Wagon Queen Family Truckster
It's hard to imagine a car more divergent from yesterday's Ford Fiesta than the Wagon Queen Family Truckster. For one thing, the Fiesta was a real car with real significance to the automotive industry; the Truckster was fictional, significant only in the degree of anguish it inflicted on the Griswold family in National Lampoon's Vacation, the 1983 movie paean to family road trips. The Fiesta was a simple small car that excelled at doing more with less; the Truckster was monumentally excessive and yet completely hapless.
The Truckster might be fictional, but it's still worth discussing--if only because it is right at the center of one of the funniest movies of the 1980s. Captain Ahab rode to inexorable and tragic disaster aboard the Pequod; Clark W. Griswold did the same thing much more entertainingly aboard the Wagon Queen Family Truckster.
Everybody knows the Family Truckster is funny; what is not as well-understood is the fact that the Truckster's disgusting excesses make it intelligent, incisive, pitch-perfect satire of the dismal state of American cars in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was certainly over-the-top, the Truckster is so well-aimed that it's not hard to imagine it being real. Don't believe me? Let's step through the ways in which the Truckster satirizes the typical 1983 American LeBehemoth Brougham.
American cars of the late 1970s and early 1980s were notorious for their styling excesses and for the non-cohesive way in which unrelated styling cues were stacked unpleasantly atop each other. Well, the Truckster ridicules that trend by taking it wildly over the top. Acres of wood trim, including on the hood, jarringly juxtaposed with "Metallic Pea" paint? Check. Chrome applied by the linear mile? Check. A big clunky luggage rack? check. Extraneous vents and gills? Check. The only traditional styling themes missing from the Truckster are a vinyl roof and portholes.
The Truckster upped the ante with ridiculous touches such as four sets of Dodge Diplomat front headlights (for eight headlights in all), quad taillights, and massive crowns on both C-pillars and on all four chromed hubcaps. Check out the tailgate--it has two tailgate latches. Unless the tailgate is hinged both at the bottom and on the left, one of those latches is clearly ornamental.
The Truckster's styling is a miasmatic hell of extroverted cliche and tastelessness, and whoever designed it was a depraved genius. If I had the chance to meet the designer, I'm not sure if I would punch him* or shake his hand. Possibly both.
The inside wasn't much better; the seats appeared to be upholstered with beige burlap, and the Truckster was burdened with the same awful foot-wide horizontal speedometer that was used on many GM cars of the time. Most damning for a station wagon, the thing apparently couldn't carry much cargo--even with only four occupants, the luggage rode on the roof rack.
Interestingly, the new Acura TL's controversial grille reminds me of the Truckster**--it has the same demented grin, the same slack-jawed expression. Envision the TL at right with a few more headlights stacked vertically, and possibly some wood trim--it's just a little too close to the Truckster to be coincidence. Acura, might there be a special Family Truckster wagon edition in the works? Please?
* I'm not trying to be sexist here; I'm just saying that none of the women in my life would be capable of an atrocity like the Truckster.
Point 2: American cars of the era were poorly engineered and put-together.
As the movie opens, we see a sleazy car salesman played by a very young Eugene Levy trying to foist the Truckster off on our hero, Clark W. Griswold, whose line, "I am not your ordinary, everyday fool" would prove eerily prescient. In fact, Griswold would prove throughout the movie to be an extraordinary fool, but even he recognized the Truckster as an awful car, bereft of positive attributes.
In response to Griswold's cynicism, Levy retorted, "You think you hate it now, but wait 'til you drive it!" It's a classic line that, frankly, could apply to many American cars of the time. The Truckster kept running despite being shut off after driving home from the dealership. It developed a loud interior rattle before its first fuel fill-up. Its airbag--clearly just a garbage bag--inflated after a major accident. The fuel door seemed to drain directly into the engine.
This is all over-the-top, of course, but it's still pointed satire. Rapidly changing emissions regulations meant that American cars of the 1970s had significant drivability problems, and many new domestic cars were so awful right off the assembly line that they prompted the creation of Lemon Laws. Many American cars became much, much more hateable once they were driven, and the Truckster epitomized that experience.
