 second car pull the wheels well past the 60-foot mark on the street is so much different than seeing it at the strip.

    our scene was big. the group of guys involved came in from sometimes 40 miles away on a weeknight. these were the same kinds of guys, guys with mechanics and body shop owners for fathers. they took this very seriously. and then.. then Fast & Furious happened. we joked. we made our Vin Diesel impersonations. but there was a feeling it was going to blow the scene up. and it did. soon enough, the parking lots were jammed with loud music, lowered hondas, more kids, and more cops. and those of us who had been running our small but tight crew of fast sleeper japanese cars suddenly were sort of cast out by association. we couldn’t race anymore without everyone getting ticketed and/or arrested. i personally had a suburban cop pull a gun on me, because he was by himself, trying to prevent a line of six of us from fleeing the strip. i just happened to be at the head of that line..

    one of the guys also had close ties with the local dragstrip. he got them to start running a street race night. clocks off, and all the betting was out in the open. it was great, but it wasn’t the same.

    some of the great cars from that time:

    - an AWD mitsubishi eclipse that would ruin everything off the line. by the time your fox body caught him, his massive turbo would keep him in the lead. it took a lot of hp to beat him

    - what had to be one of the fastest Supras at the time. it was white, and it was running an automatic because the manual couldn’t handle the HP. the shop that built it got a lot of business because of this car, and still builds fast japanese turbo cars.

    - a carefully built but extremely fast Grand National. huge turbo. easily into the 9s, full interior, no cage, and not running full drag tire/wheel setup in back.

    - a twin-turbo 300ZX. maybe into the 11s, but at the time not a lot of people knew much about them. it was the only one ever out there, and he had a great rep. very friendly guy, everyone liked him. he’d get races just because people wanted to have fun racing him.

  • avatar
    cargogh

    Have to watch it again. All I remember is Miss Somers in the Thunderbird.
    I was a ’63 model graduating high school in 1981. There was some drag racing by the guys who later became engineers or mechanics, but in western Ky fast cars were already being replaced with gumbo mudders and 4X4s. These guys stuck around and continued farming.
    Looking back I blame subscriptions to CarandDriver and Road and Track at 11 yrs old to my falling in a different category. I wanted small and light. ’73 Beetle, ’74 Rabbit, ’76 Fiat 128, 78 Fiesta S, and finally after thinking when the GLH came out that crazy Shelby might put a turbo in it, and lo and behold, he did-an ’86 GLH Turbo. (I was long gone by then though.)
    While I lived out in the country, our town had only one traffic light on the court square. At the preferred gas station to meet after school, it was always noted by those that hadn’t noticed before that my inside rear tire was several inches off the ground when I turned in. I guess that fine line between reckless abandon and hooning skill kept my cool factor in tact without requiring an Edelbrock catalog or a ladder. Only my most adrenaline addicted or drunkest friends would ride with me when I said I was going–I’ve forgotten the word. No matter what I was in, it was maxed then. One more pebble under a tire, or 5 more pounds on the driver’s side, and I knew I was in the trees.
    After the city life since I was 21 (Atlanta, Charlotte, Louisville) I bought a place a mile from my old high school and moved back last month. I’ve got an old 740 manual Turbo wagon, and a 300K ’90 Toyota pickup now. Dad’s ’79 Dodge he got right before I turned 16 is still 10 miles away in the barn waiting for a restoration. I drive by the old roads where I probably still hold the county’s record for longest jumps on certain hills. A handful of old friends remember, but it certainly isn’t recorded or on YouTube. At 50, I don’t desire to repeat any of it, but I sure do smile a lot lately.

  • avatar
    chris724

    My dad was 16 years old in 1962, and this is his all time favorite movie. It’s been a long time since I watched it, but I don’t remember it making much of an impression on me.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    It was really weird to see that movie for the first time this year. Everyone had a car and everyone just spent their free time driving around aimlessly. It must have been a phenomenal time to be alive.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      Well, that’s the way it was, at least for me. I did my chores, worked part-time, but when work was done, that’s what we did with our friends, hang out at the drive-ins, cruise aimlessly down the main drag, bang the babes in the back seat. Very much like in the movie.

