Saturday, April 6, 2013

Dissect A Dash #3: The American Graffiti John Milner 1932 Ford Coupe

There is one cinematic car that has produced more tributes, clones and nostalgic re-creations than any other, and that's the famous "Piss-Yellow" 1932 Ford five-window coupe driven by Paul Le Mat's character, John Milner in the 1973 movie, "American Graffiti".

The main attraction is that it was the pound puppy of hot rods; a mish-mash of parts that made it singular. Shortened grille, odd engine components, and most complicated of all, a dash comprised of mismatched gauges.

Paul Le Mat in "American Graffiti"

Also part of it's everlasting appeal is that the car wasn't a direct copy of any famous rod; instead, it was an individual variation of hot rods that ran around in the early-1960's. And as such, it had a true home-built feel to it, from the backyard paint job to the period popular engine. This was a car that you could look at on the big drive-in movie screen with your date Wanda and think to yourself "I could build that! And then maybe Wanda would let me get to third base..."
But the dash was a puzzler. It was a stained-glass effect; disparate pieces making up a very cool whole. 

The insert was a Stewart Warner panel available through many of the mail-away speed shops of the era. It was referred to as the "200 Special", and was really a top-end display blend for street and race.
The top picture is from a California Speed Shop circular, the bottom two are from a 1950's Newhouse Speed Equipment catalog.

 The gauges across the Milner dash were fuel, oil, amperes, tachometer, speedometer, vacuum, water temp, and water temp. Three were winged gauges, including the tachometer just like what is pictured for example in the Newhouse picture above, with an odd speedo that we'll delve into further.
There are those (like me) who grew up later than the era represented in the movie, and never saw that type of gauge display. But they were used quite a bit back then, as this "mini-mag" How To Hot Rod magazine from 1961 points out.

HOW TO HOP UP, January, 1961

The set-up is like seeing the twin of the American Graffiti Coupe, even down to the column collar key ignition and similar-style Chevy Impala steering wheel.

Whoever has this coupe now, has the Milner coupe before Milner did!

So what was the "unique" feature of the dash that has been a stumper for so long? The speedometer. We've had great closeup shots of it, including this screenshot from the Milner coupe that was dropped into the movie "The California Kid" as "B" roll footage.

Here's where it gets sticky. This is NOT a standard Stewart Warner gauge. The font is unusual, the gates (or hashmarks) and the range for that bezel is way off. Plus it's sporting a one-year-only 1932 Ford speedometer needle. So what was it?
I was contacted by a Milner Coupe builder who had heard of my gauge background, and he was hell-bent on making his coupe as accurate as possible, down to each gauge. Well, the other guages are off the shelf by SW, and even though they can be spendy (especially the Wings insignia tach), they were available with patience and cash.
Not so the speedo. Why was that? It was Stewart Warner, it wasn't an oddball MPH, so why weren't there any around?
It's because that gauge was a bastard. Literally.
It was a combination of gauges that were pieced together to create what you see here. 
Here was my first clue in this Sherlock Holmes of Speed Equipment quest. Scanning Ebay as I do, looking for the unusual and also for the entertainment of those guys selling gauge panels "bought from an old guy who pulled it from a 32 in his barn" (funny, you bought some of those same pieces in that dash from me two weeks ago) that are filled with mismatched gauges from different decades, I came across this...

A crappy picture of a speedo I hadn't seen before. The reason? It was itself a rebuild-with-wrong-parts gauge. Here's the clues.

The face is for a 1932 Ford. Look at the low number of wheel numbers, five on top and three on the bottom, and the window slants for the odometer and trip meter. They are the same as what we see on the typical 32 Ford speedo.

And here's a closer view on another Deuce gauge face, notice how deep the slant is surrounding that trip meter roll...

So, if it's a 1932 Ford face, why is it 120mph, and why does it have that needle? My first questions, too. Here's the scoop. That needle, and that case, was added later. I confirmed this by looking up the serial numbers on the face, and cross-referenced them to Stewart Canada.
Therefore the 120 is a gennie SW face, not a custom face, but also not in the Milner coupe context. I knew that size of face mounted in a front-mount case size, the opposite of the 32 Ford bezel, and that is what was used in the movie car. A typical example of that type of bezel and it's size is this vintage Allard speedo...

A front-mount, smaller 2-7/8" face. Just like the case and bezel set-up for the Milner speedo. 

Here's the timeline. At some point, someone had the 120 face, and possibly the innards designed for a 1932 Ford back-mount case. They switched it into a front-mount case, kept the 1932 Ford needle, and stuck it next to the Wings tach. And there you have it.

I went ahead and cobbled together the American Graffiti coupe speedometer for that guy, and this is what it ended up looking like...

Not too shabby, if I say so myself. Another mystery solved, and another piece of hot rod trivia you can pull out of your back-pocket to impress Wanda at the drive-in. 
And maybe you'll get to third base. Thank me later.

1 comment:

  1. I have the right speedometer with the same face, but as you pointed out the needle is different. My wheel numbers are also reversed being white on black. Could I enlist your services to make the needed changes? It would be greatly appreciated. Great blog.