Wednesday, November 17, 2010


One of the most unforgettable scenes in American Graffiti is where Curt attaches one end of a metal cable to a light post and the other to the rear axle of a patrol car. As the car shifts into gear and leaps forward the trans-axle and two rear wheels are yanked out from under it. I don't know about you, but I've had various people tell me they know someone who knows someone who actually did this prank. But, nobody ever takes personal responsibility for doing it.  Where did the idea come from? Can this really happen?  How did the crew manage to pull off such a stunt?  Let's find out:


"Stand by for justice!"  These are the words Curt yells right before the patrol car loses its rear axle.   It is an amazing spectacle to watch as the patrol car hurdles up and out, airborne for a moment then noses down and then jumps along the pavement, sending out sparks as it screeches to a stop.  This dramatic display of rebelliousness channeled into an anonymous act was not the first time this stunt was recorded on film.  

About ten years before Graffiti was in production, this same stunt was performed on the family sit-com, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. In episode #231, "Wally's Practical Joke," (which originally aired May 23, 1963), Eddie Haskell and Wally Cleaver fastened one end of a chain around a tree trunk and the other around the rear axle of their friend, Lumpy's car.  The intent was to prevent the car from being driven away. When Lumpy tried to move his car it caused unforeseen damage as the entire third member and wheels became detached.


 1. Lumpy's car is chained to a tree.                  2. Eddie and Wally watch from the bushes.

3. Lumpy accelerates the car forward.            4. Chain tightens & axle is yanked from car.

5. The car slides to a stop and sits in the middle of the street at a 20 degree angle.

The stunt in this 1963 episode is a little disappointing because the viewer never gets to actually see the axle being torn away or the car sliding into the street.  The results of the same stunt in American Graffiti were much more spectacular as the red light on the patrol car starts flashing and the siren wails.  Moments later the car sits on the ground at a 20-degree angle while its engine whines at top speed.  The stunt was so memorable that more than 30 years later it was still in the minds of many film fans. This prompted the producers of the TV series, MYTHBUSTERS to attempt the same stunt to see if it could really be done.


On the 13th episode of the first season which originally aired Jan 11, 2004, the show's hosts, Adam and Jamie attempted to answer once and for all: Can a car be ripped off its rear axle like in American Graffiti?  The hosts used a late model remote control police car with its axle tied to a telephone pole by 75 ft. of cable.  When they replicated the circumstances the cable broke without any damage to the car.  In order to duplicate the results as in the movie they had to use a larger cable than was used in the film, bolts were loosened, and the axle was severely weakened by torching through 70-90% of each of the 4 control arms.



Under these conditions the rear axle was able to be pulled loose but got caught on the underside of the police car and could not clear the trunk. The hosts, theorized that a ramp was used in American Graffiti to give the car and axle enough of a boost to wrench the axle completely free. Therefore, they concluded a car cannot be ripped off its rear axle like in American Graffiti.  "The myth is busted, Jamie summarized, "Its just not gonna happen by itself. Not with anything remotely like the circumstances you saw in the movie."

 Wait one damn minute!

Before we let those Mythbusters have the last word let's pause for a moment.  Was this really an accurate experiment?  Not really.  Perhaps you classic car buffs have caught the flaw already. The car used in the film is over 30 years older than the one used in the Mythbusters' experiment.  This is important because the Ford Galaxie used in the movie had a leaf spring rear suspension which could actually be ripped out much more easily than with stout coil springs found in newer cars.  So, I believe that a car probably could be ripped all the way off its rear axle without having to remove any bolts, etc.  However, to get air the way the cop car does in the film is a different story.

A recreation @ Petaluma Graffiti Celebration 2008
Our crack research team has theorized that one way to get a car to actually jump up in the air when it is ripped from the axle is to take the bolts out of the mounts at the front of the spring and let them rest on the perchases that are welded to the frame. It would also be necessary to remove part of the shackles at the rear of the springs so the rear-end would come out easily.  This way the spring would help to catapult the car into the air.

George Lucas was able to achieve the awesome spectacle without a ramp as the hosts of MythBusters had surmised. For the film, the entire rear axle of the car was cut away from the frame and body and the cable was attached.  The other end of the metal cable was not attached to a light pole (as in the story) but rather to a wench on a heavy-duty 10-wheel tow truck that was parked in the darkness at the far end of the lot.

As the car sped away from its parked location, at the exact moment when it crossed the sidewalk, the wench was activated. The pulling of the cable along with the force of the forward moving car caused the axle to be effectively yanked from beneath the car. Before the stunt was filmed there was some concern by the production staff that the car might actually flip over and land on its roof.  Luckily, this never happened. A few years back this stunt was recreated in the same lot with a ’61 Fairlane during the Petaluma's Salute to American Graffiti event in May of 2008. Many of the original Production Staff were there to participate.  The event was filmed and may still be available on DVD at the Petaluma Celebrates American Graffiti website.

Car and axle on display in Jerry's Cherry (looking out toward street) at Petaluma's Salute to American Graffiti, 2008


-Leave it to Beaver Season Guide.  Leave it to Beaver Season 6 (1962-63). Share TV website.  Retrieved 11/01/2010.

-Mythbusters Episode Guide: 2004. Retrieved 11/14/2010.

-Stand by for Justice. Petaluma's Salute to American Graffiti website.  Retrieved 11/16/2010


  1. Thanks for pointing out the fallacy of that MythBusters show. I yelled foul when I originally saw it. They didn't even try to replicate the circumstances. Bogus!

    For the movie stunt the tow truck's wench cable would have been elevated, pulling up at an angle. And you notice that they seemed to take advantage of the driveway approach's drop as well. Both those factors would have helped to throw the car's ass end up in the air.

    You know, when I saw American Graffiti in the theater, I never questioned this stunt. Seemed plausible to me.

    Thanks for another killer lesson Professor.

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