Griswold originally intended to trade his Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser in on an "Antarctic Blue Super Sports wagon, with "the CB and the optional Rally Fun-Pack"--a rather enticing description of a car we were unfortunately never destined to see. When the salesman confronted Griswold with the Truckster instead, Griswold wisely demanded his old car back--only to find that it had been crushed (in a heartbreaking scene for me).
Griswold initially preferred his old Vista Cruiser before even driving the Truckster--how do you think he felt after experiencing the Truckster's myriad flaws in a drive across the country. Do you think that by the time he reached Walley World he might have wanted his old car back?
Unrelated Point: The Family Truckster was intrinsically evil and/or had intelligence-sapping qualities.
Let's step away from the satire point for a moment; I think there might be something darker at work here. The more I think about the Truckster, and the impact it had on the Griswold family, the more I think it had some sort of malevolent presence that, while more subtle than that displayed by the killer car in Christine, was no less real. Perhaps the better example would be the Ring of Power that Frodo carries in The Lord of the Rings. Like the Ring, the Truckster was a talisman of doom that brought ill fortune and slowly but inexorably put its bearer under its twisted influence.
That may sound odd, but just think about it. At the beginning of the film, Clark W. Griswold was portrayed as a successful businessman. He had a pleasant family, a good career, a nice house, two cars, and was apparently happily living the American dream. Up to that point in his life, he had obviously displayed some combination of high intelligence, good decision-making, or luck. All of that abruptly came to an end when Griswold first came into contact with the Truckster.
The pre-Truckster Griswold had arranged to buy what sounded like a neat car--the aforementioned Super Sports wagon. Even after his introduction to the Truckster, Griswold displayed his previous smarts and backbone in refusing to fall for the obvious bait-and-switch and threatening to walk out if he didn't get the car he wanted. In fact, we see Griswold walk out--only to find that his old car had been crushed. The fact that Griswold relented and bought the Truckster and did not sue the dealership for destruction of his property indicates the fact that the Truckster's influence was already beginning to work on him. By the time he reached home, Griswold was completely in the Truckster's thrall--he had already rationalized his purchase and defended the car to his surprised wife.
From that point on, we see Griswold's decision-making and good fortune begin to crumble. By the end of the movie, Griswold is almost unrecognizable from his pre-movie state--he had descended into a plane of irrationality, immorality, and rationalizing reminiscent of, say, a serious drug user. Again, the One Ring's slow, deleterious effects on its bearers can serve as an example. While the Truckster's effects appear to be similar to the Ring's, the Truckster actually appears to be much more powerful. The Ring took years to twist its bearers, but the Truckster ruined Griswold's life within a week and left an elderly woman and a dog dead in its wake.
Unfortunately, judging by the subsequent Vacation movies, the Truckster's influence was permanent. We never see the Truckster after the first movie, but in every sequel Griswold was is shown in a state of permanent idiocy, never to regain his apparent pre-movie success and intelligence. Perhaps we should think of the Vacation moves as tragedy, chronicling the systematic destruction of a formerly respectable family man.
I love massive land barges and wagons from this era--my beloved Malibu wagon was sold in the same year that this movie debuted--but even so I am not quite sure how to process the Truckster. When even I can't admit to liking a large car from this era, that's pretty telling.
The Truckster was involved in most of the classic scenes of the movie, including:
- the classic opening dealership scene
- the computerized vacation plan, in which Pac-Man tries to eat the virtual Truckster (this invariably leaves me dissolved in tears of mirth)
- the epic crash when Griswold jumps the Truckster 50 yards into the Arizona desert (which can be viewed here in German, because it's funnier that way)
The first video below is the first 8:27 of the movie; you can feel free to watch the opening credits for the sweet wave of nostalgia, if you'd like, but the movie starts with the dealership scene at roughly the 2:15 mark. The second video shows both the Truckster's persistent rattle and its hilarious scene alongside Christie Brinkley's Ferrari 308. I love how the Truckster bounds and floats down the freeway in this scene. The third video shows a Truckster replica being autocrossed(!).
From now on, if I get depressed about the state of the world, I'll think about some enthusiast autocrossing a Wagon Queen Family Truckster--suddenly everything will seem much brighter.
Some of the images are video captures that appear to be all over the Internet; the other pictures are of a recreated Family Truckster featured in Autoblog last year. The exception is the final picture; one fan has both a General Lee and a Family Truckster in his garage--check out his page here. Well done!