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Wagon Queen Family Truckster

Truckster1 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.

Truckster2 Point 1: American cars of the era were badly overstyled.

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.

Acura TLThe 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.

** If my Honda Ridgeline roast didn't dispel the questions about whether my opinion has been paid for by Honda, well, this ought to clear things up.

Point 2: American cars of the era were poorly engineered and put-together.

Truckster3As 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.

Truckster4 Point 3: American cars of the era were inferior to their simpler predecessors.

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.

Truckster5The 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.

Truckster6 In Summary

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!

--Chris H.

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A Wagon Queen Family Truckster and a General Lee in the same garage? How does he keep them from attacking each other?

GREAT Wagon Queen Family Truckster repro! But if you're gonna remove the hubcaps, why not spray paint some graffiti while you're at it?

Two points:
1. The Family Truckster is a thinly disguised Ford Country Squire wagon, probably an '81 or '82.

2. The headlights were, I think, the stock units, just doubled. Same with the tail lights.

3. The liftgate latches were stock! Ford liftgates could open down or open to the left, hence two latches. Scroll down on the Wikipedia page, and look at the pics for the "Magic Door Gate".
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Country_Squire


here's a site with a few pics of an '83 Country Squire:
http://www.cargurus.com/Cars/Pictures-c4602-1983-Country-Squire.html

Javelin, I'm not sure if your two points that were actually three was a tribute to Clark Griswold's mixing up a), b), c), and 1), 2), 3), or not - but if so, it's inspired. :-)

1. Yep, it's a Country Squire.

2. Hmm ... are those Country Squire headlights? They look *exactly* like Diplomat headlights, and since there are Diplomats on the dealership lot next to the Family Truckster, I thought for sure the headlights had been taken from a Diplomat.

But you're right - everything's just doubled.

3. Nice catch on the Magic Door Gate, though I'm a bit saddened that the double latches weren't just an ornamental touch. I've always thought they were spectacular satire.

Haha so it should be even funnier that the company seriously manufactured a car with the two latches. My favorite part is the wood panelling on the hood , i think i might do that to my blazer!

The "very young" Eugene Levy was already well known at this time - probably more so than today. SCTV had begun in 1976 and was already over by 1983, including its late-night NBC run. Also, most station wagon tailgates from the mid-'60s on opened from either top or bottom - standard stuff (although I'll concede I never noticed the double handles on the Ford).

Umm...yeah, I said 2 points, and then listed 3 on purpose. Sure, that's the ticket...

I think you're right, those may be Diplomat headlights.

No, I think I was right the first time. They probably kept the original (lower) headlights, then got another set, flipped left and right and put 'em on upside down. That would be the easiest thing to do; if I could find year by year pics of Country Squires (or Galaxie or LTD) I'd look, but I have better things to do! (well, not really, but I just don't feel like doing that).

Double Latches! for real! We had a car with working double latches. I know this got caught already but in 1966 Ford put one on the Falcon Futura Wagon. (http://www.westcoastfalcons.com/scff/histriv/bothwagons.jpg) To me what added to the cool or this crazy puzzle box of engineering brilliance was that the rear glass was also electrically operated. This was about the slickest thing I could imagine at the time. When I was reading the article I had to pinch myself for a moment. Was it real or did I imagine the tailgate that could swing open left or drop down. I'm glad i didn't imagine the whole thing.

Great article Chris. Really nice to see you deconstruct this satyrical icon into a beautiful critique of 70s and 80s excess in design and expose the underlying commentary on the stultifying effect of crass corporate greed on american society. really excellent, insightful, and timely.

the fact that the trade-in wagon was immediately crushed in the first few seconds of the trade in process says a lot.

loved the packman scene.

I wonder how that Atom at the end of the autocross sequence did next to the truckster's scorching performance.

"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."

...as far as this point goes, I beg to differ. If Clark's intelligence was declining, it would have begun once the vacation started. He KNEW he was to leave the next day on the long-planned trip and would look like a fool if he had to tell his family that it was cancelled due to no wagon. I believe their other vehicle was a Volvo 240; nice, but not large enough to hold their vacation bounty. He was still intelligent enough at this point to save face and bend to the needs of his family, even if the kids would've rather stayed in and played Pac-Man.

