In the one good scene from an otherwise abysmal 2015 Vacation retread, Ed Helms, playing a grown-up Rusty Griswold, visits his parents’ bed-and-breakfast in San Francisco. He and his wife and kids need a vehicle to finish their cross-country trek to Walley World, and Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, offers to lend Rusty his car. They go to Clark's dual garage. Clark hits the key fob, and as the door opens the audience sees... a Nissan Altima.
“Whoops, wrong door,” Clark says.
He and Rusty move to the other one and slowly it rises until there it is: the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, that “metallic pea green,” faux-wood-paneled monstrosity, still as ugly as it was in the original Vacation, 32 years earlier.
Rusty grimaces. “Can I take the Nissan?”
“No,” Clark says.
That Truckster stands in for all the misbegotten eyesores ever manufactured, and the “wood” paneling is its most damning feature. Rightly so. By the time the first Vacation came out, fake wood had become a joke, a onetime status symbol that had been degraded to suburban kitsch by decades of reckless, tasteless overuse. To this day, I can't see a woody without thinking about all the real-life Clark Griswolds who owned them 30 years ago. In my mind they are slumping middle-aged men selling insurance out of grim office parks for bosses who belittle them; rolling down the windows after work to air out the stench of day-old fast food; returning home to wives who frankly expected more out of life, and kids who aren't as bright as their fathers had hoped. And amid this catalogue of insults and humiliations, we have that wood paneling -- once thought to convey rugged sophistication, and now operating as a cruel running commentary on the life and withering dreams of its owner.
Too dark? Maybe. But a generation after this totem of poor taste was laughed into extinction, something strange happened. The woody came back. It's been 25 years since a wood-paneled vehicle was mass produced, and yet a Ford Country Squire graced the cover of a recent L.L. Bean catalog. A wood-paneled Jeep Grand Wagoneer appeared in a Tommy Hilfiger ad. For those so enchanted, Ford's Flex crossover now comes in wood, and Jeep, due to pent-up demand, strongly hinted that it would bring back the Wagoneer and its faux wood in 2018.
Why is this happening? Ironic nostalgia? An unholy union of the born-again preppy and the urban woodsman? #TBT infecting the world of automobiles? To find out, I spent a few weeks reading up on woodies and talking with their owners and the people invested in their comeback to try to figure it out. And I'm here to tell you, after years of gratuitously dumping on the woody and those who drove them, I'm ready to admit an error in judgement. I'll go even further. I think we should all, sincerely and unequivocally, praise the woody. Here's why.