      • 0 avatar
        hgrunt

        My friends and I drove around a lot in high school on the weekends, but there were no drive ins, no main drag. Just general hoonage, like re-enacting portions of the Dakar Rally in undeveloped desert lots, late at night, or used fast food trays in a big parking lot with an FWD car. Occasionally, we would go to a street race, but unlike F&F, it was usually clapped out Hondas racing each other. This was circa-1990.

        • 0 avatar
          highdesertcat

          Reminds me of my own kids, circa 1985 – 1996 when the youngest one left home.

          Big to-do in my neck of the woods when my kids were still at home was Mudding, Dirt Track Moto-Cross racing, Snowmobiling, Tubing, Skiing and ATV Rallies.

    • 0 avatar
      Cubista

      “Everyone had a car and everyone just spent their free time driving around aimlessly.”

      It was that way in my neighborhood in the Atlanta suburbs in the ’80′s when I was a teenager and it was GREAT. There were a couple of strip mall atolls a couple of miles apart where people would hang out and you’d spend the night ping-ponging between them, seeing who was out, who was doing what, seeing if anyone knew where the party was. And of course you’re checking out all the cars. If you had a part-time job after school and you worked Friday or Saturday night you were pissed about the late start, but you had everyone’s respect because you were working and you were that much closer to being grown up.

      Funny thing…they passed anti-cruising ordnances and the cops started showing up more regularly and counting the number of circuits you made through the parking lot before chasing you off. Soon the cruising scene was dead, the local businesses that had set up shop ended up closing and the places that used to be vibrant and successful but for the annoyance of kids driving their cars (AND spending their money for food, movies, arcade games, general what-have-you) ended up being focal points for gang activity.

      The place became so much of a third world eyesore that when Wal-Mart announced the opening of one of their superstores the news was received without a single note’s protest; that store MIGHT end up revitalizing the area.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      Almost as much fun as filling the Mr Fusions on our flux-capacitors then driving our De Loreans 88mph in a thunderstorm and seeing what year we’d end up in, then trying to figure out how to get home… Good times, man, good times

  • avatar
    Jimal

    Being born in 1970, I saw this movie several times on HBO and later on Saturday afternoons on any of a number of local TV stations at the time. Between it and movies like it, all the Beach Boys music I grew up on (before becoming more of a metal head), Hot Rod/Car Craft and Popular Hot Rodding magazines, and Adam 12/Emergency!/CHiPs, and the other SoCal based TV shows, I was brainwashed into thinking the greater L.A. area was Heaven on Earth. I’ve visited a couple times as an adult and each time I had that same feeling I had as a kid.

    • 0 avatar
      Ron B.

      I didn’t grow up in the USA but when the movie came out I managed to see it 13 times because the cars were exactly what we were driving and hot rodding in …..New Zealand.
      In fact at any movie house that showed it,the line up in the street outside would include lots of 30′s Ford and Chevy examples,lots of 50′s american cars and the occasional camaro etc. My own car at the time was a 1939 Ford Std. V8 Coupe with no interior trim ,a 1948 Mercury engine with triple stromberg 94 carbs , bored and stroked to 296 cubic inch. It was faaster than the 56 belair I sold to buy it,which had a 1964 Corvette 396 HP 327 .
      We were living the culture depicted in the movie…so it came as no surprise to me to find several old freinds from those days were living in California and working in the various famous hot rod building establishments and Posting on the HAMB .

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    “If I had a boy friend ,he’d pound you” the famous line by McKenzie Phillips, As In mama Michelle Phillips of the Mama’s and Papa’s and the Wilson /Phillips recording duo, as in Wilson Bothers of the Beach Boys fame. I guess George Lucas managed to inject some reality into into fanatasy :-) ,Oh and the piss yellow Duece coupe is said to depict the same type of Duece he was driving in ’62.

  • avatar
    CarnotCycle

    I came of age in the mid nineties, but know this movie well because my mother loved it so much. And things were not so different in my time, although the cars were (obviously) different.

    It’s fun to envision what people would think if you took, say, a current CTS-V or M3 back in time and drove it around same night as the movie. Nobody could beat you in a race, and your car would seem like a spaceship; but pop the hood and deep down under the digital bits and injectors, superchargers or cams, there’s same old cross-plane V8.

  • avatar
    Boff

    I’ve never warmed to American Graffiti, although it is one of my wife’s faves. She’s a boomer and I’m Gen X, FWIW. I think my generation (I was born in ’69) did get hosed a bit, coming of age during the Malaise Era. The BMOC at my tony prep school drove a Suzuki Samurai!

