|The coupe on Frates Rd. aka Paradise Road, Petaluma, CA.|
|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|
|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.|
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.|
|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 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|
- 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: http://www.themilnercoupe.com/