Friday, January 21, 2011

Themes & Symbols Pt. 1

American Graffiti co-writers, Gloria Katz & George Lucas.
Many great filmmakers tend to revisit certain themes in their work and George Lucas is no exception.  In his first three films Lucas has been very consistent in his themes and obsessions. THX-1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars all share a certain continuity in ideas that are explored.  With these posts I've  attempted to extract and examine the themes and literary devices used in Lucas' second and best feature film.


Although change can be a scary concept, one can't hold on to history.  Things change and life goes on.  This point is illustrated in various ways throughout the film.  For example, when Curt strolls down the empty school halls and tries the combination on his old locker he can't get into it; time has passed, and he can no longer be part of his old high school days.
Young filmmaker, George Lucas
The concept of moving forward and not living in the past is a major theme in Graffiti.  Nobody knows this better than Lucas, himself.  In 1987 George Lucas told Rolling Stone magazine, "I got to do what I wanted to do by not being frightened away by the future and the unknown, and I figured that was a good message to get across." Lucas stresses that life is a constant transition, and one has to accept that fact.  Clinging to the past only leads to spiritual stagnation and other problems.  In a 1974 interview Lucas illustrated this point, "You know, the brittle bow breaks.  The willow bends with the wind and stays on the tree.  You try to fight it, like John did, and you lose.  You're not going to remain 18 forever."


The use of cars in Graffiti works as a metaphor on several levels. The cars can be viewed as transporting the characters through change but also as limiting them.  For instance, when the nerdish, Toad inherits his buddy’s elegant '58 Impala for the night he becomes much cooler.  Just having a vehicle to drive up and down the circuit increases his chances with the opposite sex. On the other hand, John cruising in his little deuce coupe can be seen as a metaphor for stagnation.  John is a 22-year-old teenager who notices that the cruising strip is "really shrinking." He has the sensation that things are changing around him and out of fear he desperately tries to cling to his adolescence; he is driving in circles and going nowhere.

Is Milner just spinning his wheels?

George Lucas has described cruising as a teenage mating ritual, where interaction takes place between the opposite sex. Through car windows young people communicate acknowledgements and flirtations. Some film scholars have identified cruising and particularly the car itself, in Graffiti as representing protection from a larger society.  Writer Emanuel Levy is a good example of this viewpoint. In his book "Cinema of Outsiders," Levy notes that in Graffiti, the car window is a convenient shield to the outside world.   
Lobby card of '55 Chevy & '32 Coupe dragging the main. (click for larger pic)
"As the film's real star, the car provides emotional security and physical protection, serving as a metaphor for American Society in the 60s, as complacent, naive, and isolationist in foreign policy," says Levy.  Although this viewpoint about cars and foreign policy seems to stretch the metaphorical element a bit thin, it is certainly worth considering.  After all, compared to the impending buildup of American troops in Vietnam only a few years later, the United State's, involvement in other country's affairs was of no big concern to most-especially teenagers.  Therefore, people tend to think of the '50s as a time of innocence.

And, She'll Have Fun, Fun, Fun...

Lucas has said that he invented the blonde girl in the T-Bird as a metaphor for the ideal that is always just out of reach. In Graffiti, Curt chases the mysterious blonde all evening while she eludes
The ideal is always just out of reach
 him.  Nobody really seems to know who she is and each person thinks she's somebody else. She is like a dream
 in a white dress and a white car.  Some film scholars have pointed out the similarities between the blonde in the T-Bird and the green light at the end of a pier in The Great Gatsby.  In the story Gatsby sees the green light as hope for a relationship with Daisy. Both the blonde in Graffiti and the green light in Gatsby are recognized as representing all of the protagonist's wants and desires which includes the elusive American Dream.  Once Curt sees the blonde he is pulled into an emotion doomed to frustration and a desire impossible to satisfy. He becomes passionately committed to the unattainable.  At the end of Graffiti, Curt realizes the futility of  the pursuit.  In the post script we learn after college he migrated to Canada to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War.  Once there he probably chose to chase another dream: writing THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL.