Ooh, at last we're into the discussion on the Truckster's evil effects on Clark. Your point is a good one, Shawn - Clark would indeed have a natural push to keep the vacation going. But ...

Shawn: "He was still intelligent enough at this point to save face and bend to the needs of his family"

The needs of the family ... or the needs of the Truckster? I would argue that Clark was actually doing the Truckster's bidding at this point. Perhaps Clark himself would have canceled the trip, but the Truckster itself was compelling the trip forward?

If that's the case then the Wagon Queen Family Truckster = Christine as far as level of evil. Maybe the Truckster WANTED the dog dead.

but did the truckster fix it self? like ol Christine.

Did we ever know the final fate of the Truckster? They didn't tell. Seems the Griswolds flew home at the end. Maybe it DID fix itself, but was cut from the movie. We may never know. (Play Twilight Zone theme)

Sweet! Long Live the Truckster! (Oops..I can't let on that I too am being influenced by the Truckster..haha) Vacation is one of my all-time favorite films. Thanks for the article explaining how devastating the Truckster can be on the average male(For some reason, women are immune to its evil)
As for its fate? In hopes of seeking world domination, several clones were made of the Truckster: One for the Fed Reserve Chairman, one for the President and one for the Sultan of Brunei.

National Lampoon did a satire in a 1973 or 1974 issue on Detroit behemoths. The name of their line of concrete land-yachts was the "Buglemobile". The interior was so large, the driver looked more like a twelve-year-old than an adult, and the front bench seat as I recall was something like eight feet wide, length was probably over twenty feet.

The best part of the feature was the illustrations, done in the late fifties style, with smiling adults in suits, hats, cocktail dresses etc. Of course, the title of the movie was "National Lampoon's Vacation" so now I know where the Truckster idea came from....

"National Lampoon did a satire in a 1973 or 1974 issue on Detroit behemoths."

Yes indeed. It was written and drawn by the great Bruce McCall, and reprinted (along with other Bulgemobile features, and so much more) in his tragically out-of-print "Zany Afternoons" McCall is also the source of the statement "the look and feel of fine wood panelling is achieved by the use of fine wood panelling" which appeared in one of the Mercedes Benz ads he wrote in the eighties. (I could have gotten the exact wording wrong, but you get the idea.)

Remember, Clarke was trading in his WIFE'S Olds wagon. Clark's car must have been the Volvo 240 that was in the garage. The fact that a Volvo driver could be suckered into purchasing such an abomination further proves the destructive allure of the evil, evil Truckster.

Ah, yes, the Bulgemobile. IIRC, the copy extolled the virtues of the Bulgemobile Straight Six: "the power of a four-cylinder, with the fuel economy of a V-8!"

The fact that the double latches ISN'T satire just adds to the ridiculousness of the whole car. That's outstanding.

I'll be honest - I've always had a soft spot for the Family Truckster. Part of me would love to be caught driving around in a giant "wood" paneled avocado green station wagon/offense to God. Of course, as we already established a while back, if I really wanted to do that, I'd just get a Plymouth Volare and be done with it. :-)

The eight headlights are stock Ford LTD, just another set flipped and stacked. The factory bumper had to be cut and lowered to accommodate the second set of headlights.

The Ford Country Squire liftgates do open down or open to the left, but it's all done with one handle that's located on the right of the gate. The handle in the center of the gate on the Family Truckster is nonfunctional.

Thanks you for the article, Chris!


The car reminds me strongly of something from the late Fifties and early Sixties, a single-panel cartoon whose name I can't recall. That was the era of tail fins and gratuitous chrome, and one standard fixture of the cartoon was the dealership for the "Belchfire 8", which in its various incarnations had tailfins up to six feet high with ten or more taillights. Earlier models of the Truckster, no doubt.

Regards,
Ric

Funny...I was listening to 'Holiday Road' yesterday.

Go take a good hard look at the nose end of an Infiniti QX56, look at this car's nose end one more time, and tell me again that anything ever changes.

Frankly, this is better looking than QX56.

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