Whatever Happened to the Family Truckster?

May 28, 2007

Back in the days before giant SUVs roamed the land like so many four-wheel-drive dinosaurs in search of fossil fuel to gulp, there was another breed of gas-guzzling behemoth that was King of the Highway. No little DVD-playing LCD televisions to keep the kids from gouging each other's eyes out in the back seat, no GPS units to help you find your way to that house you're renting near Tahoe City, no backup sensors or rear-view video camera, no sliding doors. Yet you could fit approximately 30 cub scouts in them for a trip up 101 to Cal Skate. What is this great extinct beast that I write of? It is none other that the American family station wagon.

The station wagon itself is not exactly extinct. Admittedly, there's a Volkswagen Passat wagon parked in out in front of this very house wherein I type these words. Yeah, it's got four doors and liftgate in the back, and the seats will fold flat. But it doesn't have that classic station wagon spirit.

Why am I writing about this? Because I saw it on the freeway the other day. Our family wagon. It lives. At least I'm pretty sure it's the same car. My parents ended up selling it to some guy in San Rafael, and how many other cream 1976 Mercury Montego MX Villagers with genuine artificial wood paneling can there be out there. It's alive, I'm telling you, although it really has no business being alive.

Yes, this was the car that my parents bought after they sold our beloved 1967 Volkswagen Beetle convertible. A red one. Despite the fact that the back seats had no seat belts (the Germans reckoned we didn't need them, I guess), and that the car was stolen and rear-ended (not at the same time), I loved that car. The top folded down, which made it great for watching Disney flicks at the drive-in, and there was that little space in between the rear seat back and the firewall that you could squeeze your 4-year-old body into and hide. Plus there was the Wolfsburg wolf on the steering wheel, which was almost, but not quite, as cool as the dragon eating the little man on the badge of my friend's parents' Alfa Romeo GTV.

Despite the cool factor, my parents sold the car and bought the American-made behemoth that was the 1976 Mercury Montego MX Villager with fake wood paneling. It was big. Really big. But, appallingly, there was another model of Mercury wagon that was even bigger, if such a thing was possible. The car's 400-cubic-inch V-8 would have been hella cool, except for the fact that it was so chocked with emissions control equipment that it didn't move the beast much faster than the old VW, and got just enough gas mileage to get you from one service station to the next to refuel. Actually, the coolest thing about it was that there was a pop-up seat in the rear cargo area, which my brother and I often liked to sit in to experience the novelty of watching where we've been rather than where we were going. But you could fit things in it. Lots of things. Cub scouts—lots of them. A 4x8 sheet of plywood. Try that in the Passat, or even most SUVs.

1976 Mercury Montego MX Villager with yours truly and his younger bro. Somewhere in Northern California, ca. 1979I've included a photo of the thing, with my brother and me, at some undisclosed location, although I suspect it's a break on a road trip somewhere in Northern California, perhaps the Sierra foothills or the area around Redding. That's my best guess. Scanned from a 110 slide. There have to be more pictures of the car out there somewhere, but now you'll know it if you see it.


Wagon Train

Nice write-up. We never owned a station wagon (only child) but I remember as an adolescent, everyone in my youth group scrambling to sit in the "way back" of our one of our leaders'. I even thought of it in Europe when I was riding "backwards" on the trains everywhere.

The Joys of the Way Back

Ah, the Way Back. And it was extra-special if your parents didn't put up the popup seats and just let you roam around freely. No car seats, no seat belts, no nothin'... but fun. And—wonder of wonders—we all survived. I recall on a few occasions taking road trips up to Fort Bragg to eat dinner at this little seafood place at Noyo Harbor (deep fried... mmmmmmm...). We used to pack out sleeping bags and pajamas and fold down the rear seats, and my brother and I would sleep on the way back and listen to radio show reruns (which were still at night on AM radio in the 70s and 80s).