There are close ties between Lucas' teenage car obsession and his filmmaking. This can be seen in his earliest work such as the1966 USC student film, 1:42:08: A Man and His Car.  The wordless film depicts a race car driver, (Daytona designer, Pete Brock,) trying to qualify for a race in a Lotus at Riverside.  He finishes the lap in 1 minute 42.08 seconds.   Lucas was very pleased with his 5 minute, student film.  "It was interesting to me because I was interested in cars and the visual impact of a person going against the clock," he recalls. Lucas made a more abstract experimental film (also from 1966), exploring the reflections of traffic on the glistening surface of a car at night. This theme of man and machine would reappear later.  Lucas' first three features have some motor powered form of transportation that is crucial to the story..

                           RADIO IS FANTASY!

The Emperor, Bob Hudson.
In the past Lucas has said he found people's familiarity with technology particularly radio, to be intriguing.  In 1973 he told Seventeen magazine, "Radio creates a fantasy that doesn’t exist at all except in your own mind." He first explored this theme in his 1967 USC student film, The Emperor. The B&W, 24 minute, film is an opus to  Bob Hudson a very talented veteran southern California disc jockey.  The film, in a jokey manner, comments on the background and popularity of the sarcastic DJ at KFWB and the idea that radio is a fantasy.  The film is filled with a cool rock soundtrack of early sixties classics. Many people who've viewed this film find it to be Lucas' most enjoyable student effort. Although Hudson is featured in the 16-mm student project, the DJ was not Lucas' first choice for the part.  In Dale Pollock's book, Skywalking, Lucas told the author,  "I had always been interested in the phenomenon of radio and originally wanted to do the film with Wolfman Jack, but I didn't know where he was. I was amused by the fact that people have a relationship with a deejay that they've never seen but to whom they feel very close because they're with him everyday.  For a lot of kids, he's the only friend they've got."

Fortunately, by 1972 the DJ had begun broadcasting a live 7-Midnight nightly show on the Los Angeles radio station, KDAY.   Bob Smith aka Wolfman Jack was no longer the mysterious, elusive personality broadcasting from Mexico that he had once worked hard to foster.  Locating him was easy. The  co-writers of Graffiti, who lived several blocks from the station, approached him and he immediately agreed to be in Lucas' new film.  With Wolfman acting as a Greek Chorus, seemingly commenting on all the action. Lucas was able to make the kind of movie that he really wanted to make.  With his gravely voice, Wolfman Jack blasts rock 'n' roll tunes, makes prank phone calls (some staged, others real), takes requests, and creates a whole pre-recorded fantasy world that is aired from some undisclosed location. Although every kid in the film has their own idea or fantasy of what they imagine the Wolfman to look like, each feels that they know him personally.
He is their friend, father figure, and guardian angel all rolled into one.
 Just like the omnipotent, OMM in THX-1138 and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars; Wolfman Jack in Graffiti is a God-like figure to the kids who listen to him every night. 

End of Part 1


  • Artifacts from the Future: The Making of THX: 1138. Prod. Dir. and Ed., Gary Leva.  Supplementary to THX: 1138 Director’s Cut. DVD. (1970, 1998).  Warner Brothers. 
  • Baxter, John. (1999). Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas. New York.  Avon Books.
  • Greenspan, Roger. (Aug 13, 1973).  American Graffiti. New York Times.
  • Levy, Emanual. (1999). Cinema of Outsiders. New York. New York University Press. 
  • Pollock, Dale. (1983,1999).  Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas.  Updated Edition. New York, DeCapo Press.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


