In addition to seeing a lot of cool cars at the recent Concours d’Elegance of America, I also had a chance to catch one of the first screenings of Wagonmasters, a 40-minute documentary that had its public premiere at the event. It’s the work of North Carolina filmmakers Sam Smartt and Chris Zaluski, and represents a paean to the classic American station wagon; that means full size and rear-wheel drive with an expiration date of 1996—when the last of such cars, the Buick Roadmaster and Chevy Caprice wagons, went out of production.
The film starts back in the early 1900s with depot hacks, which were essentially motorized wagons for shuttling folks to and from the train station. Hence, “station wagon.” Smartt and Zaluski then go on to show how a confluence of factors in the 1950s—including the creation of the federal highway system and a burgeoning belief in American exceptionalism—led directly to an era of baroque barges like the 1961 Chrysler Newport that’s one of the numerous station wagons featured in the movie.
What happened after that? In a way, the station wagon fulfilled its role too well, because when a younger generation began fighting the “establishment” in the late 1960s, wagons had become so indelibly connected with that class that they ended up as collateral damage in the culture wars of the time. The gas shocks of the 1970s, combined with the auto industry’s downsizing trend in the years after, provided a few more nails for the ol’ coffin, and the end came when GM phased out its last big RWD models in 1996.
Now, that may make the movie sound a bit dry, yet it’s anything but—especially if you’re at all sympathetic to the kind of people who show up on cable programs with some kind of wacky addiction. Because that’s sort of the kind of vibe you get watching Wagonmasters: Along with the history, it also provides small video portraits of owners who love their station wagons with the same passion that others put into extreme couponing or hillbilly hand-fishing. The owner of the aforementioned Newport is a case in point. His name is Wayne Cox, of Effingham, Ill., but he goes by “Spanky” without so much as a wink or a nod. Unsurprisingly, as Cox himself explains (in slightly different terms), he seems to consider women as belonging to an alien species and has rechanneled his energies into saving old station wagons … of which he seems to have many, in various stages of disrepair; although his Newport looks like it’s in excellent shape.
To be clear, I’m not passing judgment on him, or anyone else in the movie (or on those “reality shows”); I’m just pointing out that this isn’t a film about traditional gearheads. Even the American Station Wagon Owners Association, also highlighted in Wagonmasters, seems like an outsider organization.
There were just a couple of things I didn’t like about Wagonmasters, at least one of which isn’t the filmmakers’ fault: No one in the movie has a truly satisfactory answer as to why the station wagon body style has fallen out of favor and remained out of favor, at least among the mainstream. Sure, the Cadillac CTS-V wagon and the coming Mercedes-Benz “shooting brake” have their fans, as do cars like the Jetta Sport Wagen, but GM can’t even be convinced to bring the Chevy Cruze station wagon over here. And I can’t buy the theory that wagons have been replaced by minivans. People go to such lengths to avoid buying those vehicles, wouldn’t they go as far as trying a station wagon again?
Also, despite supposedly limiting the movie to classic American station wagons, a Volvo 240 and its owner make an appearance, as does Volvo’s president and CEO, Stefan Jacoby—who looks none too happy as he explains the company’s decision to stop importing wagons to the U.S. It would have been nice if Zaluski and Smartt could have gotten some input from someone associated with a Detroit automaker.
This was a very entertaining film, though, and it will definitely appeal to anyone who, like me, has spent quality time in the “way back” of big station wagons. (In fact, in an odd bit of synchronicity, an early 1970s Ford Country Squire had a supporting role both in my childhood and Wagonmasters.) Also, while I’m no expert, the production values seemed top-notch, with a pro soundtrack and a mix of archival and recently shot footage that looks ready to roll on the History Channel. Unfortunately, it’s not. The doc is still a bit of a work in progress, as Smartt and Zaluski are fine-tuning it ahead of the fall film festival season. The two do plan on showing it at other venues in the future before then, so if you’re interested, you should keep an eye on WagonMastersTheMovie.com for further updates.
(Note: The accompanying pictures include two shots of Zaluski and Smartt taping segments for Wagonmasters, but I also dropped in a few pics from the Concours d’Elegance of America, which, coincidentally, featured “Space Age” wagons this year.)