Over the holiday season, I had the pleasure of watching the classic movie American Graffiti, a coming-of-age comedy released by Universal Pictures in 1973. Directed by George Lucas and featuring a cast of then up-and-coming actors including Ron Howard (as Steve Bolander), Richard Dreyfus, Paul Le Mat, and Harrison Ford, the film offered a nostalgic look at California’s youth car culture during the early 1960s. Set in Modesto, California in the summer of 1962, the film’s multiple plot lines follow the activities of a group of teenagers over the course of an evening. Shot mainly in Petaluma, California and produced on a small budget, American Graffitiwas a hit with critics and movie-going audiences alike, garnering rave reviews and winning a Golden Globe Award.
While watching American Graffiti, I could not help but notice the number of interesting vintage cars that appeared in the film. It also occurred to me that 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the film’s release. With those facts in mind, I decided to write this week’s blog on one of the cars that appeared in the film. I settled upon the car that arguably had the most prominent role in the film: Steve Bolander’s 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala.
First introduced in October 1957, the 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala was a full-sized car that occupied the upper end of the Chevrolet’s newly redesigned Bel Air series. Selling in the $2500-$2900 range, it was marketed as a sporty upmarket car that was available at an affordable price. At the time of its introduction, it was notably longer, lower, and wider than previous Chevrolet models. The Bel Air Impala was quite large, measuring 209.1 inches long and riding on a 117.5 inch wheelbase. It could be ordered with one of a number of engine options, including a 235.5 cubic inch inline-six and several 283 and 348 cubic inch V-8’s. The car was available in only two body styles: a two-door Hardtop Sport Coupe and a Hardtop Sport Convertible. Body styling cues included dual headlights, triple taillights, and sculpted rear fenders. The Bel Air Impala proved to be popular with the American motoring public and it helped Chevrolet regain the title of number one producer in the American market during a recession year.
The 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala that appeared in American Graffiti was a customized two-door Hardtop Sport Coupe model. This car appeared frequently throughout the movie and figured prominently in some of the movie’s more memorable scenes (which included cruising around Modesto, being stolen, then subsequently recovered). At the time of filming, it was powered by a 348 cubic inch Chevrolet Tri-Power V-8, which was mated to a three-speed manual transmission. The car was originally painted blue, but had been repainted white by the time it appeared in the film. It was equipped with a number of non-stock items, most notably taillights from a 1959 Cadillac and a customized interior that featured tuck and roll upholstery.
Happily, the 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala used in American Graffiti is still in existence today and preserved by a private owner. Photographs of this car can be viewed at the following websites: Petaluma, California’s Salute to American Graffiti (http://americangraffiti.net/) and Unofficial American Graffiti(http://unofficialamericangriffiti.weebly.com).
Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 168-170.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.