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    By the time I started high school in the late sixties the world shown in AG had seemingly vanished unfortunately , at least in my middle class , heavily Jewish public school . Given its demographics , academics were heavily stressed . While I got my drivers license at 16 I never bothered to get my own car until I was in college ,and often walked or rode my bicycle ( being a bit of an odd kid ) tho by then the old man usually took the bus to work downtown ( a bit odd himself in my hood )so I almost always had access to one of my parents’ Pontiacs , especially if I would run errands for mom . There were some much wealthier , usually Jewish kids who had some brand new , and sometimes pretty impressive cars . A couple of them drove new Corvettes , even in that era of increasing insurance rates . Another had a new GTO , and there were several kids who got their licenses at age 14 , and had their own new 442 or Firebird convertibles . One of my cousins had a doting godfather , who gave him a new 1969 Trans Am , which he later drove into a ditch while racing it on the highway to Texas A & M , drunk . Even the auto shop kids drove relatively prosaic cars for the most part during that era of the first Earth Day and anti – Vietnam War demonstrations .Maybe all the reefer everybody was smoking lessened the desire to drive fast , Always felt like I missed out on something .

  • avatar
    luvmyv8

    I dug Falfa’s ’55 Chevy hot rod.

    While not one of my favorites, I’ll still sit down and watch AG.

    My reality was more Fast and the Furious, somewhat. My teen years were the late 90′s and early 00′s. The time before import racing took off. Before it was mainstream. Back when 200 horsepower was still considered “high performance”. My high school parking lot wasn’t anything special, though there are a few I remember. I kid had a first generation Eclipse Turbo, but it wasn’t AWD, just FWD, but it was still fast. Another dude had an ’82 Mustang GT with the early 5.0 that came after the miserable 4.2 V8 joke of an engine. He told me it wasn’t as easy to update as the newer 5.0 engines, but it still held it’s own. He also had a modified 1st generation CRX as well. A girl had a hand me down ’84 Corvette, but she wasn’t a racer. A dude whose dad gave him a ’73 Camaro that was clean and would also let him use his ’69 AMX and I also remember a modded Neon, not sure it really contended. It’s mostly the non racers I vividly remember, the old battered Maverick, my ’88 Maxima that I hooned to no end, the 4 cylinder Mustang that everyone clowned on, my friend and her 5 speed Cavalier that she taught her friends and peers on how to use a manual transmission, the cherry early Bronco that was later involved in a tragic and fatal rollover accident. The girl I had a crush on and her bright red ’93 Prelude Si.

    If I had a choice though, I’d love to go back in time and be a teenager during the muscle car era like my dad….. I’d have a Plymouth Road Runner. Meep meep.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      Damn, things got good in the parking lot at that point in life. I’m class of ’68, and back then damned few students drove to school. Out of a 750-800 student high school (10-12th grade)the student parking lot was maybe 30 cars. And the only one that stands out was a flag twirler two years older than me who had a ’67 Camaro SS with four speed.

      I was more typical. Dad ordered a ’67 Camaro RS (327, Powerglide) and talked it up that he was getting his kid a car. And the word got around, both due to me and his talking it up. Only when it arrived, it suddenly wasn’t my car anymore. And I ended up finally driving it to school the last two days of my senior year, both 3 hour short days. And straight home, as I was timed.

      To his dying day, dad never realized what a fool he’d made of me amongst my peers.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    Babies born in 1960-64 being part of the Boomers is more factual. the birthrate was still high and then dropped somewhat in 1965. The lowest birth year is now 40 years ago 1973. The Gen X ‘boomlet’ was when the birthrate went back up, 1977 through the 80′s. In the 90′s even higher birthrate.

    So, Baby Boom eras are based on facts, but dividing up social groups is more subjective.

  • avatar
    Syke

    I was 23 when the movie came out, saw it in the theater, enjoyed it very much. Was autocrossing a Vega GT at the time.

    Learned to hate it about a decade later. Not for the movie itself, but for what it did to the antique car hobby.

    During the 60′s and 70′s, if you had a vintage car gathering, it was a gathering of restored-to-original antique automobiles. The street rods stayed in their own gatherings. Never the twain met on the same field.

    Sometime in the early 80′s it changed. Suddenly, nobody could be bothered to restore a car to original anymore. At the very least, you had to put on a set of custom wheels, or anything other than the original steelies and hub cabs. And, of course, the cassette player constantly droning out that overplayed ’50′s rock and roll.

