Some cars have personality. Many people are attracted to ugly custom cars like Rat Rods. Or machines with little quirks like the Gremlin that make them stand out. Some of these quirks are exaggerated when a custom car is made for a movie. Over 35 summers ago, Americans became oddly fascinated with the fictional car used in National Lampoon’s Vacation, the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, an asparagus-colored, faux wood-paneled, eight-headlight abomination of a station wagon that required a strong constitution to look at and a tremendous lack of self-esteem to drive.
The car was a heavily modified 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire wagon. This modification was done by none other than the Kustom Kar King George Barris, famous for TV and movie cars such as 1960s Batmobile, the Munster Koach, and others. This car belonged to Clark Griswold (played by the lovable Chevy Chase), an impromptu second choice in the hit comedy film National Lampoon’s Vacation which was released in the summer of 1983. He’s faced with a six-week wait for the car he really wanted (an Antarctic Blue Super Sports Wagon with CB and optional Rally Fun Pack). The timetable can’t be moved so with a cross-country family road trip to California’s Walley World set to begin the next morning, and his trade-in wagon already crushed by the dealership, “Sparky” Griswold has little choice.
“This is a damn fine automobile if you want my honest opinion…,” car salesman Eugene Levy spits at him. “You think you hate it now, but wait until you drive it.”
Critics had mostly positive comments about the movie which led to its successful franchise, but it was an instant hit box office hit totaling $63-million. Warner Brothers studios were initially resistant to the John Hughes story that was published in National Lampoon called “Vacation ’58.” Studio executives thought the story was too episodic for a film. Nevertheless, the road-trip farce storyline vaulted Chase, director Harold Ramis, and writer John Hughes to new heights, and a string of Vacation movies followed, including the holiday classic Christmas Vacation.
The film was shot around the U.S. and parts film were shot in Monument Valley, Utah, Flagstaff, Sedona, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, plus the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia and Magic Mountain in California, and St. Louis, Missouri.
There were reportedly five Wagon Queen Family Trucksters built for filming, each altered (wrecked?) to account for the vehicle’s never-ending string of bad luck. The Griswolds’ Family Truckster survived vandalism, an incredible jump (and breakdown) in the desert, dishonest mechanics, and the untimely deaths of Dinky the dog and dear sweet Aunt Edna, whose body was inconspicuously strapped to the roof before being left on her relatives’ front porch.
The jump in the desert is one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Stunt coordinator Dick Ziker made a bet against other crew members that he would be able to jump the Family Truckster more than 50-feet during the desert scene. Ziker won the bet.
I always wondered how the whole gas tank valve behind the rear license plate worked. During the gas station scene in which Clark is trying to find the gas cap, Chase didn’t intend to throw the license plate when he removed it. The plate flew off behind him and nearly smacked the actress parked at the adjacent pump behind him. The look of concern on Chase’s face afterward is genuine.
Even multiple appearances by flirtatious Christie Brinkley in a red Ferrari 308 GTS with “LUV ME” California plates couldn’t keep the Truckster and its passengers from finally reaching the Holy Grail: the Walley World amusement park.
Vacation was forced family fun at its finest, and the Truckster was integral to the hijinks. Christie Brinkley makes her appearance again in the Vegas sequel reprising her role as the distraction on the road.
Mecum Auctions offered one of the movie Trucksters at its 2013 Houston auction, but it was a no-sale at $35,000. The wagon later showed up on Hemmings with a $39,900 price tag, and the owner claimed it was acquired from Mecum in 2014. We haven’t seen it since.
In the 2015 film Vacation (a sequel to the original), the Wagon Queen Family Truckster reappears at the bed-and-breakfast garage of Clark and Ellen Griswold. The Truckster used in this later film is the creation of Lisa and Steve Griswold, a real-life family living in Atlanta. They created the replica wagon to take their family trips with their two daughters.
The real Giswolds took a vacation of their own in July 2014, driving across the United States, visiting many of the locations seen in the original film, and ended their journey on the 31st anniversary of the film at Walley World (Six Flags Magic Mountain), so they could ride the Colossus before the planned closure of the roller coaster.
The Wagon Queen Family Truckster is without a doubt an ugly car meant for comedic value, but charming in its own hideous way. This charm follows the adventures of the Griswolds to their ultimate goal of hijacking an abandoned amusement park after they find out it’s been closed. Without the constant reminder of how terrible station wagons can be, we’re glad the real Truckster is no longer in production, crowding our roadways.