On this day in 1973, “American Graffiti,” a nostalgic coming-of-age tale set on the streets and steeped in the car-centric culture of suburban California, is released in theaters across the United States. The movie went on to become a sleeper hit.
“American Graffiti” was the second full-length feature film directed by George Lucas, who would later become best known for the blockbuster hit “Star Wars” (1977) and its sequels. Set in 1962, “American Graffiti” follows a group of teenage friends who meet in the parking lot of a local drive-in restaurant on the last night before two of them (played by Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard) plan to leave town to go to college. They spend much of the night cruising the streets of their hometown of Modesto, California (where Lucas himself grew up and developed an early passion for automobiles and car racing), in cars ranging from a yellow “deuce coupe” (a slang term for the 1932 Ford Model B coupe) to a 1958 Chevy Impala, while some of the film’s most memorable scenes feature a white 1955 Ford Thunderbird driven by a mysterious blonde.
Released in 1973–the same year in which an embargo declared by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) sparked an international oil crisis–“American Graffiti” was the first in a series of movies and television shows that evoked nostalgia for the more carefree days of the 1950s and early ’60s and the iconic cars that defined the era. The oil crisis of 1973 would usher in an era of hard times for the American automobile industry, including a surge in sales of foreign-made cars, but many Americans took comfort in the glamorous image of driving–or “cruising”–that “American Graffiti” celebrated.
The 1970s saw a boom in classic-car restoration, even as more and more Americans were driving Japanese imports. The era also saw an increasing number of “lowriders”–or classic cars or trucks with suspensions that had been modified so that they rode as low to the ground as possible. According to an Associated Press article about a 2008 exhibition at L.A.’s Petersen Automotive Museum called “La Vida Lowrider,” lowriding as a pastime spread outwards from Hispanic neighborhoods in the southwestern United States in the 1970s, and later caught on with enthusiasts as far away as Europe and Asia. This boom in the 1970s was triggered largely by movies such as “American Graffiti,” “Corvette Summer” (1978) and “Boulevard Nights” (1979) and TV shows like “Chico and the Man” (1974-78). In 1975, the band War scored a hit with their single “Low Rider,” which channeled the same cool, cruising suburban culture that made “American Graffiti” a hit.