On a promotional tour, Cindy Williams poses with Milner's coupe. 1973.
If one word could sum up the theme in Graffiti it would be "change." Although often passed off as a simple nostalgia flick, there are several distinctions between Graffiti and other films and TV shows that recall the 1950s. One key difference is that Graffiti is not about the 50s - its about the end of the 50s, the end of an era. The knowledge of change and time passing is expressed throughout the film in very clever and inventive ways.
The story is set in 1962, at a time when the country had a president that most young people admired. Social values were clear and easily defined and although the country wasn't without it's problems, most believed somehow democracy in the free world could solve just about anything Yet, the attitudes of young people were starting to change.  U.S. involvement in South-East Asia began to escalate and the civil rights movement was starting to take hold
College students do the twist on a Fort Lauderdale beach. March 20, 1962.
Civil rights leader Malcom X
The eleven years that followed 1962 were overwhelming. In June of 1963 NAACP's Field Director Medgar Evars was murdered.  Five months later, President Kennedy was also murdered. His successor, Lyndon Johnson was practically forced from office, due to his escalation of American troops in Vietnam.  In 1973, the same year American Graffiti was released, the Watergate political scandal hearings were held and televised almost daily which would eventually lead to President Richard Nixon resigning the following year.  He was the only president to do so while in office.

Other aspects of this eleven-year span are just as dark.  A favorite American politician, Robert Kennedy was murdered while running for president in 1968.  Another politician, George Wallace was shot and crippled while campaigning in 1972. And two of the countries strongest and most influential civil rights leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot and killed.

All these things contributed to the erosion of optimism in the free world.  In his book "The Day Before Yesterday," historian, Michael Elliot has pointed out that the single factor that contributed most to American's lack of faith in the government was the politics of the Vietnam War and later, Watergate.  The lies and corruption that came from the White House worked to create a general cynicism in Americans in 1973 when Graffiti was first released, and that cynicism still lingers today.
The Vietnam War lead many Americans to lose faith in the government.

Using 1962 as a year of transition George Lucas beautifully parallels this cultural change with the lives of the teenagers in the film.  By the very nature of the characters being teenagers there is certain innocence to them.  They are perhaps aware of the world around them but other things are more important to them like kissing girls, cruising, and listening to the radio.

The two main characters, Steve and Curt are making decisions about what they want to do in life. They are prepared to go to college on the east coast by leaving their small hometown, their families, and everything they know behind.  They want to leave but they are also afraid to leave.  Each is ambivalent; having feelings of sadness about letting go of the safety of their familiar world but also exhilarated at the sense of new possibilities.  They're on the brink of change, just as American culture was in 1962. The film ends with one of them breaking away, and leaving behind his sheltered, insulated hometown. He is, in a sense, leaving behind an old era and moving forward towards a new age on the horizon.

With “Graffiti,” the young film auteur presented the issue of growing up, moving out, and taking responsibility in an accessible manner that influenced a generation of filmmakers. It clearly inspired countless films but what about the film that inspired Lucas to make “Graffiti?”  Making a film that explores this “breaking away” trauma with a group of friends is an idea that was clearly inspired by Fellini’s, “I Vitelloni.”  We'll stop here for now.  To learn more about the film that inspired American Graffiti continue on to Part III.


  • Artifacts from the Future: The Making of THX: 1138. Prod. Dir. and Ed., Gary Leva.  Supplementary to THX: 1138 Director’s Cut. DVD. (1970, 1998).  Warner Brothers. 
  • Baxter, John. (1999). Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas. New York.  Avon Books.
  • Greenspan, Roger. (Aug 13, 1973).  American Graffiti. New York Times.
  • Levy, Emanual. (1999). Cinema of Outsiders. New York. New York University Press. 
  • Margolis,  Jon.  (1999). The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964 – The Beginning of the “Sixties.”  New York.  William Morrow and Company, Inc. 
  • Pollock, Dale. (1983,1999).  Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas.  Updated Edition. New York, DeCapo Press.

