Christmas Day has arrived and I am sure many of us Curbsiders like to sit down and enjoy a Christmas movie or two with our families. Being car enthusiasts, most of us not only enjoy the movies but the cars that are used in those movies. Like the actors in the movies, a well-cast car can have a timeless performance. Most Christmas movies aren’t centered on vehicles; however, many Christmas favorites have some interesting or iconic cars. Let’s look a few Christmas movies and the Curbside Classics that star in each.
My all-time favorite Christmas movie is Frank Capra’s 1946 movie entitled “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Yes, I know it is cliché to pick as the favorite, but it really is an excellent film. James Stewart plays George Bailey, a small time businessman who is just getting by and tells his guardian angel that he wishes that he was never born. Since most of us have probably seen the movie, I am not going to rehash the plot in detail, but we know the movie starts off by telling the biographical tale of George Bailey. Early on in the movie we saw George Bailey full of life and ready to take on the world. He and his wife start out their life in adulthood driving a 1917 Dodge Brother’s Touring. The Dodge was sensibly sized with a 114” wheelbase and was powered by a 213 cubic inch 4-cylinder engine that produced 32 hp. While this was a good car to start out with, by the end of the movie, which was set in the time just after World War II, it was outright ancient. George had built his business and his family, but was still driving that old Dodge simply because he couldn’t afford to upgrade. At one point George’s son says “Daddy, the Brown’s next door have a new car. You should see it.” and George snaps back defensively “Well, what’s the matter with our car? Isn’t it good enough for you?” The car had become a symbol of George Bailey’s lack of financial success.
While not as symbolically important, George’s friend Ernie the Taxi driver pilots an interesting Desoto. His taxi is a 1936 Desoto Airstream but it has a custom taxi body. James F. Waters was a San Francisco-based Desoto dealer. He purchased numerous Desoto franchises across the United States and became the largest Desoto distributor. He operated his own custom coachworks which produced custom Desoto cabs designed to meet the New York City taxi requirements. In 1935 New York City required purpose-built Taxi cabs capable of seating 5-adult passengers in the rear. At that time only Checker and General Motors were able to build a taxi to those specifications. James Waters made a deal with Chrysler to convert stripped 7-passenger Desoto S-1 Airstream 131” wheelbase sedans into taxi cabs that would meet the NYC specifications at his Detroit factory. He then offered these taxis to fleet operators through his Plymouth-Desoto dealerships.
Sunshine Radio Executives worked with Waters’ engineers to help design the taxi’s for New York City service. They featured a sliding roof panel which slid open to expose the New York City skyline, living up to the “Sunshine Taxi” name. Some of the other features added included a warning light on the dash which alerted the driver if the rear door was opened, grab bars for the rear passengers, a passenger compartment divider which was fitted with heavy-duty Pullman style jump seats, and a meter activated “Sunshine radio.” The front bench seat was replaced with a bucket seat for the driver and while the passenger side was converted to a luggage compartment as these Desotos were trunk less. Initially the taxis were built for Manhattan’s Sunshine Radio Service but were later expanded to include other fleet operators, including the large west coast operations. These Water-Desoto cabs remained in production until the mid-1950s. New York City taxi regulations were changed in July of 1954 which eliminated the 5-passenger standard, allowing for standard sedans to be utilized ending the custom bodied taxi market. Who would have guessed that sleepy little Bedford Falls resident taxi driver Ernie was driving a big city Waters-Desoto taxi?
Another Christmas favorite of mine is the 1983 film “A Christmas story.” The main family car in this movie is the 1937 Oldsmobile Six Touring sedan. I will only touch briefly on this car as Mike Butts did a detailed write-up about this car, which is an excellent read. Although this movie is about young Ralph Parker’s Christmas experience in the 1940s, the Oldsmobile is featured in a few key plot points, namely freezing up on cold mornings and the infamous flat tire change scene. Despite the Oldsmobile being cantankerous in cold weather, Ralph’s father liked that big old Oldsmobile. His feelings were best captured with my favorite quote from the movie “Some men are Baptist, others Catholic; my father was an Oldsmobile man.”
