Ron Howard in American Graffiti

Ron Howard as Steve Bolander in American Graffiti (1973)


Ron Howard as Steve Bolander, conflicted high school graduate

Modesto, California, Summer 1962

Film: American Graffiti
Release Date: August 11, 1973
Director: George Lucas
Costume Designer: Aggie Guerard Rodgers

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!


“Where were you in ’62?” asked the promotional materials for American Graffiti, widely released 50 years ago today on August 11, 1973. George Lucas followed his directorial debut THX 1138 with a neon-lit nostalgic ode to his rock-scored youth cruising the streets of Modesto, California in the early 1960s.

The film centers around four recent high school graduates who meet in the parking lot of Mel’s Drive-In on the last night of summer vacation: even-keeled Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), confident drag-racer John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the fittingly nicknamed Terry “the Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), and the aloof Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), who lends his stunning white ’58 Impala to Terry while he’s away at college.

It’s a moody night for Steve, battling with his decision to leave both Modesto and his relationship with Laurie (Cindy Williams), summing up the movie’s thesis when he observes “you just can’t stay seventeen forever.”

American Graffiti broke cinematic ground, indicating how “smaller stories” could still be wildly marketable (grossing $140 million internationally against its modest $777,000 budget in addition to being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture), catapulting its young cast to stardom, and evolving the relationship between music and movies.

Indeed, the soundtrack was of vital importance to Lucas, who allocated more than a tenth of the film’s budget to licensing the 43 songs used in the movie from artists like The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and of course Bill Haley and the Comets, whose era-defining 1954 hit “Rock Around the Clock” opened the movie.

Stories persist of Universal Pictures having been hesitant to release a soundtrack album consisting of decades-old songs, but the studio quickly recognized the power that Lucas’ carefully curated tracks had on the film’s success and 41 Original Hits from the Soundtrack of American Graffiti would eventually be certified triple platinum in the U.S.

What’d He Wear?

In her first screen credit, costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers effectively communicates the characters’ personas through their clothing, allowing us to instantly understand the characters before we embark on their respective adventures over the next two hours.

Both on the eve of departing for college, Steve and Curt dress in the mainstream Ivy formula with their plaid button-down short-sleeved shirts and J.C. Penney khakis, unlike the greaser Milner in his plain white T-shirt (with a pack of cigarettes rolled into the sleeve, of course) or the nebbish Toad in his appropriately awkward pink-and-black custom-made shirt and browline glasses.

Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith, and Ron Howard in American Graffiti (1973)

Curt and Terry join Steve in the diner parking lot at the start of the movie. Though Curt and Terry are paired in the shot, Curt and Steve’s similar manner of dress informs us that these two are more alike with Terry the Toad the odd man out.

Steve’s short-sleeved shirt is patterned in a light blue-and-white gingham check cotton, a pattern intentionally chosen by Rodgers who explained in an interview with Kip Pullman’s comprehensive American Graffiti Blog that she gave a swatch of the fabric to a professional seamstress to craft the shirt.

The shirt follows the typical design of off-the-rack shirts from the era, with a button-down collar of restrained width (reinforced with an additional button through the back of the collar to maintain its clean presentation), a front placket, breast pocket, and box-pleated back. Steve wears the top button undone, showing the crew-neck of his white cotton short-sleeved undershirt.

Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard in American Graffiti (1973)

The third button through the back of Steve’s collar continued the spirit of the rear studs used to fasten old-fashioned detachable collars while also serving the functional purpose of keeping the wearer’s tie from slipping under the back of the collar, according to Christian Chensvold at Ivy Style.

Steve and Curt both wear beige cotton flat-front trousers from J.C. Penney, as Rodgers confirmed to Kip’s American Graffiti Blog. Steve’s slacks have slightly slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets with a loop through the back-left pocket, and plain-hemmed bottoms with a short break. He holds them up with a narrow dark brown leather belt that closes through a curved gold-toned single-prong buckle.

Ron Howard and Cindy Williams in American Graffiti (1973)

Steve and Laurie get in one last dance together at the freshman hop.

Steve wears brown leather moc-toe penny loafers, the Ivy staple slip-on shoes characterized by a strap across each instep. Each strap features a small slit just big enough to fit a penny, reportedly a practice of ’50s prep school students that led to the “penny loafer” moniker. The style had originated two decades prior when G.H. Bass launched “Weejuns” in 1936. Steve wears his with plain white socks that continue his clean-cut appearance.

Charles Martin Smith and Ron Howard in American Graffiti (1973)

Steve’s wristwatch is a simple gold-finished dress watch on a textured dark brown leather strap with a shining silver dial, detailed only with non-numeric hour indices.

Ron Howard as Steve Bolander in American Graffiti (1973)

A sea of short-sleeved button-down shirts.

Steve maintains a similar aesthetic the following day at the airport, wearing the same beige trousers and belt but with a light yellow cotton short-sleeved button-down shirt that follows the same design as his blue-and-white gingham shirt but with a trimmer fit.

Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti (1973)

The Car

Now, I’ve got some very simple instructions for you… first of all, only 30-weight Castrol R. Now I’ve written tire pressure and stuff on a pad in the glove- are you listening?

As the owner of a car like this should, Steve takes great pride in his customized white 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala Sport Coupe, so it’s a big deal when he lends it to Terry the Toad to care for it while he’s away at college… at least through Christmas.

Candy Clark, Charles Martin Smith, and Ron Howard in American Graffiti (1973)

Steve retrieves his Impala from Terry, leaving him car-less in front of a discouraged Debbie.

