Family Vehicles on TV Shows and Movies Throughout History

Written by Bonnie Gringer

What is it about road trips? The great adventure of being trapped in a small metal, moving box together as a family can make kids bounce with excitement and parents cringe (or, sometimes vice versa), and Hollywood has a proud history of making fun of us for it.

The Trope of the Family Car in Film and TV

It’s almost too easy: taking an awkward family of odd-balls and shoving them together to see what kind of shenanigans ensue. Screenwriters love putting family cars into their movies or shows. You can force characters to have a difficult conversation, go somewhere while still being trapped, or endure being antagonized by their kids, parents, relatives, pets, cartoon characters, homicidal hitchhiker, or some other mad character. Because the characters are inherently stuck (unless they are driving or trying to jump out), car scenes in generally can get really, really claustrophobic and intense.

Using Family Cars in Fiction For Bonding and Better Banter

In comedies, a car can be the ideal setting for both wacky dialogue and increasing tempers. Family members, who so often don’t have to deal with each other for this long, will either bond or get on each other’s nerves fairly quickly. A good example of this is in the National Lampoon’s movies, where almost every film features at least one scene where Clark Griswold’s stress level and poor driving gets the better of him, leading his family to lose patience.

Film and Family Road Trips

A road trip is a modern interpretation of a very classic story arc in which someone goes on a “hero’s journey,” only this time there’s a group of people – the family – and they’re all reacting to the situations differently. One character, usually the father, will be overcome with the “call to adventure” and try to drag the family along. Some of them might want to happily have a not-so-adventurous adventure, but have no real idea what they’re in for. The trope of the RV mixes those daddy desires of exploration while needing to settle down.

Goofy demands that Max go on a cross-country fishing trip in A Goofy Movie, despite his son’s plans to impress a girl he likes.

  • Instead of taking a plane, Jack Byrnes insists on meeting his son-in-law’s parents by way of an RV in Meet the Fockers.
  • It’s father Caractacus’s storytelling that actually launches the greater and more fantastic plot in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
  • In a twist, son, Bart, takes the reigns and fakes his driver’s license in “Bart on the Road,” one of the more famous episodes of The Simpsons.

The Inevitable Breakdown

Family cars are almost always intentionally designed to be the worst cars ever. Writers do this so that they can simultaneously be parodies and serve the needs of that classic mono-myth, leading the family to be at the lowest point. The car can either give lots of minor setbacks, or it can become completely un-drivable in the second act, or lowest point, of the story.

The Volkswagen van from Little Miss Sunshine breaks down.

  • The flying Ford Anglia hits the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
  • The Tartan Prancer in Vacation

Driving Home Wiser

In these classic stories, characters have either reached a higher place or they’ve returned home victorious. Sometimes, the car doesn’t return with them.

In the film version of The Jetsons, the family comes home after the father is “demoted” having saved aliens on the asteroid called Grungees.

  • After going through an existential crisis and struggling with their superpowers and identities, the family of The Incredibles comes home to have their showdown with Syndrome as a family.

The family cars in TV and film have been used to great effect to help navigate the plots of individual episodes and full movies. But even when they’re just a cool plot piece or setting, like in The Munsters or The Flintstones, they can certainly be fun to think about!