(first posted 11/6/2017) Recently I read the reposted CC article on the 1986 Chrysler Lebaron Town and Country. As soon as I saw that wood panelled Lebaron, the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles instantly popped into my head. This movie has long been a family favourite that over the years we ritualistically watch during the holiday season. This movie was written, produced and directed by the late John Hughes. Along with this movie, Hughes had a hand in many great 1980’s comedies. He seemed to have a knack at writing comedies that were hilarious, while still being family friendly and generally having an underlying positive message.
I am not sure if John Hughes was any sort of car enthusiast, but I can say that he certainly had a talent for selected remarkable vehicles, which often times became characters themselves. Along with the aforementioned Chrysler, Hughes has had many other memorable movie cars to go along with his memorable movies. So let’s take a trip back to the 1980’s to look at some of my favourite John Hughes’ movies and the curbside classics he used.
Since I already mentioned Planes, Trains and Automobiles, we’ll start with this movie, which is also my all-time-favourite Hughes movie. The movie was released in 1987. It starred Steve Martin as Neal Page, a successful but somewhat uptight suburban family man, and John Candy as Del Griffith, a struggling but optimistic shower curtain ring salesman who can be annoying but has a heart of gold. The two strangers cross paths as they both attempt to travel from New York City to Chicago to make it home for Thanksgiving. A major snowstorm causes their plane to be diverted to Wichita, Kansas and the two characters team up to make it back home, using any and all methods of transportation.
For the latter half of the movie, they rent a car, and end up with a 1986 Chrysler LeBaron Town and Country convertible. Of course like the characters in the movie, the car undergoes number calamities that are both funny and tragic. This includes a malfunctioning power seat recliner, getting sandwiched between two transport trucks and nearly burning to the ground. Despite all this damage, like the characters in the movie, the car perseveres and continues on.
The car itself is a caricature of all that was wrong with Detroit automobiles. In fact, the car suffers so badly and comes off as such a bad vehicle, all Chrysler nameplates were removed from the car. Instead the car is called a “Gran Detroit Farm and Country”. It’s clearly out of date and tacky, with its wood-grained sides, its oversized wobbly fake wire wheel covers, and its big hood ornament. While the woodgrain appears to be the factory-installed work, the pea-green paint is a non-factory colour and the tail lights are from a Dodge 600.
At least the characters lucked out in that they got the 2.2L Turbo engine, which pumped out a healthy (for the era) 146 net hp. With only about 2700 lbs to haul around, the car would have decent performance. That’s probably part of the reason why when the characters are only a few hours from home, the clapped-out Mopar gets clocked at 78 MPH by the police. This ultimately is the end of the road for the car, when it gets impounded for being an unsafe vehicle.
While the pea green wood grained Lebaron was definitely one of the more memorable John Hughes cars, it wasn’t the first time this colour combination was used. In fact, many would argue that poor Mopar was a tribute to Hughes’s earlier move, National Lampoon’s Vacation, released in 1983. This was one of John Hughes’s earlier works and the first in the series of the adventures with the Griswold family. Chevy Chase plays Clarke Griswold who decides to take the proverbial cross-country family vacation to the fictitious amusement park, Wally World. But first, he has to go pick up his brand new fuel-efficient Antarctic Blue Super Sports wagon and trade in the old gas guzzling ’70 Olds Vista Cruiser. However, the slick salesman ends up railroading Clarke into exactly what he didn’t want, another big gas guzzling wagon, the Wagon Queen Family Truckster.
This fictitious car show how the big out of date American station wagons were anything but cool in 1983. The car itself is a modified 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire Wagon. Who modified the car doesn’t seem to be clear; some sources say George Barris, while others say it was done by Warner brother’s studio. Who knows, maybe because it was so hideous, nobody wanted the credit? The modifications include the pea green paint, the over the top wood grain paneling (including the top of the hood), the twin sets of headlights with lowered bumper and custom grille, the modified rear side windows and the extra set of tail light lenses.
The big wagon suffers a few misfortunes as the Griswold’s travel cross-country, but it does eventually get them to Wally World. Let’s hope the old car at least had the 138 hp 351W instead of the 129 hp 302. This movie always hit home for me personally, as growing up we had a full-size family wagon that did several “memorable” cross-country trips. Our family trip we took down to Oklahoma City one year during March break was definitely one and it had a few similarities to the Griswold trip.
Interestingly, there is a real Griswold family who actually made a replica Family Truckster out of a 1984 Country Squire and have used it for family vacations. At least by 1984, these cars had CFI fuel injection, which increased the 302’s output to 140 hp, rather than the previously used variable venturi carburetor. You can read about the replica here.
