The story of the American Graffiti '55 Chevy began in 1970 when three 1955 Chevy 150 sedans were built for the 1971 movie Two-Lane Blacktop by Richard Ruth of Competition Engineering in Sunland, California (Jay Eshbach sent in information in 2010 that the cars were built before Ruth moved the shop to Sunland, when it was located at 8217 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood.) Ruth patterned the cars after his own big-block '55 Chevy street racer after Two-Lane Blacktop/American Graffiti/Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz went street racing with Ruth while preparing for Two-Lane Blacktop. After that evening, Kurtz ordered two cars just like Ruth's '55 and a third '55 to be used as a stunt car. While Ruth was building the '55s, the studio arranged for General Motors to deliver three big block crate motors to his shop. One of the '55s received a leftover 1969 L-88 427 Chevy big block while the other two were equipped with the new 454s. Ruth installed a Weiand tunnel ram with dual Holleys on the two main cars, and a single four barrel on the stunt car. The stunt car had a full rollcage and was equipped with a Ruth-designed right and left braking system so it could be intentionally thrown into a skid and rolled over for a scheduled rollover scene. Ruth delivered all three cars to the studio painted powder blue, but the studio had them finished with a gray primer appearance to fit the persona of the drag racers played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. The studio equipped one of the two main cars with brackets to support the cameras for filming interior shots while the actors were driving. The other main car was used for the exterior shots of the car on the road. All three cars were used during the cross-country shoot on Two-Lane Blacktop and appear in the film to sharp-eyed observers. The original script called for the '55 to roll over as it swerves to avoid a car wreck between a station wagon and a truck. Instead, the driver just ran off the road and did not roll over. Ruth surmises the film crew did not include anyone with the skills necessary to roll the car over exactly as needed in one take using his right/left braking setup. Since it had not been rolled over as scheduled, the stunt car stayed with the film crew for the entire filming from Los Angeles to the Great Smokey Mountains.
When filming on Two-Lane Blacktop was completed, the three '55 Chevys were relegated to the Universal Studios prop car storage lot. A studio mechanic spotted the three '55 Chevy hot rods on the back lot and bought the camera car since it was in the best condition of the three. He pulled out the Chevy big block for use in a boat and his son ended up with the car. The son repainted the car white with a candy-colored stripe down the sides and over the back, dropped in another 454, and drove it to high school as a daily driver. The car saw movie duty again when, during filming of Smokey and the Bandit, it was used to record motor sounds that were dubbed in for the TransAm. The '55 was sold to a new owner and it then passed through a succession of owners until 2000 when it was located in Canada. It has since returned to the United States where it has been returned to the on-screen appearance with most of its original components intact - including some of the original camera mounting brackets that had been welded to the frame.
While preparing for American Graffiti, transportation supervisor Henry Travers picked up the two remaining Two-Lane Blacktop '55 Chevys from the studio storage lot. He had both cars painted black and removed the left/right braking system on the stunt car so it could be driven as a "camera car" because it had an automatic transmission and would drive more smoothly for any close-ups of the actors inside the car. The stunt car was used in the crash scene at the end of American Graffiti where it was towed for the rollover. Travers brought in a non-running, salvage yard '55 to use as the "burn" car. The burn car was actually a 2-door hardtop with a piece of wood fastened in place to give the appearance of a 2-door post. As soon as the scene was finished, the burn car was sent back to the salvage yard.
After filming on American Graffiti was finished, the inventory of studio-owned cars was assigned to Travers for disposal. He removed the drive train and front sheet metal from the stunt car and sold the remains to a California stock car racer who was interested in the battered car since it had a full roll cage. The racer stored the car in a friend's salvage yard where it sat for several years. Due to a zoning dispute, the salvage yard was eventually forced to clear out some of the inventory and the remains of the stunt car was sent to the crusher. The other '55 Chevy sat in Henry Travers' front yard for over a year before it was eventually sold to Sam Crawford, who owned it when it was featured in a May 1976 issue of Street Rodder magazine with other notable "Graffiti" cars.
Steve Fitch of Wichita, Kansas bought the Graffiti '55 from Crawford in the late 1970s. Fitch later bought the yellow '32 Ford Coupe driven by Paul LeMat's character "John Milner" in a sealed bid sale from the studio after More American Graffiti was completed. He owned both cars when he and the two most famous cars from American Graffiti were profiled in an October 1983 Car Craft magazine article. Fitch did a meticulous, detailed restoration of the '55 to American Graffiti trim, and is credited with preserving the Coupe in as-is condition from the filming.