    And it got worse. Small block Chevies in everything. Fiberglassed ’32 Ford Vickies. Nothing being restored to original anymore; rather the standard now was ‘build it to what you claim to have driven in high school’.

    And, worst of all, they were getting into the antique meets. And being presented as antique cars – unless you were talking the traditional, hard-core antique meets like AACA Hershey.

    Nope, American Graffiti ruined the antique car hobby. It’s now cruise night, not antique meet.

    Oh yeah, there was a sequel (of course) American Graffriti II. It’s completely forgotten, but was a much better movie than you’d expect. Richard Dreyfus made a career mistake not taking part. Dig it up sometime, you’ll be surprised how enjoyable it was.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    “American Graffiti” a fantasy?

    Well, it was the way it was for many of us old enough to drive in those days! I was born in 1951.

    Of course, in the late 1960′s in Jennings, MO, most of us drove rusted-out bombs of cars, but we did our best to make them presentable. In any event, they were our cars when dad’s car wasn’t available! Many of our parents had the cool ones.

    Later, in Marysville/Yuba City outside my air force base, it was a lot like Modesto, cruising in a circuit that took us either in a tight loop in Yuba City, or crossing the bridges into Marysville and back.

    Of course, I never witnessed a robbery like in the movie, or a couple of other things shown, but my car was a stunningly gorgeous 1964 Impala SS convertible, and it, while not a show car, was certainly a fine-looking ride that served me well during my time in the service.

    Hot Rod magazine had a one-page write-up about the movie soon to be released, and I was very intrigued, as this was early-mid 1973, and 1950s-60s nostalgia was really gearing up. Radio station KXOA in Sacramento broadcast nothing but oldies, on FM at that!

    On my final weekend in California, I went to Sacramento one last time on August 10th to see “Paper Moon” at Sacramento’s Century 21 theater. Imagine my excitement on seeing on the marquee: “Sneak Preview: American Graffiti”! I immediately bought a ticket for the show and with wild anticipation, forgot about the movie I planned on seeing.

    When I finally saw the movie, it became one of the signature movie events of my life up to that time. That picture basically summed up what I was able to live since the late 60′s!

    Later, when the movie was finally released in the St. Louis area, it played at a single theater for a whole year! It was on movie screens after that all over for another year almost – that’s the impact it had on we baby-boomers!

    No, many who were not in the baby-boomer coming-of-age years in the mid-60s do not and will not understand it, same for all other generations. Rose-colored glasses and life’s ups-and-downs aside, it was still a time uniquely ours, regardless of individual circumstances. Mine was a working-poor family, but I still managed to enjoy life, and we all knew we lived in a special era!

  • avatar
    BobinPgh

    I was born in 1958 and would be a boomer and maybe it is because of where I grew up but I found American Graffiti to be incredibly BORING. As bad as 2001 A Space Oddysey but at least that movie was a good looking movie. AG was kind of dark and depressing too. Am I missng something?

  • avatar
    ArBee

    I was Class of 1969, and yes, cruising was what was all about, at least in my medium sized Southern city. There was plenty of entertaining iron roaring around Richmond in the late Sixties and early Seventies, big sharks like Fairlane 390s and GTOs slipping through respectful schools of VWs and Rambler Americans. I was in the VW camp, just enjoying being out there. Great times. Unlike the movie, where some of the characters were suffering some kind of anxiety, we were having a ball and lovin’ life. Yeeehah!

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    A point of disagreement here: Ron Howard was already a child star; and Richard Dreyfus’ career was really sent into orbit with “Jaws.”

    The hot rod culture really began in the late 1950s — see James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” The cars of that era were relatively simple; and the technology wasn’t that difficult to master.

    George Lucas was from California, and AG was pretty much an idealized version of what he experienced growing up. Wolfman Jack was a real DJ, and he broadcast on AM from Mexican station XERB, which ran power in excess of what would be permitted in the U.S. As a result, he had a huge audience, especially at night, when AM radio transmissions easily cover 100s of miles (much more than in daytime).

    Although not from SoCal, I had a college roommate from Los Angeles whose family graciously hosted me in the summer of 1969, while he and I worked the night shift at the Dolley Madison cakes factory on Figueroa Street. My roommate was very much into the car culture, owning a green 1956 Plymouth with steelies and baby moon hubcaps and a 360 cu in (?) V-8. At his insistence, we cruised Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena on Saturday nights, so I could see the real thing.

