It's the last night of the summer in 1962, and a number of friends are meeting at Burger City for one last hurrah. They include:
-Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), The recently-graduated Class President.
-Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), another recent graduate and Steve's best friend, who was awarded the local Moose Lodge's first scholarship.
-Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams), who is heading into her Senior Year in high school, and was the head cheerleader, as well as Steve Bolander's girlfriend. She is also Curt's younger sister.
-Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith), a rather nerdish and socially awkward kid with glasses and a mutual friend of Stve and Curt.
-John Milner (Paul Le Mat), a young man and high school graduate in his early 20's who spends most of his days fixing cars for a living and racing a yellow deuce coupe, said by some to be the fastest car in the Valley.
At Burger City, Curt confides to Steve that he is considering not heading East for college the next day. Steve is upset by this, but Curt feels that maybe he needs to get his feelings in order. After their discussion, Steve tells Terry that he is going to give him his 1958 Chevrolet Impala until he comes back from college. As Terry only has a little Vespa scooter, the opportunity to have a hot set of wheels makes him ecstatic.
After the formalities, Steve gets into Laurie's car, and tells her that he thinks they should see other people while he is away. Laurie tries to hide the fact that this upsets her, but becomes very quiet considering the ramifications.
Meanwhile, Curt and John talk about how it seems every girl that comes by is ugly or has a boyfriend. "Where is the dazzling beauty I've been waiting for all my life," bemoans Curt. John's conversation turns to how the strip that they cruise on keeps shrinking, remembering when a tank full of gas was needed to complete a full circuit.
It is then that the group decides to split up. John heads off cruising in his yellow deuce coupe, while Terry heads out in Steve's car. Curt decides to accompany Steve and Laurie to the "Freshman Hop," a sockhop in the school gymnasium.
As Milner heads off to cruise around, he encounters a couple of his buddies also cruising down the streets, who tell him of a "very wicked 56 Chevy looking for him," as well as alerting him to cops watching for speeders.
Steve, Laurie and Curt have pulled up to a stop light, with a white Thunderbird next to them. As Curt looks, a blonde driving the vehicle smiles at him, and seems to mouth the words "I love you," before taking off. Curt is taken by the vision of this 'goddess,' and pleads with his friend and sister to follow the Thunderbird. However, his words fall on deaf ears.
Milner soon after encounters a carload of girls. When he asks if any of them wants to ride with him, one of the girl's sisters volunteers. However, it is only after she gets into his car does he realize what he's gotten himself into. The girl, named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), is easily a very young girl, and John is determined to not have her along with him for the rest of the night.
Meanwhile, Steve, Laurie and Curt have made it to the Sockhop. Laurie's friend Peg (Kathleen Quinlan) confides that Laurie will be fine without Steve, but Laurie is still upset and confused about Steve's wish to see other people. Steve meanwhile, has explained his plans to some of his own friends, who laugh that he will use the opportunity to "screw around." Curt meanwhile, roams the halls of the school and comes across his old locker. He tries the combination, only to find that it has been changed.
After Steve and Laurie meet up after talking to their friends, Steve wishes to dance, but Laurie refuses, her anger over his decision boiling to the surface. Curt meanwhile, meets one of his teachers who is Chaperoning the dance. Mr. Wolfe (Terence McGovern) and Curt then discuss the teacher's past, how he went to a college in Middlebury, Vermont, and only stayed one semester. Wolfe contends that he wasn't the adventuresome type, and Curt explains how he might not be as well. The teacher encourages Curt to not stay, but to go out and explore life.
Back in the yellow deuce coupe, John and Carol continue to be at odds with each other. Carol explains how she and her friends used shaving cream to coverup someone's windshield as a gag, and shows John that she still has a can with her at that moment. They then fight over the music on the radio, with John being irritated by the Beach Boys song "Surfin' Safari" on the radio. John's night is further complicated when Officer Holstein (Jim Bohan) pulls him over. Holstein gives Milner a ticket, claiming one of his taillights is out, and claims that he received reports of John speeding, but is going to let him go this time, promising that one day soon, he's going to catch him in the act. After Holstein leaves, John gives Carol the ticket to put in a pouch on the driver's side door, which already contains plenty of tickets from "the law."
