Car Shopping (or: Station wagons and SUVs and limo’s, oh my!)


I got up on my high horse last week. We’re car shopping, you know, and Christian and I were having a disagreement about how expensive a price range to pursue. For once, I was being the cheapskate. “I want it to be big enough for the kids,” he said.

“None of these cars are big enough to hold four kids,” I said. “It doesn’t matter if you buy a Civic or an Accord—either way it’s only going to seat five people. We’re never going to be able to put our whole family in a car.”

“Maybe we should buy another van,” Christian fretted.

“No way,” I said. “I love my van, but the whole point of the car is to have something that gets decent gas mileage!”

And that’s when I got irritated with the industry. Four kids may not be the typical size family anymore, but it’s hardly gargantuan; lots of people have four kids. How dare the car manufacturers force us into gas guzzling monsters for simple trips around town?

In past generations, they made cars—not vans, not SUVs—to fit large families. I mean, my parents had a Plymouth Volare station wagon that seated us all, and my grandparents…

1957 Chevy; thanks to Uncle Greg for emailing me the files

Oh, yeah. My grandparents.

My grandparents had ten children. And nobody has ever made a car that fit ten kids. Thus was born a family legend: When my grandparents outgrew their car, they didn’t buy a van, they bought an old airport stretch limousine…and a funeral home limousine.

(That's my mom in the center, wearing the plaid shorts)

“It would fit twelve people in it,” Grandma says of the airport limo, “and it had a ladder that went over the top. I don’t think it had a trunk. You had to put stuff on top. I don’t think I drove the big one. We must’ve had two at one time. I drove the black Cadillac around town. I had curlers in my hair, and I’d just go. Oh, I must’ve been quite a sight to behold!”

File:GMC-Suburban.jpgEventually, Grandma and Grandpa graduated to a GMC Suburban. Not like the ones you buy today, with DVD players and leather seats and heated seats. No, this sucker had three vinyl bench seats and a hard floor. (Like this one, only in green and white.) In 1984, I rode from Kansas City to Denver in that vehicle.

Then I realized that my parents’ Volare seated six for one reason, and one reason only: my baby sister sat in the front seat between Mom and Dad. And you know that’s not happening in this day and age. Once Cecelia got too big, they bought…you guessed it. A van.

So I had to get off my high horse. It’s the nature of the beast: cars are not meant to seat more than five. I can gripe and grump to my heart’s (mal)content, but that’s the breaks. Even Grandma and Grandpa, with their limos, sometimes had to take two cars to get the family where they were going.

In case you’re wondering, Christian eventually prevailed in our disagreement: we’ll be buying a midsized car, not a compact. We don’t turn our cars around in three or four years; we run them into the ground. (Christian’s truck is a 1993 Ford Ranger compact, and has itself reached legendary status in our families.) So we’ll be buying in anticipation of teenage boys with long legs, who need a roomy back seat.

Uncles and aunts, would you care to share your airport/funeral home limo stories? Any other big-family people who have great stories about trying to get everyone from point A to point B? 🙂

15 thoughts on “Car Shopping (or: Station wagons and SUVs and limo’s, oh my!)

  1. Kate
    The Chevy van did have a trunk. Everywhere we went people would ooh and ahh. Dad liked giving kids rides on top. He once rode around our old neaighborhood in Detroit with 10 kids on top and 10 inside. No hand rails mind you.

    I suppose that raise more than a few raised eyebrows, perhaps with justification, in today’s risk averse and litigious society. It was a different era.

    Uncle Greg

  2. that’s great limos! we drive our cars into the ground, too. We had a 25 year old pickup truck we drove until last summer when the transmission finally gave out. we had 400,000 miles on our Camry before that went out. We bought a Nissan Altima last year (used) for our “commute” car – whoever is going to work. We’re about to be full in our van, though. My husband says it will take FAR more discernment for additional children due to that fact (well, and he’s about to turn 40 and all…) but the fact that to go anywhere we’d need two vehicles if we had 6 kids is definitely a factor!

    My major beef with car companies is this nonsense about carseats. While I see them as necessary, I find it incredibly hard to believe with all the technology out there, there’s not some way to have safe, adjustable seat belts or something in cars to save having 8 year olds in booster seats and such. but that’s a post all in itself. 🙂

  3. Whatever happened to the station wagon?! Subaru used to make amazing cars that would last for 20 years, and seated 7-8 people. *sigh*

    Your comment about your baby sister sitting up front with Mom and Dad reminded me of my own childhood car trips….
    and mind you, I was born in 1980, when the fuss about car seats was beginning to see results, with new laws being passed.

    However I don’t recall my parents ever using one… my earliest car memories involve sitting on Mom’s lap in my father’s pick-up truck. Later, I sat between them on a stack of old phone books. A hill-billy booster seat! LOL

    But I’m sure it wasn’t very practical in a crash; fortunately we never found out!

    The government makes such a huge fuss about booster seats and restraints for personal vehicles, but I’ve always wondered why school buses aren’t required to have seat belts… especially for younger kids, and those who are sitting near the front. :/

    • FWIW, Julianna is in a very restrictive booster seat (5-point harness) on her special ed bus. Haven’t heard of any comparable thing in kindergarten, but definitely on the preschool bus. 🙂 I really think the difference is the speed people drive now and the # of cars on the road.

  4. Carrie Evans

    We shopped on Ebay and then got a local dealer to drop their prices on the van as we were willing to drive 4 hrs. to save $1400. 🙂 We have 5 kids, one minivan, and a Chevy Aveo. We bought it new for less than $10,000. My brother who is 6’2″ sat in the back seat a few weeks ago comfortably and it gets 26mpg in town. I wouldn’t trade it!!! It’s also a relief to know that it’s warrantied and the van is our only money trap!