    Of course, chaining the cop car’s rear axle to a fire hydrant and having the unwitting officers rip it out was something of an urban legend among kids of the time . . . so Lucas put that into the film.

    The film deserves more credit than it sometimes gets for capturing an “innocent” period in U.S. history and very effectively using “cruising” as a metaphor for what all teenagers do trying to find out who they are. Lyndon Johnson’s Americanization of the Vietnam War, begun in a big way in 1965, changed all this. The kind of guys who fooled around with cars usually weren’t the guys who went to college after they graduated high school. By 1965, these guys were drafted into the Army upon graduation . . . and many of them were sent to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Many didn’t come back; and those who did were forever changed by the experience.

    Prior to 1965, these guys were also subject to the draft, (even Elvis was drafted) but, since the U.S. had no big active combat theater, they spent their two years’ military service marching around, peeling potatoes or whatever in non-lethal settings.

    • 0 avatar

      My original draft had a lot of this, especially the latter part, but I decided not to include it in any real detail because it would have distracted from the overall flow of the article.

      The same thing with the part about Ron Howard, there was originally a line that said something along the lines of “A former child star and a bunch of nobodies” but then I thought, what had Ron Howard really done outside of Andy Griffith and was he really bankable until this movie? Not really. Also, according to IMDB, Jaws came out 2 ywars after American Grafitti.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        Ron Howard, pretty much forgotten child star parlayed his appearance in AG into a wildly successful staring role in Happy Days, a TV version of AG. He did a couple of forgettable teen-type movies before becoming a respectable director. The “what comes next” (Viet Nam) is why I always kept AG in the “just a movie” perspective I do. No need to have brought up the whole Viet Nam thing, Those of us old enough know exactly what came next

        • 0 avatar
          BobinPgh

          Happy Days was not like American Graffiti in that it was centered around a family and was a situation comedy and also had other characters to create a story from. I don’t think I ever saw Richie cruising or even Fonzie on the motorcycle all that much. But even so, Laverne and Shirley was more entertaining.

    • 0 avatar
      BobinPgh

      But all that explanation does not change the fact that American Graffiti is incredibly BOOORRRRRING! How could it possibly be at all entertaining?

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        If you can’t relate to the movie then it would be boring to you

        • 0 avatar
          BobinPgh

          I know, but I wonder people think its a “great movie” because the movie directors told them too. For example, MGM hyped the 2001 movie as being a visual masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick. While it is a very good looking movie, most film critics panned it at the time, and they told the truth, 2001 WAS BORING! I am trying to understand what is entertaining about American Graffiti, especially since everyone said it was so great but it is 2 hours I would not get back. Some critics thought the Sound of Music was boring too but there was some entertainment because it was a musical. It was also G rated.

      • 0 avatar
        rpn453

        I know exactly what you mean. I’ve discovered that most sports, television shows, live entertainment, and hobbies are actually boring. Heck, even most of the internet is boring. Music, too. A lot of people haven’t figured out how much more interesting the stuff I like is. I don’t understand it. It’s not like the good stuff is a secret.

  • avatar
    cognoscenti

    Thanks for a fun article, Thomas. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments just as much! I’ll spare everyone my own stories, and just list some of the memorable cars from my group, many of which had great things happen with/in them during high school & the handful of years after:

    1971 Duster 340 (727 auto)
    1971 Mach 1 Mustang
    1971 Plymouth Satellite 360
    1971 Dodge Dart Swinger 340 (this car surprised many, many people!)
    1971 Dodge Demon 340 Six-Pack (with the 4-speed pistol grip)
    1973 Mustang (302, auto)
    1973 Plymouth ‘Cuda (340 car, never ran well/always needed something)
    1978 Camaro (barely streetable drag car)
    1978 Corvette (what an awful car, really)
    1978 Charger (the big Cordoba chassis-mate, with a smog-weakened 360)
    1978 Toyota SR-5 Liftback 5-speed (this car was WAY fun on back roads)
    1983 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe (the non-intercooled one with factory overboost feature)
    1983 Mitsubishi Starion Turbo (increased boost via fabricated stick in manual wastegate FTW!)
    1986 Buick Skyhawk Turbo
    1986 Corvette
    1986 Buick Regal T-Type (no one could afford insurance on a Grand Nat)
    1986 Charger (2.2 weakling)
    1986 Shelby (Omni) GLHS
    1986 Honda CRX si
    1987 Shadow Turbo with factory go-fast parts
    1988 Isuzu I-Mark Turbo
    1989 BMW 325i (5-speed, stock but rolling on Borbet Type Cs)
    1989 Honda CRX si
    1991 Talon tsi AWD 5-speed (heavily modded)

    …and many more I don’t recall at the moment, I’m sure.

