On the Origin of Automotive Taste: Wagon Lust and Nostalgia

The Plymouth Voyager. A 1995 model. Three rows of seats, a 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission, and an inline-four churning out a nice, round 100 horsepower. The lower end member of the trifecta of Chrysler minivans, the Voyager was never intended to turn heads. Unexciting and forgettable by design, with no sporting pretensions, this Corolla of minivans was like a faithful butler. It did its job, stayed in the background, and didn’t speak unless it was spoken to. You could load it up with your six kids, their junk, and your three Dobermans, and the Chrysler minivan wouldn’t bat an eyelash. It simply took you where you needed to go. And yet, here I am, 18 years later, fondly remembering the blandest of vans in the blandest of vehicle categories, a car I have never even driven. Where the hell does that come from?

(Unexpected restoration photo via Flickr - Marc Doiron)

I read an interesting Oppo article by a certain Automatch- the Avanthusiast this morning. This work was refreshing, as it bravely questioned the pervasive wagon lust which haunts the automotive blogosphere. From the Hooniverse on the cultural enthusiast end of the continuum to Autoblog on the industry news extreme, everyone feels the need to point out their affinity for the long roofed variants of more typical sedans. The shaggin wagon, you might think, has never enjoyed more popularity in the American car market. There must be a vast abundance of wagons on the market, if they are so popular. What’s that? Nobody buys wagons?

On the Origin of Automotive Taste: Wagon Lust and Nostalgia

It’s not just an inane adage. Americans do not buy wagons. It’s gotten to the point where cars.com thinks a Scion iQ belongs in the same category as a station wagon. But James, you say, we don’t buy wagons because there are none on the market. No, I retort, you don’t buy the wagons that we have on the market. The Jetta wagon is vastly outsold by its sedan counterpart. It’s the same story for its Audi stablemate. Again, look at the CTS wagon for example. Hailed as a savior for the shooting break set, it is likely that it has been cancelled. The reason? None of you bought one. Despite all the praise, all the overjoyed comments on forums and the positive reviews, few of you went out and laid down your capital to give one a home in your two-car garage. Right after typing out your praise for the heralded return of the depot hack, you went out and bought a Venza or an X5.

Don’t misunderstand the point of this article, however. (Ah, yes, I am finally coming to the point. And don’t worry, that Plymouth will show up again too. All in good time.) This is not intended as an angry exposé. I understand why many of you don’t buy the wagons we’re offered. They’re luxury cars, so they’re expensive. They don’t offer great luggage room, which some might suggest is the entire damn point of a wagon. The styling can be goofy. No, I get why the wagons we’re offered don’t do so well. What I don’t get is why we all laud station wagons like they are the nectar enjoyed on Mount Olympus. Is it just because they are forbidden fruit, as Mr. Automatch asked in his piece? No, it isn’t.

On the Origin of Automotive Taste: Wagon Lust and Nostalgia

(Lust-worthy photo via Jalopnik)

A wise man once said taste is what allows the aspiring artist to realize the works he is turning out early in his career are, well, trash. Taste is an elusive and strange quality. It’s why some of us don’t see a problem with driving a Camry back and forth all day, and others among us yearn to feel the wind running through their bald spot. Automotive taste, I would argue, is almost entirely learned. If I may bastardize the actual meaning of the nature/nurture debate, the cars we prefer are due almost entirely to nurture, rather than nature. More than most of us car to admit, we like the cars that others around us like. We lust after what we’re told to lust after. After deep introspection this morning, I still can’t figure out a rational reason why I appreciate the longroof. All I can guess is that the rest of you have rubbed off on me.

The reason we, as a car culture, enjoy wagons as much as we do, is because it is a pervasive attitude from which no one wishes to deviate. It distinguishes us from the “not real” car guys who only know about Lambos and Ferraris, and who wouldn’t give an Audi RS6 Avant a second glance. By loving wagons, as we love other obscure and unusual automobiles, we mark ourselves as the “true” car enthusiasts, who look beyond flashy supercars and can appreciate more “authentic” and “unique” types of cars. We are, to use a largely meaningless word, the hipsters of the automotive culture. We pride ourselves on liking what others find commonplace or uncool. We may not actually purchase wagons, but we do think they’re kind of neat.

On the Origin of Automotive Taste: Wagon Lust and Nostalgia

(Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

The more (ahem) senior aficionados of the automotive scene are responsible for perpetuating this attitude. Okay, it’s the old guys. The old guys grew up in LTD Wagons, Roadmasters, and the like, when wagons were commonplace. The key to the wagon lust is not nature or nurture, but a third (conveniently alliterative) concept: nostalgia. The “adults” of the car scene, those who write the reviews and organize the shows, are nostalgic for the vehicles of their youths. They miss the huge rear glass and long flat roof of the station wagon, because they have fond memories of roadtripping in such a vehicle. The rest of us unwashed masses go along with what we read, what these older fans write, because we want to emphasize our “car guy credentials.” Eventually, we’ve internalized these beliefs, and this is why we like wagons. That’s why I like wagons, anyway.

On the Origin of Automotive Taste: Wagon Lust and Nostalgia

(Somewhat bland photo via Wikipedia Commons)

And so, dramatic conclusion apparently reached, we return to the Plymouth Voyager we’ve abandoned lonely in the opening, sitting on its ubiquitous ES platform. What does a minivan two decades old have to do with this? Well, I feel the same way about it as those wagonistas do about their wagons. I look back with great affection to that boring, uninspiring, unenthusiastic box of a car. Despite its lack of merit, it still warms my heart when I see one trundling along in the right lane of the interstate, plastic trim long gone, and paint long baked to a dull gray. My childhood was happy and car-filled, and I formed that affectionate bond with the vehicle in which I was nurtured. This examination of wagon lust makes me wonder if there are others out there who remember that iconic rounded box of the Chrysler van as nostalgically as I do. I hope there are, and I hope a few more of the vans find their way to preservation rather than the scrapheap. Who knows? Maybe someday, on Jalopnik’s 3D interface, you’ll be reading a review of one of the only minivans left on the market. And that review will praise Chrysler for still bravely churning out minivans, even though no one wants to buy them. And if our preference for wagons is any example, that article will be followed by hundreds of comments filled with similar praise, but none of those commenters will really buy the van. Nostalgic wagon lust of the current generation, step aside for minivan lust of the next generation.

(c) James Gallagher 2013, all rights reserved. Explore my other scintillating work at jgallagher.kinja.com