Lately, in no small part due to Michael Moore, the “documentary” film has become the carborundum upon which filmmakers from a variety of perspectives have ground their own axes and then proceeded to chop down the subject of their films. It’s nice, then, to see a documentary made that exhibits some affection for the subject. Wagonmasters, a film made by Chris Zaluski and Sam Smartt as part of their work for MFAs from Wake Forest University’s Documentary Film Program, looks at the great American station wagon with affection. Wistful affection for the now disappeared suburban icon of Americana, but affection nonetheless.
Once, about a fifth of all cars bought in the US were station wagons. Originally commercial or “professional” vehicles that served the hospitality industry as depot hacks, longroofs became known as station wagons before World War Two, when affluent people bought them and used them to get themselves, their families and their luggage to and from train stations, hence the name. Many of these cars had rear bodies made of wood, a luxury touch, what we now call woodies, which is why so many wagons from the mid 1950s on continued to use fake wood of varying quality even into the minivan era.
After WWII, with the baby boom and move to suburbia, station wagons became the quintessential family car. Large enough to carry everyone in the family, and their luggage, on the family road trips so popular on the then new Interstate highway system, and stylish, practical and powerful enough to appeal to both mom and dad. More often than not it was mom’s car, but since dad did most of the driving on trips, it had to suit his desires as well.
So how did wagons disappear from American roads? It was the aforementioned minivan that more or less killed them off, but it was the 1973 oil crisis that mortally wounded them. All that steel and glass adds weight and a wagon will invariably get worse mileage than a comparable sedan.
Using footage of wagon collectors and their own words (and of course footage of their cars being driven and shown), interviews with automotive historians, period photos, advertisements and home movies, Zaluski and Smartt put changing attitudes towards the station wagon within the context of changing American culture. One wagon enthusiast is a Vietnam vet with a Bronze Star. Another drives a Volvo 245 that’s covered with affirmations of peace from famous world leaders. The directors’ choice of music, with the Drive By Truckers‘ Sweet Annette running during the title sequence and opening credits plus other music, mostly by The Bayonets, is meant to convey a sense of timeless Americana.
The film was made with the obvious cooperation of a couple of station wagon enthusiast organizations, the American Station Wagon Owners Association and the International Station Wagon Club, and it was shot on location across the United States and Canada. As many wagons as there once were, the fraternity and sorority of wagon enthusiasts is not large. If most enthusiasts favor two door coupes over four door sedans, one can understand how wagons appeal to a select group of car guys and gals. The wagon world is indeed a small world. About a quarter of the way through the 40 minute film, we’re introduced to Tracy “DJ Munchy” Caldwell, a Detroiter with a very clean 1985 Ford Crown Vic LTD wagon, what I believe is the second youngest car featured in the movie (the youngest being a Buick Roadmaster “bubble” wagon from the mid ’90s). The Crown Vic looked familiar so I checked my archive and realized that I’ve seen Munchy’s LTD at a local car show and photographed it myself.
It may be a small world and while not everyone strives to avoid being a “nonentity”, as one Ford Falcon wagon owner describes his automotive noncomformity, many car enthusiasts do have a warm spot in their hearts for longroofs. While Munchy’s LTD wagon is getting prepared for a car show at his friend’s detailing shop, his friend bemoans how he has a fully customized Camaro but Munchy’s stock looking wagon (the high wattage sound system is cleverly hidden in the storage compartment for the third row seat in the way back) takes home the show trophies.
Many of the wagons in the film are of the $30,000 restoration on a car worth $10,000 variety, but some wagon enthusiasts love them to pieces, literally. A sequence in the movie shows that sturdy old body on frame station wagons are highly prized by demolition derby racers. At the other end of the spectrum is the owner of a Dodge Coronet Crestwood station wagon that he fully restored after his parents passed away. Sitting in the rear facing far back seat, he shows where he played with his Hot Wheels cars as a child. For you pedants, the GTO station wagon that appears in the opening credits is a one-of-none custom, a Tempest based Pontiac Safari wagon that’s been turned into a quasi clone of the GTO, which was never available in a wagon body style.
It’s a charming little movie. It’s smartly edited, with a snappy pace and an obvious sense of humor without some hip ironic distancing from the subject, all while treating the topic of the station wagon in American life seriously. If you’re at all a car enthusiast I can’t imagine you not enjoying this film. Actually, even if you hate station wagons but have an appreciation for American culture you’ll find it worthwhile. It’s hard to watch these somewhat quirky car enthusiasts and the quirky objects of their affection without a warm smile.
The directors hope to promote the documentary with more film festival screenings and there’s the possibility of a television broadcast in 2013, so the DVD won’t be released until sometime later next year. If you’re interested, you can sign for updates at the movie’s website (www.wagonmastersthemovie.com) or with a like at their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/TheWagonMasterFilmMakers).