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American Graffiti: Movie resonates Modesto cruise

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POSTED June 8, 2013 1:54 a.m.

MODESTO – Miguel, I am your father.

Eh. It doesn’t quite have the same ring as the quintessential movie line that became one of the most recognizable of the 20th century and arguably one of the pioneering moments of American cinema.

But when Miguel Terriquez climbed out of his 1970 Impala Friday night in the parking lot of Modesto’s Pep Boys to meet up with a group of friends, his son – who also had a classic Impala – was part of the crew.

Naturally, Dad’s car was better.

“He’s got nothing on me,” the elder Terriquez said. “He did help me build and restore this car though. So in a sense, he learned how to do his own by helping me do this one.

“I guess you could say that I taught him everything he knows.”

The back-and-forth father-and-son banter aside, Friday was a night for all muscleheads – for everybody in Modesto and the surrounding communities that ever turned a wrench to restore a car from their youth or before. It wasn’t just a night on McHenry Avenue where high schoolers in lifted pickups and tuned Mustangs traded revs as they cruised Modesto’s longest strip.

No, this was a night for the true cruisers. The originals. The purists.

It was a night for the cars that were trailered down to the cruising strip because they weren’t technically street legal, and the other cars that make appearances in public less than a dozen times a year.

It was also a night for George Lucas – of “I am your father” fame – himself.

The famed director cut his teeth as a kid in Modesto during the heyday of cruising on 10th and 11th Streets, and turned the experience into the legendary “American Graffiti” – giving stars like Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard, Suzanne Somers and Harrison Ford their start in Hollywood.

Does it matter that the movie was filmed in Petaluma? No. Because it wasn’t about Petaluma. Lucas didn’t come of age in Petaluma. And on Friday when he made a pass down the cruise route, it was as much a thank you to the community that provided inspiration as it was a victory lap for a long and storied career that will never be forgotten.

And thanks to resurgence in car club culture, the scenes portrayed in the movie still have relevance today. The “deuce coupe” that Paul LeMat rolled around town in can be found in any group of rat rodders that take Fords from the 1930s and chop them down into something sleek and sexy.

Harrison Ford’s 1955 Chevy? I saw one of those checking in for the parade myself. While Indiana Jones wasn’t at the wheel, it still had that menacing, rounded look that you still see on dragsters today.

That 1951 Mercury? Well, you’re not liable to see those very often. The car from the movie sat on a backlot at Universal Studios where it was eventually purchased by Van Halen front man David Lee Roth. He eventually sold it – rightfully so – to Stray Cats leader Brian Setzer. It only seems right that a car like that have a rockabilly owner.

But the lineage dissipates beyond that point. And you don’t see many – any, really – on the road today.

So what does this all mean? Cars are inextricably linked to the Americana that sells so well throughout the rest of the country, and the scenes set-up in American Graffiti are a huge part of that. There are certain things that people don’t forget, and this is one of them.

That movie is about our own backyard.

I chatted with a Manteca resident last week that went to Downey High School before Lucas did, and spent most of his formative years cruising up and down 10th and 11th Streets.

He helped serve as the inspiration for an American institution.

The rest of the world will look at that movie and see a bunch of cars in a drive-in parking lot. They’ll see a pair of tough guys racing on a rural road. They’ll see a knockout blond always ending up one light away from the young man guaranteed to talk to her.

But I see Modesto.

And that’s pretty darn cool.

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