Richard Nixon was in the White House, deeply embroiled in the Watergate scandal that would topple him the following year. US involvement in the Vietnam War had officially ended, the withdrawal of troops weakening south Vietnamese forces. By 1975, they too would succumb.
Americans were hungry for a return to simpler times, to the hope and promise of the 1950s and early ‘60s, a time of sock-hops, saddle shoes and soda fountains – not to mention burgers and shakes, rock ‘n' roll, and chrome and horsepower. George Lucas, a little-known writer-director from California, had the antidote. His semi-autobiographical movie about hot rods and cruising culture opened in August of 1973, bathing moviegoers in neon nostalgia. “Where were you in '62?” teased the promotional posters.
Now, 40 years on, in a sleepy suburb of Langley, British Columbia, a deep-black 1955 Chevy coughs like an old Kodiak disturbed from his winter hibernation. The starter motor whirrs once, twice, three times. There is a fitful grumble, a staccato series of backfires and then a deep, ursine bellow as the big-block V8 comes alive.
Owner John VanWerkhoven guides the beast out onto the road in front of his house to join a bright yellow 1932 Ford five-window coupe. The Ford, one of the eponymous little deuce coupes immortalised in the Beach Boys' 1963 hit, bears the signature of Paul Le Mat on its dashboard, the actor who played drag-racer John Milner in American Graffiti. Like the '55 Chevy, it is an exact replica of the film's two real rivals.
VanWerkhoven, 57, was 17 when American Graffiti was released, and the film’s themes of rebellion and heady possibility resonated deeply with him. As the construction project manager has aged, however, the movie’s nostalgic qualities have resounded louder and louder. The project cars are a realisation of his teenage fantasy – that of being a hot-rodder.
He has lived in Langley all his life and remembers the old hot-rodding haunts, the farm roads where illicit late-night grudge matches were settled among the corn rows. A grandfather now, and with all six kids out of the house, he finally has the time to indulge his car obsessions – trained as a hammer-in-hand framer, VanWerkhoven was born to build things. He also owns a scary-fast street-rod, sitting up on a hoist in the garage, but creating it was just prologue to his Graffiti habit.
In the movie, a group of friends spend a night cruising the streets of a fictionalised version of Modesto, California, each on the cusp of adulthood. Milner's yellow '32 is the heavyweight of the local drag-racing scene, and throughout the movie the car is stalked by a cocky, cowboy hat-wearing newcomer, Harrison Ford's Bob Falfa. With a white skull dangling from the mirror, Falfa's '55 Chevy is clearly out to beat Milner's '32, and the entire movie is alive with the anticipation of the final showdown.
Meanwhile, Richard Dreyfuss plays Curt Henderson, a high school graduate caught between the desire to stay and the beckoning lure of an Eastern scholarship. His friend, Steve Bolander as portrayed by Ron Howard, is committed to leaving the next day, and throughout the night undergoes his own crisis of faith over leaving his high school sweetheart behind.
Henderson pursues a mysterious, unattainable blonde driving a white 1956 Ford Thunderbird. Bolander lends the nerdy “Toad” Fields the keys to his 1958 Chevrolet Impala. While the plot interweaves the stories of each of the characters, American iron circles endlessly, firing away on all eight cylinders.
Dreyfuss, Ford, and Lucas would all, of course, become household names. Howard is preparing to release the highly anticipated feature film Rush this September, a story of two giants of Formula 1 racing in the 1970s.
It was the cars of American Graffiti, however, that carried the real star power – and the two lined up on this unassuming side road are as close to the originals as they come.
The 1932 Ford is especially detailed, right down to the order of the rings on the Covico steering wheel and the camera mounts out front. A JFK medallion hangs from the mirror, just as it did in the film. Originally from the Midwest, this replica car was likely used for oval track racing, VanWekhoven says, before its transformation into a cinematic homage.
Henry Travers, the transportation manager for American Graffiti, had the ‘32 he used in the film painted, the radiator sectioned and the engine, a 1966 Chevy 327, overhauled. With their attuned ears, some old hot-rodders claim that at certain points in the film, it is clear that the car never quite runs correctly.
The '55 Chevy in the film was one of three cars from a stark 1971 cinematic tribute to Route 66, Two-Lane Blacktop. The sole survivor of both movies escaped the crusher and the pyrotechnics department, passing into the hands of Travers. From there it would be owned by a Kansas-based enthusiast, Steve Fitch, who later also bought and restored the yellow '32 coupe in the early 1980s. The Ford is now in San Francisco, the Chevy in Maryland.
Today, though, faithful tributes to each sit side-by-side on the quiet street, the jacked-up front suspension of the Chevy giving it the appearance of leaping off the line. Neighbours arrive with their cameras; people walking their dogs stop to chat and stare. They quote lines from the movie, “...the fastest thing in the Valley, man!”
In a month or so, the Langley GoodTimes Cruise-in will recreate that ‘60s spirit with a massive show that regularly draws upwards of 1,500 shined-up hot-rods. VanWerkhoven's machines will be there, and potentially they'll be front and centre at the drive-in theatre erected for the weekend, where American Graffiti is always a crowd favourite.
In the movie, the final showdown on Paradise Road ends inconclusively with Falfa's '55 blowing a tire and rolling into a ditch. The Chevy bursts into flames as its occupants escape, but as John Milner confesses to “Toad” Fields, “I was losing, man.” He knows his days of being on top are numbered.
Henderson chooses to leave. Bolander chooses to stay. As Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight by the Spaniels plays softly in the background, Curt looks down from his window seat in the climbing airliner to see that elusive phantom Thunder Bird rolling along an empty highway.
A single title card set against a blue background shows that there is no clean, happy ending to this slice of innocence. John Milner is killed by a drunk driver in 1964; Terry Fields is missing in action after the battle of An Lộc in Vietnam; Steve Bolander is an insurance agent still in Modesto; Curt Henderson is a writer living in Canada.
Four decades on, American Graffiti remains, as Robert Ebert called it, “a brilliant work of historical fiction.” The tale is also one of cars, and how the freedom they afforded became an essential part of the American story.
VanWerkhoven’s story is not over. He intends to get a white T-Bird and a '58 Impala to complete his collection – he recently picked up a Vespa scooter that will be painted white like the one “Toad” Fields rode – and he has another, more interesting plan for the film's two main adversaries.
It might happen later in the year, or perhaps early in the spring of 2014, but VanWerkhoven is talking with the local dragstrip about using both cars in a heads-up run during a race weekend. “After all this time” he says, with a grin, “we're going to finally see who wins.”
The project cars are a realisation of his teenage fantasy – that of being a hot-rodder.