  5. Matthew Luth


    The A/C pretty much never worked in the black Caddie. I remember many trips through the desert using damp towels over open windows to cool down the air as we drove. Lots of card games (usually Crazy 8’s) using the middle jumper seats with the backs folded down as the card table and kneeling on the floor boards.

    Pretty much everyone thought it was so cool that we had those vehicles. They didn’t see how often they were up on car jacks with Dad working on them to keep them running. He bought a second Caddie, with a better body, to part out and repair the older one we were using.

    Lots of memories about those cars!

    Uncle Matt

  6. I got such a kick out of this post, including the pictures!

    So why is it that car companies haven’t started making vans that get better mileage? I keep waiting and waiting for it to happen. My husband insists that we’re waiting as long as possible to buy something bigger than a car for this very reason.

    • Oh, you’ve hit my pet peeve now. When we were looking for vans (originally in 2006), the word was that the Toyota Siena was going to be out any day in a hybrid. That was going to be the first. Guess what? It’s now freaking TWENTY ELEVEN and we STILL have ZERO hybrid vans!

      • I read an article in Entrepreneur magazine about a guy who uses restaurants’ used frying vegetable oil in his van’s deisel engine.
        (He also made hand soap from the processed oil… and sold it BACK to the restaurants, Bwahaha!)

        But Google will turn up a wealth of info on people doing it…
        It looks like quite a bit of maintenance/effort is involved to set everything up, but I guess saving yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars in gas must be worth it.

        Restaurants will give their used oil to you for free. They might even pay you to take it away! LOL

  7. I can remember putting lots of folks in a station wagon… but that meant 3 in the front seat, 3 or more in the back seat (noone used seat belts) and then some tossed lying down in the back……. and whose to say those big cars got good gas mileage.
    We have an 8 passenger mini van (both Toyota and Honda make them) – around town it gets just over 20mph and on our last highway trip it was closer to 25mph. Not great but not horrible mileage either

  8. I LOVE those pictures! Brings back so many memories of my siblings and I – along with 10-12 other cousins squeezing into my parents station wagon.

    I also have pictures of me as a baby straddled in a canvas-like bag with holes for the feet and the straps draped over the the passenger seat – with me hanging in it facing backward! I should find and post them…

    • That’s awesome. I’m loving these stories that people are sharing. What did we do before we had safety gods to tell us how to transport our children? LOL

      The cousins reminded me: my grandparents used to take us on vacations–grandkids, I mean. We would drag a Honda (Civic, I think) behind the RV, and then when we got to a metro area we all piled into the Civic. I remember getting lost in New York City with my grandparents up front, my sister, a cousin and a sort-of cousin in the back seat, and me and another cousin sitting criscross-legged in the trunk, and staring up at the Empire State Building. I was six. It was the first time I ever saw it. 🙂

  9. Chris

    Haha! So here we sit in good ol’ Europe and just DROOL all over the place reading stories like this! Man, I’ll go & try to find myself one of those 55 Chevy airport limousines or that BEAUTY of a ’59 Cadillac funeral home limo, next time I’m visting my old childhood home and my relatives in U.S.!!! Of COURSE both would NOT be eligible for anything like an every day ride… Gas is at MORE THAN EIGHT DOLLARS PER GALLON here, currently!!! If you don’t believe it, google it (the units for volume are liters, here, so you’d have to convert, yourself). CAN YOU IMAGINE? What would you do at eight dollars per gallon?

    That much for history. So, we DO have LOTS of cars that have a GREAT mileage and seats for SEVEN, here in Europe. But I doubt, you’d squeeze yourself in one of those… If you google for “Peugeot 308 SW”, you’ll find a fine example. This thing is a SEVEN SEATER, seriously!!! No kidding!!! And as Diesel engined version, you can squeeze 32 MPG out of this thing!!!

    Of course, as an american, you have to stoop down a little, but it’s comfy enough. I even have the smaller brother of this car, an old 206, and mine does more than 35 MPG if I don’t rush it. And I love the ride, really comfortable car. Fits like a glove if you ask me. OK, I only have ONE child, so far, and I fear, I’ll have to give up this tiny thing as soon as we have the next baby… I wouldn’t know where to fasten 2 baby seats in this one. No way to get 2 strollers in it, anyways!! Then, I’ll upgrade to the 308 model…

    How about a deal: I drag one of those Peugeot 308 SW to U.S. and swap it 1:1 on one of those ’59 Cadillac funeral limos? Just have to find out if I can take that Peugeot along as hand luggage in the plane… Might fit, just a little squeezing…

    • Chris

      SORRY! MISCALCULATION!!! THE PEUGEOT 308 SW DOES 55 MPG (in words FIFTY FIVE!) and my little 206 SW goes up to mind boggling 75 (in words SEVENTY FIVE) miles per gallon!! BEAT THIS!!

      I’m not used to those MPG numbers, any more: Here in Europe, everybody is talking liters per 100 km, so 2 different units and also inverted! Error-prone…

      In liters per 100 km, the 308 SW is at 5-5.5 (this is NO hybrid! Just a normal diesel), my smaller 206 SW gets down to 3.7 liters per 100 km. Blowing it over German Autobahn (if I get a chance), that’ll be more like 25-30 MPG… At a constant 130 mph. No kidding! This is fun, I tell you… Until you go & fill ‘er up again for eight dollars per gallon…

      But, as told, you’d be astonished how small these cars are…

      Sorry for giving you the wrong numbers at first.

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