With summer “officially” ending today, I thought it appropriate to salute the ultimate summer vehicle, the Malaise Era wagon. It didn’t matter which of the Big 3’s brands you went with, all of them offered a long roof option that could fit the whole family, including pets, and cousins. The classic quintessential American vacation, as sold to us by Madison Avenue, consists of 3 key things: a Coleman cooler, a beachside destination, and a Detroit built wagon, usually with fake wood paneling.
It’s no coincidence that National Lampoon’s Vacation came out at the end of the Malaise Era. Aside from being one of the funniest movies of all time, it’s also an inditement of American culture that I’m sure hit way to close to home for many folks. Sales of wagons didn’t fall off a cliff overnight after the movie came out, but I’d argue that Wagon Queen Family Truckster was a major factor in the decline of wagon popularity in America. When Dodge released their radical new vehicle called the Caravan the following year, consumers were primed to receive it with open arms, thus moving us from the Malaise Era, to the Minivan Era. That era has only just come to a close with Dodge ending production of the Grand Caravan in 2016, and wouldn’t you know it, a new Vacation movie came out this past summer. Coincidence? If you’re a fan of Ancient Aliens, you probably don’t think so.
Full-size or mid-size, fake wood body paneling or not, Detroit wagons from the Malaise Era are vehicles deserving of tribute. A Malaise wagon may have been your first car, you may have been hauled around in one by your parents, heck you may have even been conceived in one. My point is that you should really have some respect for these vehicles, even the ones that are covered in colors resembling dog vomit. They may not have been the most visually appealing vehicles, but many of them offered great power plant options, and had well appointed interiors. GM C-Body wagons are my favorites, the Buick Estate in particular, but I’ve also got a soft spot for Ford Country Squires, and Dodge Royal Monaco Broughams. The latter was largely a rip off of the more successful Buick in terms of styling, but details like the hidden headlights always catch my eye.
Regardless of where your brand loyalties lie, I hope you can appreciate all these pieces of Detroit steel. In an period full of massive shifts in cultural tastes, the American made station wagon managed to remain a fixture in many people’s lives. For the better part of the Malaise decade, these baroque beasts ruled the suburbs with an iron fist and remain a huge part of 1970s iconography. Though the muscle car based wagons of the 60s, and Euro tuner wagons of the late 80s/90s are more popular with the enthusaist community, these 70s workhorses are deserving of our respect as well.
As opulent as their luxury coupe and sedan counterparts, the Malaise Era longroof is a rolling reminder that for a brief period of time, Americans wanted a place where they could get away from it all, while going to a place where they could get away from it all. In the confines of these vehicles, a family was as much of a unit as it could be. In that respect Madison Ave and John Hughes were right, the wagon is an integral part of the quintessential American vacation. I’d go one step further, the destination was not the vacation, the drive, that was the vacation.