Terry meanwhile, has pulled up to a light, next to a black 56 Chevy. The driver is Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), who shouts over to Terry that he's looking for John Milner, and to let John know that he's looking to race him. After the encounter with Falfa, Terry notices a blonde walking the streets. After saying that she resembles Connie Stevens, the girl stops to talk to Terry. Terry claims he's known as "Terry the Tiger," and offers to let her feel the tuck-and-roll upholstery of the Impala. The girl, named Debbie (Candy Clark), gets in, and the two drive off.
Back at the sockhop, Steve and Laurie are chosen to lead a spotlight snowball dance, and put on smiling faces for the rest of the students. As they dance together, Laurie continues to argue quietly, before beginning to cry, and telling Steve to "go to hell," as the song "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" fills the gymnasium.
Curt meanwhile, has run into his ex-girlfriend, Wendy (Deby Celiz). With nothing else to do at the school, he asks if he can tag along with her and her friend Bobbie (Lynne Marie Stewart). Wendy agrees, much to the ire of her friend.
Back in the gymnasium, as the music picks back up, Steve and Laurie are now dancing intimately, when a teacher named Mr Kroot (Mark Anger) tells them to "break it up." Steve gets smart and tells Kroot to 'kiss a duck,' as well as calls him a 'marblehead.' Kroot tells Steve that he is suspended, but Steve smilingly tells Kroot that he graduated last semester, and by all accounts, Kroot can't do anything to him. As Kroot storms off, Steve and Laurie laugh at the moment. After the incident, they decide to go to The Canal to be alone, their relationship appearing to have been patched up.
Terry meanwhile, has taken Debbie to Burger City to get food. As they wait, a former 'flame' of Debbie's leans into the car to talk to her. Debbie ignores all his advances, before flicking a lit match at him. Debbie confides that the guy is just 'Horny,' and that she likes Terry because he's different. As Terry's face develops a smile, Debbie tells Terry that she figures he's smart enough to get them some liquor. Seeing a new way to impress Debbie, Terry heads off to a liquor store, leaving behind the order they placed.
Curt has now come to occupy the back seat of Bobbie's VW Bug, and Wendy in the passenger seat. Seeing the white T-Bird, Curt demands they follow it, much to Bobbie's irritation. When Wendy asks Curt who this girl in the T-Bird is, Curt says he has no idea. Bobbie meanwhile, claims that she's the wife of a guy who owns a jewelry store. Curt doesn't believe it, since the girl in the T-Bird is young and beautiful.
Wendy confides to Bobbie about Curt's dream to be a Presidential Aide, and to one day shake hands with President Kennedy. Curt and Wendy then playfully bicker about telling of his future ambitions, and Curt invites her into the backseat to cuddle. Wendy then confides that she thinks Curt's decision to stay in town is a good idea, saying that maybe they can attend the local college together. Just then, Kip Pullman (Ed Greenberg) pulls up next to their car. Bobbie tells Curt to 'say anything' to Kip, whom she has a crush on and would like to meet. Curt then takes her request a bit too far, and yells over to Kips that "Bobbie is madly in love with him, and trembles at the sight of his rippling biceps." This causes Bobbie to pull over immediately, demanding Curt leave her car. Curt does so, and then sees the T-Bird off a ways. He chases after it, but it soon disappears, and he is unsure where to go or what to do next.
John meanwhile, has given in to Carol's request for a drink, and takes her to Burger City for a Coke. While there, John meets one of his hot rod buddies, and explains that he's babysitting Carol. Carol gets upset and throws her drink at him, before storming out of the car. John lets her go for a bit, but then feels a sense of responsibility and catches up to Carol, who gets back into his coupe.