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011


    Here are a few choices of banners to link from your page to us!!
    Just save the banner you like and copy the necessary HTML and paste it into your page.
     399 x 105

    227 x 80

    227 x 106


    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Themes & Symbols Pt. III : I VITELLONI (1953)

    Movie poster for Federico Fellini's 1953 film, I VITELLONI

    The storyline for AMERICAN GRAFFITI was inspired by a movie that Lucas admired very much. A devotee of post-war European films, Lucas has said Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini's, I VITELLONI (1953) directly influenced him. "I’d always liked the idea of Fellini’s film, I Vitelloni, which is the same issue, about growing up, and taking responsibility, moving out of the house, and that whole trauma. It was one of the themes in my first film, THX-1138 and I wanted to expand on it." Lucas' second feature film is strikingly similar in its structure in both the beginning and end and in its general theme. The film, (originally titled "The Young and the Passionate" in the US), begins as the summer season is coming to a close and Fausto is planning to move away from the limited confines of his small hometown for someplace far away. He tries to persuade his reluctant buddy, Moraldo to leave with him. The film ends with the roles reversed. Fausto decides to stay in town to be close to his girlfriend (who is pregnant) while Moraldo, on the other hand, chooses to abandon his hometown for greener pastures. The theme of ambivalence about leaving the safe confines of one's hometown runs throughout the film.

    The word vitelloni translates to "big veals" or "overgrown calves," a reference to the group's continuing dependence upon their parents even though they’re grown.
    Although it has a loose structure and is strangely narrated, compared to Fellini’s later work such as "8 ½" and "La Dolce Vita," the story line is fairly comprehensible.
    Fausto's father admonishes  his son's  immaturity.
    The semi-autobiographical masterpiece follows the adventures of a group of five young adult “vitelloni,” or slackers living in a small coastal town.  The "vitelloni's" biggest ambitions are playing pool and finding their next sexual conquest.  All of them still live at home with their parents, but instead of working a job, going to school, or learning a trade, they choose to stay out all night, and generally just hang out. The friends are clinging hopelessly to their adolescents while they struggle to come to terms with adult responsibilities.   They may have dreams, but the only way for any of the guys to fulfill their dreams is to leave their hometown.   But none seem too motivated. They are desperate to get out yet terrified to leave.
    The film  begins by introducing each character one by one as the camera pans around the group.  Filmmaker Martin Scorsese put this technique to good use many years later in  GOODFELLAS.  Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), described in voiceover narration as the "spiritual leader" of the group, although "skirt chaser" would be a more adequate description; Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) labels himself a playwright yet has never got around to having his work finished or produced; Alberto (Alberto Sordi), an immature "mama's boy," who lives off of his sister's financial support, yet expects her to honor him as the head of the family; Riccardo, (played by Fellini's real life brother, Riccardo), is a musician and the least memorable character whose only purpose in the film appears to be providing the gang with transportation via his car. And, finally, there's the complex Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the intellectual of the group, who is aware of the insular and limited nature of their lives, and the only one frustrated enough to do something about it.  He is the consciousness of the film


    The feeling of wanting to reach one’s potential but being scared to pursue it is a theme that runs through both "Vitelloni" and "Graffiti."  Everyone has choices to make and with those choices comes uncertainty and doubt. There is a character in both films whom, although
    On the set: Fellini (left) discusses the script with Jean Brochard (right)
    fearful, confronts his fears and pursues his ambitions by the end of the story.  He is the sensitive intellectual - a dreamer of the bunch, and is pursuing a professional career as a writer. This character serves as an autobiographical surrogate for the director.  In Vitelloni the character is Moraldo and in Graffiti he is Curt.  Federico Fellini grew up in the small seaside town of Rimini.  In order to follow his bliss he had to abandon the safe comforts of his hometown and the companionship of his friends for the metropolis of Rome in Italy.  Similarly, George Lucas made the choice to leave his small hometown of Modesto CA in order to pursue his dreams as a filmmaker at the University of Southern California in Los Angles. 

