Saturday, January 1, 2011

THE CARS: '32 COUPE - THE FASTEST THING IN THE VALLEY


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 it...hot 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.

HEY KID, WHAT CHA GOT IN THERE???

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. Once there, the car was stripped of many coats of old paint and then given a hand-rubbed paint job with several coats of Canary Yellow lacquer. The original interior was red and white so the tuck and roll Naugahyde was dyed 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.

LIGHTS... CAMERA... ACTION!

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.  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

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 Culver City, 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.

THE PASSING OF THE TORCH

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 Milner...lol"  (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  -
______________________________________________________________

BIBLIOGRAPHY:
  • 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: http://www.themilnercoupe.com/


 

9 comments:

  1. Cool, my son J found this site, we both dig the coupe so much so that we are collecting parts to build J his own milner coupe clone as his first car. He's even raided the chrome wheels, radiator shell, headlights etc from my own trad hotrod.

    Scratchbuilt & son.

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  2. This is an all American movie with red blooded American boys and girls

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  3. terry partridge, bostonJuly 22, 2013 at 5:59 AM

    I have seen this movie so many times I know the dialogue by heart// thanks for a great blog. never knew all the actors and actresses in the movie till I saw this great job. still want a 32 coupe //////

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  4. The engine couldn't have been a 327 in real life. The 327 was introduced in 62 and it is unlikely Milner could have afforded a new engine and GM wasn't selling complete 327 engines to the public in 62.

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  5. It was 100% sac-religious to put a chevy engine in a Ford back in the day. My dad was an avid hot rodder in the 50's & these coupe's were running Ford flatheads. By the way, they would have blown the doors off a '55 Chevy back then, even a wicked '55! My dad should know, he had one himself. Great site & a great car movie I've watched countless times.

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  6. Their is no words for this classic 32/coupe, would like to see this hot rod in the Edmonton Alberta car show in the future.

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  7. my dad, mr. hamilton, helped build that car. would love to see it and take a ride in it, now that i am an adult and dont remember riding in it when i was little. thanks & this is my second time submitting a comment. hopefully this time you guys can read this and post. sincerely, karin

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  8. If you follow the movie's story,John Milner takes the girl to a junk yard. Most hot rods of the day were built with salvage yard parts; so it is entirely possible to put a 62 327 in the coupe from a wrecked car. I had a boss tell me he remembers a Desoto hemi in a 32 coupe! I actually me paul Lemotte. At a race track in illinois. Nice guy, but definitely not a gear head!

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  9. I was 2 when this movie came out. Started watching American Graffiti when I was 7 and still love it. Something about that canary yellow car. Thinking of building one ?

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