Sticking with 1980s Christmas movies, we can’t forget the cult classic “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The movie was written by John Hughes, who as I wrote about in the past, had an excellent ability to cast iconic vehicles. Hughes often created Chicago-centric movies with suburban dwelling families in their proverbial woodgrain station wagon. Christmas Vacation is no exception, with Clark Griswold’s family steed being a 1986 Ford Taurus wagon. Much more modern than the LTD based Family Truckster, Clark must have had longing memories of his old monstrosity of a wagon, as his Taurus is also custom equipped with woodgrain. The reality is that the revolutionary Taurus not available with woodgrain panelling. Being a car that represented Ford’s movement to modern vehicles meant that anachronistic features like wood paneling would be the complete opposite of the cars mission.
The most prominent scene with the Taurus involves Clark getting into a passing match with a 1963 Dodge D200 crew cab truck. The end result is that Clark gets the Taurus stuck under a transport truck’s trailer and shortly after becomes airborne, much like the original Family Truckster. The Dodge truck was also quite remarkable, being a crew cab model. While ubiquitous today, they were quite unusual in the 1960s. 1963 was the first year for Dodge’s crew cab truck and it was the first of the big three truck makers to introduce the 4-door truck. It had a 146” wheelbase and was limited to the ¾ ton D200/W200 line. I couldn’t find the specific production numbers for the crew cab models, but Dodge only made 11,963 D200 trucks in 1963. This number included both the regular cab and the crew cab models, and undoubtedly the vast majority were regular cab models.
While the aforementioned cars are well cast, the most memorable vehicle from the movie was Cousin Eddie’s RV. Much like how dogs often look like their owners, Eddie’s crude and rough around the edges RV is much like him. This beat up motor home is not the ideal vehicle to be parked outside the picturesque Griswold suburban home. When Clark first sees the monstrosity, the conversation that ensures is as follows:
Clark: So, when did you get the tenement on wheels?
Cousin Eddie: Oh, that there? That’s an RV. I borrowed it off a buddy of mine. He took the house, I took the RV. It’s a good looking vehicle, ain’t it?
Clark: Yeah. Looks so nice parked in the driveway.
Cousin Eddie: Yeah, it sure does. But don’t you go falling in love with it now, because we’re taking it with us when we leave here next month.
(Clark spits out his eggnog)
Under all that dirt and rust, is a 1972 Condor II motorhome. Unrelated to the modern Condor RVs, the Condor Motorhomes of the 1960s and 1970s used Ford chassis and powertrains. The Condor motorhomes of this vintage utilized a Ford P series (Parcel Delivery) or M-series chassis. Eddie’s 1972 Condor II is likely powered by a Ford 390 FE V8 backed by the bulletproof C6 transmission.
We can’t talk Christmas movies without having included at least one Santa Claus movie. And since we are talking cars, we have to discuss “The Santa Clause” from 1994 starring car guy Tim Allen. In this movie, Tim Allen plays Scott Calvin, a divorced dad who shares custody of his 6 year-old-son. On Christmas Eve Santa accidentally falls off their roof and Scott Calvin has to deliver Santa’s gifts. Over the next year he evolves into the new Santa. But before he takes the reins of the reindeer, Calvin is driving a definitely car guy approved family car – a 1990 Ford Taurus SHO. Equipped with the 220 hp Yamaha 3.0L V6 capable of revving to 7000 rpm and a 5-speed manual transmission, it could accelerate 0-60 in 6.7 seconds, pull 0.82 g on the skidpad while still getting 34 mpg highway. This was no Vulcan powered snooze mobile. I have to wonder if Tim Allen had any influence in selecting the car in question.
Tim Allen does have a small collection of collector cars, but to my knowledge he hasn’t and doesn’t own an SHO. However, he does own another hi-performance family sedan from the 1990s, a 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS with the Lotus designed LT5 engine from the Corvette ZR1. While the Impala SS existed at the time of the movie, the Taurus was probably a lot more acceptable to the producers. Other than us fellow car guys, most regular people probably didn’t know that there was anything special about the Taurus.
I hope you enjoyed my little sampling of cars and Christmas movies. There are many other Christmas movies and cars to discuss, but I will leave that up to you in the commentary to add your favorites. From those of us at Curbside Classic, we wish you the Happiest of Holidays!