AMERICAN GRAFFITI | THE EPIC FILM THAT REIGNITED HOT ROD CULTURE

I was chatting with my friend Don about epic car films, and Two-Lane Blacktop quickly came up. He’s a major car and quickly segued to American Graffiti– correctly stating that it was the same ’55 Chevy (built by Richard Ruth of Competition Engineering of Sunland, CA) for Blacktop that Falfa drove in George Lucas’ classic American Graffiti. Well there were actually two ’55 Chevy hot rods from Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) that were used in American Graffiti (1973). Both were built using Richard Ruth’s own ’55 Chevy as the blueprint. Producer Gary Kurtz (Two-Lane Blacktop & American Graffiti) had visited Ruth who took him for a pulse-quickening ride in his big-block hot rod. That same evening Kurtz promptly ordered three cars from Richard Ruth– two exactly like Ruth’s, and one stunt car.

Two original cars would survive to live another day in George Lucas’ American Graffiti: 

Main Car 1– Equipped with a 427 crate motor, M-22 Muncie, 4.88 Olds rear, fiberglass front end, doors, and trunk lid, straight axle front suspension when built and later modified and used in American Graffiti.

Stunt Car– All steel-bodied car equipped with a 454 crate motor, TH 400 automatic, Olds rear of unknown gearing, modified for American Graffiti. It was used for interior shots as it was equipped with an auto tranny and drove smoother than a stick.

Shot of Mel’s drive-in from the 1973 classic, “American Graffiti” — Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis Mel’s drive-in was actually out of business, and was reopened just for the filming of American Graffiti– then promptly demolished after filming was finished. American Graffiti was George Lucas’ semi-autobiographical teenage tale (Lucas grew up in Modesto, CA during the heyday of cruising and hot rods) that starred a treasure trove of young talent– Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, and the list goes on. It also created a huge resurgence in American 1950’s & 1960’s culture–  inspiring a long string of films and TV shows, most notably “Happy Days.” Hot Rod magazine even listed the ’55 Chevy and ’32 Ford deuce coupe (the true stars of the film) at the top of their list of most influential hot rods of all time.        

Paul Le Mat in the George Lucas’ 1973 classic car film, “American Graffiti.” George Lucas had  the license plate on the ’32 Ford hot rod read: THX-138. This was a reference to THX-1138, his 1971 sc-fi flick. Later in his Star Wars saga, the yellow airspeeder Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan use to chase bounty hunter Zam Wesell is said to be a tribute to John Milner’s iconic coupe in American Graffiti.

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ARLEN NESS’ SECRET WEAPON DURING THE ’70s CHOPPER BOOM | JEFF McCANN

Jeff McCann, who discreetly signs his works with his hidden signature “Motorcycles Forever” got his first bike back in ’65, at the age of 20.  An accomplished artist, McCann began customizing motorcycles a few years later, and soon found himself with a steady side-gig of painting and customizing friend’s bikes.

By the 1970s, with his incredible skills and the Easy Rider chopper boom in full force, McCann was in hot demand.   He opened his own custom bike shop in the San Francisco Bay area – as did Arlen Ness. Arlen, a master builder, was also a good painter– but nothing like McCann. McCann also brought serious design, photography, and printing skills to the table–  contibuting heavily to the first Ness catalog and logo.  It was a partnership that benefitted both sides, and that lasted for years.  McCann’s saved personal images and memories of that time are truly priceless–

Catalog Cover Shoot. Jeff McCann ~ This is a full view of the setup in my garage for the cover shoot for the second edition of our parts catalog. That’s me waiting to see if the photographer needs the bike moved, which is also why I am in my stocking feet so as not to mar the paper drape. I purchased two white paper background drapes and taped them together to get a wide enough “infinite” background for the bikes and models.  After advertising in the local newspaper want ads we hired two women who were inexperienced models but eager to work with the local “chopper guys”.  Scanned from a 37 year old 35mm negative shot by John Reddick in September 1972.  You can see the calendar this session produced here.

Theme Girl Julie. Jeff McCann ~ In the fall of 1969 my friend Chris and I decided to open a retail store selling “Chopper parts”. We had built and sold 4 custom bikes that year and all our friends were asking how to buy the parts mail order. Ed Roth published “Choppers” magazine which contained ads including one for AEE Choppers of southern California. We had purchased parts from them for my first panhead chopper that same year. Deciding on the name ” CJ custom cycle parts” we made a business plan and went to the bank for a start up loan. To say the bankers laughed at us would be exaggeration but they declined our request. I complained of their shortsightedness to my co-workers at the newspaper and Fran Walling, a fellow artist in the display advertising department, offered to loan me the money from part of her husbands life insurance settlement. We agreed to pay her 1% more than bank rate on a two year repayment plan.

And so with $5,000 in the bank we rented a small store front and made plans for a January 1970 opening.  The plan was for Chris to man the retail store on the weekdays while I worked full time at the newspaper, then on Saturdays I would be behind the counter. We really had no clue how the profit margin of a retail parts business should have worked, both of us had only high school educations and in 1969 I was 23, married with an infant daughter and Chris was 19 and two years out of school. To say we were more lucky than smart is an understatement.  This photograph of Julie, our theme girl, wearing our logo t-shirt was taken on January 10,1974 by John Reddick.  Exactly four years to the day after we had opened our first store and at the height of our business success. Scanned from a 35 year old 35mm negative.

Wheel Truing Shop. Jeff McCann ~ Work area in our first Stockton store, note the vise holding a threat rolling machine attached to a reversible drill. We cut the blank spoke to length with a small bolt cutter, ground the end round on the small grinder next to the vise, and then inserted the blank into the roller. The sign says we charged $28.88 for a set of spokes custom made and chromed to fit your application. Hundreds of wheels were laced and trued each year by either Chris or Kurt Bacon, a highschool kid who hung around my garage paintshop at home. He worked after school at the store and got school credits for “work experience” on his report card. After graduation he came to work for us full time and was a valuable employee and friend. Scanned from a 1971 b/w print.

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