When Fitch later put both cars up for sale, the '55 wound up in Maryland in the hands of the current owner, Wayne Newsom, and the '32 Coupe returned to the San Francisco area with Rick Figari. The '32 Coupe has continued to be carefully preserved by Figari and many "movie prop" features on the car are still visible - such as holes drilled in the frame and brackets welded on for the camera mounts. Figari is committed to preserving the Coupe because, in his view, it will only be original once.
Shortly after the '55 was shipped to Maryland, it received an extensive frame-off modification as a show car and its appearance and originality was radically changed from when it was used in American Graffiti. There remain, however, several visible details on the Graffiti '55 that point to the authenticity of the car, in addition to its well-documented history.
In both movies, and today, the car has distinctive radiused rear wheel wells.
In Two-Lane Blacktop, the car's trunk was lift-off fiberglass and held in place with "hood pins" on the upper corners and in the center of the lower edge below the trunk emblem. In American Graffiti, the pins can still be seen on the car. The trunk on the car is now hinged, but the original brackets used to mount the pins are still in place on the top corners and the spots where the holes in the trunk lid were filled are still visible if you look closely.
In both movies, you can see the tube front axle and chrome radius rods under the front of the car. In the magazine articles, the car is shown with the tube axle, the the 4-link setup, and the coil-over suspension. The car still has the same axle, which was custom built by Richard Ruth, although the other components have been changed.
In Two-Lane Blacktop, there are several good shots of the big block 427 engine, the Weiand tunnel ram, and the headers. The Street Rodder and Car Craft articles also show the engine and headers. There were no shots of the engine compartment in American Graffiti, most likely because the film was set in 1962 and the only big block Chevrolet engine then available was the 409. The car is thought to still have the same L-88 427 engine, and is still equipped with the headers that were fabricated by Richard Ruth and are unique to the car, although the original Weiand tunnel ram and the hydraulic throttle linkage installed by Ruth have disappeared.
In Two Lane Blacktop the car had front bucket seats, a white headliner, fiberglass doors with sliding plexiglass windows, a roll bar, and no rear seat. In American Graffiti , the bucket seats were replaced with a bench seat, the fiberglass doors and plexiglass windows were replaced with stock steel doors and rollup windows, the roll bar was still in place, the headliner was still white, and the rear seat area was covered with a white "tonneau" cover from the top of the bench seat to the package tray. The original old-style Covico three-spoke steering wheel is clearly visible, too. The car's current interior represents the biggest change from the car as seen in the two movies. The car now has a full red/gray leather interior, the steel doors are equipped with power windows, the roll bar is gone, a stock '55 steering wheel has replaced the Covico wheel, and Bel Air trim and gauges have been added to the dash.
In the 1983 Car Craft magazine article, the '55 is pictured with the Kansas license plate "GRAF 55." The plate is still on the car since it has never been titled or licensed in Maryland.
In Two-Lane Blacktop there is a gas station scene in which the attendant is seen filling the gas tank after the fiberglass trunk lid was removed. The gas tank filler neck was accessed through a hole cut in the floor of the trunk on the driver's side close to the rear bumper. That hole is still there, but covered by a sheet metal plate that has been fastened to the floor of the trunk from underneath. Richard Ruth also appeared in this scene. He’s the mechanic wearing the Glendale Speed Center T-shirt who strolled out to look at the car.
Although many changes have been made to the '55 since its days as a movie prop, Richard Ruth has examined detailed photos of the car and has verified that the car is one of the originals that he built for Two-Lane Blacktop and went on to fame as Falfa's American Graffiti '55 Chevy.
Guide to the three Two-Lane Blacktop/American Graffiti '55 Chevrolets
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. Used for exterior shots in Two-Lane Blacktop, modified for American Graffiti.
Main Car 2 - Equipped with a 454 crate motor, M-22 Muncie, 4.88 Olds rear, fiberglass front end, doors, and trunk lid, straight axle front suspension when built. Used only in Two-Lane Blacktop for interior scenes.
Stunt Car - All steel-bodied car equipped with a 454 crate motor, TH 400 automatic, Olds rear of unknown gearing. Used Two-Lane Blacktop, modified for American Graffiti. Crushed in the late 1970s.