                           The men are trapped in a claustrophobic world of family and                            relationships that leads to their inevitable stagnation.

    Despite the many parallels between the two films there are some notable distinctions. For example, the supporting characters in each film are dissimilar and demonstrate opposing personalities. Whereas, "Graffiti," is filled with a group of likable friends, it becomes difficult to find affection for the freeloading drifters in "I Vitteloni."  The group are as pathetic as they are laughable.  Hot Rodder, John Milner seems like someone you'd want to hang out with, or emulate, but if you saw immature, Vitteloni character, Alberto coming you'd probably move to the other side of the road.

    Another contrast is the stark black & white of Fellini's film with the saturated color of American Graffiti.  The two movies couldn't be more visually different.  In "Vitteloni," black and white works to emphasize the drab, dull isolated seaside town and the harsh realities of growing up where nothing is glorified.  On the other hand, the bright saturated primary colors in American Graffiti practically jump out at the viewer as flashing neon and reflecting car chrome help create a teenage fantasy.


    Each director beautifully portrayed the pivotal juncture in their lives with poignancy, and humor which in turn marked another pivotal point in their career.  The popularity of the film allowed the director to make the film that would shoot them into international standing. Fellini's next feature was the classic, LA STRADA, while Lucas followed his second feature with STAR WARS.  Legendary filmmaker, Martin Scorsese has summarized the theme of I Vitelloni , by reflectively saying, "[The film] captures the bittersweet emotions of a moment that eventually comes for everyone.  The moment you can either grow up or stay a child forever."  This analysis could just as easily apply to American Graffiti.

       By the end of the film Moraldo, in the middle of the night,  finds the courage to leave his hometown in search of a better life.
    As we close the third part of THEMES & SYMBOLS, I'll summarize the content by noting that George Lucas at 28 years old created a masterful cinematic work with American Graffiti.  From a loose, autobiographical perspective, he recreated and documented the car cruising culture of his teenage years.  Within the film, themes and motifs were utilized that were first evident in his student films at USC, his first feature, THX-1138 and later re-examined in Star Wars.  The fact that Lucas has been able to re-visit and explore similar themes in vastly different contexts is a testament to the consistency and quality of his work.

    - FIN -


    • American film Institute. George Lucas Interview.  Excerpt on You Tube. Posted 10/30/2009. Retrieved 2/01/2014.
    • I Vitellnoi  DVD. (1953, 2005). Criterion.
    • My Voyage to Italy. Dir. Martin Scorsese. DVD. (2003). Dist. Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
    • Vitelloni, I - Film (Movie) Plot and Review - Publications.  Retrieved 12/26/2010. 
    • Wiegand, Christopher. (2003).  Frederico Fellini: the complete films.  Cologne, Germany. Taschen Books.

      Saturday, January 1, 2011


      The coupe on Frates Rd. aka Paradise Road, Petaluma, CA.
      The yellow chopped deuce coupe in American Graffiti is probably one of the most famous cars in motion picture history. It was purchased in the LA area by Graffiti Producer, Gary Kurtz who paid about $1300 for the ‘32 and chose it mainly because it already had a 3" chopped top.  At the time the famous car was not painted yellow but was primer grey with red fenders and had truly seen better days.  Kurtz told Street Rodder Magazine in 1973 that a lot of money was poured into getting the car to run properly.  "The guy who had it before us had done some work with rodded it up a little bit...not visually, but internally.  And, there were some remnants of that.  That's why we had trouble with it - because of the transmission and several other components which were not in 100% mint condition."  After purchasing, transportation-manager, Henry Travers had the enviable task of overseeing the coupe's construction into a real street rod.

      A blue garter belt with a flasher John F. Kennedy political pin
      was hung from the mirror.   Lobby Card # 5. 