John Hughes was well-known for his teenaged and coming of age movies, such as the Breakfast club, Sixteen Candles and Weird Science. However, my favourite that fell into this genre was the cult classic Ferris Bueller’s Day off. The movie stars Mathew Broderick as Ferris Bueller, who is a spoiled upper middle class teenager, but is quite clever and charming. Ferris comes up with an elaborate ruse to take the day off school accompanied by his best friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend Sloan Peterson (Mia Sara).
Unfortunately, our well-off protagonist laments about not having any wheels for his adventure. However, his best friend Cameron does, a 1978 Alfa Romeo Sport Sedan. And while it’s probably not a bad car for some teenagers to be cruising around in, Ferris has bigger plans. Cameron’s father owns a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California. With a little arm twisting, Ferris convinces Cameron to take the Ferrari.
The Ferrari gets used to transport the main characters to downtown Chicago where much of their adventures occurs. It’s here where the sleazy garage operators “borrow” the Ferrari for joy ride, which includes it becoming airborne. Eventually, the car is returned home, and it’s realized they put a ton of mileage onto the car.
Their plan to roll back the odometer by running it in reverse doesn’t work. And this results in Cameron losing his cool, and literally kicking the crap out of the car. For him the car represents his father’s misplaced priorities in life, a man who loves his car more than his son. Ultimately the car falls off the jack and is destroyed when it launches out the back window of the garage.
A Ferrari 250 GT California SWB is one of the more valuable Ferrari’s , with the record sale price being just under $11 million in 2008. Even in 1986, these cars were highly valuable, and the car used in the movie is actually a replica made by a small company called Modena design that was run by Mark Goyette and Neil Glassmoyer. The story goes that John Hughes originally specified a “Mercedes AMG” in the original script. Later, he came across a copy of Car and Driver that tested the Modena Ferrari Replica and he was instantly smitten. He made arrangements for the company to bring a car for examination, and decided instantly it was the car for the movie once he laid eyes on it.
Modena was giving four weeks to produce three cars. Two were “hero cars” that were used for the close-up action shots and one was a rolling chassis later used for the destruction scene. The cars themselves had fibreglass bodies and a rigid square tube chassis designed by Indy car maker Bob Webb (some sources say it was based on MG chassis). While the original Ferrari was powered by a glorious 3.0L V12, the replicas used a Ford 289 V8. Hughes claims that a real Ferrari 250 GT California was used for some of the close up detail shots.
One of the three cars used in the movie has survived until today. It has been since fully restored and included upgrading the 289 to a 351W stroked to 427 cubic inches. The claim is that the new engine pumps out 500 hp and the 2620 lb car outran a Dodge Viper. It sold at Mecum auctions for $235,000. Here is the listing with the full details on the car.
The last John Hughes movie car I felt deserving of being mentioned is probably closest to be an actual Curbside Classic. Well, at the very least it’s in the same league as PN’s first CC, the 1972 Cadillac.
The movie in question is Uncle Buck, and yet another John Hughes comedy with John Candy. In the movie, Cindy and Bod Russell have three children and are a typical middle-class suburban family. A family crisis occurs and they need someone to look after their three kids. The only person capable of coming on short notice is Bob’s bachelor brother Buck Russell, played by John Candy.
Buck is unreliable, can’t hold a job, he smokes, he drinks, he gambles, he’s a slob and is generally the total opposite of his seemingly successful brother. While Buck is able to charm his 6 year old niece and his 8 year old nephew he has a hard time with his rebellious 15 year old niece, Tia. In the end, although Buck seemingly has it out to embarrass his niece in every way possible, he eventually wins her over she sees he has her best interests at heart.
And what pray-tell does Uncle Buck pilot? A slob of a car that smokes, drinks copious amounts of gas, and like Buck is a relic from the past. That car is a beat-up 1977 Mercury Marquis coupe. Some sources claim it’s a 1975; nevertheless it’s a 1975-78 Merc which were all pretty well the same anyway. It didn’t quite make PN’s longest coupe list, but at 229” it’s a contender. Although this particular example is only about 12 years old in the movie, it’s heavily rusted, the interior is falling apart, the car wallows almost uncontrollably on the highway and of course it smokes like a chimney. To top it off, every time the car is shut off it backfires. This Merc was a big part to poor teenaged Tia’s embarrassment by her well-meaning uncle.
The big Merc is quite the extension of John Candy’s character and was perfectly cast for the role. While this old tank of a Merc is not a car I’d ever have any interest in owning, it does remind me a of a time in my past when these big 70’s barges frequented the streets as beaters. While they often were thought of as a dinosaur from another time, many people that I knew of limited means were transported reliable and relatively cheaply by these old beasts for many years. There is something about a beater; they just have more character than a new car.
While that cover’s off John Hughes’s more prominent vehicle characters, I will finish off this article by noting that Hughes seemed to be quite fond of wood-grained vehicles. So here is a collection of some of his other movies and the woodies he cast.