1958 was the first Chevrolet model year to use the Impala, at the time a top-of-the-line trim for two-door Bel Air coupes and convertibles. Following American automotive design trends, the ’58 Chevy was already elegantly long, with the Impala styled with a longer wheelbase and rear deck to differentiate it. Chevrolet evolved the Impala into a separate model for 1959, and it has remained such through its production timeline off-and-on in the nearly 75 years since.

“Yeah, I got a 327 Chevy in it, it’s got six Strombergs,” Terry bluffs to impress Debbie (Candy Clark), though he probably should have looked under the hood before making such claims. The screen-used Chevy was actually powered by a 348 cubic-inch V8, the largest stock engine Chevy offered in ’58.

Charles Martin Smith and Candy Clark in American Graffiti

The promise of a powerful V8 under the hood is all Debbie needs to hear to join Terry in Steve’s Impala.

The 348 V8 came in two iterations, the “Turbo-Thrust” with a Rochester 4-barrel carburetor that generated up to 250 horsepower and the “Super Turbo-Thrust” with three Rochester 2-barrel carburetors that produced an impressive 280 horsepower. Steve’s Impala was powered by the latter, mated to a three-on-the-tree Saginaw manual transmission. (Other available engines were the 235 cubic-inch “Blue Flame” straight-six and 283 cubic-inch V8.)

The screen-used Impala was purchased by co-producer Gary Kurtz before production began. According to Kip Pullman’s American Graffiti blog, transportation manager Henry Travers then sent the Impala to Close and Orlandi’s body shop in San Rafael, where it was painted white with red-fogged accents around the chrome body-lines and outfitted with chrome-reversed wheels. When the screen-used Impala was up for auction in late 2015, Chris Demorro wrote for Chevy Hardcore that “the car was chosen because it already featured a tuck-n-roll interior like the script required.”

In addition to being decked and nosed, the screen-used Impala had also been customized with the Chevy badging removed and the tail-lights replaced with the distinctive bullet-shaped trios of tail-lights from a 1959 Cadillac.

Ron Howard as Steve Bolander in American Graffiti (1973)

1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Impala Sport Coupe

Body Style: 2-door hardtop

Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)

Engine: 348 cubic inch (5.7 L) Chevrolet “Super Turbo-Thrust” V8 with three Rochester 2-barrel carburetors

Power: 280 hp (208.5 kW; 284 PS) @ 4800 rpm

Torque: 355 lb·ft (481 N·m) @ 2800 rpm

Transmission: 3-speed Saginaw manual

Wheelbase: 117.5 inches (2984 mm)

Length: 209.1 inches (5311 mm)

Width: 77.7 inches (1974 mm)

Height: 55.7 inches (1415 mm)

After American Graffiti production wrapped, Travers listed the cars for sale in a local newspaper. He sold the Impala for slightly less than his original $325 asking price to Vallejo high schooler Mike Famalette, who was looking to buy his first car. Unfortunately for Mike, the brakes failed and he lost one of the Caddy tail-lights during his drive home, where he also discovered the stock 348 V8 and transmission were also in bad shape. He and his brother worked on the car, replacing the three-on-a-tree transmission with a two-speed Powerglide automatic and swapping out the engine for a small-block 283 and ultimately a 350 LT-1 V8.

Mike joined the Marine Corps after high school and kept the Impala in his parents’ garage for storage, where it remained untouched for nearly 30 years until his daughter Ashley replaced the engine with a 348 Tri-Power mated to a three-speed automatic transmission for a senior project. With renewed interest in his piece of movie history, Mike showed his Impala at car shows and movie events until finally auctioning it in the fall of 2015, when it sold to American Graffiti fan Ray Evernham.

As the new owner of Steve’s Impala, Ray sought to restore the car to its screen-era glory, including the interior, exterior, and engine… finally blessing the car with a 327 V8 and six Strombergs, just as Toad had erroneously bragged to Debbie.

How to Get the Look

Ron Howard and Cindy Williams in American Graffiti (1973)

Consistent with his clean-cut character, Steve Bolander dresses in the typical prep style of the Eisenhower era: a non-threatening button-down shirt, khakis, and penny loafers with white socks.

  • Light blue-and-white gingham check cotton short-sleeved shirt with button-down collar, front placket, and breast pocket
  • Beige cotton flat-front trousers with belt loops, slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets (with button-through loop on left pocket), and plain-hemmed bottoms
  • Dark brown leather narrow belt with curved gold-toned single-prong buckle
  • Dark brown leather moc-toe penny loafers
  • White cotton lisle socks
  • White cotton crew-neck short-sleeved undershirt
  • Gold dress watch with silver dial (with non-numeric hour indices) on textured dark brown leather strap

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

Go kiss a duck, marblehead.


  1. David Valenta

    No need to get the look. I had that look. I could replicate it in about two minutes. Except for the belt. I no longer have a narrow brown belt.

  2. Eric

    Pretty impressive that 61 years later, that style is pretty much timeless and common today. I dress similar, and I’m way younger than the original actors. When in doubt, stick with the early ‘60s… you can’t go wrong and will not look dated or like you’re emulating an bygone era.

  3. Roger Cloud

    50 years ago, my fellow dorm roommate and I were taking a summer session cinema class at Loyola in ‘73. We were part of a test audience at the school before the film’s wide release. Needless to say, the showing brought down the house!
    Nothing but good memories of that event which I’ll never forget.

  4. Mike

    If you’ve not had a chance to see the newly-released 4K version of this film on the big screen (there have been some limited screenings), do it! It’s like seeing it again for the first time. The visuals and audio are beautiful.

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