What's The Best Car Movie? My Take: American Graffiti

J Sutherland
by J Sutherland

‘American Graffiti’ exploded onto the movie screen in the early 70s, a little over 10 years after it happened 1962, according to the movie plot.

“Where were you in ’62?” became the question of the day in the movie trailer. Back when, most of us wished that we had been old enough to cruise around in the cool ’62-era iron shown in ‘American Graffiti’. Today, we wish we would have been born after that.

The movie was essentially a coming-of-age movie that followed the lives of several people over the course of a long night’s journey into a drag race at dawn. Most of the actors were unknowns at the time, but some went on to major fame later in their careers, while others never really went beyond their 15 minutes of fame in ‘American Graffiti’.

The cars in the movie will always be the biggest stars for most car guys. There were plenty of classic rides in the movie. 1962 was a time when teenagers jumped behind the wheel of a car packed with their buddies and hit the main streets in every town in North America.

The radio blasted out rock and roll to set the mood and a then-current crop of teenagers set their hormones on high and went looking for love in all the right places for 60s romance: in cars. It was a mating ritual that was repeated every weekend of every hot summer night in every town in 1962.

You were what you drove in ’62 because the car did indeed make the man – or at least the teenaged male facsimile behind the wheel of the car. The car show in ‘American Graffiti’ portrayed that era almost flawlessly with the exception of a time-warp Mustang and 1967 Chevy fleetingly caught in some of the shots.

The two major car stars of ‘American Graffiti’ were the 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe and the 1955 Chevy. Best supporting car awards go to the 1958 Chevy Impala and the 1956 Ford Thunderbird. The list of extras in terms of cars featured in the movie was too long to itemize, but George Lucas made sure that his movie had plenty of classic cars in it.

The movie centered on the antics of a group of friends that ranged from very cool (Milner) to very nerdy (Toad) who had inexplicably become friends prior to the start of the movie. The plotline was pretty funny, but every car guy on the planet wanted to see the final showdown between the Deuce and the ’55.

Milner’s Deuce had dominated the streets before the arrival of a stranger with a ’55 Chevy 2 door post who had been spotted around town and duly noted as a threat to Milner’s title as the baddest ride on the street. A traffic light warm-up race had proven that the Deuce was about to be seriously challenged because neither car was a clear winner.

Even the song on the radio was perfect. Bobby Freeman’s classic ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ was blasting out a musical street challenge during the warm-up race between the Deuce and the Chevy. Dancing in the streets in ’62 usually meant tire smoke and horsepower domination, so the song was right for the movie moment.

The ultimate showdown occurred after Milner set his exhausts on full header and met the Chevy to settle the score in a highway race at dawn. The results were once again unclear because the ’55 was destroyed in a rollover, but Milner felt that he had been beaten prior to the crash.

Car guys love this movie because it is a 2 hour car show that ends in a race. Sure Milner’s Deuce may have been beaten by the ’55 in the final race, but every car guy knows that somebody a little faster is always just around the corner in every town. You can hold the crown-just not forever-and then you have to start all over again to beat the new champ.

And what is your perfect car movie?

J Sutherland
J Sutherland

Online collector car writer/webmaster and enthusiast

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  • Ltcmgm78 Ltcmgm78 on Mar 26, 2013

    "Used Cars" with Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Deborah Harmon, and Gerrit Graham. Only because the first part of the movie makes me laugh out loud. Russell pushes a sand bag under one of the rear tires of a station wagon some hapless family is testing. When they drive over it Russell yells that they've just run over his dog that he's had since it was a puppy. Another sale!

  • Cubista Cubista on Apr 05, 2013

    "Mad Max". I was 12 when it came out and the notion that there could be another country on the planet that had a car culture similar to (if not more maniacally devoted than) the United States was an eye-opening experience. The Ford Falcon XB Coupe is one of my favorite designs of all time...so I was pretty stoked when Eric Bana's "Love The Beast" documentary made its way to the States, as well. And yeah, "The Fast & The Furious"...for a guy who grew up when performance cars were either exotic sports cars or hot-rodded US muscle/pony cars, the import scene was something new and interesting, so much so that these days my dream car has become the Evo X.

  • 28-Cars-Later "The unions" need to not be the UAW and maybe there's a shot. Maybe.
  • 2manyvettes I had a Cougar of similar vintage that I bought from my late mother in law. It did not suffer the issues mentioned in this article, but being a Minnesota car it did have some weird issues, like a rusted brake line.(!) I do not remember the mileage of the vehicle, but it left my driveway when the transmission started making unwelcome noises. I traded it for a much newer Ford Fusion that served my daughter well until she finished college.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Couple of questions: 1) who will be the service partner for these when Rivian goes Tits Up? 2) What happens with software/operating system support when Rivia goes Tits Up? 3) What happens to the lease when Rivian goes Tits up?
  • Richard I loved these cars, I was blessed to own three. My first a red beauty 86. My second was an 87, 2+2, with digital everything. My third an 87, it had been ridden pretty hard when I got it but it served me well for several years. The first two I loved so much. Unfortunately they had fuel injection issue causing them to basically burst into flames. My son was with me at 10 years old when first one went up. I'm holding no grudges. Nissan gave me 1600$ for first one after jumping thru hoops for 3 years. I didn't bother trying with the second. Just wondering if anyone else had similar experience. I still love those cars.
  • TheEndlessEnigma A '95 in Iowa, I'm thinking significant frame and underbody rust issues.