Terry meanwhile, has gotten to the liquor store, but is unsure how to get a bottle of Old Harper for Debbie. As he ponders outside the store, a wino comes up, and Terry asks him to help. The wino takes Terry's money, but instead buys wine and exits out the back door of the store. Terry goes in, and runs off a list of things for the storekeeper to give him along with the bottle of Old Harper. However, the storekeeper still asks Terry for his ID. Terry returns to the car, now without the money, and asks Debbie for more. She is at first upset, but agrees. As Terry approaches the store again, he sees another man approaching. Terry explains his situation, and the man claims he will help Terry. However, seconds later, the man rushes out, and tosses Terry the bottle of Old Harper. The man appears to have robbed the store, and the store owner soon after emerges, firing on the man with a gun! Terry hightails it back to the Impala, and quickly gets out of there with Debbie.
Meanwhile, John has taken Carol to an old junk yard, and gives her a run down of the various vehicles that he's known about, usually belonging to guys he's known who have long since died in crashes or accidents. Carol claims that John told her he's never been in an accident, but he confides that he's come close a couple of times, and that so far, noone has been able to beat him.
Curt meanwhile, has taken to sitting on the hood of a car, watching an episode of "Ozzie and Harriet" through the window of an appliance store. As he notices, several guys who are part of a gang called "The Pharoahs" accost him, claiming he's sitting on a car that belongs to a friend of theirs. When Curt gets off, one of the members tells Curt that he appears to have left a scratch in the hood. The guys then take Curt along with them in their car, deciding on a 'fitting punishment. As Curt feels he is going to die, the white T-Bird passes by. Shortly thereafter. Falfa's 56 Chevy passes, and the leader of the Pharoahs claims that this guy aims to beat Milner, claiming John's days are numbered.
Meanwhile, John and Carol encounter another carload of girls. The girls claim that John's car deserves their special prize. When John is eager to accept it, the girls hurl a waterballoon at him, which misses and hits Carol. John bursts into laughter, but Carol wants revenge, and John seems eager to have a little mischief. As both cars come to the next red light, John proceeds to flatten the other car's tires, and Carol sprays shaving cream all over the other car's windows, before the two jump back into John's car and drive off.
Terry and Debbie have made it to the Canal, where Terry mixes up the Old Harper with some soda. Terry and Debbie attempt to get intimate, but there appear to be too many people walking around. Terry leaves the car door open and the music on, and he and Debbie go looking for a quiet place to be alone.
Curt and the Pharoahs pull into a miniature golf establishment, where the Pharoahs attempt to pry open the pinball machines in the main building for gas money. They are soon caught by Mr. Gordon (Scott Beach), who is a member of the Moose Lodge in town. Curt claims that the guys he is with are his friends, and Gordon takes Curt into the back to meet with another Moose Lodge member named Hank (Al Nalbandian). They both congratulate Curt on winning the Lodge's first scholarship, before he takes leave along with the Pharoahs, who have finished cleaning out the change in the pinball machines. The leader of the Pharoahs is impressed with how Curt handled the situation, and decides that he and his friends will consider making Curt one of them.
Back at the Canal, Terry stops necking with Debbie, when he realizes the music from the car has stopped. He and Debbie then return to where the car was, only to find that it has been stolen!
Meanwhile, in another part of the Canal, Steve and Laurie are getting intimate in her car. The conversation shifts a little towards Steve's decision of wanting to go, and how Curt does not. The talk again upsets Laurie, and she stops giving in to Steve's advances. When he claims he wants something to remember her by, she goes limp, infuriating him more that she is just going to let him do whatever but she isn't going to take any pleasure out of it. When Steve makes an off hand comment about Laurie watching her brother 'doing something,' Laurie yells that Steve is "disgusting" and kicks him out of the car, before driving off.