      The coupe at dusk Petaluma, CA 2008
      Because filming was initially to take place in San Rafael, CA, practicality dictated that the car be rebuilt nearby.  So, Travers put the 5-window coupe onto a trailer bed and towed it to Bob Hamilton's shop in Ignacio to modify the body.  Per Lucas' request the coupe was to be converted into a highboy with motorcycle front fenders, and bobbed back fenders.  This style emphasized the fender laws that car owners had to contend with back in the early sixties.  In addition, the car was outfitted with  aluminum headlight stanchions, chrome plating for the dropped I-beam solid axle, and the front grill and shell were sectioned a few inches.

      Parked on the sidewalk in front of the bank building at Petaluma Blvd. N. & Western Ave Petaluma, CA.  2008.

      When it was time to add some muscle to the engine the coupe was taken to Johnny Franklin's Mufflers in Santa Rosa. Once there, the engine was fitted with a Man-A-Fre intake manifold topped with (four) Rochester two-barrel carbs.  Generic valve covers were added to the small-block Chevy engine, along with fuelie heads and Sprint race car style exhaust pipes.


      There has been some controversy over the exact size of the engine.  Steve Fredericks, was the first author to write about the coupe in a major publication, that this writer is aware of.  In the March 1974 Street Rodder he describes the car as having a stock Chevy 283.  In the May 1976 issue of Street Rodder, the American Graffiti cars were featured and again the coupe is described as having a 283 engine, this time by author Pat Ganahl. But, fast forward to October 1983, where both movie cars, the '55 Chevy and the Coupe, and their owner, Steve Fitch were featured in Car Craft magazine and the Coupe is described as being powered by a 327.  All subsequent articles have since detailed the car as sporting a 327. So what's the story on this dissonance of these descriptions?  Was the engine swapped at some point?  Perhaps the old engine was pulled and a new one installed between the original film and its sequel? Or, were the early descriptions wrong?

      A pic taken in 2005 shows the coupe powered with a 327 and four (rusty) 2-barrel carburetors.

      I recently spoke with the coupe's current owner, Rick Figari at the 2011 Sacramento Autorama, to try to clear up this mess.  To those at the Autorama who've asked, he's told them the engine is a 283.  And, Rick told me, flat out that the car has always had the same engine.  He's never heard any hard facts giving credence to the speculation and seriously doubts that the engines were ever swapped. "If you listen to the engine in More American Graffiti, you can tell the car is not running right,"  Figari said.  "The butterflies on two of the carbs were stuck and Henry Travers told me he couldn't get them to work right."  Now, if Universal Studios wasn't going to spend money on replacing the carbs for the sequel, why would they spend the money to replace an engine?  Figari further reasoned, "Since the Coupe had such a small part in the sequel, Universal was not going to spend any more then they had to."   More than likely the only money spent on the car for the sequel, besides the cost of getting it running again, was a yellow paint job for the body, a quick black spray paint job on the grille, and a few other minor cosmetic repairs.
      The car's red & white upholstery was died black.

      So that ends the mystery of the swapped engines, right?  Not exactly.  Despite Rick's insistence that the engine has always been a 283, a few enthusiastic car experts at the Autorama pointed out some distinctive features of the block that proved it NOT to currently be a 283.  So, whose right?  Who knows.  Maybe the engine's actual size has never been correctly identified.  Regardless, the speculations, debates, and dogma only add to the mystery and legend of the coupe. For an update on this topic check out our post: THE UNIVERSAL YEARS: FOLLOWING THE PROGRESSION OF A MOTOR.  Let's move on now, shall we?...

