Few things in this world go together like rama-lama-lama-da-dingity-dingy-dong—or the 1950s and fantastically stylish cars.
The decade marked the rise of the American teenager. An entire generation was freed for the first time in decades from the forced responsibilities of war and economic depression. They celebrated their newly liberated early adulthood by filling it with frivolities like milkshakes, hula hoops, and rock-and-roll.
And then there were the vehicles, the physical manifestation of that freedom. They were made in outstanding technicolor and marketed specifically toward a youthful crowd, who could actually afford the things with the money they earned from their summer jobs—something even more magical than a car flying off into the sunset.
Of course, that enchanted send-off is the least magical thing about the 1978 movie Grease, the original high school musical full of bad dating advice and spectacular cars.
It also has its fair share of sing-alongs, the most glorious of which revolves around the most spectacular car of all, Greased Lightning—a ride so special, it could blow back even the most well-oiled hair.
We here at DMV.ORG take our musicals seriously (just ask anyone within earshot of our office)—and a musical featuring our favorite subject (that would be cars, not John Travolta) is even more special to us. But how will Grease hold up against our patented ultra-absorbent movie rating system? Keep reading to find out.
As Frankie Valli notes in the film’s unnecessary/brilliant disco burner of an anachronistic opener, grease is the word. But, the singular term has a number of applications: It’s not just a favorite hair product of the 1950s—it’s an entire cultural movement embodied by the decade.
Greasers were essentially the nation’s first card-carrying Car Guys—and this movie has plenty of hot rods for them to pine over.
All told, 48 cars were designed or purchased for the film, with Hollywood automotive extraordinaire Eddie Paul behind the vehicular curation. (Paul went on to develop cars for for Cars, The Dukes of Hazzard, and some of the infinity Fast and Furious installments. “A guy from the studios” reportedly offered him “a briefcase full of $100 bills” to work on Grease, in perhaps the shadiest work-for-pay exchange ever recounted, even in L.A.)
But all the backdoor dealing paid off: the studio ended up with some of the most iconic cars in cinematic history.
The most automatic, systematic, and hydromatic of all, of course, was Greased Lightning, the white-hot chariot of the T-Bird gang headed by Travolta’s Danny Zuko.
Procured by T-Bird co-leader Kenickie—played by Jeff Conaway—after working all summer hauling boxes at Bargain City, the 1948 Ford Deluxe convertible, which sported a shoddy paint job and mismatched tires, was a venerable “hunk of junk.”
That is, until shop class started. In a fantasy sequence that would make Henry Ford blush, Zuko and the gang elaborate on what they’d like to do to the car—mechanically speaking—envisioning a restored version of the vehicle at the height of its glory.
The red hot hotrod pictured in the musical number is also a ’48 Deluxe. Paul gussied it up with the purple French tail lights, 30-inch fins, and chrome-plated rods Danny sings about, topped off with a sweet Plexiglas hood. (Side note: If you’ve been too mesmerized by Travolta’s magnificent chin dimple all these years to notice that Greased Lightning is essentially a lyrical laundry list of automotive upgrades, you’re not alone.)
Eventually, the gang gets the “real life” version of Greased Lightning up to specs, too, even finishing off the design with an all-white leather interior and a custom silver lightning bolt paint job.
But it’s not just the boys who get to have some automotive fun.
The Pink Lady
The girls of Grease, headed by Stockard Channing’s Rizzo, also have a pretty sweet ride. It doesn’t get an official name in the film—and gets woefully scant screen time—but we here at DMV.ORG believe in equal opportunity. We’ve taken the liberty of sticking the vehicle with the unoriginal moniker The Pink Lady, after Rizzo’s gang of gals, The Pink Ladies.
Fittingly, the model is a 1948 Ford Studebaker Regal—a perfect nod to the queens who ride in it. The body is also a fitting—if not slightly nauseating—bubblegum pink.
Though, like its greasy counterpart, the coughing and sputtering three-speed could likely use some restorative care. Especially if the ladies plan on ruling the school from behind the wheel.
Certainly, neither group’s ride can hang with the intimidating Hell’s Chariot, piloted by the leader of rival gang The Scorpions. The movie’s most appropriately named vehicle was decked out in flame decals and could literally spit hot fire when directed by driver Craterface.
But the 1949 Mercury Series 9CM could really burn rubber, thanks to its 118-inch wheelbase and Touch-O-Matic overdrive, making the 225-cubic-inch 8-cylinder engine even faster.
(The car was a real-life sensation when it first came out. It made a splash again when Grease was released nearly 30 years later, and struck gold in 2015, when one of the actual Hell’s Chariot models driven in the movie sold at auction for more than $600,000.)
At any rate, the Scorpions’ mean machine was quite literally faster than Lightning. But that didn’t stop Danny, Kenickie, and the gang from agreeing to an epic race at Thunder Road, with nothing less than pink slips on the line.
In real life, the matchup would have been no match at all, barring the T-Bird boys putting in some serious extra credit work at Murdock’s shop class.
Sporting a not-even-impressive-for-the-time 100 horsepower, Greased Lightning would max out around 80 MPH. That’s even with its song-promised fuel injection cut-offs and four-speed on the floor.
Humility not being their strong suit, the group takes up the challenge anyway. They head to the locally famous drag racing locale to take on Craterface and Co. in a battle for vehicle ownership papers. (A T-Bird/Pink Lady mishap puts Danny behind the wheel, squaring off against the Scorpion crew’s leader.)
And it doesn’t take long for things to get dirty.
Aside from its aesthetically intimidating flames, Hell’s Chariot is fitted with actually dangerous hubcap spikes, which Craterface uses to cut an ugly gash along Greased Lightning’s side.
Some more bumping and grinding persists as the race drags on, and Danny even loses a hubcap somewhere along the way.
But a smart bit of driving on Zuko’s part leads him to a serendipitously-placed piece of debris that launches the car into an epic slow-motion jump, allowing the white lightning to overtake its hellish competitor and skid to a victorious, if not precariously bumpy, finish, leaving Craterface stewing in a puddle of muck.
When you pop in the movie Grease (we know you’re probably streaming it, but popping in a VHS is truly the way the movie was meant to be watched), you may come for the gyrating John Travolta... but you stay for the drag race. Because the cars are so cool and the songs about them bore their way into your brain until they seep deep, deep into the depths of your soul—we award the movie a rare perfect 10 out of 10. Can you feel the chills multiplying?
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