Terry and Debbie are walking near the canal, with Debbie explaining about reports of a person in the area dubbed "The Goat Killer," who kills and dismembers his victims. Terry is getting more and more freaked out by her talking, when a noise distracts them. At first thinking it might be the goat killer, Terry is relieved when it turns out to be Steve. When Debbie explains that their car was stolen, Terry attempts to divert the subject (not wanting Steve to know that "his" car was stolen).
Back with John and Carol, John attempts to trick Carol into telling where she lives, to try and take her home, but Carol is stubborn, claiming she isn't going home until she "gets some action." It is then that Bob Falfa's car pulls alongside John, and the two trade barbs, with Bob insisting on racing John. They do a small race through several lights before John stops at a red light and Bob continues on through. Carol notes that Bob is fast, but John says that while he is fast, he also seems stupid.
Meanwhile, Steve separates from Terry and Debbie, and goes back to Burger City, while Terry and Debbie go off to report the car stolen.
Curt and the Pharoahs have meanwhile located a Police Car watching for speeders. The leader of the Pharoahs charges Curt with hooking a towcable to the rear axle of the car. Curt is unsure about this, but is told that he has to do this, or the Pharoahs will still plan to make him suffer for the vehicle he scratched. Curt has some close calls, but eventually gets the cable hooked. As he rushes back to the Pharoahs, they then speed by the officers, with Curt yelling at the top of his lungs, "Stand by for justice!" The cops then take off, but the cable catches, tearing the rear axle off their car. Nearby, Terry and Debbie are witness to the incident as well.
Carol soon finds herself confused when John takes her along a dark stretch of road, and John seems intent on having his way with her. Carol's spitfire demeanor wavers and she insists that much of her toughness was pretend. John explains that if he knew where she lived, he could take her home, and Carol immediately tells him her address. Of course, John was hoping that his 'trick' would work, and they head off for her place.
At Burger City, Steve meets up with a waitress there named Budda (Jana Bellan). Budda takes a moment to talk with Steve, who explains about how he and Laurie broke up. Budda takes this opportunity to tell Steve how she secretly likes him, and offers to have him come over to her place after her shift is over. As they talk, both are unaware that Laurie has returned to Burger City as well and is outside, having stopped at seeing Budda and Steve talking in a booth. Laurie assumes the worst, and quickly leaves before they see her. Back inside the restaurant, Steve declines Budda's offer, and watches her get back to work.
Outside, The Pharaohs pull up with Curt, and eagerly applaud what he has done. The Pharaohs are eager to induct Curt the next evening into their group, but Curt does not tell them that he'll be gone. Curt then gets into his car, and sees the white T-Bird pass by. He tries to start up his car, but it won't turn over, and he watches once again as the mysterious blonde slips from his grasp once again.
Laurie is cruising around the strip when she encounters Bob Falfa. She parks her car and gets in with him, and they begin to cruise. Falfa attempts to talk with her, but Laurie explains she does not want to talk.
John finally gets Carol to her place, and they have an awkward goodbye, until John gives her the cover to his gearshift as a memento. Carol happily takes it and goes to her house, as John drives off, a strange look on his face.
Back at Burger City, Curt has run into Steve, and is shocked when Steve explains that he is now considering not going to college out East. Curt attempts to calm Steve, but also ends up fixing his car, and takes off, leaving Steve unsure of just what to do now.
Meanwhile, Terry has had an adverse reaction to the alcohol, and has thrown up most of it. After Terry recovers, he and Debbie walk a ways off, and find Steve's Impala parked in a lot! Terry finds the car unlocked and the keys gone. He attempts to hotwire the car when the guys who stole it confront him, and attempt to beat him up. Debbie attempts to stop them, but they are both saved when John rolls by, and comes over and scares away the two men.
