A week or so ago, John Shenberger asked on facebook whether anyone knew how station wagons got their name. At the risk of dating myself, I admitted that I did.
Station wagons were called that because they were marketed to middle-class folks or people who lived out in the sticks — the idea being they would use them to drive down to the railroad station to pick up family members, house guests, luggage and supplies.
I’ve owned a couple of station wagons in my life. Neither of them was used for this purpose.
By the time I started driving, trains and other forms of mass transit had taken a back seat to the almighty automobile. Car manufacturers and highway construction lobbyists had seen to that.
I came up in a generation in which cars and driving became a focal point in our lives. With that in mind, I once set out to write my autobiography around the cars I had owned. I called it “Auto Biography.”
It seemed like a better idea than writing my life story around other things I’d owned — like underwear. Although “Briefs” would have been a catchy title.
Can you imagine plugging a book like that on a talk-show?
“Well, Mr. Oslin, after writing an autobiography based on the underwear you’ve owned, what will you do for a sequel?”
I wrote a few installments for “Auto Biography,” which ran in Hoot, a humor tabloid I published in the ’80s and ’90s. At the time, I owned a 1979 Ford station wagon. I never got around to writing that chapter.
The Ford wagon was one of the most remarkable cars I’d ever owned. I’d inherited it from my brother, who ran over a fire hydrant, took a left turn onto the railroad tracks and run into God knows what else.
It had assorted dents, a mangled front end and a three-gallon ding in the gas tank with the imprint of a fire hydrant. (Miraculously the gas tank never leaked.) It was the same make, model and color as the Family Truckster, the stylized Ford Country Squire wagon made famous in the movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
After inheriting the station wagon from my brother, I set out to customize it. I “pimped my ride” as the kids are fond of saying.
It so happened that, while crusing the backroads one night, I found part of a front clip from a Mack truck in a ditch along the road. I thought the Mack insignia and bulldog hood ornament would make a nice addition to the Family Truckster. The clip was made of fiberglass and weighed quite a bit, but I managed to hoist it onto my roof rack.
Whenever I tell this story, the listener insinuates that I stole the body section from an intact truck. That’s not true. I’m not that kind of guy. In fact, I promptly reported the crash from the first pay phone I could find.
The fake woodgrain panels on the Family Truckster looked tacky, so I covered them with camouflage contact paper.
Over time, I added other features including a baby doll arm turn signal. The right turn signal unit was missing when I inherited the car, so I mounted a doll arm on top of the fender and wired a bulb socket inside of it. (I came by the baby doll arm honestly, so don’t even ask.)
In spite of its appearance, the Family Truckster was quite roadworthy. I used it to distribute bundles of my humor publication, so I had to beef up the suspension. I used coil springs from a half-ton pickup truck and installed air shocks in the rear. At one point, the parking brake cable broke. I ordered a replacement from Ford, which apparently was shipped from Deerborn, Mich., by ox cart because it took forever to get to Columbus.
The Family Truckster came closer to passing a safety inspection than any car I’d ever owned. The vehicle inspector got a chuckle out of the Mack bulldog hood ornament and he was pretty impressed with the baby doll arm turn signal. Then he asked to check the parking brake.
Here’s how that conversation went:
“Now I’m going to stand in front of the car and I want you to put on the emergency brake, take the car out of park and slowly take your foot off the brake pedal.”
“You might not want to do that.”
“Because the new brake cable is still a box in the back of the car.”