On this day in 2009, “Gran Torino,” a movie named for the 1972 Ford muscle car, opens in Australia and New Zealand. The critically acclaimed film, which starred Clint Eastwood as a retired Detroit autoworker, had opened across the U.S. earlier that month and later premiered around the rest of the world, eventually grossing more than $263 million, making it among Eastwood’s most commercially successful movies.
In “Gran Torino,” Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran who spent his life working at a Ford assembly plant. Walt, a recent widower with strong racist tendencies, spends his days caring for his home (in a once middle-class, now run-down Detroit neighborhood) and his prized possession, a mint-condition Gran Torino. The movie follows the story of what happens when Walt’s teenage neighbor, who comes from an immigrant Hmong family, attempts to steal the car and later tries to make amends.
Ford built the Gran Torino, which had a long hood and short deck, a “fish mouth” grille design and optional laser stripes along its sides, from 1972 to 1976. The two-door car was an iteration of the Torino nameplate, which launched in 1968 as a mid-sized sedan. Although the Gran Torino sold well, it was bulky and not especially fast. The car launched at a time when the mighty American auto industry was beginning to experience problems that would lead to a long decline and the eventual bankruptcy, in 2009, of Big Three automakers General Motors and Chrysler. The oil crisis of the 1970s helped open the door to competition from foreign imports, and Japanese automakers, who produced smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, gained a foothold in the U.S. market.
As The Los Angeles Times wrote of “Gran Torino”: “One day in 1972 Walt is wrenching away on a Ford assembly line, stuffing a steering box into a shiny Gran Torino before going home to a comfortable middle-class home on a quiet street in Highland Park. Thirty-six years later, he raises the blinds of that same house to discover the world he knew is gone. The jobs have vanished, the factories closed, the prosperity replaced with desperation. How did he get here? The answer is in the garage.”