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Collections & Hobbies

A damn fine automobile

12/6/2017

Boyhood friends replicate a Wagon Queen Family Truckster

“This is a damn fine automobile, if you want my honest opinion,” said the car salesman to Clark Griswold before concluding his bait-and-switch in the 1983 comedy, “Vacation.” “You think you hate it now,” the slickster adds. “But wait’ll you drive it.”

A pair of Norwalk 9-year-olds, John Larson and Eric Wildman, fast became friends at about the time the movie was released. The duo adored the film and watched it together “hundreds of times” during the ensuing three decades.

“We should build that,” Eric recalls John saying, about four years ago, referencing the movie’s Wagon Queen Family Truckster.

“Yes, we should,” Eric agreed. And just like that, the quest was on for these two middle-aged men to construct an exact replica of their boyhood desires.

John’s enthusiasm, keen eye and passion for automobiles were all critical to the project, but of equal importance was the donor who gave her garage to the cause.

Ames Chamber

Boyhood friends Eric Wildman and John Larson spent three decades idolizing Clark Griswold and his 1983 movie “Vacation.” The duo recently replicated the Griswold family’s vehicle for fun. Penni Larson, John’s mother, is also pictured.

“My wife, Vicki Wildman,” Eric carefully admits. “She was very understanding about the project, and the mess it made.”

The movie car was crafted from a 1979 LTD Country Squire, Ford’s premium station wagon.

“All the original cars for the movie — they made seven of them — they’re all gone,” Eric explains.

Likewise, finding a suitable 1979 specimen proved too difficult. But since the Squire’s body style and shape remained unchanged throughout the 1980s, in December of 2014, the two friends brought home an ’85. The car was in “California condition” — without rust — but it seemed too nice to rip into until they knew better how to proceed. As such, Eric and John determined to practice on a newer but rougher 1989 model. After learning, then they’d perfect the other one.

For two years, the duo spent nearly every weekend on their labor of love. They sprayed on 15 coats of metallic pea-colored paint. They applied 12 big cans of Bondo body filler to shrink the back windows. And they added authentic oak trim. After scouring junkyards for rare parts, they went online to attain specialty items like the dog leash engraved with the name “Dinky.”

“It took me about a year to collect and find all of the luggage pieces for the car,” says Eric. The placement and color is movie correct for each of the authentic 1980s Samsonite bags piled on the oversized luggage rack.

Things were rolling. The talents of many friends were enlisted to custom-make the car’s specialty hood ornaments, crown adornments, headlights and other non-factory-made items. The “practice project” was going so perfectly that it was ultimately decided to be the final Truckster. But then tragedy struck. In February of 2017, the car came to a screeching halt.

“The Truckster was asked to lead a funeral procession today,” Eric posted on Facebook. John had died unexpectedly in his sleep of sudden cardiac failure. The friendship that began at the age of 9 was suddenly gone. John was 43.

At first, the Clark-mobile lost all appeal to Eric. But after a few days, he knew his friend would want one last favor.
“I promise to proudly complete this build in your honor, and to keep your memory alive,” Eric posted. “Rest in peace, my friend. I will catch you down the Holiday Road.”

As the project neared completion, Flix Brewhouse announced a one-night-only showing of “Vacation.” Eric made certain his Truckster was involved, and he completed the wagon in time to park it inside the mall near the movie theater for the August 2017 event. Flix offered its appreciation with 15 free tickets.

Cruising down the aisle of Merle Hay’s shopping center was fun, but so is every other ride Eric takes in the vehicle. Each trip to the gas station ends up being a half-hour chat with a stranger.

“People hunt me down to take pictures,” says Eric, and he’s always glad they do.

If you are wondering about the full-sized wagon’s gas mileage, Eric is uncertain about its efficiency. But he says it gets more “smiles-per-mile” than any other car on the road.

In large part, that’s because his old friend John Larson had an idea and a way of making anything fun. The Truckster is sweet, but it’s John’s irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind friendship that Eric is forever grateful for.
Find the Truckster on Facebook @MettalicPea. ♦

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