When people discuss car movies, someone eventually brings up Grease. Yet, this 1978 trip down memory lane never really discusses the cars. Sure, they are vaguely in the songs, but they are not critical to the story like the Bandit’s 1977 Trans Am, or Memphis Raines’ GT500 Eleanor. With that said, Grease does offer the grease monkey a visual buffet of 1950s American iron.
The first car to appear in the movie is the Pink Ladies’ 1948 Studebaker Commander Regal. It looks to be in decent shape, but is nothing more than transportation to the Ladies. It is never talked about in the movie, and is seen again only once at the pep rally.
Danny, played by a very young John Travolta, is the star of the movie, yet his car only appears briefly halfway through. During the drive-in scene, you can see his 1949 Dodge Wayfarer. Sandy calls it his “sin wagon” after his lame attempt to put the moves on her.
During the outdoor scenes, you can see roads and lots full of tri-five Chevys and later Thunderbirds. You can get a real sense of the years the producers were aiming for, as the “pregnant-elephant” cars of the late 1940s are almost nonexistent, yet the “wider, lower, longer” design ethos of the early 1960s does not appear at all.
Now, what you really came here for: Thunder Road. Leo, leader of the rival Scorpions, drives a sweet 1949 Mercury Custom. This Custom has some custom work done. The obvious touches are the sinister black paint with flames, and extra chrome work. Leo lights up the flamethrowers out the tailpipes every time he takes off, so he must have been filling up the tank every few hours. Who cares when gas is 29 cents a gallon, right? The only other visual clue is a Firestone sticker on the window. It was probably free with his last set of bias-ply whitewall tires. The last clue we have about the Merc’ is the sound. It has a mean lope at idle, but quite a rasp under acceleration. It sounds like a smaller v8, with a high lift cam, and some glasspacks out back.
Fortunately for Danny, he and the T Birds brought out a newly restored and upgraded (literally 3 hours before the race) Greased Lightning. This is the same car that Kenickie bought with his summer job money early in the movie, a 1948 Ford Deluxe. The Lightning is a bit confusing, as Danny sings about its “four on the floor” manual transmission, but he is shown using its column shift at the race. Also interesting is the choice to use another ’48 Ford for the custom red fiberglass hotrod, although that one had about a hundred thousand dollars dropped on it. More than the T Birds could afford.
Still, the ‘50s were another time, when a guy in high school could buy a car that is less than ten years old by working for one summer. Maybe it was a better time, at least for grease monkeys.
Watch the race at Thunder Road in the clip below: