George Lucas, California Car Culture, and "The Crash" in '62.
By Richard Ravalli
The first article about George Lucas was published in the Modesto Bee
in 1955 when George Jr. was 11 years old. It was an article highlighting a newspaper for kids that he created with school friend Mel Cellini. The next time he made the local press, it was not such a happy occasion. The Bee
reported that he was recovering at the Modesto City Hospital after a horrible car accident on June 12, 1962.1
By that year the Lucas family had left their home at 530 Ramona Street for a walnut ranch house in what is now northern Modesto. George was heading home, traveling east on Sylvan Road when he was about to turn left toward his house. Attempting to pass him at high speeds, 17-year-old Frank Ferreira (a fellow Downey High School student) smashed into Lucas's small Fiat Bianchina, flipping the car several times before it crashed into a tree. Lucas was thrown from the car, helping save his life, although he was injured badly. He had minor fractures but his lungs were hemorrhaging. Soon thereafter, he awoke and began recovering. The Bee
article vividly displayed the mangled Fiat.2
The document signals Lucas's experience with California car culture. The state was an early leader in the modern American fascination with the power and art of the automobile. Hot rodding began to form as a favorite southern California pastime by the late 1930s. Model T's and A's were "souped up" for greater performance as the local landscape provided ample testing ground. Scholar John DeWitt writes,
Early rodders in California were able to perfect their rods and push them to their limits because they had easy access to flat, dry lake beds in unpopulated desert areas, a relatively safe environment for high-speed runs that were almost impossible to find in the rest of the country. The weather helped too. Topless and fenderless roadsters weren't very practical in the Pacific Northwest or northern New England. ...[A]s more rodders appeared on the streets of Pasadena, Bakersfield, Bellflower and Modesto, there were inevitable challenges. Even an hour's drive to a lake bed was too far to go to settle things, so drag racing ("racing on the main drag," one of several possible etymologies for the term) became more prevalent.3
Customizer Gene Winfield opened his first shop in Modesto in 1946 called Windy's Custom Shop. From here he connected with southern California enthusiasts and racers and began competing at El Mirage and Bonneville.4
Gene eventually relocated south and over the years has produced a number of works for the movie and television industry. Yet his story is one evidence of the deep connection that exists between Modesto and the California car culture, a connection that over the years has ultimately produced many memorable moments in American popular culture.
Economic and cultural shifts following World War II influenced the "greaser" youth rebel by the 1950s, and powerful and flashy
cars became a vital ingredient in being "cool." George Lucas was certainly caught up in such trends. Unhappy with the move to the ranch when he was 15, Lucas became more withdrawn and listened to rock and roll music. He grew his hair long and slicked it back. George Sr. bought him his first car, the Fiat, and Lucas soon thereafter modified the "sewing machine" motor and strengthened the suspension.5
An amateur racing life followed at regional venues like Laguna Seca. When not tearing up the tracks and streets (and getting ticketed), Lucas spent many weekends cruising, which included circling the popular loop through 10th and 11th Streets in downtown Modesto. Dad was not pleased with his wayward son.6
The iconic "James Dean rebel" in Lucas is evident in the 1962 Bee
article. Public anxieties over children born in the Depression and raised during wartime led to a variety of concerns about juvenile delinquency, nationally as well as in the Golden State. The film industry exploited the fears emanating from the California suburbs with 1955's Rebel Without A Cause
, starring actor James Dean as southern California delinquent Jim Stark. His character survives an automotive game of "chicken" but Dean himself was not so lucky, dying in a wreck on his way to Salinas three days before the opening of the movie.7 American Graffiti
draws upon both Rebel's
and Lucas's dramatic experiences for its climactic accident scene near the end of the film, offering the Modesto car crash a place in Lucas lore almost equal to the mystique bestowed on the late actor's tragedy.8
(The Dean-Lucas connection is furthered by the name of Lucas's adopted son Jett, named for Dean's character Jett Rink in Giant
) Such a relation is just one illustration of the ties between Lucas and popular themes involving postwar California adolescents. It is part of a call for closer inspection of the symbiotic connections linking him and the "Golden Youth" discussed by historian Kirse Granat May in her fascinating study Golden State, Golden Youth: The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955-1966
Just as Jim Stark reformed his ways in Rebel
, whatever sense of seriousness and responsibility that stuck with George from his dad's strict upbringing manifested after the crash. Feeling more than a bit lucky to be alive, Lucas made a decision to straighten-up and focus on less dangerous career goals. As Dale Pollock quotes him, "The accident made me more aware of myself and my feelings. I began to trust my instincts. I had the feeling that I should go to college, and I did."10
He attended Modesto Junior College and graduated with an Associate of Arts degree in 1964. The University of Southern California then called, where Lucas officially began his career in film. Leaving home
is as much a part of American Graffiti
as the joy of being there, and in many ways that journey for the film's director started on a fateful day in June of 1962. Historical "what if's" abound, but the image of a small car wrapped around a Modesto tree stands out as a pivotal moment in the past without which the course of American film and popular culture at the turn of the 21st century may have been significantly altered.
Youth Survives Crash. DHS Student Is Injured Seriously In Car Crash," The Modesto Bee
, 6-13-62, D-1.
Dale Pollock, Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas
Updated Edition (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999), xiv-xvi; John Baxter, Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas (New York: Avon Books, 1999), 38-40.
John DeWitt, Cool Cars, High Art: The Rise of Kustom Kulture
(Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 6. For a reading of the general (or non-"kustom") post-war car culture in the state, see R.C. Lutz, "On The Road to Nowhere? California's Car Culture," California History
79:1 (Spring 2000): 50-55.
Dick Martin, "Gene Winfield - Growin' Up Fast," Rod and Custom
online article (no date), Accessed 10-15-07 at http://www.rodandcustommagazine.com
If Lutz is correct, Lucas's small import vehicle, like Dustin Hoffman's Alfa Romeo Spyder in 1967's The Graduate
, may signify an early countercultural spark in the future filmmaker, mirroring a California-inflected rebellious, creative spirit. See Lutz, 53.
Pollock, 24-28; Baxter 30-37. A recently reprinted 1956 Bee article noting the problem of teenage "dragging" (cruising) in relation to other leisure activities in Modesto is strikingly similar to the picture painted by Lucas in American Graffiti
. See Robert LeRoy Santos, "Fifty Years Ago," Stanislaus Stepping Stones
30:2 (March-April 2006): 1568.
Kirse Granat May, Golden State, Golden Youth: The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955-1966
(Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 67-73.
See Michael Pye and Lynda Myles, "George Lucas," in Sally Kline, ed., George Lucas: Interviews
(Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 72.
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