      A T-10 four speed was added with the drive train ending in a '57 Chevy rear-end mounted to a late 40's Ford spring and crossmember.  Next, the coupe was taken to Orlandi's Body Shop in San Rafael. Orlandi's son, Don was in his late teens and he worked 8 hours for the family business each day.  So, when the coupe was brought into the shop it was he and the other employees that painted the car. Don remembers, "I didn't paint the deuce coupe originally.  It came to us painted yellow. So when I was originally going to paint it I started off with something that I was spraying in the shop but I wound up spraying it with something on the bench.  The door hinges were black and I painted them yellow." When asked about specifics of the car's color he remembers,  "It started off as a GM color but it had other colors mixed in. There's no formal name for it.  It's Don's creation," he said jokingly. The original tuck and roll interior had been red and white but the original owners dyed the Naugahyde black and the upholstery in the trunk was sprayed black. Before completing the interior, a pocket for storing traffic citation's was added to the inside passenger door.


      While suspended on the side of the coupe, Lucas takes a moment to wave.

      Once modified, Travers stored the car at his home and then towed the coupe to the film locations where it was on its way to making film and hot rod history. In order to film scenes inside  the car, removable platforms were bolted to the chassis. The special platforms allowed cameras, sound equipment and as many as four crew members to hang down on the sides of the car as it was towed around downtown Petaluma and San Rafael, CA.  Unfortunately the temporary platforms left several permanent holes in the car.  Another remnant from camera rigging is the tow brackets which remain on the coupe to this day.  When watching the film, it is extremely difficult to imagine the crew and all the appendages on the outside of the car including ropes through the windshield and wires taped to the paint.  Poor car.  "They put gouges in the quarter panels and all that stuff, Don Orlandi, recalls. "They chaffed the fenders too." During the filming the car got banged up so much he had to retouch it many times.  "It was up to me to try to fix it in time for each evening's filming," he recalls. Sometimes he would put an entire coat of paint on the whole car rather than try to blend it in.  "There just wasn't much to the body," he said.  "It took just a few minutes to take a scratch pad or Scotch Brite and just scour the whole thing.  You just dip it in a bucket of water and scrub it like your washing a car then the paint will stick to it.  There was no wax involved or none of that stuff. For the paint job we just threw a tarp over the engine, put some wheel covers on it and made sure the frame was taped off." The whole process only took an hour each night. After painting Don would drive it around a bit and then park it in front of the shop and it would sit in the sunlight to dry.

      When it came time to film the climactic drag race scene, actor, Paul LeMat stepped out of the driver's seat and let Henry Travers do the heavy lifting.  With his knowledge and experience, it seemed only natural that the transportation manager should double as a stunt driver for the yellow coupe. 

      The crew positions the coupe into it's parking space at Mels That's Henry Travers with the white t-shirt

      After filming was completed but before Graffiti was released the coupe was advertised for sale in a local paper for $1500 and nobody bought it!  Can you imagine!?  Universal Studios, by default, acquired the coupe and then used it for a couple of cameos in TV shows such as Emergency.
      Rotting away on display at Universal Studios.
      And, shots of the coupe's engine and speedometer were used in the TV movie, California Kid (1974). Despite these appearances, most of the time the car sat outside on Universal's back-lot in Universal City/North Hollywood, CA.  Although on display to the public, it was neglected and had a horrible time sitting around with water seeping into its engine through the open air scoops.  The coupe made an appearance in the sequel, More American Graffiti (1979) and then was finally sold in 1981 at a private auction to Steve Fitch of Wichita, Kansas (KA).  Ironically, at the time, Steve also owned the black '55 Chevy used in the film.
      The interior in 1981

      By the time Fitch bought the Coupe it was, to use a colloquialism, "a piece of crap."  And, he had second thoughts about his purchase as he towed the trailered car from California back to Kansas. It was rusted out and many parts were missing or had been stolen off the car when it was on display at Universal.  Fitch put a lot of time, money, and loving care into restoring the car back to its original movie star condition. He had a machine shop rebuild the engine and was careful to keep as many of the original parts as possible. According to an interview with Steve Fitch published on the web at PROJECT THX 138, Steve was told by the machine shop (the folks who rebuilt the engine) that it was not a 283 as Fitch had once thought but a 327 taken out of a '66 Impala.  As Gomer Pyle might say, "Sur-prise, sur-prise, sur-prise!"
       So Sad! This 1978 More American Graffiti production still reveals just how torn up the interior had become with a loose door panel and trim, loose wires, and missing gauges.