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    I was a senior in high school when it came out. The movie was very popular. None or very little of that was going on at my school. There was a somewhat emotionally disturbed kid who prevailed on his parents to get him a ’71 ‘Stang who was oriented that way, but that was about it. Pretty much every upperclassman had access to a car.

    So what was the attraction? We were old enough to remember that hot-rodding stuff, even if we didn’t do it ourselves. The ‘coming of age’ part of the movie was artfully done. But mostly it was a vivid reminder of what we had gone through in little more than ten years; the sixties really ended about 1972-1973 as a practical matter, and we all marveled at the changes that had taken place.

  • avatar
    AH-1WSuperCobra

    It’s funny to me how many things are similar across all generations. I was born in 1982 so when I was driving age in the late 90′s the cars people wanted were the old V8 Mustangs and Camaros. Being that I was from Western NY most of the old Fox Bodies and Third Gens were beyond rusted out. Me personally I loved my rusted out 87 T-Bird with the monstrous 3.8 under the hood. The best car someone had in my school was a 96 Camaro RS his parents bought him. Most everyone else I knew rocked their beat up Escorts and Japanese Eco Boxes wishing it had more cylinders.

    To me its also interesting how war has changed. In American Graffiti Vietnam definitely had a major negative impact on the main characters. Fast forward to the summer of 2003 and shortly after my squadron got back from Iraq the parking lot was full of brand new 350z’s and other high performance cars that some young Marine blew all his deployment money on.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Thanx Thomas ! .

    As usual , well written and enjoyable to read .

    In 1962 I was in rural New England where you’d see 1930′s vintage John Deere ‘A’ & ‘B’ Model tractors at the IGA during the week days , Friday nights through the weekends was cruising but mostly old rusted out pickup trucks ,occasionally some rich kid in his Daddy’s nice ’59 Buick Sedan .

    By 1973 I was living in Pasadena and the big local cruise was Van Nuys Blvd. , after too much silliness L.A.P.D. intervened & chased us away so it came back to Pasadena’s Colorado Blvd. & Valley Blvd. in Alhambra for a while .

    Like many I’d been bitten by the small and light bug , I was a Mechanic so I got off duty by 5:00 PM and was never late .

    My little VW Beetles or vintage pickup trucks never impressed any one , bicycles could prolly have beat me .

    Good times , I miss them greatly and I went to see American Graffiti the first weekend it came out .

    For the whiners who found AG ‘ BOR-ing ! ‘ , so was Fast & Furious but at least we have the manners not to say so over and over and over….

    Your needle dick is showing , fool .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      cargogh

      Nate, I think you summed that up.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        Thank you Sir .

        There was never any shortage of big V-8′s in The East as the rust ate up cars fast , many Farm Boys learned how to weld early on and built ” skidders ” on spindly old 1930′s chassis using 1950′s GM Buick , etc. engines , they were fast and fairly uncontrolled in the dirt where they played most of the time not being road legal in any fashion .

        I had a badly rusted out ’59 Ford F100 pickup truck from Ayers AFB , paid $25 for it, running , 225 I6 and three On The Tree , fried Leece – Neville 100 Ampere alternator as it had been a runway crash truck ~ I used ’68& ’69 New Hampshire license tags (they were aluminum) , a drill motor and a BIG bag of War Surplus self tapping screws to build a new floor then assembled a good used generator from several old junkers lying in the lower flooded fields where all farms sent dead machines to die , Lo ! I was mobile , long before driving age =8-) Larry , the local LEO / volunteer Fireman / Etc. sent to keep an eye on us East Rindge kids , made sure I knew to drive on back roads and never where anyone one important would see me as he’d have to put a stop to it all , instead I learned life lessons about persistence, hard work , diligence and so on , all from a junk pickup truck .

        -Nate


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