Back at Burger City, another classmate of Steve's tells him that Laurie was seen driving around with Bob Falfa. Just as Terry and Debbie pull up outside Burger City with his car, Steve rushes out and shoos Terry and Debbie out of his car, and drives off. Debbie is shocked that Steve just took Terry's car, and Terry tells her the truth about how the car wasn't really his, and how he just has a Vespa Scooter for transportation. Even so, Debbie smiles and tells Terry that she had a good time, and as she takes leaves, tells him that she'll probably see him around.
Curt meanwhile, has made his way to a radio station on the outskirts of town. Rumor is that Wolfman Jack, whose voice has played across the airwaves all evening is located here. As Curt enters the station, he encounters a bearded man sitting in the control booth. Curt hands the man a piece of paper featuring a dedication and a request to the girl in the white T-Bird. The man explains that he can have the dedication sent into the Wolfman's main station and broadcast the next day. But Curt explains that he needs the request put out tonight, as he is unsure if he is going to be leaving town or not.
The man in the control booth then explains to Curt that he really should not sell himself short, and to go out and experience life. Curt takes the words to heart, and is excited when the man tells him if he can, he'll try to get the message relayed right away. As Curt is about to exit the studio, he hears a familiar voice. He turns, and sees the man in the control booth speaking into his microphone, in the voice of Wolfman Jack. Curt smiles at having met one of his heroes, and exits the building.
John is still at Burger City when Falfa comes up in his Chevy. John tells Falfa to meet him out at Paradise Road for their race. Terry pleads to go along, and John concedes.
The word spreads throughout the strip, and soon reaches Steve's ears, who heads out there when word comes that Laurie is riding with Falfa.
Meanwhile, Curt has returned to Burger City, and over to a nearby phone booth. On his car radio, he hears Wolfman Jack relay his dedication to the blonde in the T-Bird, and smiles as Wolfman calls Curt a good friend. Wolfman dedicates the next song to the blonde, and gives her the number of the phone booth at Burger City, encouraging the girl to call Curt.
Meanwhile, John, Falfa, and a number of other kids have rolled out to Paradise Road. Once out there, John finally realizes that Laurie is riding with Falfa, and asks what she is doing. Laurie gives a nonchalant "None of your business." Laurie stays in Falfa's car, but Terry gets out to drop the flag for the race. As the vehicles take off, the race stays tight, until Falfa's vehicle skids off the road, rolls, and crashes.
Steve arrives just in time to see the aftermath, and rushes to the wreck, to see Falfa emerge and Laurie beating and hitting him. Steve pulls her off Falfa as some of the other teenagers pull Falfa away from the car just as it bursts into flames.
In a moment of desperation, Laurie cries and pleads for Steve not to leave, to which Steve embraces her, and tells her he will stay.
Terry talks to John, and explains how impressed he was how John beat Falfa, but John confides to Terry that just before Falfa's car swerved off the road, he was beating him. Terry explains that John was just nervous, and that he'll never be beaten. John just backs up Terry's hero worship, and to calm him down, says that they'll take on all comers, as Terry yawns, muttering, "what a night."
Meanwhile, back at Burger City, the phone rings, and Curt answers it, ecstatic to be talking to the girl of his dreams. He inquires about her name, but she does not give it. When Curt asks to meet her, she explains that she'll be cruising the strip again that night, but Curt wants to meet her now. She then says goodbye as Curt struggles to speak more, and the line goes dead.
Several hours later, Curt goes to the airport to get on the plane to head East, with his friends and family saying goodbye. Steve does not accompany him, and Curt boards the plane, and takes off to a new adventure. As he glances out the window of the plane, he sees a white Thunderbird travelling along a stretch of road.
As the plane banks off, the audience is treated to images of John, Terry, Steve, and Curt, along with where they ended up in life:
-John Milner was killed by a drunk driver in December 1964.
-Terry Fields was reported missing in action near An Loc in December 1965.
-Steve Bolander is an insurance agent in Modesto, California.
-Curt Henderson is a writer living in Canada.