      A recent pic of the Coupe shows how much better it looks after Fitch fixed it up a bit.


      By 1985, the novelty of owning the celebrity car had worn off so Fitch sold the Coupe to its current owner, long-time Graffiti fan, Rick Figari.  A resident of San Francisco, CA, Figari used it as his regular car and drove it everywhere for the first few years.  Recently, Figari sent me some amazing photos that date back to around the time he had first purchased the car from Fitch.  He wrote, "Here are some pics of me & Steve Fitch in 1986 at the original Mels used in the film.  It was already torn down but you could still see the original foundation and the parking lines.  We were able to place the coupe where it sat for the famous poster of Paul LeMat and the coupe."

      Previous owner, Steve Fitch and the coupe. (photo courtesy Rick Figari)

      Figari & his newly acquired beauty.  "We shot these pics & tried to look as cool as"  (photo courtesy Rick Figari)

      Although Transportation Manger, Henry Travers had held on to the coupe's THX 138 cardboard license plates used during the filming of Graffiti, he eventually gave them to a very appreciative Figari. Aside from a few restorations to make the Coupe road worthy, Figari has had few repairs completed to the car.  Eventually his driving habits with the coupe became less frequent as it's historical significance and monetary value increased.  Today the coupe can be seen on display at numerous autograph signings, car shows and other events each year.  Figari gets frequent offers to buy the classic car, sometimes as high as  2 million dollars or more, but as far as he's concerned the yellow coupe is priceless. If you want Milner's coupe the closest thing to actually owning the original is to buy or build a clone or copy, and that's exactly what many have done. Building a decent copy is becoming more common. Companies have manufactured kits to build your own 5-window, '32 Ford Coupe for quite a while. Most start with a fiberglass shell while others such as United Pacific Industries use steel.

      Oregonian, David Acheson's '32 Coupe and other clones at the Frates Rd. quarter-mile in Petaluma, CA, May 2013

      A builder no longer has to second-guess the details, or wear out the "pause" and "rewind" button on the remote of their DVD player while watching American Graffiti for the 112th  time, just to get a better look at the dash or firewall.  No sir-reeee.  Both former owner, Fitch.  and current owner Figari have been very fourth coming with specific details about the car to those individual car builders who have asked, and those who've learned from them continue to share the information with others via website postings and other forms of modern communication such as telegraph, pony-express, and telepathy.   Of course, it's up to the each car builder to decide how exact or movie-correct they want their clone to be.  Some want everything on their movie look-alike to be exact down to the last spring and crossmember while others are not so picky.  One such person who fits into the former category is my pal Jeff who is using an original '32 body and as many original car parts as possible: All Graffiti All the Time.  Despite the years that have passed since its starring role in American Graffiti, the '32 coupe remains a feature attraction wherever it goes. - See ya later alligator!

      -  FIN  -

      • Fredericks, Steve. (March 1974) American Graffiti movie star coupe.  Street Rodder Magazine. Vol. 3 No. 3. 
      • Gabahl, Pat. (May 1976).  The American Graffiti cars.  Street Rodder.  Vol. 5.  No. 5.
      • Ganahl, Pat. (Aug. 1991). The real thing.  Rod and Custom 25th Anniversary Collector's Issue.
      • Genat, Robert.  (2002). Little Deuce Coupe. pp. 47-52.  St. Paul, MN. MBI Publishing Company.
      • Gingereli, Dain. (Feb. 2001). Milestones: American Graffiti coupe. Street Rodder.  Vol. 30. No. 02.
      • Johnson, Hal. (Photographer). (2005).  32' Coupe engine [photograph],  Retrieved 12/15/2010,  from: