In the 1950s, drive-ins became a nation-wide phenomenon and prized aspect of popular culture. Atlanta’s Varsity Drive-In, known for being the largest drive-in, employed 150 people in three shifts in the early 1950s, with room for 200 cars in the parking-lot to be serviced by carhops under canopies.
Drive-In restaurants fit perfectly into teen lifestyle as they cruised from place to place to see and be seen, then ordering root beer floats on the hoods of their cars—or from the backseat of a cheap date—only venturing inside to change the song on the Jukebox.
Drive-ins represented a refuge from the home where they could get together without adult supervision, highlighting the expression of freedom and power that the automobile embeds. For male adolescents this is especially true. Cars represented one’s manhood, and even attaining manhood. Cars provided privacy for sexual experimentation, and the act of cruising and meeting friends became a sexual adventure.
“Anything that had to do with cars and cruising was the thing to do, so drive-ins were the place to be when I was a teenager,” said Neal Cobb, a Reno historian. “Some guys would park their cars at a place where all the other people’s headlights would have to shine on it as the cars came in, or they’d leave early so everyone could see and admire their cars as they left.”
For drive-in owners, teenagers became more and more problematic, being rowdy, racing their cars, driving recklessly, and making a mess of parking lots.
As drive-ins increased in their popularity in the forties and fifties, so did their technological advancements. All around the country cars pulled into restaurants with parking spaces with individual menus and speakers from which carhops in flashy outfits, and sometimes on roller skates, took orders and delivered meals. Some drive-ins even employed telephones to take orders. Forton’s Drive-In in Muskegon, Michigan used French phones that the carhops plugged in at each stall and orders were called into the kitchen switchboard. Creating a further separation from the customer and restaurant institution, and a more private meal.
Drive-in restaurant continued to thrive in the 60s and 70s, but became an immortal icon of Americana and teen culture when it was portrayed in television sitcoms and motion pictures. Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and Grease were hugely popular, but one motion picture, American Graffiti, captured the drive-in landscape, sound, and feel especially well. And as a result, Mel’s Drive-In in San Francisco, California became legendary.
The 1773 film looks back to the early 60s small town America. Posters and theatrical trailers asked, “Where were you in ‘62?” making viewers look back the time when JFK was in presidency, while giving homage to the teenage memories of dragsters, drive-ins, “hot rod cruisin’,” “makin’ out,” and rock music like Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” or the “Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys blaring from jukeboxes and radios. The trailer announcer summarizes this teen drive-in ambiance saying, "Grab that special one and jump into your candy-colored custom or your screamin’ machine, cruise downtown, and catch American Graffiti."
As the highways were built up, local “mom and pop” drive-ins were no longer passed by when going from place to place. Americans generally chose the faster, more direct routes of the highway system. Thus, establishments such as franchise restaurants, gas stations, and motels were built around these highways. The new restaurants brought in the most customers and drove the local drive-ins to shut down. The drive-ins that survived survived on creating nostalgia or were made into franchises with highway-paced drive-thrus.