Racing movie rec of the week: The Beach Party crew hits the asphalt aisle, tackles the British Invasion, and go on a go-kart chase.
- Bikini Beach tackles the world of drag racing from the perspective of youth culture in the 1960s.
- Harvey Lembeck is a motorcycle gang leader that somehow is involved in a murder plot, which leads to a cross-town go-kart chase.
- This film apparently uses footage from the 1964 Winternationals, an NHRA national event at the Pomona Raceway.
Just like movie makers today, the folks behind the youth hit Beach Party couldn’t just be happy with one hit. While the 1963 film was a clear success, it didn’t hit every note of 1960s youth culture, which means there was still meat left on the proverbial bone. One of the three ’64 films that comprise the Beach Party Extended Universe hits something near and dear to all of our hearts: the golden age of drag racing. Yet, despite being quite literally a throw-away film designed to get kids into the drive-in, Bikini Beach somehow beautifully captures drag racing history and manages to document the final throes of post-war innocence.
If you’re not familiar with Bikini Beach, let’s get you up to speed. Frankie Avalon returns to his role as Frankie as he leads his army of aspiring beach bums on a summer vacation holiday to the beach. Naturally, Annette Funicello also returns as Dee Dee, Jody McRea as Deadhead, and Harvey Lembeck as Eric Von Zipper. Don Rickles also returns as the local hangout owner, but his new side hustle is … running a drag strip. While on vacation, the group runs across the British pop sensation The Potato Bug, also played by Avalon, who drives Dean Jerffries’ Mantaray. If you’re wondering why an international pop sensation is setting up shop in this sleepy seaside community, it’s made clear: drag racing.
While there are plenty of subplots at work underneath the main love story of dueling Avalons, what brings us here today is the main subplot. The drag racing sequences in this film are absurd. Likely because of the low cost of stuffing this film with drag racing all-stars and historic machines, this movie can act as a high-definition look at the grip drag racing had on youth culture during its golden age. While some of the drag racing scenes are actually pulled from the ’64 Winternationals, the most interesting sequences are bespoke.
Inside those drag racing sequences you’ll find “TV” Tommy Ivo’s legendary four-engine Showboat, Ivo’s Barnstormer, the Greer, Black, and Prudhomme dragster, and the Stellings and Hampshire “Red Stamp” car. While casual fans might not recognize most of these names, NHRA legend Prudhomme might stand out. Yes, it’s Don Prudhomme’s iconic front-engine car. Though, personally, watching Ivo roast the tires on his Showboat in the cinematic warmth of Pathécolor is just as fascinating—even if, according to the plot, the pilot of the Showboat dragster is actually a gorilla. It’s part of the plot, trust me.
If drag racing wasn’t exciting enough, there’s also some casual attempted murder. This is met with the only justice you’d find in the BPEU: a go-kart chase that’s stuffed full of interesting cars and motorcycles of the era.
In all honesty, Bikini Beach isn’t a very good movie. It didn’t win an Oscar and didn’t even qualify for a daytime Emmy. If you want something that makes you think and grow as a person, this isn’t the movie for you. That said, time has worked its magic fingers and turned what should have just been a drive-in distraction into a cultural touchstone. Not only does this film capture the love youth culture had in its day of motorsport and car culture, it also works overtime in showing the innocence in post-war America. Oh yeah, and the movie worked as a springboard to launch surf-rock legends The Pyramids, and wraps with some teenager named “Little” Stevie Wonder performing at the end.
Sure, there are more plots in this movie than are probably necessary. We didn’t even touch on a retirement community’s threat to expand on the beach, or the cameo by Boris Karloff as an art collector. This movie is weird. But it’s weird in a way that expertly and beautifully documents the youth culture of the 1960s, and gives a surprising context to the golden era of drag racing.
If you want to watch this 99-minute sprint through the American youth culture of the 1960s, you can watch it on Prime Video, where it’s free for subscribers. The beach setting might help fellow Midwesterners forget that it’s winter for a little.
Wesley Wren Wesley Wren has spent his entire life around cars, whether it’s dressing up as his father’s 1954 Ford for Halloween as a child, repairing cars in college or collecting frustrating pieces of history—and most things in between.