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Recalling the heyday of the cruise that inspired American Graffitti
Downey High grad Louie Wyrsch used to prowl the streets of Modesto in a 1959 Chevrolet, a testament to the era when automobiles were art - evidenced by the sleek, fin-tail design. - photo by JASON CAMPBELL

MODESTO - Before there was American Graffiti there was Louie Wyrsch.

Well, it could be said, that Wyrsch was American Graffiti -- more than a decade before George Lucas who, like Wyrsch, grew up in Modesto and spent his formative years at Downey High School and iconized the phrase that conjures images of hot rods and car hops and unrequited love.

Those 1950s-era cars you see rumbling down what we all know was supposed to be 10th and 11th Streets? That was Wyrsch and his friends in the ’59 Chevrolet that he bought for $2,200 brand new as a high school senior.

Those guys in the blue jeans and the white t-shirts standing around peering under hoods?

That was him too.

Today, he points out, that Chevrolet would fetch you $40,000 with the right buyer and at 73-years-old he’s still standing around looking under the hood of his and other people’s cars.

It got into his blood when he was a young man running around the streets of Modesto during what many consider to be an iconic American era, and he’s never been able to shake it.

“I’ve got seven cars right now -- it’s just something that I’ve always done,” said Wyrsch, a longtime member of the MidValley Chevrolet Club. “I got drawn in at a young age and I’ve always enjoyed being a part of that world. Back then everybody wanted a car and we’d take them and fix them up - everybody had nice cars.

“It’s just what you did. It was a different time.”

Wyrsch had no way of knowing that he was playing a role - even if it was an uncredited one -- in the crafting of one of the most important film scripts of all time.

It was the movie that launched the career of George Lucas - American Graffiti - and provided the little-known director from Modesto enough freedom to craft one of the most important and pioneering movies in all of American cinema.

And it all started with a few hot rods tearing through downtown.

“We used to cruise down on 10th and 11th Street - they’d be packed and there would be cars stretched out,” he said. “It’d bumper-to-bumper and you wouldn’t really end up driving anywhere. But that’s how many people were out back them. It was kind of a free place where a lot of people from around here - Manteca included - came to Modesto to be a part of that and hang out at the drive-ins and the like.

“When we were growing up there was no such thing as a drive-by shooting. We grew up in the best times, back in those days -- if you wanted to make a phone call to your girlfriend you had to either do it at home or from a phone booth. Those were good days.”


209 staff reporter