Friday at the Movies: National Lampoon’s Vacation

By: Bridget Clerkin May 4, 2018
DMV.ORG's Friday at the Movies is a semi-regular breakdown of our favorite movie car chases of all time. This week: National Lampoon's Vacation.
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With summer vacation just around the corner, who hasn’t caught themselves daydreaming about all the possible ways to fill the sunny days?

For many, those fantasies involve America’s favorite pastime. No, not baseball—our other favorite pastime. No, not eating hotdogs at baseball stadiums—our other other favorite pastime: driving.

The Great American Roadtrip is a bucket list item for millions across the globe. But finally crossing that adventure off the list can turn an innocent daydream into a living nightmare.

Take the example of Clark Griswold, a family man from Chicago with high hopes of bonding with his wife, son, and daughter on the way to California, and the amusement park Walley World.

This being 1983, the absence of cell phones means the family will be forced to actually interact with each other during those long, car-bound hours, and the plan could actually work. But Clark soon finds out that all his good intentions are merely used to pave the road to Hell—or Walley World.

Clark soon finds out that all his good intentions are merely used to pave the road to Hell—or Walley World.

The ensuing hilarity derived from the family’s misfortunes of course makes up the plot of National Lampoon’s Vacation, the classic flick directed by comedy legend Harold Ramis and written by equally-noteworthy John Hughes, based on the real-life calamity of Hughes' family’s ill-fated road trip to Disneyland in 1958.

We here at DMV.ORG love our cars, and salute any attempt to coerce immediate family into spending undue amounts of time in them, so we’re taking a look this week at Vacation to analyze how Clark, played by Chevy Chase, was able to pull it off.

Of course, the review wouldn’t be complete without a look at the movie’s true star: the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, tricked out in all of its metallic pea green glory. Keep reading to see how the idea for this hideous ride came about and how Vacation ranked on our patented scale of “How Much Do We Love this Movie About or at Least Mostly About Cars.”

The Rundown

Poor Clark. The adventure he’s been dreaming of doesn’t even start out well.

After visiting a less-than-reputable car rental place (actually shot at the Star Ford car dealership in Glendale, California, just two blocks north of Chevy Chase Drive), he doesn’t exactly walk away with the vehicle he wanted.

No. Despite Clark’s insistence upon getting behind the wheel of an Antarctic Blue Super Sports Wagon with the CB and Optional Rally Fun Pack—a model that doesn’t exist in real life but maybe really should because that optional rally pack sure does sound fun—he’s gently persuaded to leave with another model after the car he arrived in is mercilessly and unnecessarily crushed.

But that act introduces Clark to his destiny, and introduces the audience to the movie’s best character: The Wagon Queen Family Truckster, in the perfect puke-inducing shade of metallic pea green with non-optional wood paneling (more on that later). Still, throughout the flick, Clark is taunted by visions of what looks an awful lot like a fun sports wagon in Antarctic blue, including at his trial run filling up the Truckster’s gas tank.

Taking the lead of his definitely-not-driving-the-exact-car-I-wanted fellow patron, Clark takes a whack at locating the fuel tank under the license plate—nearly decapitating his rival in the process.

Eventually, he becomes accustomed enough to the rattle trap car to move his family many miles—and production of the movie followed suit, with a venerable circus of cast and crew vehicles making tracks across four states and 15 iconic locations in order to shoot the film. Still, not all the driving was real. A bit of movie magic enhanced the night driving scene when Clark refuses to accept he’s too tired to keep going and falls asleep at the wheel, sending the vehicle careening across the highway and several lawns before he wakes up just in time to slickly slide the wagon into a motel parking lot.

To pull the scene off safely, the car was actually in park all along, with a lighting tech shining a spotlight at the windshield as he moved past on a dolly, to create the illusion of passing headlights. Still, all of Clark’s trouble pays off when—SPOILER ALERT—the family finally arrives to Walley World—just in time to learn it’s closed, and push Clark into a glorious ride-seizing meltdown of epic proportions.

The Car

Of course, the film wouldn’t be half as funny without the car.

The Wagon Queen Family Truckster is something so horrible it could only have come from the mind of a monster.

In fact, it was designed by the mind who gave us the ultimate hero car. Batmobile creator George Barris took on the duty of building the vehicle from Hell, but it wasn’t a far leap for the legendary auto designer to produce something that heinous.

The Truckster is actually a modified 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire station wagon, perhaps the most iconically unappealing car created by American automakers. And the version Clark ended up with had the ugly turned all the way up.

Aside from the pea green paint and fake wood paneling—which, for obvious styling reasons, extends all the way to the front hood—the car sports eight magnificent headlights, all ringed with their own glorious turn signal.

In a challenge to mullets everywhere (terribly and unironcially stylish at the time the film was shot), the car offers some party in the back, too, with faux intake vents above its rear wheels, giving it a cool, shark-like look (if your focus is zeroed in on exactly one square foot of the vehicle).

And that elusive gas tank? It was placed, for perfectly reasonable reasons, on the front of the car‘s passenger side, making it a joy to fill up.

All told, Warner Brothers created five of the beasts to get through filming, all built in varying stages of disrepair to mimic the car’s unfortunate journey across the country. (The vehicles were also driven as part of the filming caravan, carrying crew members cross-country, to lend to the lived-in look.)

But the Truckster isn’t the only stand-out vehicle in the film. Throughout the journey, Clark is dogged by a gorgeous blonde in a hot red car, played by Christie Brinkley and a Ferrari 308 GTS, respectively. “LUV ME,” the Ferrari’s plates scream out. And how can we not!

The Drivers

While the flick has an admittedly low number of stunts for a road trip movie, one scene in particular called for some tricky auto maneuvering—and it almost didn’t happen. After squabbling over a case of messed up directions, the family learns the hard way how to navigate a “closed road,” when Clark motors straight through a warning sign and sends the vehicle soaring through the air, only to land with a hard dud—and half the car in pieces.

To pull off the trick in real life, Ramis tapped stunt coordinator Dick Ziker, but despite Ziker’s expert background—and the inherent excitement of driving a station wagon really recklessly—Ramis couldn’t help but make the shot just a little more interesting.

He apparently bet Ziker he couldn’t get the vehicle to jump more than 50 feet, even drawing a literal line in the sand to mark off how far the stuntman would need to go.

Of course, Ziker nailed the launch and even exceeded the 50-foot expectations, and while it hasn’t been reported what he won in the bet, it’s clear the real winners in the situation are the film-watching public.

The Rating

While we normally judge movies of a more car-chase-scene variety, Vacation is not without its auto-related excitement—and definitely not without its so-ugly-it’s-actually-cool-again charms.

For the chutzpah to drive the pea green monster from the wood paneled lagoon cross country and even nearly make it without losing his mind, we offer Clark Griswold and the rest of the fam an 8 out of 10, with a bonus FastPass award for avoiding the lines at Walley World.

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