by Pat Ganahl
Regardless of your age, you’ve all seen American Graffiti at least two or three times by now. And if you’ve gone to an indoor car show anywhere in the country in the last 20 years, you’ve probably seen the yellow 1932 coupe that was one of the stars of the movie, with one or two of the lesser stars there signing glossy photos, because Rick Figari has been touring it incessantly around the world since he bought it as a 20-year-old in 1985.
And you might have read an article or two about the black 1955 Chevy. I should make that plural, because there were three of them: two big-block, 4-speed, true street racers built for the movie Two-Lane Blacktop, one of which was painted glossy for American Graffiti, plus the crash-scene car, which ended up on a circle track because of its roll cage.
I’m not sure exactly where the Graffiti ’55 is at this moment, but the other black-primer Blacktop ’55 was stolen from the Universal lot right after that movie wrapped, and may have turned up on the East Coast just recently. The chopped Merc? Guitarist/ singer Brian Setzer got it, made it look as good as he could, then sold it to a guy in Plainview, New York, in 1987, as seen in the August 1991 issue of Rod & Custom.
That leaves the 1958 Impala with the tuck-and-roll interior that was owned by the Ron Howard character but was driven by the Toad during most of the movie. That one has been “lost” since I reported on all the cars in the May 1976 issue of Street Rodder magazine. But I’ve known where it’s been all along. Its story is as good as any in this book.
Mike Famalette grew up in Vallejo, which is at the northeast end of the San Francisco Bay, less than 40 miles from Petaluma, where the film was shot. But Mike didn’t know anything about the movie. It wasn’t released yet. He was a 17-year-old senior in high school in 1972 and was looking for his first car. So when he saw an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for “1958 Chevy Impala, tuck-and-roll, $325,” he was interested. The ad also listed a 1951 Merc for $975, a 1932 Ford coupe for $200 (a typo; they meant $2,000), and a 1955 Chevy for $2,000, among others. (Remember, nobody knew if this movie would make it, let alone be a hit, at this point.) All the cars were in nearby Sonoma, in the backyard of Henry Travers, the transportation manager of the film. So young Mike called and went to look. A mild custom 1958 Impala with tuck-and-roll, 1959 Caddy bullet taillights, and red fogged paint over white was not a cool high school car in 1972. In fact, Mike says he would have bought the 1955 Chevy if he could have afforded it, but it was way too much.
The 1958 had a tired 348 in it, with a 3-speed trans, and Mike had never driven a stick shift before. So when he tried to test-drive it, it didn’t go too well. Plus they had quickly shaved the door handles for the movie, but didn’t install solenoids, so you had to leave the windows open to get in (the driver’s window was cracked during filming because someone didn’t). But Mike was hungry to get his first car, and this one was cool, in its way. He offered $275. They wouldn’t take it. So he paid $285 and drove it home. It was the only car that sold. They didn’t even mention the name of the movie, and Mike didn’t ask.
When he got it home, he found a Tri-Power intake with two of the carbs in the trunk. There was a single 4-barrel on the engine, which was a smoker. So Mike and his older brother Jose swapped in a 283 and a Powerglide. Remember, this was Mike’s high school cruiser, his first and only car at the time. But he knew he’d want to put the original driveline back in at some point, so anything they took off they saved, bagged, and labeled. They also did other work to make the car safe and drivable, but they didn’t change anything on it. It still has no solenoids in the doors.
But then, just a few months after this work was done, American Graffiti came to the local theater, and Mike soon learned that was the movie his car was in. So, for fun, he and some buddies got in the car and cruised up and down the main drag, in front of the theater, as it let out that Saturday night. Can you imagine? These guys were seniors in high school! It was very much like the movie, only this was real.
After the movie became a smash hit and cultural touchstone, Mike knew he’d keep the car forever and preserve it as best he could. Remember, movie cars are “50-footers” at best, and treated very roughly on the set, so this was no show car to start with. And Mike’s had it 37 years. He hasn’t over-restored anything, but its condition remains amazingly good. He says it still has 1972 air in the back tires, and his wife recently found correct front replacements (E78-14 Kelly Springfields) on eBay. Best of all, their daughter Ashley installed the original 348 (rebuilt locally), with the matching Tri-Power, as her senior high school project a couple years ago, and got a deserved A grade for the job. The car has a Turbo 350 transmission in it now, but the clutch pedal has remained in the car all along (beside the Eelco foot-shaped gas pedal), and Mike is prepping the 3-speed to go back in.
Mike spent a stint in the Marines in SoCal after high school, then a career with a utility company in the North Bay until retiring recently to some rural acreage in northeastern Washington, about 40 miles from the Canadian border. He of course has been an excellent custodian of the Impala all this time, and we have remained in touch, so my wife and I were happy to be able to drive up and pay a visit to Mike and the Chevy on our vacation last summer, where the accompanying photos were taken.
So the American Graffiti 1958 Impala isn’t lost at all. It’s been in Mike Famalette’s garage all this time, well appreciated and cared for. He bought it as his first car, his high school cruiser, for $285 nearly 40 years ago. His daughter reinstalled the original Tri-Power 348 as her high school senior project. It’s got 1972 air in the tires and tuck-and-roll older than that. This story is amazing. It would make a good movie.