At one point few vehicles epitomized the American family car as the station wagon, particularly of the fullsize variety. Today, most car companies are pretty much convinced that American consumers will not buy station wagons. A few of the European luxury brands offer them here, but for the most part wagons are not welcome in the contemporary automotive scene in the U.S. According to Pete Bigelow of AOL Autos, the fault for that lies with the vehicular star of 1983’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation” — the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, a hideous pastiche of just about every bad malaise era styling trend appliqued over a Ford LTD Country Squire.
National Lampoon’s Vacation was released 32 years ago this summer and with its fifth sequel, “Vacation”, in theaters now, Mental Floss posted a listicle of little known facts about the original film. Number one on their list was Bigelow’s 2013 assertion that the movie’s mocking of the traditional American family station wagon fatally tainted the body style in consumers’ eyes:
Clark Griswold killed the station wagon.
You remember the scene. Stony disappointment spreads across his face when he learns his Antarctic blue sports car has not been delivered. His old car, a two-toned puke-brown and pale-mustard wagon, has already been demolished.
He has no choice but to drive the Family Truckster.
In all its heinous glory, the pea soup-green Wagon Queen Family Truckster was a caricature of everything America hated about its station wagons: Its wood paneling, its broad, expansive frame and its boxy headlights, its status as the frumpy domestic hauler.
And Griswold embodied the aloof, American dad. Put the two caricatures together, and National Lampoon’s Vacation made the station wagon, in the eyes of consumers, a toxic product in one three-minute scene. It’s no coincidence that the same year the movie was released, 1983, Chrysler introduced the minivan and found runaway success.
Ever since, the station wagon has endured a sad, slow decline.
Interesting theory, though I’m not sure that I’m going to embrace it just yet.
As Bigelow mentions, the movie came out the same year that Chrysler introduced their first minivan. Do you think it’s just a little bit possible that product planners at Chrysler, which was selling a wagon version of their K cars at the time, might have had an inkling that consumer tastes were changing?
For years I’ve contended that it’s been the buying choices of American women that have moved from wagons to minivans to SUVs to car-based crossovers as they’ve tried to escape the image of driving a mommy mobile while simultaneously choosing practical vehicles that can carry their entire families plus cargo. Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold was a dork, but he’s the one who subjects his family to it, not Beverly D’Angelo’s Ellen Griswold. One of the reasons why the Family Truckster was funny at the movie’s original release was that by 1983 all that fake wood, “metallic pee” paint (we called it “baby shit green”, everyone offered it in the ’70s), and gingerbread was already passe.
Maybe our autometrician Tim Cain can run the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that by 1983 sales of American station wagons had already started going down significantly. According to the wagon enthusiasts at stationwagon.com, the decline indeed started in the 1970s, with Chrysler discontinuing their fullsize Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge wagons in 1978. It should also be pointed out that the obviously Ford-based Family Truckster didn’t keep the Taurus wagon from being one of the best selling station wagons ever. The wagon declined, but it went down slowly.
Both stationwagon.com and Gear Patrol say the minivan was what killed the wagon. In a fairly comprehensive history/eulogy for the station wagon by Charles Moss at The Atlantic he, too, blames Chrysler’s people mover. None of them mention the Griswold’s fictional wagon.
Speaking of the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, if you’re dying to show up at your next costume party as Clark or Ellen Griswold, a modified Ford LTD wagon “believed to be” the car used in the film was up for auction by Mecum in 2013, but appears to have been a no-sale at $35,000. If you want, you can apparently still make Mecum an offer.
In any case, Bigelow’s theory is worth considering. Discuss amongst yourselves.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS